Imperial College will not rename Huxley Building

Bust of Huxley
The bust of Huxley. Credit: The Telegraph (UK). Fair use.

Imperial College has decided not to rename the Huxley Building, in a partial victory for those who oppose “canceling” historical figures who held views that today are properly regarded as racist. Instead, according to an article, Imperial commits to ‘ambitious understanding’ of history, by Deborah Evanson, they will add a second, joint name to the building, in addition to that of Thomas H. Huxley. The second name will be that of “a pathbreaking scientist from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic background.” The College will also retain a bust of Huxley, but will put Huxley and his accomplishments

into a fuller context in order to provide everyone with a more complete understanding of Huxley’s complex character and achievements as well as his flaws, including his racially prejudiced writings. Historical context will also be provided for any person whose name is added jointly.

Huxley, like most of us, was indeed a complex character. He no doubt thought that white, male Englishmen were generally smarter than everyone else. In that respect he was no different from most white, male Englishmen of his time. Nevertheless, according to an article by Nick Matzke and others on Panda’s Thumb last December, Huxley devoted himself to educating women and poor people, and actively opposed slavery; he was thus well in advance of many, if not most, of his contemporaries. It is gratifying that Imperial College recognizes this progressive leader and has decided not to dename the Huxley Building because of a flaw that was widely shared in his era.

The biologist and blogger Jerry Coyne calls the compromise “a small victory,” and I suppose it is. Huxley did not fare so well at Western Washington University, where his name was removed from the Huxley College of the Environment; see the preceding link for more background.