Julian Huxley

The English biologist and author Julian Huxley (1887-1975) helped establish the modern synthetic theory of evolution by natural selection and served as first director of the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO).

Sir Julian Sorell Huxley was born June 22, 1887, in London, England. His father, Leonard Huxley, master of Charterhouse School and later an editor, encouraged his children Julian, Trevenen, Aldous, and Margaret to live up to the achievements of their grandfather, the famous evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley. Julian traced his thinking in many fields to this influence of T. H. Huxley maintained by his father. It was the origin of his creed of rationalism, atheism, and general, as opposed to specialized, thinking. Leonard encouraged his son's early interest in natural history, which found opportunity in the rural setting of their home in Surrey. Julian's mother, who founded a school in the area, was also a great influence and encouraged his intellectual interests, including a passion for poetry.

After taking a degree in zoology at Oxford in 1909, Huxley went to the Naples Zoological Station in Italy for a year of research on sponges. This led to his first book, The Individual in the Animal Kingdom (1912), upon his return to an Oxford lectureship in zoology. In 1912 the newly opened Rice Institute in Houston, Texas, hired him. He effectively developed and headed the biology department, but during World War I he felt called to duty for his country. He returned to England in 1916 and served in the Army Intelligence Corps until the end of the war. He remained in England, returning once again to Oxford. He married Juliette Baillot in 1919. They had two sons.

Teaching, Research, Writing

The young Huxley became a driving force in the zoology department, promoting new teaching and research priorities and organizing an ecological research expedition to Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic. Huxley himself had already produced studies not only of morphology and development but also of bird ecology and bird behavior during courtship. He wanted to move zoology away from its classical morphological and descriptive base, toward the new excitement of dynamic ecology and of genetics and physiology.

To that end, he began his own laboratory researches in developmental morphology, choosing to examine growth rates. He developed the idea that an organism's form depends on differential growth rates in the separate parts of the body. Begun at Oxford, this work was continued after 1925 at King's College, London, where he had been appointed professor of zoology. Although he kept the laboratory until 1935, he served only as an honorary lecturer after 1927, having resigned in order to gain more time for research and for the large amount of writing he had begun. By the time of the publication of Problems of Relative Growth in 1932, Huxley had become widely known as a talented popularizer of biology.

Huxley combined his writing talent with his broad interests in biology in the collaboration with H. G. Wells and his son G. P. Wells to produce The Science of Life (1931), an encyclopedic textbook. Other Huxley books during this time included Essays of a Biologist, Religion without Revelation, Essays in Popular Science, The Stream of Life, What Darwin Really Said, Ants, and Bird-Watching and Bird-Behaviour. Notable were his breadth of interests and his willingness to entertain the controversy created by his adherence to rationalist views, held with the Huxley commitment to intellectual integrity and public responsibility. He tackled evolution and its meaning for human life, religion, and ethics; he also explored the impact for society of the latest biological knowledge. Huxley believed in the self-directed evolution and progress of humanity. He called his view an evolutionary "religious humanism," but Huxley's views nonetheless eschewed the need for belief in a personal God. He looked toward scientific method and knowledge as the new guide and promoted concentration on science teaching and research as an aid to social problems. This theme continued through the 1930s in such books as If I Were Dictator and Scientific Research and Social Needs.

Other controversial applications of science to human life included Huxley's early commitments to eugenics and birth control. His thinking about population regulation in nature and the ecological problems of over-population fostered a concern for family planning, and he campaigned for the birth control movement. Because of his reputation as a eugenicist, he was invited to join in the writing of a book refuting Hitler's pure race theories; We Europeans appeared in 1935. The authors argued that ethnic characteristics are determined mainly by environment and cultural history, not genetics.

Explaining "Natural Selection"

In his scientific researches, Huxley in 1932 began a second phase of his career, devoted to synthetic works. With Gavin de Beer he wrote Principles of Experimental Embryology (1934), in which they attempted to survey the various approaches to the subject. They concluded that organized regions, with chemical influences spreading outward, led development. Stimulated by much new work on the theory of natural selection, Huxley also wrote Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942). His earlier bird researches had led him to revive biologists' interest in sexual selection, and now in the 1930s he gathered supporting arguments for the theory of natural selection from the new mathematical genetics of J. B. S. Haldane, R. A. Fisher, and Sewall Wright. Darwinism had declined in popularity since the late 1800s, with many biologists—especially in the new field of genetics—rejecting the operation of natural selection in nature. Huxley's book played a major role in establishing the "modern synthesis," an updated version of Darwinism incorporating Mendelian genetics and the latest findings in all biological fields. The theory holds that a major cause of evolution is the action of natural selection on small genetic differences within populations, creating adaptation; separation of different populations in a species can lead to new species through various "isolating mechanisms." Exemplifying the value of Huxley's generalist approach to science, the book was his proudest achievement and his most influential.

The final phase of Huxley's career found him involved in even more public activities for science. As secretary of the Zoological Society from 1935 to 1942 he worked to improve the London Zoo. During World War II he lectured frequently on war aims and postwar problems. In 1946 he became the first director-general of the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), and his ideas about applying scientific findings to world problems were influential in determining the future of the organization. After retirement he continued until his death in 1975 to write popular works about science, covering such topics as Soviet genetics and politics, current evolutionary theory, cancer, and humanism.

Further Reading on Julian Huxley

Julian Huxley wrote about his personal and professional life in two books, Memories (1970) and Memories II (1973). In addition, the famous Huxley family members are depicted in Ronald W. Clark, The Huxleys (1968).