Posted by: drwbortz | March 28, 2011

Remembering Huxley

I confess to a long-standing interest in the history of science. Among the nuggets in my treasure drawer is the story of the encounter between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (“Soapy Sam”) and Thomas Huxley,” Darwin’s Bulldog. This confrontation took place in Oxford’s Natural History Museum, on June 30, 1860, 150-years ago, to a full house. It is generally regarded that this event was a pivotal moment in the clash between religion and science.

A host of notables attended, including Admiral Robert Fitzroy who had accompanied Darwin on the Beagle. The program occurred during the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Because of the eminence of the Bishop of Oxford and the recent publication of the “Origin of Species,” the stage was set for high drama. The organizers were compelled to change the venue to accommodate the overflow crowd.

Although we have no videotape of the conversations of that fabled meeting, legend has it that Wilberforce took the lead and quipped, “Huxley, I am eager to know whether you are descended from a monkey on your grandmother’s or your grandfather’s side?”

At this jibe Huxley is said to have commented to himself “The Lord has delivered him into my hands.” Then he replied, “I would rather be descended from an ape than a bishop who uses his great gifts to obscure the truth.” The pungency of this remark is recalled to have caused a lady in the audience to faint.

Being a huge fan of Darwin, this story has been precious to me since I first heard it years ago. It came startlingly to life again when I received a wonderful review of my new book “Next Medicine, the Science and Civics of Health” in last week’s issue of JAMA. The prestige of the journal and the academic venue of its author, the Harvard School of Public Health, represent a personal highlight. Within its highly favorable text, Jeffrey Levin-Scherz M.D. labeled my effort to reconstruct a new cheaper, more fair, safer, more honest, more efficient and consistent, more relevant political infrastructure “wishful.” If by “wishful” he means “idealistic,” he is right. I stand convicted of same, and I make no apology. To me the state of my profession is so grim that a full-throated revolution is required for realignment. Churchill commented that a chasm can not be crossed incrementally.

In my view, the forces are now aligned to justify Thomas Kuhn’s first requirement for a paradigm shift, namely a growing consensus that things are really bad. His second demand is the availability of a powerful replacement structure to insert for the defective one. For the first time in American political history this requirement is also fulfilled by the new science, which converts health from a bland platitude to a rigorous platform from which policy can and must derive.

Health is a choice informed by new knowledge. I put my trust in it instead of the greed-driven enterprise now in place. Medicine seeks a new punctuation and disruption in its way of doing business. No miracle is required, only a managed evolution to a new less-perverse process in line with medicine’s mission, the assurance of the human potential.

Now, here, we must react to this new imperative reality.

I think Huxley would agree.


  1. Back in the 70s, in the wake of Kuhn, both Jonas Salk and Willis Harman & Oliver Markley (SRI’s Center for the Study of Social Policy’s Kettering Foundation funded study) The Changing Image of Man (a team including Ashley Montague, Margaret Mead and Joseph Campbell) posited the need for a new paradigm embodied in a new image of man – what Campbell deemed a guiding mythic image, one of that nature of his Hero’s Journey. It seems to me the pivotal issue seeding a grassroots revolution in health education/care hinges on somehow embodying a guiding image rooted in gaining robust skills in epistemology. The Northern Renaissance originating in 1614 with the anonymous publication in Kassel of the Fama Fraternitatus overcame the schism between science and religion by collapsing the polarity, reframing it as ‘knowing the mind of God by opening liber mundi, the book of nature.” Orthodoxy responded to the groundswell by launching a pre-emptive strike against those heretical Germanic states we known as the 30 years war – they may well have won the battle yet lost the war.
    So much of our worldview remains within the reductionist scientism of Huxley’s period…including the rational man on the street imbued with generally accepted standards offering comforting stability to life. What might the elements of a new paradigm/guiding image of the liberated human empowered to health care, Salkian survival of the wisest include? It seems to me the cohesive, motivation as transvaluative experience hinges on this question – and it’s solution lying in appropriate education rooted in epistemological ruthlessness.
    warm regards,
    Ken O’Neill
    Wimberley, Texas

    • Dear Ken, Thank you for your rich note. My end game is the creation of health literacy by reversion to the first principles of health which I tried to spell out in my book.Just enough traction to sustain my optimism variably generated but med students get it. Walter Bortz

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