Intelligent Design

Huxley on Evolutionary Ethics

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The following quote is taken from Thomas Henry Huxley’s essay, Evolution and Ethics (The Romanes Lecture, 1893):

The propounders of what are called the “ethics of evolution,” when the ‘evolution of ethics’ would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution. I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the [80] one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before. Some day, I doubt not, we shall arrive at an understanding of the evolution of the aesthetic faculty; but all the understanding in the world will neither increase nor diminish the force of the intuition that this is beautiful and that is ugly.

There is another fallacy which appears to me to pervade the so-called “ethics of evolution.” It is the notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent ‘survival of the fittest’; therefore men in society, men as ethical beings, must look to the same process to help them towards perfection. I suspect that this fallacy has arisen out of the unfortunate ambiguity of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’ ‘Fittest’ has a connotation of ‘best’; and about ‘best’ there hangs a moral flavour. In cosmic nature, however, what is ‘fittest’ depends upon the conditions. Long since,19 I ventured to point out that if our hemisphere were to cool again, the survival of the fittest might bring about, in the vegetable kingdom, a population of more and more stunted and humbler and [81] humbler organisms, until the ‘fittest’ that survived might be nothing but lichens, diatoms, and such microscopic organisms as those which give red snow its colour; while, if it became hotter, the pleasant valleys of the Thames and Isis might be uninhabitable by any animated beings save those that flourish in a tropical jungle. They, as the fittest, the best adapted to the changed conditions, would survive…

Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it. It may seem an audacious proposal thus to pit the microcosm against the macrocosm and to set man to subdue nature to his higher ends; but I venture to think that the great intellectual difference between the ancient times with which we have been occupied and our day, lies in the solid foundation we have acquired for the hope that such an enterprise may meet with a certain measure of success.

The history of civilization details the steps by which men have succeeded in building up an artificial world within the cosmos. Fragile reed as he may be, man, as Pascal says, is a thinking reed.[22] there lies within him a fund of energy, operating intelligently and so far akin to that which pervades the universe, that it is competent [84] to influence and modify the cosmic process. In virtue of his intelligence, the dwarf bends the Titan to his will…

…I see no limit to the extent to which intelligence and will, guided by sound principles of investigation, and organized in common effort, may modify the conditions of existence, for a period longer than that now covered by history. And much may be done to change the nature of man himself.[23] The intelligence which has converted the brother of the wolf into the faithful guardian of the flock ought to be able to do something towards curbing the instincts of savagery in civilized men.

In the last two paragraphs quoted above, Huxley appears to anticipate the philosophy of transhumanism.

Questions for discussion:

Do you think Huxley’s arguments against evolutionary ethics are convincing? Why or why not?

Is Huxley’s hope of a glorious future, when human beings will have learned to rise above their baser natures and transform themselves into superior beings, a feasible one?

One Reply to “Huxley on Evolutionary Ethics

  1. 1
    johnp says:

    Well, in the intervening 120 years since Huxley wrote the piece, the progress, as far as I can tell, is negligible at best. Give it a few hundred million years and ask your question again, because as we know evolution is a slow gradual process (except of course when it happens quickly as any good evolutionist could tell you).

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