First Things 84 (June/July 1998): 57-60

Books in Review

Briefly Noted


By Nancy Pearcey

Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest. By Adrian Desmond. Addison-Wesley. 848 pp. $37.50.

Thomas Henry Huxley more than earned his reputation as "Darwin's Bulldog," yet surprisingly he never fully accepted Darwin's theory of natural selection. He was not convinced that Darwin's innovative mechanism had been confirmed empirically; he felt that Darwin's gradualist approach was a mistake; and he revolted against the implications of evolution for ethics. (He insisted that human society is from but not of the animal world, with its competition and cruelty.) Given such reservations, what made this pugnacious science popularizer such a gadfly for Darwinism? The answer is that he embraced its underlying philosophy of evolutionary naturalism as politically useful. It was largely Huxley who originated the myth of a "war" between science and religion, but the real war that he waged was against the privileges of the aristocracy and the English state church. He used naturalistic science as a battering ram to assault the genteel Anglicanism of the seminaries and universities. Yet Huxley realized that the only way to oust one religion is to replace it with another. And so, while claiming the banner of objectivity and open inquiry, he became adept at using biblical phraseology to found a new orthodoxy. He referred to his lectures as "Lay Sermons," in which he damned his "idolatrous age" for ignoring "the living God thundering from the Sinai of science . . . to worship the golden calf of tradition." He called for a "New Reformation" that would ordain scientists as the elite priesthood of a new religion, leading his contemporaries to dub him "the Apostle Paul of the new teaching" and even "Pope Huxley." The inescapable conclusion from this colorful biography is that, from the beginning, Darwinism has been championed less for its scientific merits than for its usefulness in overthrowing religion and establishing a naturalistic ideology.