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on February 9, 2018
Considering that this book is unavailable as a Kindle book which I would have preferred and considering that the author is Adrian Desmond who co-authored the authoritative biography of C. Darwin I think finding this used book a real bargain. I have read Desmond and Moore's biography of Darwin and was very impressed with the level of scholarship and so far what I have read of the TH Huxley biography I can see the same level of in depth research.
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on July 5, 1999
While this is an extremely thorough and complete review of Huxley's life and work, I found several problems with the book. In brief, these include: A Hemingwayesque type of writing (short declaratory sentences) without H's style to pull it off. An overuse of adjectives by about a factor of three. Many sentences that, in spite of being short, were hard to disentangle grammatically. My most serious criticism of the content, though, is that the author stuck much too closely to a time-line rather than an idea or subject line. For example, he makes the statement, in several places, that finally Huxley saw the light and fully bought into evolution and natural selection as presented by Darwin. But he never seems to explain this: why the hesitancy and why the "sudden" conversion. There is too much mixing up of private life with scientific ideas. And no real counter is given to Huxley's antipathy to Owen whose work seems to be at least as long-lived as Huxley's (dinosaurs?). For my taste, a much more satisfying way of writing scientific biography can be found by reading Janet Browne's first vol. of a bio. of Darwin ("Coasting").
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on April 14, 2015
Desmond’s biography of Thomas Huxley is thorough – over 600 pages of detailed text. The book is a treasure house for information relating to Huxley and the state of 19th century “natural science” in England. I read the book after reading Janet Browne’s two volume biography of Darwin which outdoes Desmond in detail with both volumes combined being over 1000 pages. But there is a huge difference in writing styles. Browne is straightforward without ever being dull. She works hard at getting her own authorship out of the way and succeeds admirably in getting the reader inside the mind of Charles Darwin. Unfortunately, Desmond is less successful at doing that. The details are there and parts of the book are fascinating. But the drama that comes through in certain sections is in spite of the writing style, not because of it. Desmond’s writing style draws much more attention to the author. As other reviewers have noted, he uses allusions and literary devices constantly. Almost every paragraph has at least one, some are filled with them. Many of the allusions are comparisons to cultural or historical events. For example, Desmond refers to Huxley many times as “Schamyl,” an Islamic leader in the Caucasian War. Huxley had done research on him for the government and identified with his cause against the repressive tyranny of Russia. Desmond sees a similarity of goals in that Huxley thought of himself as fighting the tyranny of an encrusted and repressive Christianity and bringing intellectual freedom to the people - thus the allusion. Understandable, but Desmond uses this analogy and others far too much and many of the meanings are not transparent to contemporary readers. A very common device Desmond uses is a one or two word metaphor to describe a person or event and the reader is expected to fill in the rest. Huxley’s friends are the “cloth caps;” Huxley is both Darwin’s “bulldog pup” and “tearaway” because of his differences from Darwin. Typical sentences, the first concerning one of Huxley's depressive moods and the second his early relationship to Darwin: “His nerves created waves in the nihilistic void and the lecture somehow shook itself together” and “It was time to invite the tearaway to Downe for a ‘pumping’ session.” One reason Desmond uses these techniques is because Huxley himself frequently used them in his own writings and speeches. Some readers may enjoy this style for over 600 pages. But, in the context of a biography, I found the constant use of these literary techniques drew too much attention to the language and the author and made understanding the subject more difficult rather than enlightening.

I mention the problem with language the book has but I also want to mention one of its most positive points. In the Introduction Desmond says that he will be approaching Huxley in context, i.e., portraying him in the social context which formed him as a person and which permeated much of his scientific life. The book is an excellent example of a scientist working in his cultural milieu, in this case the stratified society of Victorian England. If the reader can work through the language, he or she will find this point very well done. Huxley’s working class upbringing, including his many extremely successful talks to everyday workers, and his gradual emergence into the upper regions of British science is well-documented and helps a great deal in understanding the man. The book’s details and its ability to put the man in context are true strengths. But the reader frequently has to work through difficult verbiage to get there. Desmond’s book is the best on the market about this brilliant, incisive, and fascinating man who made the understanding of science, and specifically of evolution, his life goal. Despite the writing style I recommend the book.
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on March 22, 2014
This very thorough biography not only describes the often astonishing twists and turns to our developing understandings of evolution in the years after the publication of Origin of Species (even Huxley, an ingenius and dogged scientist himself--and "Darwin's bulldog"-- didn't seem to really quite "get" some fundamental implications of natural selection. Also fascinating is the history this book gives us of the invention of "scientist" as an honorable paid profession in Britain in the late 19th century. According to the book, Thomas Huxley stood at the center of that crusade (so to speak) to make science an essential part of education and our working lives. Even after reading numerous books about Darwin and related folk, I come away from this biography with a much, much deeper sense of the complexity and slow and often quirky progress with which science has advanced.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon January 8, 2013
Adrian Desmond is an excellent science writer (e.g., Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist and The Ape's Reflexion). He wrote in the Introduction to this 1994 book, "'Huxley' is a contextual biography, for want of a better word: as often as not it looks up from street level to provide a fresh perspective on the people's scientist. At the outset my goal was to write it in a way that would humanize science and its history in order to make it accessible and interesting... it looks at evolution's use in order to understand the class, religious or political interests involved. It raises questions about new practices and new workplaces." (Pg. xiv)

He records, "Huxley sat in the pews of the cathedral. On Christmas Eve he watched the Catholic festivities, less with a sense of anthropological mission than with evangelical anger... The rationalist scorned this prostitution of human reason. To the young sailor priests and prostitutes were all of a piece, only standing on opposite sides of the sacred divide. At Mass the 'chanting' was 'of a most vile description.'" (Pg. 55)

Later, he adds, "For Huxley, the only way forward was a competitive, technocratic society, with the science professionals at the helm." (Pg. 211) He states, "Huxley's cadre was moving into power, but everywhere they met [Richard] Owen's imperious presence. What the scientific parvenus lacked in social strength they made up in moral posturing: hence Huxley's hallelujah, that finally 'the Lord hath given this Amalekite unto mine hands.'" (Pg. 231) He notes, "Huxley rallied Darwin... he sharpened his 'claws & beak' to tear at 'the curs which will bark and yelp'... Now Darwin was glad of it. Never one to enter the public fray, he needed a champion as Huxley needed a cause." (Pg. 260)

Of Huxley's famous encounter with bishop Wilberforce, Desmond records, "[Huxley] waited, stage-managing the event just as much. And when the shouts for him climaxed, he rose... [and said] 'If then, said I the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence & yet who employs these faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.' ... There followed inextinguishable laughter among the people, and they listened to the rest of my argument with the greatest attention." (Pg. 279) However, he admits, "Perceptions of the event differed so wildly that talk of a 'victor' is ridiculous... even Hooker thought that he had not managed to 'command the audience'..." (Pg. 280)

As far as Huxley's religious position was concerned, he wondered "What could he call himself? He was shifting power to an elite whose authority rested in right reasoning, not mythical realities... a cacaphony of voices proclaimed that they 'had attained a certain 'gnosis"'; like the second-century gnostics who professed sparks of divine knowledge. That night he came up with 'Agnostic.'" (Pg. 374) He adds, "Agnosticism helped Huxley elude his detractors. It presented the man of science as non-aligned; it deflected any inquest from his own axiomatic beliefs... And it allowed Huxley to take the offensive." (Pg. 389-390)

This excellent book will be of immense interest to anyone studying the origins of the evolutionary theory, and the debate concerning it.
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on June 15, 2005
I've read Adrian Desmond's Huxley biography several times since its initial publication a decade ago. When I first read it, I thought it was a tour de force; ten years later, it still holds up.

Desmond is a brilliant biographer: his "Darwin" (co-authored with James Moore) and his studies of Robert Owen have been deeply influential among historians of science. The difference between those books and this one, though, is that Desmond obviously likes Huxley: he admires the young Huxley's drive and ambition; his willingness to take risks; his ferocious, furious determination to succeed in despite lack of connections or inheritance (Victorian Britain wasn't so far from Jane Austen when Huxley was striking out on his own); and his incredible success. As much as any single individual, Huxley deserves credit for creating our modern notion of what science can do, and how scientists should be treated-- by the state, by the general public, by universities. It's the bulldog's world; we just live in it.

The hip-hop criticism is astute. The book is actually filled with references to earlier histories of science: nearly every page has a play on the title of some book or article. Insiders will get them; apparently they're noticeable, but distracting, to others.

Still, the book is a model for how to write biography, and probably the best introduction to Victorian science and culture around today.
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on June 10, 2003
This is one of the best bios of Huxley ever written (cf. also the more theoretical work of Shellie Lyons) and seems a natural companion to Moore & Desmond's work, Darwin: The Tormented Evolutionist.
The new style of Darwin studies takes the legacy of such as John Greene and others and zeroes in on the social context of the emergence of the theory as ideologically charged.
In Huxley's case one sees the generational change breaking the Anglican monopoly of the Paley-ites, but in the process creating a new establishment in the conservative revolution of Darwin's theory.
What is remarkable is that Darwin's bulldog had an initial clarity that drove him to defend Darwin on evolution, but demur on natural selection. How ironic. Le plus ca change!
It is hard to impossible to take theories of evolution in complete seriousness as pure science when we see the almost outrageous social darwinist cast to the whole operation. Huxley, to his credit, saw things differently toward the end in his final classic Evolution and Ethics. Would that the generations springing from his first great defense of the theory could come to his final regrets. Nice work.
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on December 29, 1999
I have been very much impressed by Thomas Huxley and wanted to know more about him, his life and his works. Desmond's book provided me with all this information and much more. I tend to agree though with some comments made by earlier reviewers. The book could have been written in an easier format and style. This could have probably been achieved by separating his personal and family life in the first two or three chapters devoting the rest of the book to his scientific and professional work. Be that as it may, the book is a mine of useful information. Huxley was a great scientist and a great thinker. His capacity to think clearly and logically is evidenced by his defining "agnosticism" as a way of thinking which is different from blind religious faith and outright atheism. Since we can not scientifically prove (yet) that some kind of God does not exist, it will be wrong to believe that God does not exist. Likewise, there does not exist any rational ground to believe that God does exist. Majority of human beings are in the grip of different religions which demand blind faith in the existence of God. And this faith leads humanity into a bundle of rigmaroles which religion forbids to question. Huxley and several others before him have published works to rid the human race from the terrible things that different religions demand of their followers to believe and practice. Huxley helped elevating science and rational thought to a station that they deserve. Even though the book is not easy to read, it is full of valuable information.
Mohammad Gill
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on March 19, 2011
It is many years since I read this, but having read the other review(s), I just want to note that at the time I thought it the best science-history book I had read for many years - since the author's Hot Blooded Dinosaurs, in fact. Some might find it a bit heavy going, especially the dissection of many aquatic creatures, but it is worth persevering.
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on September 23, 2003
I've never read a book quite like Desmond's. He is an extremely talented writer and is obviously enthusiastic about Huxley, his "X club" cohorts, and Victorian England in general. Some of his prose is worth savoring, in fact. However, as other reviewers have mentioned, his talent and enthusiasm primarily result in a 650 page-long monograph of purple prose. It is difficult to find a single sentence on some pages that doesn't contain a simile (usually of an overwrought nature) or highly charged authorial proclamation. Although this practice certainly makes the writing lively, it also makes it extremely heavy-going and, at times, quite confusing. It is difficult to read more than a few pages at a time.
As for the book's material, it is never less than fascinating. Desmond is a thorough researcher, and he never fails to explore the major events in Huxley's life in proper detail. He is also enormously well-schooled in the world of Victorian science, university politics, and culture. Although he makes even the slightest struggle in Huxley's life seem like a battle for all time, he also succeeds in making "Hal" a truly sympathetic and utterly unparalleled individual. I had no problem with the straight narrative structure as other reviewers seem to have had, but many, many names popped in and out of the story with little information to refresh my memory and this grew tiresome.
In short, I recommend giving this book a shot. You may tolerate or even enjoy Desmond's prose. There is a lot of wonderful information about a wonderful and remarkable man to be imbibed. However, be warned that it will most likely be a murky, if hot and spicy, pool to wade through.
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