Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest

By Adrian Desmond | Go to book overview

1
Philosophy Can Bake No Bread

THE LANKY 15 year-old sidled down fetid alleys, past gin palaces and dance halls. Sailors hung out of windows, the gaiety of their boozy whores belying the squalor around them. The boy's predatory looks and patched clothes seemed in keeping. But his black eyes betrayed a horror at the sights: ten crammed into a room, babies diseased from erupting cesspits, the uncoffined dead gnawed by rats. The scenes would scar him for life.

In 1841 young Tom Huxley was in a twilight world. For a highly strung, sensitive lad the degradation was numbing. Daily the drug-grinder's apprentice threaded his way through East London's hovels. He carried a little muslin bag, but his drugs proved useless when the people 'were suffering from nothing but slow starvation'.

The century's worst recession had left mass unemployment. It showed in the haggard faces of his patients. Each wretched garret brought sorry sights, of bedridden seamstresses with no better food than 'bread and bad tea'. How could he suggest a healthy diet? One deformed girl, nursing her sister, 'turned upon me with a kind of choking passion. Pulling out of her pocket a few pence and halfpence, and holding them out, "That is all I get for six‐ and-thirty hours' work, and you talk about giving her proper food"'. Tom trudged ahead of the Grim Reaper, unable to stay his scythe. He watched the paupers succumb, mortality statistics scratched on the 'ledgers of death'.

Night-time found him in his tiny dockside surgery, venting his anger. The wide-eyed boy who loved metaphysics and religion and dreamed his way into the immensity of geological time asked himself: how could a 'solitary Philosopher' be 'happy in the midst

-3-

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