In his early twenties, poor, racked with depression, becalmed in the Coral Sea on the seemingly endless survey mission of HMS Rattlesnake, hopelessly in love with Henrietta Heathorn, a young Englishwoman in Sydney, Thomas Henry Huxley was a nobody. And yet he would return to London, become one of the most famous scientists of the age and marry Henrietta. They would create a great intellectual dynasty.
The Huxley family through four generations profoundly shaped how we all see ourselves. In innumerable fields observing both nature and culture, they worked as scientists, novelists, mystics, film-makers, poets and – perhaps above all – as public lecturers, educators and explainers.
Their speciality was evolution in all its forms – at the grandest level of species, deep time, the Earth, and at the most personal and intimate. They shaped great organizations – the Natural History Museum, Imperial College, the London Zoo, UNESCO, the World Wildlife Fund – and they shaped fundamentally how we see ourselves, as individuals and as a species, one among many.
But perhaps their greatest subject was themselves. Alison Bashford's marvellously engaging and original new book interweaves the Huxleys' momentous public achievements with their private triumphs and tragedies. The result is the history of a family, but also a history of humanity grappling with its place in nature. An Intimate History of Evolution shows how much we owe – for better or worse – to the unceasing curiosity, self-absorption and enthusiasms of a small, strange group of men and women.
Alison Bashford is an Australian historian and Laureate Professor of History at the University of New South Wales. Bashford was previously Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History at the University of Cambridge. She is a Fellow of the British Academy, the Australian Academy of Humanities and an Honorary Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. In 2020 she was awarded the Royal Society (NSW) History and Philosophy of Science Medal for transformative historical studies of the biomedical and environmental sciences. In 2021 she was awarded the Dan David Prize for scholarship in the history of medicine.