De-naming the Huxley College of the Environment: Comments to the WWU Board

At 3 pm on Thursday, December 9, 2021, the Western Washington University Board of Directors is having a final hearing on the proposed de-naming of the Huxley College of the Environment. In a late twist, the Board has apparently abandoned its earlier Legacy Review Task Force Report on Huxley, presumably after all of the historical mistake and distortions were pointed out. Instead, it commissioned a last-minute “Ad Hoc Committee Report”, which retreats on most of the anti-Huxley claims, and semi-acknowledges Huxley’s numerous progressive achievements, but in the end still recommends de-naming Huxley because, it judges, student perceptions trump context and truth.

This all matters, because the WWU fight is pretty clearly an initial skirmish in a debate that will continue with the proposed denaming of the Huxley Building at Imperial College London, and other Huxley awards, lectures, and Darwiniana. Win or lose at WWU, it is important to develop and publicize the evidence and arguments against this kind of thing. What is at stake? Huxley, Darwin, and a great number of other progressive reformers who helped enlighten our society, and, frankly, who helped to develop our modern anti-racist views, will be wiped from the public sphere.

A number of us are giving comments today. Mine are posted below. The speakers are:

The live link to listen at 3pm PST will be:

My comments below:

These comments represent my personal views, not those of current or previous employers. The documentation for my claims can be found in the links in my essay on this matter:

Updated: Creationists and advocates of social justice unite to take down T.H. Huxley, a leader in educational inclusion </i>

Text (5 minutes to read):

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to speak. My name is Nick Matzke, I am a Senior Lecturer in Biology at the University of Auckland, but until recently my whole career was in the USA. I am interested in society’s treatment of Thomas Henry Huxley because I have worked in the fields of science education and evolutionary science for almost 20 years. Part of that work involved the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, where I discovered the creationist ancestry of the so-called “intelligent design” movement, promoted by the Discovery Institute of Seattle.

Huxley is an inspiration for me as the original public advocate for science, science education, and science-informed liberalism.

In my science-education work, I have seen first-hand the damage that can be done when ideology trumps careful scholarship. Misinformation spreads, trust in science declines, particularly in vulnerable communities - as we have seen with vaccine hesitancy, for instance.

In Western’s case, we have the bizarre situation where the discussion of Huxley was dominated for over a year by social justice activists relying on anti-Huxley propaganda found on right-wing creationist and conspiracist websites, including a Discovery Institute author. Thankfully, this has finally been tacitly admitted, with the last-minute “Ad Hoc” committee report excising nearly all of the claims now proven false about Huxley being a polygenist, scientific racist, social Darwinist, eugenicist, etc. Nevertheless, this new Report still recommends the de-naming of Huxley, based on nothing but the premise that student perceptions of Huxley trump the actual facts and context of Huxley’s record.

The fact is that Huxley was not just a scientist, a progressive, an advocate for diversity and inclusion in science and science education. He was also, in the main, an anti-racist, a radical who said “the North is justified in any expenditure of blood or of money” to eliminate slavery. He was someone who pushed his culture to be better. Due diligence has not been done until the Board accepts a report that includes Huxley’s complete record on race. This absolutely must include Huxley’s long battle with the scientific racist James Hunt and his Anthropological Society; and Huxley’s membership on the Jamaica Committee.

If “James Hunt” and the “Jamaica Committee” are not familiar to you, that may be because no pro-denaming document issued by Western has yet succeeded in even discussing them! Here is a brief summary:

In October 1865, just after the end of the US Civil War, hundreds of Black protestors in the British colony of Jamaica marched for justice, land reform, and the vote. The British governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre, declared martial law and authorized reprisals that killed 439 Black Jamaicans, including the illegal hanging of former slave George Gordon, a member of the Jamaica House of Assembly (and nowadays a National Hero of Jamaica).

A massive multiyear controversy broke out in Britain over the carnage, but the British government refused to even prosecute Governor Eyre. The Jamaica Committee was formed to privately prosecute Eyre for murder. It was soon led by John Stuart Mill, and Huxley signed up, along with other scientists and radicals. When Darwin himself joined, Huxley wrote to thank him for joining, quote, “the right (that is my) side.” (emphasis original)

The Ad Hoc Committee Report suggests that, quote, “Huxley’s views were firmly within the mainstream of Victorian thought,” unquote. The massive opposition to the Jamaica Committee gives lie to that claim. The Governor Eyre Defense Fund was supported by John Tyndall, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Tennyson, 40 generals, 26 admirals, 400 clergy, 6 bishops, 20 Ministers of Parliament, 71 peers of the House of Lords, and 30,000 others, including Charles Dickens. That’s right: if, during this Christmas season, you see Charles Dickens’ story about Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol, you should keep in mind that Dickens was on the wrong side.

The Jamaica Committee had only 800 supporters, so the Victorian elites were 40:1 against Huxley and his colleagues. Huxley took a stand against all of these elites. This is who you are de-naming, if you de-name Huxley.

Huxley took flack for his stand. James Hunt went after him. Hunt had been fighting with Huxley since 1863 over whether or not Black people were a transitional species between apes and whites – Huxley used words like “nonsense”, “quack”, “thoroughly disgusted”, and “imposter” in response to Hunt. When Huxley joined the Jamaica Committee, Hunt accused him of, quote, “equal-rights mania” and, quote, “Negro-mania”, and joked that Huxley would soon be saying that gorilla-hunters should be prosecuted for murder.

Hunt and his friends wanted to “cancel” Huxley and devote anthropology to studying the hierarchical “laws of race.” If you de-name Huxley, you are accomplishing something that Hunt never could.

Fortunately for the history of science and of Britain, it was Huxley that crushed Hunt. Virulent racism dominated Darwinism in countries like Germany, but its influence was weaker in the U.K., in part because of Huxley.

In conclusion, as we all know, the effort to dename Huxley College took off in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. And it is understandable, in the heat of legitimate rage against racial injustice and the rabid bigotry of the Trump era, that getting rid of Huxley, because his antiracism was imperfect, can seem like a way to “do something”.

But consider this: what was the Jamaica Committee, if not an early expression of the principle that Black Lives Matter – that law enforcement is subject to the same laws as everyone else, that racists who murder Black people should be held accountable under the law, and that Black people deserve the same rights as everyone else? Huxley was already there in 1865, and defended that position against massive opposition.

How does it serve justice to treat T.H. Huxley as if he were James Hunt or Governor Eyre, when he actually was their vehement opponent?

If you de-name Huxley, you are de-naming an anti-racist ally, perceived as such at the time by both sides, who defended the principle that Black Lives Matter.

Thank you for your time.

(Other testimony)

Comments from Stephen Warren, Professor of Astrophysics at Imperial College London

Hello I am Stephen Warren

I am Professor of Astrophysics at Imperial College

Thank you for letting me speak to you today.

It is night time at Imperial, but when I am sitting in my office I am 10 yds from the bust of Huxley, and 100yds from archeopteryx, the fossil Huxley used to show that birds evolved from small dinosaurs. At Imperial, Thomas Huxley is the scientist of whom we are most proud, more than our Nobel Prize winners. As you know he was a great scientist, a great social reformer, and an unsurpassed educator.

Like you we have been examining our history and we have inherited directly from you the criticism of Huxley’s 1865 essay Emancipation: Black and White. Because of his alleged belief, in this essay, in a hierarchy of races, our History Group has recommended that the Huxley Building be renamed, and that his bust be hidden away in an archive.

Now you might think I would be pretty annoyed with WWU for starting this problem off, but in a minute I am going to thank you!

First let me tell you a little bit about what is happening here.

There has been an very strong negative reaction to the suggestion of renaming:

  • major articles have appeared in our national newspapers: The Times,The Guardian and The Telegraph
  • many leading scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, another 4 knights of the realm, and some 20 Fellows of the Royal Society have denounced the recommendations
  • a greatgrandson of Thomas Huxley has added his voice
  • and leading historians have criticised our History Group for poor scholarship

Really, most people cannot understand why Imperial wants to cancel their greatest scientist, and given this reaction at the moment I am rather confident that the name will stay on the building, but one can’t be certain.

Now despite this rather taking over my life the reason I want to thank you is that I have learned such an enormous amount from this process, and it is this educational process that I want to focus on.

I believe all of us have probably gone through similar steps.

I started out being shocked in reading the first three paragraphs of Emancipation Black and White; and then I started to understand better the society Huxley lived in; and then I steadily developed a growing admiration for Huxley’s contributions to many social causes, including of course:

  • the abolition of slavery
  • justice for Gordon in the Jamaica revolt
  • fighting the scientific racism of the polygenists
  • university education for women
  • free education for the working classes

The proper historians already knew this, but finally I reached the point, 180 degrees from where I started, where I appreciated that in reality Huxley is truly the greatest Victorian champion of inclusion: inclusion in race, inclusion in gender, and inclusion in class.

If today we understand and appreciate better the importance of inclusion, let us thank Huxley for getting us half way there, rather than censor him for not getting all the way.

I read carefully the report of the ad hoc legacy review committee. This is a clear, fair, and measured synthesis of a mass of material. And it seems clear to me that the Board have also gone through this process of understanding Huxley’s greatness as a champion of inclusion.

So in reading your report, where you seem to show all this, I was surprised and disappointed to read on the penultimate page `The Ad Hoc Committee recommends removal of the Huxley name.’ Because in doing this you are denying the opportunity for your students to receive the benefits of going through the same educational process that you have enjoyed.

The choice is set out starkly in your report starting at the bottom of p4. You can take the safe route: safe for the students and safe for the university, and cancel Huxley. The students lose because they don’t learn about Huxley, they don’t learn from Huxley, they don’t learn the lessons of history, and they don’t overcome this challenge. Or you can take the more difficult route: keep Huxley and teach all about him. The students win for all the reasons given, and the university wins because it faces up to its educational duty. I believe your students are strong enough for the challenge, and all will be grateful.

Fifty years is actually a long time, so Huxley is part of your history. The name was a wise choice, because he was a great scientist, and also because he was the greatest Victorian pioneer of inclusion.

Comments from Meg Town, a teacher who was involved in a 1995 battle with the Discovery Institute in Sultan School District, Washington state</a>

WWU Board of Trustees Statement

My name is Meg Town. Thank you for the opportunity to speak. I am against the de-naming of Huxley.

I have a BA in environmental biology from the University of Colorado; and a master’s in education UW

My teaching credentials are from Western

I am endorsed in biology, the physical sciences and mathematics and taught for 30 years in Washington state public school.

For 3 years I was privileged to work with Upward Bound under the direction of Bernie Thomas.

I am married to Mike Town a distinguished Huxley College alumnus, and half of my estate is currently endowed to Huxley College, in part to provide scholarships to underrepresented students.

Why I’m here.

This is not the first time the wedge strategy has been used in Washington state to divide the public and undermine science education.

In my very first course at Western, Dr. Perak gave me a deep understanding of the nature of science and paradigm shifts. Science builds and refines models based on new evidence. The evidence requires rigor, repeated tests and peer review before it becomes accepted. All data is reviewed. It cannot be cherry picked. This process is conducted in public.

My intersection with attacks on science from the same people amplifying the false claim of racism against TH Huxley came about in the fall of 1995, shortly after the release of the Washington State Science Standards AKA the Science EALRs.

I was appointed head of the science adoption committee for the Sultan School District. The committee consisted of teachers, an administrator, a school board member, and members of the community. I was teaching middle school science; the high school biology teacher declined the invite as she did not want to tangle with the expected attacks on her teaching of evolution. Indeed, the school board member along with some members of the community attempted to insert the teaching of Intelligent Design (Creationism) into the science curriculum and curricular materials. They received help and materials from the Discovery Institute of Seattle and other national creationism organizations to promote creation science and the textbook Of Pandas and People. The leaders are familiar to you-Morris, Gisch, Glumaz.

The same folks amplifying the false claims against TH Huxley.

Tactics: at a school board meeting, the husband of the school board member on my committee used a copied speech that linked the teaching of evolution with the reason for rapists. Then he pointed at me and declared, “and there she is!” Coincidentally, The John Birch Society held a meeting in Everett.

This soon became a bigger than just about preserving science. It was about civil rights. Indigenous members of the community enlightened me to the fact that they didn’t support science because they assimilated evolution as their way of knowing. They did not want the teaching of the Judeo-Christian creation myth in their children’s public-school classrooms. The preservation of the Judeo-Christian Culture is the stated goal of the Discovery Institute.

To counter the creationist movement and the incorrect portrayal of science to the school board and the adoption committee, I engaged with the ACLU and the National Center for Science Education to gain legal, cultural, and content understandings. Local churches, doctors and science supporters wrote letters in support of science standards and materials without the insertion of Intelligent Design/Creationist ideas and materials.

Following a community forum on the issue, attended by 500 people, the school board fortunately unanimously adopted science only standards and materials. Dover Schools in Pennsylvania were not so lucky. They were involved in a lawsuit stemming from the same time that was decided in 2005. The court case decided the use of Of Pandas and People which promotes Intelligent Design, Creationism renamed, was not science and violated the establishment clause of the constitution. Disclaimers of evolution were also disallowed.

Sultan School District experienced a painful and unnecessary chapter in the battle against pseudoscience. Creationists did succeed in dividing the community.

The next fall there was a turnover of three school board members.

The next spring, I was involuntarily transferred to teaching math. I left to teach in the Northshore School District.

The biology teacher retrained as a firefighter where she could be received as a hero.

Fast forward to today, the same folks are successfully inserting themselves in current challenges facing our public academic institutions. States are adopting anti-science education legislation.

It is very true that many students do not have equitable access to university programs. There are real barriers that need to be identified and removed to correct this disparity. Changing the name of Huxley, by adopting the false narrative that he was racist is not going to correct the equity issues. As a teacher from era of the internet, I learned over time that it was far too easy for my students to base their conclusions on a few clicks. My refrain: “Where did you hear it and why do you believe it?” I ask that you please backcheck the sources you are using to make your decision for this public institution. A lack of due diligence can come back to harm Western and the students. No one has this intent.

Student voices do need to be heard and elevated. You have an opportunity to identify and alter policies, practices and behaviors that underly the issues of inequity.

Follow the lead of TH Huxley.

He served on the London school board and promoted policies to expand public access to education and to train science teachers.

In practice, he taught at a working-class institution akin to Western rather than the elite Cambridge or Oxford.

In behavior, he consistently wrote and spoke publicly, to the commons, in favor of abolition; the inclusion of women in education; the protection of due process for all; and in support of science.

Please do not diminish the integrity of Western by de-naming Huxley based on an inaccurate and incomplete portrayal of the man. Rather, examine the barriers for students. Work through a public process with students, staff and community to improve access and safety.

If in the journey toward a more equitable institution, the renaming of Huxley will promote a new and improved mission/vision. Do so. But follow a process with merit.

It is not without notice that a school board in a small rural community was able to see through the rhetoric of the Discovery Institute and others to preserve the integrity of their science program.

Thank again you for your time and considerations.

Comments from Steve Hollenhorst, Professor and Former Dean, Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University

Thank you, trustee Meyer. The Ad Hoc Committee states that it grounded its conclusions on the Yale Principles on Renaming, which place the principal legacy of the individual as a primary criterion. Let’s look at that legacy for Thomas H. Huxley.

Huxley’s legacy, simply, is that evolutionary science is true, and all the immeasurable good that followed from that transformation in the way we see the world, from medical science that combats disease with high tech vaccines and treatment, to life sciences that enable us to feed the world, saving and improving the lives of billions.

Western’s legacy, sadly, will be as the public higher education institution to elevate creationist disinformation from the darkest fringe corners of American thought, giving it the legitimacy they’ve long sought.

Huxley’s legacy is that common descent applies to humans, and scientific justification for the oneness - and equality - of all humanity.

Our legacy will be advancing the creationist wedge strategy to undermine science, and how we fell into that trap. We commend the Committee for removing – if not actually acknowledging – the most scurrilous accusations in the Task Force Report. Yet it still includes fringe claims that Huxley held hierarchal views of race, derived from a Lyndon LaRouche operative, Discovery Institute author, and creationist historian. This despite abundant evidence of Huxley’s moral journey from typical Victorian to radical anti-racist, where he rejected such physical hierarchies, arguing instead that they were culturally imposed and enforced–often violently–by an oppressive society. Is that not an early description of what we now call systemic racism?

Huxley’s legacy is democratizing an inclusive approach to science education, regardless of race, gender, or class.

Our legacy, is this exclusionary and divisive decision process, denying a voice for science on the task force, and all requests to meet with the task force, while affording both to Huxley critics. For me, this is the saddest moment in this story, because it set us on a censure path, where biases went unchecked, and distortions and lies internalized to confirm those biases. It’s where we failed our students by underestimating their ability to engage in a journey of learning and discover on this issue.

Lastly, our legacy will be this denaming resolution itself, which once passed, will be proclaimed by every creationist group to advance their wedge strategy. Whatever you do, I implore you to not do it with a resolution that affirms their talking points.

This process has horribly divided the Huxley College community. A just-completed survey of the faculty and staff, conducted by the college leadership, is far from a ringing endorsement of either denaming or this process. My sense is that before all of this, most folks were open to a name change that could bring us into the next 50 years. After this process,

  • Only 44% think the name of the college should be changed
  • In fact, a solid majority 55% feel Huxley’s views on race were progressive for the time,
  • And only 40% think it appropriate to use 21st century standards to judge him

Where there is strong agreement, with nearly two thirds or more agreeing, is that:

  • Huxley should be admired for his contributions to both science and social causes.
  • that sources in the task report were inappropriate because of their anti-science agenda
  • that the creationist narrative should be denounced
  • that what is lost in denaming is as important as what is gained.

We could have, and still can, follow a more constructive and unifying path. As Dr. Matzke urges, study this further, let’s learn from and incorporate the work going on at Imperial College. They’ve learned a lot from us, and now we can learn from them. At the same time, constitute a study group, inclusive of both social justice and science voices, tasked with mapping a forward-looking and aspirational future for the college. Re-engage our students on this. Through mutual learning, we can develop a collective set of actions to realize our DEI goals, of which a new name could be a part. I for one would support it, and it would bring the college together again.

On the path we’re on, I fear we will fracture further, our alumni and students will be driven away, and the college will not survive.

Thank you for your time.

Comments from David Leaf, Professor Emeritus, Biology, Western Washington.University. Coauthor of the Response to the Legacy Review Task Force Report

David Leaf’s Comments

Thanks to the Board of Trustees for the opportunity to comment about denaming Huxley College of the Environment. Also thanks to the Ad Hoc Committee of the Board for their work in producing a memorandum that clearly and carefully illustrates the challenges of balancing the contemporary norms of inclusion and equity with fairly evaluating historical figures. I am a retired professor of Biology at Western. I have taught courses comparing Intelligent Design Creationism with Evolution, so I am well-acquainted with creationist arguments, including arguments linking supporters of Darwinian evolution with racism. And of course, Huxley was the prominent supporter of Darwin.

I have also worked to increase inclusion on campus. I was one of the co-authors of a successful grant proposal to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to increase inclusion in STEM. And I had the privilege of serving on the University Strategic Plan Committee which placed inclusion as a core element of the Strategic plan.

I am encouraged by the emphasis in memorandum about the importance of mitigating harm after a final decision about denaming. One potential harm with denaming is that it may be used by creationists to claim that Darwin’s theory of evolution is itself racist and to challenge the teaching of Darwinian evolution.

Hence, it is important that instructors in Biology and ESCI can clearly articulate the reasoning used to Board of Trustees to justify the denaming. This need may have been anticipated by Ad Hoc Committee with the suggestion that the Board of Trustees can mitigate the harm of denaming by clearly communicating the competing interests they needed to balance and the complexities of evaluating the issue of whether Huxley was racist.

The breadth of opinion offered by the expert scholars solicited by the Legacy Review Task Force clearly indicate these complexities. While the memorandum from the Ad Hoc Committee avoids getting into weeds about the disagreements between the expert scholars, this disagreement is itself the best indication of how complex it is evaluate Huxley. Inclusion of the opinions of all the expert scholars on one or two key questions, such as whether Huxley contributed to Scientific Racism can serve as strong examples of the complexity in evaluating Huxley.

Among the expert scholars opinions, Nicholas Rupke’s evaluation of Huxley was notable as both an outlier in many respects as well as receiving apparently greater emphasis in the memorandum footnotes. Including opinions from all of other expert scholars could help to insulate the Board from criticism of cherry picking the expert opinions, a charge that could jeopardize the perception of the Board’s fairness.

I would recommend not referring to Rupke’s version of Huxley’s Rule. There is no mention of Huxley’s Rule in the History of Science literature, except in Rupke’s own publications. The Huxley’s Rule known in biology refers to a rule about genetic recombination devised by Julian Huxley, TH Huxley’s grandson. Also, other expert scholars disagree with the Rupke’s premise - that Huxley’s comparative anatomical work on humans and apes led to Scientific Racism.

Thanks again for considering these remarks.