The Following is a Guest Post by Michael D. Barton. Michael is a reader of this blog and did his thesis on Darwin and Tyndall. For this reason, he was easily able to win the bounty for identifying the meaning of the term “The X Blog.” And, it was obvious that he should write a guest post here about “The X Club,” after which this blog is named. Don’t worry if this is not entirely clear; It will be after you’ve read Michael’s excellent essay.
The Irish physicist and Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution in London, John Tyndall, along with the biologist Thomas Huxley, botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, and sociologist Herbert Spencer, formed in 1864 that “influential set of chaps,” the X Club1. The group – also including George Busk, Edward Frankland, Thomas Archer Hirst, John Lubbock, and William Spottiswoode (with the suggestion of Charles Darwin as the honorary tenth member) – met in London and campaigned for the increased authority of science in social, cultural, and political matters in Britain. They feared that as they went along their careers they would lose contact, and thus created a club ensuring they would remain connected. As Hirst put it simply in his journal in November 1864, these men of science held in common a “devotion to science, pure and free, untrammelled by religious dogmas”2.
As a member of the X Club, Tyndall used his power and status as a man of science to publicly campaign for a naturalistic worldview (often as support for Darwinian evolution), against the commercialization of science, and against the aristocratic patronage of science. The Club met regularly every month for more than two decades (save the holiday months of July, August, and September) at St. George’s Hotel, Albermarle Street, London, in the evening. Because of deaths, however, the number of members decreased, and illness and retirement led to diminished attendance. Differences of opinion between two members over nationalization in 1889 put a damper on the group, and in 1893 the club more or less lost its vitality.
Beyond pushing for the role of science in Britain against religious influences, the men of the X Club (or Xs, with wives in attendance referred to as Ys) supported each other’s professional careers and of those they supported. In fact, an instance of such support for Darwin, ensuring his nomination of the Copley Medal in 1864, led to the formation of the Club. Although the X Club attempted to nominate Darwin for the Copley Medal in 1862 for On the Origin of Species (1859) – the Royal Society’s then president Edward Sabine did not think Origin worthy of the award (he thought awarding Darwin the medal would show the society’s endorsement for a still controversial work) – he received it in 1864 for his works on coral reefs and barnacles3. The reformation of the Royal Society was important to the Club as well, as they desired science to be professional; Three members (Hooker, Spottiswoode, and Huxley) held the presidency of the society and they and others held considerable positions in many other British scientific societies and organizations during their time as Xs.
At a time when religious viewpoints have considerable influence on decisions made by politicians that affect our citizenry, and many if not most of the Republican Presidential candidates are anti-science, let us take a lesson from history and join Greg Laden in his cause to “engage in interesting discussion free from theological influence, and to bring people together who may drift apart otherwise”4.
1Ruth Barton, “‘An Influential Set of Chaps’: The X-Club and Royal Society Politics 1864-85,” British Journal for the History of Science 23 (1990): 53-81.
2Quoted in J. Vernon Jensen, “The X Club: Fraternity of Victorian Scientists,” British Journal for the History of Science 5 (1970): 63-72, p. 63.
3Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), pp. 244-47.
Other sources for information about the X Club include:
Ruth Barton, “‘Huxley, Lubbock, and Half a Dozen Others’: Professionals and Gentlemen in the Formation of the X Club, 1851-1864,” Isis 89 (1998): 410-44
Ruth Barton, “Men of Science: Language, Identity and Professionalization in the mid-Victorian Scientific Community,” History of Science 41 (2003): 73-119
Ruth Barton, “Scientific Authority and Scientific Controversy in Nature: North Britain against the X Club,” in Louise Henson, Geoffrey Cantor, Gowan Dawson, Richard Noakes, Sally Shuttleworth, and Jonathon R. Topham, eds., Culture and Society in the Nineteenth-Century Media (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2004), 223-235
Adrian Desmond, “Redefining the X Axis: ‘Professionals,’ ‘Amateurs’ and the Making of Mid-Victorian Biology – A Progress Report,” Journal of the History of Biology 34 (2001): 3-50
John Holmes, “The X Club: Romanticism and Victorian Science,” in Amanda Mordavsky Caleb, ed., (Re)Creating Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), 12-3
J. Vernon Jensen, “Interrelationships within the Victorian ‘X’ Club,” Dalhousie Review 51 (1971): 538-52; and Roy M. MacLeod, “The X-Club a Social Network of Science in Late-Victorian England,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 24 (1970): 305-22.