Julian Huxley

Sir Julian Sorell Huxley, Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) (June 22, 1887 – February 14, 1975) was an English evolutionary biologist, author, humanist, and internationalist, known for his popularizations of science in books and lectures. He was the first director of UNESCO and was knighted in 1958. He was also a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Huxley coined both the phrases "evolutionary synthesis" and "modern synthesis" in his 1942 work Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, in 1942, thus providing the name for the integration of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, Gregor Mendel's theory of genetics as the basis for biological inheritance, and mathematical population genetics. Also known as neo-Darwinism, the modern synthesis has been one of the most significant, overall developments in evolutionary biology since the time of Darwin.

Huxley also was a noted humanist, who played key roles in humanist associations and addressed many humanist themes in his books. His view on religion was one whereby there is "no separate supernatural realm" and that "God is a hypothesis constructed by man… and today the god hypothesis has ceased to be scientifically tenable" (Huxley 1964b). Huxley was among the ranks of those intellectuals that placed a premium on evolution, and indeed spoke of a new "humanist evolution-centered religion," thus discounting the many bona fide religious experiences that people have. To Huxley, mystical experiences and divinity were more an outgrowth of nature than supernatural in origin. In fact, Huxley noted that the abandonment of belief in God often brings an enormous sense of relief (Huxley 1964b).


Huxley came from the distinguished Huxley family. His brother was the writer Aldous Huxley, and his half-brother Andrew Huxley was a great mathematical biologist and Nobel laureate. Julian Huxley's father was writer and editor Leonard Huxley and his paternal grandfather was biologist T. H. Huxley, famous as a colleague and supporter of Charles Darwin. Julian Huxley's maternal grandfather was the academic Tom Arnold, and great-grandfather Thomas Arnold of Rugby School.

Life and career

Early life

Family tree

Julian Huxley was born on June 22, 1887, at the London house of his aunt, the novelist Mary Augusta Ward, while his father was attending the jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria. Huxley grew up at the family home in Surrey where he showed an early interest in nature, as he was given lessons by his grandfather, Thomas Huxley.

At the age of thirteen, Huxley attended Eton College, and continued to develop scientific interests in the school laboratories that his grandfather had persuaded the school to build several decades earlier. At Eton, he developed an interest in ornithology and in 1905, obtained a scholarship in Zoology at Balliol College, Oxford.

Thomas Henry Huxley and Julian Huxley in 1895.

In 1906, after a summer in Germany, Huxley took his place at Oxford University, where he developed a particular interest in embryology and protozoa. In the autumn term of his final year, 1908, his mother died from cancer.

In 1909, Huxley graduated from Oxford with first class honors, and was offered the Naples scholarship. He spent a year at the Naples Marine Biological Station where he developed his interest in embryology and development by researching sea squirts and sea urchins.

Professional life

In 1910, Huxley took up a lecturing post at Oxford, but in 1912, was asked by Edgar Odell Lovett to take the chair of Biology at the newly created William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Letters, Science, and Art (later the William Marsh Rice University, commonly known as Rice University) in Houston, Texas. Huxley accepted this position and began the following year.

Before taking up the post at the Rice Institute, Huxley spent a year in Germany preparing for his demanding new job. Working in a laboratory just months before the outbreak of World War I, Huxley overheard fellow academics comment on a passing aircraft, "it will not be long before those planes are flying over England," cementing Huxley's strong internationalist political views. While in Germany, Huxley had a nervous breakdown and returned to England to rest in a nursing home. At the same time his brother Trev, two years junior, also had a breakdown, and hanged himself.

In September of 1916, Huxley returned from Texas to assist in the war effort, working in intelligence, first at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ, a British intelligence agency) and then in northern Italy. He was then offered a fellowship at New College, Oxford, which had lost of its many staff and students to the war. In 1925, Huxley moved to King's College London, as Professor of Zoology, but in 1927 resigned his chair to work full time with H. G. Wells and his son G. P. Wells on The Science of Life.

Bird watching in childhood gave Huxley his interest in ornithology, and throughout his life he helped devise systems for the surveying and conservation of birds; and wrote several papers on avian behavior. His research interests also included medicine and the novel field of molecular biology. He was a friend and mentor of the biologist and Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz.

In 1931, Huxley visited the USSR where he admired the results of social and economic planning on a large scale. This is somewhat remarkable given that history has revealed this time of industrial strength under Stalin to be quite tumultuous when it came to human rights. Collectivization attempts had been very violent, involving the deportation and eventual deaths in camps of hundreds of thousands of peasants, and were followed by a devastating famine in Ukraine. When Huxley returned to the United Kingdom, he became a founding member of the think tank Political and Economic Planning.

In 1935, Huxley was appointed secretary to the Zoological Society of London, and spent much of the next seven years running the society and its zoological gardens, London Zoo and Whipsnade Park, alongside his zoological research.

In 1941, Huxley was invited to the United States on a lecturing tour, and generated some controversy after stating that he believed the United States should join World War II a few weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because of the country's joining the war, his lecture tour was extended and the council of the Zoological Society, who were uneasy with their secretary, used this as an excuse to remove him from his post. Huxley seized this opportunity to dedicate much of the rest of his life to science popularization and political issues.

As well as his zoological work, Huxley contributed to evolutionary biology. He was one of the key biologists in the modern evolutionary synthesis, which reigned in biology since about 1940, and is still broadly tenable.

Huxley coined the terms "mentifacts," "socifacts," and "artifacts" to describe how cultural traits take on a life of their own, spanning over generations. This idea is related to memetics. Towards the end of his life, Huxley played a key role in bringing to the English-speaking public the work of the French Jesuit-scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.


In the 1930s, Huxley visited Kenya and other East African countries to see the conservation work, including the creation of national parks, happening in the few areas that remained uninhabited due to malaria. He was later asked by the British government to survey the West African Commonwealth countries for suitable locations for the creation of universities. On these trips Huxley developed a concern for education and conservation throughout the world, and was therefore involved in the creation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and became the organization's first Director-General in 1946.

Huxley's internationalist and conservation interests also led him, with Victor Stolan, Sir Peter Scott, Max Nicholson, and Guy Mountfort, to set up the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), at that time known as the World Wildlife Fund, as an international fundraising group dedicated to the conservation of nature.


Huxley had a close association with the rationalist and humanist movements.

Huxley, a humanist, presided over the founding Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which was formed in Amsterdam in 1952. On the formation of the British Humanist Association in 1963, Huxley became its first President, to be succeeded by AJ Ayer in 1965. Huxley served with John Dewey, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Mann on the founding advisory board of the First Humanist Society of New York. Many of Huxley's books address humanist themes.

Today, the IHEU requires members to accept at a minimum the view that "human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives" and note that "it does not accept supernatural views of reality."

Huxley's views on God and religion is traced in his article "The New Divinity" in his 1964 book Essays of a Humanist. Among other comments, he raises the following points:

  • "There is no separate supernatural realm: All phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution. There is no basic cleavage between science and religion; they are both organs of evolving humanity."
  • "God is a hypothesis constructed by man to help him understand what existence is all about. The god hypothesis asserts the existence of some sort supernatural personal or superpersonal being, exerting some kind of purposeful power over the universe and its destiny."
  • "Today the god hypothesis has ceased to be scientifically tenable, has lost its explanatory value and is becoming an intellectual and moral burden to our thought. It no longer convinces or comforts, and its abandonment often brings a deep sense of relief."
  • "In place of eternity we shall have to think in terms of enduring process; in place of salvation in terms of attaining the satisfying states of inner being which combine energy and peace."

This does not mean that he does accept "spiritually," seeing the possibility of being able to "teach people the techniques of achieving spiritual experience (after all, one can acquire the technique of dancing or tennis, so why not of mystical ecstasy or spiritual peace?)" (Huxley 1957b), and noting that "many phenomena are charged with some sort of magic or compulsive power, and do introduce us to a realm beyond our ordinary experience" (Huxley 1964b). However, he sees these qualities of spirituality and "divinity" as not supernatural, but transnatural, growing out of ordinary nature.

Huxley noted that the abandonment of belief in God "often brings a deep sense of relief" (Huxley 1964b) and that "The sense of spiritual relief which comes from rejecting the idea of God as a superhuman being is enormous" (Huxley 1957b).

Huxley (1964b) sees a new direction leading to a "humanist evolution-centered religion." He states that "A humanist evolution-centered religion too needs divinity, but divinity without God. It must strip the divine of the theistic qualities which man has anthropomorphically projected into it… The central religion hypothesis will certainly be evolution, which by now has been checked against objective fact and has become firmly established as a principle."

Huxley also was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association, from 1927 until his death.


Like many biologists in the first half of the twentieth century, Huxley was a proponent of eugenics as a method of bettering society. Eugenics is a social philosophy that advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention. The goals of various groups advocating eugenics have included the creation of healthier, more intelligent people, to save society's resources, and lessen human suffering, as well as racially based goals or desires to breed for other specific qualities, such as fighting abilities. Historically, eugenics has been used as a justification for coercive state-sponsored discrimination and human rights violations, such as forced sterilization of persons who appear to have—or are claimed to have—genetic defects, the killing of the institutionalized and, in some cases, outright genocide of races perceived as inferior or undesirable.

Huxley wrote two books critical of genetics in the Soviet Union (which he twice visited). Russian genetics work was dominated by Lysenkoism, a pseudoscientific doctrine based on the view that acquired characteristics can be inherited. Lysenkoism was dangerous because it stood in opposition to genetic principles and stopped the artificial selection of crops, which eventually led to famine. Huxley feared a similar process of genetic stagnation would occur in the human population without the aid of eugenics, which the Lysenkoists rejected.

While Huxley saw eugenics as important for removing undesirable variants from the human gene pool as a whole, he believed that races were equal, and was an outspoken critic both of the eugenic extremism that arose in the 1930s, and of the perceived wisdom that working classes were eugenically inferior (Kevles 1985). Huxley was a critic of the use of race as a scientific concept, and in response to the rise of fascism in Europe was asked to write We Europeans. The book, on which he collaborated with the ethnologist A. C. Haddon, sociologist Alexander Carr-Saunders, and Charles Singe, suggested, among other things, that the word "race" be replaced with ethnic group.

Following the Second World War, Huxley played a role in producing the UNESCO statement The Race Question, which asserted that:

  • "A race, from the biological standpoint, may therefore be defined as one of the group of populations constituting the species Homo sapiens"
  • "Now what has the scientist to say about the groups of mankind which may be recognized at the present time? Human races can be and have been differently classified by different anthropologists, but at the present time most anthropologists agree on classifying the greater part of present-day mankind into three major divisions, as follows : The Mongoloid Division; The Negroid Division; The Caucasoid Division."

The UNESCO statement also helped destroy the idea that Jewish people form a distinct racial group when it asserted that "Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews are not races…"

In the post war years, following the horrific results of the abuse of eugenics such as by the Nazis, Huxley (1957) coined the term "transhumanism" to describe the view that humanity should better itself through science and technology, possibly including eugenics, but more importantly via improvement of the social environment.

Public life and science popularization

Huxley discovered the lucrative business of popular science writing after publishing articles in newspapers. In the late 1920s, he was introduced to book writing when asked to collaborate on two projects, a textbook of animal biology with his Oxford colleague J. B. S. Haldane, and by H. G. Wells on a definitive nine-volume set of popular science books on biology, The Science of Life. Other notable publications by Huxley include Essays of a Biologist and Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. This latter book is a thoroughly professional attempt to bring together all the strands of research to explain how evolution may have taken place.

In 1934, Huxley collaborated with the naturalist R. M. Lockley to create for Alexander Korda the world's first natural history documentary, The Private Life of the Gannets. For the film, which was shot with the support of the Royal Navy around the island of Grassholm on the Pembrokeshire coast, they won an Oscar for best documentary.

In later life, Huxley became known to an even wider audience through television and radio appearances. In 1939, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) asked him to be a regular panelist on a Home Service general knowledge show, The Brains Trust, in which he and other panelists were asked to discuss questions submitted by listeners. The show was commissioned to keep up war time morale, by preventing the war from "disrupting the normal discussion of interesting ideas." He was a regular panelist on one of the BBC's first quiz shows, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? in 1955.

In his essay The Crowded World published in Evolutionary Humanism (1964), Huxley was openly critical of Communist and Catholic attitudes to birth control, population control, and overpopulation. Based on variable rates of compound interest, Huxley predicted a probable world population of 6 billion by 2000. The United Nations Population Fund marked October 12, 1999, as The Day Of 6 Billion.

Selected works

  • 1914. The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe
  • 1923. Essays of a Biologist
  • 1927. Animal Biology (with J. B. S. Haldane
  • 1927. Religion Without Revelation (revised 1957)
  • 1927. The Tissue-Culture King (science fiction)
  • 1931. What Dare I Think
  • 1931. The Science of Life (with H. G. & G. P. Wells)
  • 1932. A Scientist Among the Soviets
  • 1934. Scientific Research and Social Needs
  • 1935. Thomas Huxley's Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake
  • 1936. We Europeans (with A. C. Haddon)
  • 1938. Animal Language(reprinted 1964)
  • 1938. "The present standing of the theory of sexual selection." Pages 11-42 in G. R. de Beer, ed., Evolution: Essays on Aspects of Evolutionary Biology. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • 1939. The Living Thoughts of Darwin
  • 1940. The New Systematics (This multi-author volume, edited by Huxley, is one of the foundation stones of the 'New Synthesis')
  • 1942. Evolution: the Modern Synthesis (This work summarises research on all topics relevant to evolution up to the Second World War)
  • 1943. Evolutionary Ethics
  • 1944. TVA: Adventure in Planning
  • 1947. Touchstone for Ethics
  • 1947. Man in the Modern World
  • 1949. Heredity, East and West
  • 1949. Soviet Genetics and World Science: Lysenko and the Meaning of Heredity
  • 1953. Evolution in Action
  • 1957. Biological Aspects of Cancer
  • 1957. Towards a New Humanism
  • 1958. New Bottles for New Wine
  • 1962. The Coming New Religion of Humanism
  • 1964. The Humanist Frame, elaborated to Essays of a Humanist in 1964
  • 1966. From an Antique Land
  • 1970 & 1974. Memories (2 volumes)


  • Clark, R. W. 1968. The Huxleys. New York: McGraw-Hill
  • Huxley, J. 1957a. New Bottles for New Wine: Essays. New York: Harper.
  • Huxley, J. 1957b. Transhumanism. In J. Huxley, New Bottles for New Wine. London: Chatto & Windus. Retrieved April 24, 2007.
  • Huxley, J. 1964a. Essays of a Humanist. London: Chatto & Windus.
  • Huxley, J. 1970. Memories. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • Kevles, D. J. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0394507029


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