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Although Thomas Huxley dubbed himself “Darwin’s bulldog” and said he was prepared to go to the stake if necessary to defend Darwin’s theory of evolution, he did not think the doctrine of evolution could give us the ethics to put into practice. In spite of the vast amount of literature on evolutionary ethics that has accumulated since Huxley wrote Evolution and Ethics, his book still provides one of the clearest articulations on the subject. Huxley argued that even if one accepts that evolution has produced creatures such as ourselves with a moral sense, it does not follow that we can look to evolution to define the content of what we call moral. Controversial in Huxley's time, evolutionary ethics remains a hotly debated topic today. Evolutionary theory has and continues to provide tremendous insight on our quest to understand the brain and behavior. Moral systems are a universal characteristic of human societies; therefore the tendency to develop them must be an integral part of human nature. Any evolutionary account of our origins must take morality quite seriously, and we must build it into our theories about human behavior. However, the attempt to build a naturalistic ethics grounded in evolutionary theory remains problematic, and Huxley’s writings are as relevant today as when he first penned them. His style is sharp and lucid, and Evolution and Ethics displays Huxley’s far-reaching knowledge of a vast array of topics, from Buddhism to the nature of consciousness, and provides guidance in navigating the land mines that infuse the field of evolutionary ethics.
Thomas H. Huxley was born in 1825 in the English country village of Ealing. He was the youngest of seven children of George and Rachel Withers Huxley. His father was a schoolteacher, but Huxley received little regular schooling and was largely self-taught. Even as a young boy he had interests in a staggering array of subjects. From James Hutton, he learned about geology. From reading Sir William Hamilton’s “The Philosophy of the Unconditioned,” he came to embrace the skepticism that typified his mature thought. Although he attended church regularly, as he grew older he realized that he was one of those skeptics or infidels of whom preachers spoke with horror. Often called an atheist or a materialist, Huxley later coined the term “agnostic” to describe his own philosophical system of belief after finding that none of the various other “isms” properly described his views. From Thomas Carlyle, he developed a sympathy for the poor that was later reinforced by his exposure to the squalor and poverty he saw in the East End of London.
Huxley showed an affinity for anatomy and received a scholarship to the medical school attached to London's Charing Cross Hospital when he was only fifteen. Except for physiology, most of the medical curriculum bored him. Nevertheless, he won first prize for chemistry, also taking honors in anatomy and physiology. He later won a gold medal in those subjects in the Bachelor of Medicine exam, but he was too young to qualify for a license to practice medicine. Like many others who made their mark in the natural sciences, Huxley took a voyage around the world, serving as the assistant surgeon on the HMS Rattlesnake from 1846 to 1850. In Australia he met his future wife, Henrietta Anne Heathorn. They married in 1855 and had a long and happy marriage and seven children.
Huxley’s life was one of incessant activity. He lectured at the School of Mines and continued to do research in physiology and biology. Evenings were often spent speaking before working men or learned societies. In 1862, he served as president of the biology section of the British Association for Advancement of Science (BAAS), and he became president of the association in 1870. In 1869 and 1870, he was president of both the Geological Society and the Ethnological Society.
Huxley’s voyage on the Rattlesnake resulted in some of his most important scientific work and established his reputation within the scientific community. However, it was his defense of Darwinism that brought him into the public spotlight in a famous encounter with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at the 1860 Oxford meeting of the BAAS. Wilberforce, who had been coached by Richard Owen in his attack on evolution, asked Huxley whether “it was on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side that the ape ancestry comes in.” Huxley replied:
. . . a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling it would rather be a man of restless and versatile intellect—who, not content with an equivocal success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.
Huxley’s reply created pandemonium. According to one account, ladies fainted.
Huxley correctly perceived that the most threatening aspect of Darwin’s theory was its significance for human origins. This resulted in his most famous work, Man’s Place in Nature, which was published in 1863, eight years before Darwin’s Descent of Man. In it, Huxley argued powerfully and eloquently that humans were no exception to the theory of evolution. However, Huxley wrote several hundred scientific monographs and pursued a research program in developmental morphology that was quite distinct from the ideas espoused in The Origin of Species. Nevertheless, he is best remembered as a popularizer and defender of Darwinism and for his popular essays on a staggering array of subjects, from geology to education to religion. Evolution and Ethics is the final volume of a nine-volume set culled from hundreds of these essays.
Evolution and Ethics contains several essays, but the most frequently cited are the “Romanes Lecture” and the longer “Prolegomena.” George Romanes was a biologist and psychologist and a close colleague of both Darwin and Huxley. He founded the Romanes Lecture in 1892 as an annual free public lecture at Oxford University to be given by leading intellectuals. Romanes invited Huxley to give the second lecture in 1893, following William Gladstone, four-time prime minister of England and someone with whom Huxley had often crossed swords over political, religious, and scientific issues. However, the Romanes Foundation stated that the lecturer “shall abstain from treating either Religion or Politics.”
Huxley had long been thinking about the relationship of ethical and evolutionary theory in the history of philosophy. But he pointed out that “Ethical Science was, on all sides, so entangled with Religion and Politics” that he needed all the “dexterity of an egg-dancer.” Fortunately, the prohibition against addressing religion and politics in the Romanes Lecture no longer holds. Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman began the 2005 Romanes Lecture, “Strange Bedfellows: Science, Politics and Religion,” by pointing out that she “by necessity will be walking on Huxley's metaphorical egg shells.”[i]
Darwin’s ideas had led many thoughtful people to ask whether it was possible to create a system of ethics based on evolutionary theory. At first glance it appears that Huxley has answered this question with a resounding no.
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 favor of the origin of the moral sentiments, . . . by a process of evolution. . . . But as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is so far, as much natural sanction for the 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. [ii]
However, the “Prolegomena” and the “Romanes Lecture” must be situated in their historical context to fully understand why Huxley wrote what he did. Examining Huxley’s entire corpus of work demonstrates that his view of nature was not as harsh at it appears in these essays.
Huxley was optimistic about the insights that evolution could provide for human society. In the 1860s, he believed that the key to successfully playing the game of life was learning the rules of the game, and those rules were the laws of nature. The game of life was infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess, and the other player was hidden from us, although his play was always “fair, just, and patient.” To learn the rules one must turn to the teacher, who was Nature herself. If people directed their affections and wills “into an earnest and loving desire to move in harmony with [Nature’s] laws,” this would lead to a just and fair society.[iii]
By the time of the “Romanes Lecture,” however, Huxley’s views had changed considerably. Herbert Spencer had articulated the advantages of applying evolutionary theory to social behavior, espousing an ethic that became known as Social Darwinism. In 1864, Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," which Darwin later adopted to describe the ongoing struggle for existence that resulted in natural selection. Spencer and his followers argued that one's moral obligations should be to promote this struggle for existence in the social realm. Thus he was against any sort of social safety net such as the so-called poor laws and other forms of public assistance to provide relief for the poor because they only contributed to the survival of the least fit.[iv] In a similar vein in the 1880s, William Sumner maintained that struggle and competition were the law of nature. "Nature is entirely neutral: she submits to him who most energetically and resolutely assails her. She grants her rewards to the fittest."[v] If we try to redistribute those rewards, we may lessen the inequalities, but we are rewarding and promoting the survival of the unfit, which will result in the deterioration of society. Here was a social program, an ethic that grounded its validity in Darwin's theory.
Needless to say, many people could not abide an ethic that was counter to all common decency, that claimed the state had no obligation to the less-fortunate members of society. Huxley responded to the harsh extreme individualism of Spencer in the “Romanes Lecture,” claiming that:
Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community. . . . Let us understand, once and 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.
Huxley, like many later critics such as G. E. Moore, attacked evolutionary ethics on the grounds that it committed the naturalistic fallacy. Just because nature is a certain way does not mean nature ought to be that way. However, Huxley's critique actually goes far deeper than this.
Implicit in the various versions of evolutionary ethics was the idea that nature was progressive. Huxley denied this. In earlier writings, he had argued that one of the great strengths of Darwin's theory was that in addition to explaining how organisms change and progress, it also explained how many organisms do not progress, and some even become simpler.[vi] Thus we cannot assume that applying the principles of evolution to the social realm would result in the progress and improvement of society. Huxley realized that "fittest" had a connotation of "best," but as he correctly pointed out, if the environment suddenly became much cooler, the survival of the fittest would most likely bring about in the plant world a population of more and more stunted and humbler organisms. In such an environment, the lichen and diatoms might be the most fit. Furthermore, the strict definition of Darwinian fitness is reproductive success. However, surely no one would label a serial rapist who successfully impregnates hundreds of women the "best" member of society.
The key to reproductive success is adaptation. Adaptation is at the core of Darwin’s theory: the mechanism of natural selection did not just explain how organisms changed, but how they changed adaptively. Although this idea of adaptation has been evolutionary theory's greatest strength, it has also been its greatest weakness because we can tell an endless number of adaptive stories. Which one should we believe? Particularly in explaining human evolution, cultural biases have strongly influenced the types of stories that have been told. Huxley himself was responding to a particular story that was being told in his time.
Critics on both sides misconstrued Huxley’s lecture. Free thinkers accused him of abandoning them while conservatives welcomed him as a convert to orthodoxy. Neither assumption was true. Because of the injunction to avoid any discussion of theology in the lecture, Huxley had to leave much unsaid. To clarify his views, the following year he wrote the “Prolegomena,” prefacing the reissue of the lecture.
Countering Huxley's harsh view of nature, Peter Kropotkin in Mutual Aid (1902) claimed that natural selection promoted group characteristics and sentiments, and that we have a natural sentiment to help each other: “The fittest are the most sociable animals and sociability appears as the chief factor of evolution. . . . Those mammals, which stand at the very top of the animal world and most approach man by their structure and intelligence are eminently sociable.”[vii] Kropotkin's ideas about how to improve society were diametrically opposed to those of Spencer, yet both men claimed that their ethics came directly out of evolutionary theory. It seems more accurate to say that they read their own social/political views into evolutionary theory. This problem continues to plague evolutionary ethics to the present day as is evidenced by the contentious literature of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.
In light of recent work on group selection, altruism, and extensive studies on non-human primates, particularly the work of Franz de Waal, the possibility of building an ethics rooted in biology seems more promising. De Waal has argued that we can see the origins of right and wrong in primate behavior. Chimpanzees exhibit such traits as attachment, nurturance, empathy, and special treatment of the disabled or injured. Chimpanzee society has its own set of rules that are internalized and will result in punishment if broken. They have concepts of giving, trading, and revenge. They exhibit peacemaking behavior and moralistic aggression against violations of reciprocity. Primate behavior not only demonstrates the evolution of ethics, but also shows that the ethics of evolution is not contrary to our own ethical sensibilities. In Man’s Place in Nature, Huxley also suggests such a possibility as he comments on the commonality of traits between man and beast. He asks, “Is mother-love vile because a hen shows it, or fidelity base because dogs possess it?”[viii] Nature is not just red in tooth and claw. Humans are not fundamentally brutish or noble. We are both, just like our primate cousins and our ancestors, and just as Huxley claimed.
Evolution teaches us that behaviors have evolved to enhance survival, and therefore ethical premises are products of the particular history of our species. They are deeply rooted, and while human behavior is very flexible, it has strong genetic underpinnings. In that sense, it is possible to change ethical laws at the deepest level in the ongoing struggle to stay adapted to an ever-changing environment. One of the implications of evolutionary ethics is that there can be no absolute, objective standard of morality that is eternal. Our species might eventually evolve rules that we would presently consider morally abhorrent. Current research in both evolution and neurobiology suggests that this does not mean we are doomed to a moral relativity.
Unselfish behavior towards one's offspring has undoubtedly been naturally selected. Those who look after their children will generally be more successful in having their genes passed on to future generations than those who don't. Building on J. B. S. Haldane’s work from the 1930s, W. D. Hamilton in the 1960s provided a rigorous mathematical account of how altruistic behavior could have evolved, which John Maynard Smith dubbed “kin selection.” Cooperation turns out to be a good survival strategy, just as Kropotkin argued. Many socio-biologists argue that altruism is selfish, merely another way of getting one’s genes into the next generation. When someone gives up her life to save her child, evolutionarily this could be described as a selfish act, but at the level of intentions or motivation, it is an unselfish act. Thus, describing it as a genuine altruistic act is appropriate, even if ultimately the origins of why people behave this way is rooted in kin selection. Furthermore, people often save non-kin and act unselfishly with no thought of reciprocity or reward. Research by neurobiologist Antonio Damasio on the role of empathy in rational decision-making and the discovery of mirror neurons, sometimes referred to as empathy or Dali Lama neurons, suggest that empathy and kindness are an essential part of our nature and can provide a basis for building a moral code. This suggests the possibility of an evolutionary ethics that may finally break free of the many problems that have plagued it.
If Huxley were alive today, he would be thrilled with these new findings. Committed to empirical investigation, he maintained that one must “follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads.”[ix] Modern research suggests a way out of the abyss of the dark side of human nature, validating Huxley’s earlier views that learning and abiding by nature’s rules would result in a just and fair society. But not only must nature be interpreted, every human act results from a complex interaction of nature and culture. In this regard, Huxley’s fundamental message in Evolution and Ethics is not historically contingent. It is an eloquent and compelling reminder that great caution must be exercised in evaluating any ethical system.
Sherrie Lyons holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from the University of Chicago. She is the author of Thomas Henry Huxley, The Evolution of a Scientist, and numerous articles on various aspects of nineteenth and twentieth century evolutionary biology. She teaches at Empire State College, New York.
[i] S. Tilghman, Dec. 1, 2005. princeton.edu/president/speeches/20051201/index.xml.
[ii] T. Huxley, 1860, quoted by John Green in a letter to Boyd Dawkins. Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (LLTHH), 2 vols., Leonard Huxley, ed. (1900, New York: D. Appleton & Co.), 1: 199.
[iii] T. Huxley, 1868, “A Liberal Education and Where to Find It,” Science and Education, Collected Essays, vol. 3, (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1898), pp. 82–83.
[iv]See a series of twelve letters by Spencer, "The Proper Sphere of Government," published in the Nonconformist, June 1842–November 1842.
[v]W. Sumner, The Challenge of Facts and Other Essays, A. S. Kelle, ed. (1914, New Haven: Yale University Press), 293.
[vi]T. Huxley, 1859,"On the Persistent Types of Animal Life," Proc. Royal Institute Great Britain, 3, 151–153, in Scientific Manuscripts of T. H. Huxley, vol. 1–4, M. Foster and E. Ray Lancaster, eds. (1898–1902, London: Macmillan & Co.), vol. 2, 91.
[vii]P. Kropotkin, 1902, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1955, Boston: Extending Horizon Books), 58, 50.
[viii]T. Huxley, 1863, Man's Place in Nature (1898, New York: D. Appleton & Co.), 152–154.
[ix] T. Huxley to Charles Kingsley, September 23, 1860, LLTHH 1, 235.