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  • Published: 29 September 2022
  • ISBN: 9780141992235
  • Imprint: Penguin eBooks
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 576

An Intimate History of Evolution

The Story of the Huxley Family

Two hundred years of modern science and culture, told through one family history

In his early twenties, poor, depressed, stranded in the Coral Sea on the HMS Rattlesnake, hopelessly in love with the young Englishwoman Henrietta Heathorn, Thomas Henry Huxley was a nobody. And yet together he and Henrietta would return to London and go on to found one of the great intellectual and scientific dynasties of their age.

The Huxley family through four generations profoundly shaped how we all see ourselves, as individuals and as a species. They worked as scientists, novelists, mystics, film-makers, poets and above all, as public lecturers, educators and explainers.

Their speciality was evolution in all its forms. But perhaps their greatest subject was themselves. Alison Bashford's engaging and original 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. This book 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.

  • Published: 29 September 2022
  • ISBN: 9780141992235
  • Imprint: Penguin eBooks
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 576

About the author

Alison Bashford

Alison Bashford is 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 Fellow of the British Academy, the Australian Academy of Humanities and 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.

Praise for An Intimate History of Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balancing scholarly rigour with an eye for the absurd, her book reveals the human drama behind scientific fact.

The Economist

A patient, sympathetic portrait of a family riven with flaws.

AN Wilson, Spectator

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

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

Lucid, lively and addictive ... a panoramic view of an era of extraordinary and accelerated change ... a celebration of intellectual bravery.

Morag Fraser, Inside Story

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 detailed, nuanced, and superbly written joint biography of the intellectual lineage of the Huxleys ... rich and compelling ... Bashford elegantly reminds us that science has never banished the sacred for the secular, the irrational for the logical. Rather, it creates opportunities for new syntheses, new configurations of life, mind, soul, body, nature, and society.

Philip Ball, The Lancet

One of the most compelling and tragic multigenerational scientific legacies ... Bashford tells the story of these intertwined lives with sympathy and candour but also with dexterity. Readers follow the Huxleys as they contemplate nonhuman animals, primates, man, and mind in their intergenerational quest to understand the implications of evolution on what it means, or might mean, to be human."

Piers J. Hale, Science

Who are we? What is our place in nature? How can we design morality and religion in a world informed by science? Alison Bashford moves across the Huxley generations, tracing how Thomas Henry and his gifted brood struggled to answer these questions, in the process shaping outlooks we hold today.

Manvir Singh, New Yorker

Daring and joyously intelligent ... It is an astounding achievement that Bashford has transformed such a super-abundance of material into a richly rewarding and comprehensible book. The Huxleys brings the reader into easy familiarity with great minds at work.

Richard Davenport-Hines, Wall Street Journal