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.
"A vivid account of a family at the heart of some of the great cultural shifts of the modern era [...] a masterpiece of biography."
– John Gray, New Statesman
"An intellectual history of Britain through the radical shifts in science and society that gave birth to modernity [...] The whole of British intellectual life seems accessible through some branch of this sprawling family tree."
– Stephen Buranyi, The Guardian
"Balancing scholarly rigour with an eye for the absurd, her book reveals the human drama behind scientific fact."
– The Economist
"What a family, what a story, and so cleverly told. Alison Bashford constructs a narrative that intertwines the lives of four generations of Huxleys, boldly forgoing traditional chronology for illuminating synthesis. Absolutely fascinating."
– Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World
"Superbly original and evocatively stylish [...] Bashford has ingeniously created a loosely chronological account that weaves their own lives and experiences within ever-shifting attitudes towards evolution."
– Patricia Fara, BBC History Magazine
"A patient, sympathetic portrait of a family riven with flaws."
– AN Wilson, Spectator
"Ambitious, scholarly [...] a biography of ideas, using one family's history to explore the development of theories about generations, genealogy and genes, chronicling shifting attitudes to religion, race, women and animal experimentation – from morphology to ethology."
– Annalena McAfee, Financial Times
"Lucid, lively and addictive [...] a panoramic view of an era of extraordinary and accelerated change [...] a celebration of intellectual bravery."
– Morag Fraser, Inside Story
"I was captivated from beginning to end by the richness of the detail, the flaws and all personal biographies and most of all blown away by the intimate narrative of how the biggest science stories of the age had a Huxley as ringmaster or provocateur at their heart."
– Tim Smit
"Full of surprises on every page, this book makes you wonder why all history can't have the engaging intimacy of a novel. Bashford brilliantly marries intellectual history with the story of four generations of a great family in a literary tour de force."
– Professor Jim Secord, author of Visions of Science
"Over three generations, the extraordinary Huxley family have changed and reshaped the way we see ourselves. Now Alison Bashford has written a fascinating book that links T. H. Huxley, the great Victorian scientist with a Caribbean-born wife, to their remarkable grandchildren, Aldous and Julian, in a way that shows how the family struggled with depression and even lunacy while emphasising the crucial role played by the wives, sisters and daughters of these strange and brilliant men. It's a wonderful and important story, one that held me enthralled from start to end."
– Miranda Seymour
"Packed with insights into the brilliance of three generations of the Huxley family, Bashford's book tells a magnificent story about the huge personalities and shortcomings that propelled evolutionary science and much else besides. Male and female, from Victorian patriarch to zoo director, authors, lovers, and poets: the pages dance with accounts of contemporary literature, psychology, politics, anthropology, religion, and art."
– Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: A Biography and The Quotable Darwin
"How did a biological theory become such a central part of modern life? [...] Bashford traces a cultural phenomenon that has profoundly shaped society and revolutionized our understanding of what it means to be human."
– Stuart Mathieson, Nature
"A scholarly study of T. H. Huxley and his grandson [and a] guide to the history of evolutionary thinking [...] it's impressive that Bashford can command both these types of writing with equal authority."
– Stefan Collini, London Review of Books
"It would be difficult to overstate the debt of gratitude owed to the Huxley dynasty for our knowledge of evolution in all its forms. Bashford narrates the fascinating story of 200 years o modern science and culture through one family history."
– Jules Stewart, Geographical Magazine
"Bashford has crafted a masterful biography of Thomas Henry Huxley, patriarch of an evolutionary dynasty, his inheritor and grandson Julian, and the families that sustained them. Interweaving their public contributions to science and private poems, she deftly charts a generational quest to understand and articulate the human condition."
– Erika Lorraine Milam, author of Creatures of Cain
"Alison Bashford's intimate story of the Huxley clan reveals the ambiguities that arise if we apply modern values to past heroes. Here science, society and personalities interact to bring the past alive."
– Peter Bowler, author of Progress Unchained: Ideas of Evolution, Human History and the Future