In Victorian England, biologist Thomas Huxley battled to promote the theory of evolution so much that he was sometimes called "Darwin’s bulldog." Now, a new play follows Huxley throughout his fight, highlighting vicious debates with adversaries opposed to evolution, such as biologist Sir Richard Owen.
Written by zoologist and playwright Matthew Wilkinson, This View of Life debuted at the DarwinFestival in Cambridge last week. “[I got the idea] when I first became aware of Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley and that battle at the British Association meeting in 1860,” says Wilkinson, referring to the famous Oxford Evolution debate, for which influential men convened to deliberate over Darwin’s controversial ideas. “It seemed like there was great drama there, [with] Owen often painted as this archetypal villain, with Huxley as this sort of white knight.”
The play opens in 1893, when Huxley has just given what would be his last public debate on evolution. A ghostly memory of his daughter, who died as a young woman, takes Huxley through flashbacks of major events in his life, from meeting Charles Darwin to the 1860 debate. Huxley’s tussle with Owen over evolution and religion is a central theme. The rivalry was thought to stem from a fundamental disagreement on science, as well as from Owen’s jealousy of Huxley’s brilliant mind, explains Wilkinson. During the play, Owen fumes at Huxley:
“You are trying to eradicate God from society and humanity. Would you have everyone believe that nature’s cruelty lies in us?”
Wilkinson tries to weave into the play the complex idea that progression in science and social reform in Victorian Britain provided fertile ground for evolutionary ideas to take root. Huxley himself was an advocate of social progress and gave many talks to Britain’s working classes on evolution. But once the concept of evolution became public property, it was twisted by many who used it to champion their own causes. The workers used the “survival of the fittest” idea as a metaphor by which they could improve their social situations. At the same time, the elite “Social Darwinists” were using ideas of natural selection to justify imperialism and the idea of ignoring the plight of the poor in society. Huxley laments this appropriation of Darwin’s work:
“Every faction is convinced that evolution is at the centre of their cause.”
After the death of his favorite daughter, Mady (Marion), Huxley was said to develop a very dark view of evolution, feeling that natural selection had robbed him of his daughter. But the play suggests that toward the end of his life, Huxley again saw beauty in evolution. “It’s the process by which we humans are united to the rest of life, our planet, and our universe,” says Wilkinson.
The playwright says he recognizes that Darwin’s view of nature, with the weakest being killed off, can be a brutal one. “On the other side, you can also look at all the cooperation that’s going on,” he says, such as in symbiotic relationships, in which two organisms rely on each other for survival. In one scene from the play, Huxley’s daughter gives an example of this, reminding her father how shrimp share their burrows with goby fish, who in return, warn the shrimp of approaching danger. Ending on this positive note, the play closes with an upbeat Huxley reading Darwin’s poignant and famous quote, from which the play’s title is derived:
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Image: Ray Wilkinson