Science, Medicine and Technology

Authored by: Sujit Sivasundaram

The Ashgate Research Companion to Modern Imperial Histories

Print publication date:  May  2012
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754664154
eBook ISBN: 9781315613277
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042525


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In the introductory essay to his 1893 Romanes Lecture, Thomas Henry Huxley noted: ‘the colony is a composite unit introduced into the old state of nature; and thenceforth, a competitor in the struggle for existence, to conquer or to be vanquished’. 1 1

All citations from the lecture are from ‘Prolegomena’ and ‘Evolution and Ethics’, in Alan P. Barr (ed.), The Major Prose of Thomas Henry Huxley (Athens, GA, 1997), pp. 292–4.

This utilisation of evolution as an analogy for the imperial process should not come as a surprise, for Huxley was amongst the chief popularisers of Darwinian ideas. He is credited with establishing the modern idea of the professional scientist as a secular prophet. This ‘devil’s disciple’ and ‘high priest of evolution’, as one historian has described Huxley, saw colonialism as providing further proof of the efficacy of evolution. 2 2

Adrian Desmond, Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple, 2 vols (London, 1994); Desmond, Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest (London, 1998).

If the colonists were ‘slothful, stupid and careless’, then their colonies would be overtaken by the ‘old state of nature’. Using the example of a shipload of ‘English colonists’ landing in Tasmania he noted: ‘[t]he native savage will destroy the immigrant civilized man; of the English animals and plants some will be extirpated by their indigenous rivals, others will pass into the feral state and themselves become components of nature’. To ensure that this did not occur, Huxley spelt out the importance of protection against extreme heat and cold in the form of housing and clothing; he advocated drainage and irrigation works which would deter the effects of excessive rain and drought; roads, bridges, canals and ships that would overcome natural barriers to transport; ‘mechanical engines [which] would supplement the natural strength of men and their draught animals’, and hygiene which would deter the onset of disease. ‘With every step of this progress of civilization, the colonists would become more and more independent of the state of nature; more and more their lives would be conditioned by a state of art.’ Colonialism would thus be subject to natural processes. But colonial power would be forged as it overcame and transformed nature, and, even at its highpoint, empire would be susceptible to defeat by evolution. But by this point of the nineteenth century, the last of the Tasmanian aboriginals was deemed dead. 3 3

See James Paradis, ‘Evolution and Ethics in Victorian Context’, in James Paradis and George C. Williams (eds), Evolution and Ethics: T.H. Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics, With New Essays on Its Victorian and Sociobiological Context (Princeton, NJ, 1989), pp. 52–5. For the metaphorical entanglement between evolutionary language and colonialism, see David Amigoni, Colonies, Cults and Evolution: Literature, Science and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Writing (Cambridge, 2007).

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