book-reviews

Essays of a Biologist

by Julian Huxley

Rating: ★★

I found this essay collection by way of a reference from J. B. S. Haldane's Possible Worlds, and thought it sounded promising. As it turns out, it wasn't. The essays are not very well honed, and most of them are quite dull or outdated. Huxley suggests that the reader reads the first, Progress, and then jump to Religion and Science at the end and select from the rest as interested. I would advise otherwise. Read the three-stanza poem at the start of Progress, then skip the rest of it and leap to A Biologic Fantasy, reading it and Rationalism and the Idea of God which follows. You'll pick up the gist of his progress argument from the other references, and can always go back if you want it spelled out. The final essay is nonsense and can also be skipped.

Progress, Biological and Other attempts to find a definition of 'progress' which fits with evolutionary theory. He advances the position that the tendency for larger organised groups is 'progressive' in this sense, from cells to civilisation. While this is not as entirely indefensible as I felt at the beginning, I was not convinced it's a useful concept. The essay takes rather a while to come to its point, which made it a bit tedious. The best part was the poem at the beginning.

Biology and Sociology essentially applies the previous essay in drawing some tenuous connections between the two disciplines, with no very useful conclusions, and again is very tedious.

Ils n'ont que de l'ame: an essay on bird-mind discusses how we must acknowledge animals have emotions, which I found a bit too obvious to be interesting. Huxley makes use of a number of anecdotes about courtship rituals and behaviour in birds, some of which were vaguely amusing.

Sex Biology and Sex Psychology is the first essay to deal with a concrete area of human biology, and the scientific material is hopelessly dated, even to a layman like myself. He takes a number of swipes at Freud, but essentially defends psychoanalysis and argues that we shouldn't be so uptight about sex.

Philosophic Ants: A Biologic Fantasy: far more whimsical and amusing than the other essays, including one short story exploring ants' susceptibility to temperature changes as an allegory about the development of science, and another one which attempts to apply similar effects to man in an explicit homage to Wells (he footnotes that readers made him aware of the story New Accelerator, which addresses the same theme).

Rationalism and the Idea of God is a fairly decent overview of religion, but I can't really understand how Huxley thinks that scientific study of religious experience in any way reconciles science with religious belief -- he seems almost to be attempting to placate the religious while scientists set to tearing down their final bastions.

Religion and Science is an extended treatment of the same theme, and in it Huxley espouses a belief in the 'mental properties' of inorganic materials. Not, as I first thought, through their representation in the minds of thinking beings, but of themselves. He then skips past this to describe God as mankind's understanding of the universe, in an approximation of the previous essay. There are various thoughts collected here, including some which seem to outline a sort of humanism, but their essential disunity makes the essay painful.