Preferred Citation: Farber, Paul Lawrence. The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics. Berkley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.

7. Syntheses, Modern and Otherwise: 1918-1968

Julian Huxley

Julian Huxley was born in the house of his aunt, Mrs. Humphry Ward, and the connection was significant. Her best-selling novel, Robert Elsmere (1888), resolved its hero's crisis of conscience by applying his religious energy to secular problems. The book made a deep impression on Huxley, and in his memoirs he indicated, "[It] helped convert me to what I must call a religious humanism, but without belief in any personal God."[28] Like his famous grandfather, Julian Huxley was locked in an ambivalent battle with organized religion all his life and saw in science a new force to guide action. But unlike Thomas Henry Huxley, Julian Huxley believed that science could not only tell us how to do things but that it could also supply a foundation for discussing what we ought to do.

Julian Huxley was one of the architects of the modern synthesis, the neo-Darwinian theory that reasserted Darwin's emphasis on the natural selection of small random variations as the central driving force of evolution. His importance derived more from his ability to synthesize the information and ideas that were current at the time than in formulating new biological concepts. Like his grandfather, who also did solid but not revolutionary zoological research, his fame rested on his ability to take the ideas of others to a wider audience.

But it was more than just a revitalized evolutionary theory that Huxley espoused. It was also a vision of progressive evolution with significant social and philosophical implications. Huxley be-

[28] Julian Huxley, Memories (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1970): 153.


lieved evolution was a process with three distinct phases: physical, biological, and psychosocial. Although he updated the conventional evolutionary picture of reality with the most modern biological information, the general picture was one that was common from Darwin's and Spencer's day: a cosmological evolution stressing the formation of the solar system; a biological evolution from simple organic soup to the pinnacle of biological existence, man; and a cultural evolution from barbarism to civilization and the hope of future higher development.[29]

During the interwar years and their aftermath, intellectuals like Huxley were confronted with an unsettling array of new cults, which were competing to replace the declining accepted creeds. Like their Victorian grandfathers, Huxley's generation sought new foundations for belief and for social organization. For Huxley, the theory of evolution provided a key element for a new humanist faith based on a scientific worldview and a liberal social philosophy.[30] What distinguished Huxley from other humanists was his emphasis on the modern synthesis and his belief that the human phenomenon had to be viewed from a cosmic perspective.

All humanists did not see the necessity of such an inclusive vision. Walter Lippmann, in his Preface to Morals (1929), sketched a moral philosophy based simply on liberal values and modern psychology. For him, the path was adequate, indeed obvious, without the appeal to evolution. "When men can no longer be theists, they must, if they are civilized, become humanists."[31]

But Huxley sought a more "religious humanism," and he believed the key lay in linking his broad social vision with the theory of evolution. If Lippmann had the good sense to realize that all gospels of science "do violence to the integrity of scientific thought and they cannot satisfy the layman's need to believe,"[32] Huxley still

[29] One of Huxley's best statements of his evolutionary picture is in his New Bottles for New Wine (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957).

[30] Evolutionary humanism was a theme that ran through Huxley's entire career. For a good introduction see Julian Huxley, ed., The Humanist Frame: The Modern Humanist Vision of Life (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961). Huxley's humanism was part of the broader, twentieth-century humanist movement; see A. J. Ayer, ed., The Humanist Outlook (London: Pemberton, 1968); Paul Kurtz, The Humanist Alternative: Some Definitions of Humanism (London: Pemberton, 1973); and Morris Storer, ed., Humanist Ethics: Dialogue on Basics (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1980).

[31] Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals (New York: Macmillan, 1929): 137.

[32] Ibid., 125.


hoped for a vision that would succeed where others had failed. He sought a "religion without revelation" that would overcome Lippmann's caveat on "the difficulty of reconciling the human desire for a certain kind of universe with a method of explaining the world which is absolutely neutral in its intention."[33]

Huxley attempted to establish the reality of biological progress as a background for a broader philosophy. His concluding chapter of Evolution: The Modern Synthesis was an extended argument for the acceptance of evolutionary progress.[34] In it he reviewed the history of life and argued that it reflected a series of dominant types representing advances in increased control of and independence from the environment.[35]

Huxley's general concept of evolutionary progress met with considerable criticism. Other evolutionists of the modern synthesis were uncomfortable with his discussion, even those who were generally predisposed to see some form of progress over time. The paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, for example, who wrote more about evolutionary trends than any of the other architects of the modern synthesis, was skeptical about the concept of "improvement" that Huxley used to characterize evolutionary change and that served as a link to his ethical ideas.[36]

Huxley's views on ethics were integrated with his writings on evolutionary progress.[37] However, his evolutionary ethics was based

[33] Ibid., 131. Huxley's fullest discussion on religious humanism is in his Religion without Revelation (London: Ernest Benn, 1927).

[34] This was not a new theme for Huxley. He had argued for it since early in his career. See, for example, his Essays of a Biologist (London: Chatto and Windus, 1923), where he developed most of the ideas on progress that he later published in Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1943).

[35] Huxley, Evolution, 556-578.

[36] George Gaylord Simpson, Biology and Man (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969): 141. For some recent views see Matthew H. Nitecki, ed., Evolutionary Progress (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). Stephen Jay Gould also has argued against "distorting the evolutionary record" by squeezing our interpretations of it into progressive molds; see, for example, his Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), and his article "On Replacing the Idea of Progress with an Operational Notion of Directionality," in Nitecki, ed., Evolutionary Progress, 319-336.

[37] On Huxley's worldview based on evolutionary progress, see John C. Greene's essay, "From Huxley to Huxley: Transformations in the Darwinian Credo," in his Science, Ideology, and Worldview, and his article "The Interaction of Science and World View in Sir Julian Huxley's Evolutionary Biology," Journal of the History of Biology 23, no. 1 (1990): 39-55. Also see Sister Carol Marie Wildt, "Julian Huxley's Conception of Evolutionary Progress," Ph.D. dissertation, Saint Louis University, 1973.


more on an acceptance of human progress than on the general idea of biological progress. Although he wrote extensively of the evolutionary unity of the world, he nonetheless made a clear distinction between human and biological progress, and for that reason one might accept his arguments for one while holding reservations about the other.

Human progress differed from biological evolution, according to Huxley, in two significant ways. First, it involved only one species, and more important, it was a progress that was not based on any new biological trend. Instead, human progress was predicated on cultural advance. Cumulative transmission of experience had given humans the ability to communicate knowledge beyond one generation. This ability allowed for cultural evolution, which proceeded at a rate much faster than biological evolution. Huxley held that not only was psychosocial evolution faster than biological evolution but also that it was the only line open to future progress. Life had exhausted its potential for major physiological improvement, and human cultural evolution was unique in escaping the dead end of 700 million years of life on earth. Huxley revealed his anthropocentric bias in a curious comment elaborating on this position, where he argued not only that man was the only organism capable of major evolutionary advance but that "even should the conclusion prove unjustified that purely biological evolution has reached its limit and become stabilized, and some new animal type should arise which threatened man's dominant position, man would assuredly be able to discern and counter the threat in its early stages."[38]

Of greater importance for the issue of ethics were the different criteria that Huxley employed in gauging cultural evolution. Unlike other species, humans were unique in their ability to utilize conceptual thought and speech, and those characteristics distinguished humans from all other animals.[39] Or, as he put it in 1941, "There is but one path of unlimited progress through the evolutionary maze."[40] That path was man's mental self-control and mental independence. Intimately connected to that control and indepen-

[38] Huxley, New Bottles for New Wine, 48. Presumably Huxley meant that a life form that was physically more fit would be destroyed by humans who had the added advantage of culture and could recognize the threat.

[39] Julian Huxley, The Uniqueness of Man (London: Chatto and Windus, 1941): 115.

[40] Ibid., 16.


dence were the fulfillment of human possibilities and the formation of values. Cultural evolution and the progress of mankind were the result of the struggle between ideas and values. Instead of a struggle for physical existence and reproduction that characterized the rest of the living world, human evolution was judged by cultural evolution. Unlike most of the earlier writers on evolutionary ethics, Huxley did not stress the adaptive value of cultural evolution. Although he certainly did not underrate the importance of man's ingenuity in controlling his environment, or the great advances in man's ability to feed, clothe, and shelter himself, it was by the increase of aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual satisfaction that Huxley judged human evolution. And it was in the formation of values for their own sake that the future of progress was to be realized.

Like his grandfather, Julian Huxley envisioned a discontinuity between animal and human evolution. However, where T. H. Huxley was satisfied to acknowledge a shared moral sentiment that came from the heart, Julian wanted to use the science of his day to grapple with what "from the heart" meant. His Romanes Lecture (1943) was a conscious attempt to resolve the problems left by his grandfather's lecture of fifty years earlier, and he published an edition of both lectures together in 1947.

Julian Huxley concentrated on two issues that he considered basic. The first concerned moral obligation; the second, moral standards. These not only have been the central concerns of ethics as an intellectual discipline but also have been central in the criticism of evolutionary ethics, and Huxley correctly realized that any attempt to establish an evolutionary ethics would have to confront them.

To explain moral obligation, Huxley relied on the new psychology, particularly Freudian analysis of infantile mental development. It was in the universal conflict between the desires of the infant relative to its mother that a primitive mechanism came into being, what the Freudians called the primitive superego but what Huxley called, using a "more non-committal term," the "protoethical mechanism."[41] As the infant, early in its second year of ex-

[41] Thomas Henry Huxley and Julian Huxley, Touchstone for Ethics 1893-1943 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947): 117. Julian Huxley's Romanes Lecture first appeared as Evolutionary Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943).


istence, distinguishes itself from outer reality, it is its mother who "comes to represent the external world, and to mediate its impacts on the child."[42] The mother did so by being its source of gratification but equally its source of frustrating "authority." The conflict of aggression and love thus engendered was potentially chaotic, but it constituted the proto-ethical mechanism that repressed aggression by branding it with guilt and therefore allowed the infant to act in the face of conflict. This sense of guilt, of basic wrong as opposed to right, was at the heart of the moral sense.

Our modern knowledge also helps us to understand the absolute, categorical, and other-worldly quality of moral obligation, on which moral philosophers lay such stress. It is due in the first instance to the compulsive all-or-nothing mechanism by which the primitive super-ego operates. It is also due to the fact that, as Waddington points out, the external world first intrudes itself into the baby's magic solipsism in the form of the parents' demands for control over primitive impulses, so that infantile ethics embody the shock of the child's discovery of a world outside itself and unamenable to its wishes.[43]

The primitive moral sense, of course, represented no more than an "embryonic mental structure." Like Lippmann, whom he admired and quoted in spite of their differences, Huxley held that from this early mental structure the main lines of development were yet to come in the "passage to maturity." Individual human mental development could lead to an "excess load of unrealistic guilt" with all the distortions the Freudians described. But in favorable circumstances, "human beings are able to develop without these overdoses of untruth and unreality in their moral system."[44] Humans could "achieve an internal ethical realism," that is, "the proper adjustment of the sense of guilt to reality."[45]

But ethics involved more than explaining our sense of individual moral obligation through psychology, and Huxley discussed it from a social perspective as well. The ethical standards of the social group in which a person could find himself might be "unrealistic." Just as our individual conscience was not an absolute authority, so, too, were social ethics relative to time and place. But

[42] Huxley and Huxley, Touchstone for Ethics, 117.

[43] Ibid., 120.

[44] Ibid., 124-125.

[45] Ibid., 125.


were there independent ethical standards? Certainly not in the sense of a set of absolute values, either current or, as in Spencer's judgment, defined by a future society. Instead standards have evolved in the course of human history and could now provide guidance.

In the broadest possible terms evolutionary ethics must be based on a combination of a few main principles: that it is right to realize ever new possibilities in evolution, notably those which are valued for their own sake; that it is right both to respect human individuality and to encourage its fullest development; that it is right to construct a mechanism for further social evolution which shall satisfy these prior conditions as fully, efficiently, and as rapidly as possible.[46]

Huxley expanded on some of the implications of his position.

When we look at evolution as a whole, we find, among the many directions which it has taken, one which is characterized by introducing the evolving world-stuff to progressively higher levels of organization and so to new possibilities of being, action, and experience. This direction has culminated in the attainment of a state where the world-stuff (now moulded into human shape) finds that it experiences some of the new possibilities as having value in or for themselves; and further that among these it assigns higher and lower degrees of value, the higher values being those which are more intrinsically or more permanently satisfying, or involve a greater degree of perfection.[47]

The direction of progress, then, was toward human fulfillment and the realization of things that humans judge to have value. The highest of these values were ones of "intrinsic worth." Society, therefore, should be structured so as to promote them. Huxley elaborated on what sort of society he believed would best realize these goals. It was one that respected the rights of its individuals, one that did not warp the structure of individual personalities, one that stressed education, fostered responsibility, encouraged the arts; that is, the liberal society that fellow humanists and progressive Christians envisioned.

Huxley's evolutionary ethics is interesting because it recognized the degree to which culture had gone beyond purely biological development. As a vision of reality, it must be considered on a par with other inspired dreams of reason of our century, like Teilhard

[46] Ibid., 136.

[47] Ibid., 136-137.


de Chardin's. Huxley's outpouring of essays, which rivaled his grandfather's in bulk, were read eagerly by many who appreciated the richness of modern evolutionary biology and who were searching for a synthesis that preserved traditional, Western liberal values. Huxley's scientific humanism attempted to liberate modern man from outmoded creeds and to be more complete than Marxism, existentialism, or liberal theology.

But it is not clear that he made any progress in resolving the numerous criticisms raised by Sidgwick and others to earlier systems of evolutionary ethics. Indeed, by tying his ethics to a cosmic scheme of progress, Huxley, like Spencer, risked having his argument dismissed without a fair hearing by those who regarded such speculative visions with disdain.

Critics of evolutionary ethics have traditionally focused on its lack of an adequate explanation of moral obligation, on both the individual and the group level. Huxley's move to a psychoanalytical account of moral obligation was similar to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century attempts to derive our notions of the moral sentiment from psychology. The problem with such strategies, as Sidgwick pointed out, was not the validity of the hypothesis but its relevance for ethics. Even Huxley admitted that the sense of moral obligation was no more than a psychological factor, which, to an important degree, needed to be mediated by the rational mind. Huxley noted that guilt, which was central to the Freudian interpretation of moral obligation, could be psychologically and morally damaging. For example, in his description of the Nazi mind, Huxley claimed that "an excess load of unrealistic guilt" led individuals to project their sense of unbearable condemnation onto Jewish scapegoats. "Most Nazis genuinely believe that Jews are a major source of evil; they can do so because they have projected the beastliness in their own souls into them. The terrible feature of such projection is that it can turn one's vices into virtues: thus, granted the Nazi believes the Jews are evil, it is his moral duty to indulge his repressed aggression in cruelty and violence towards them."[48]

The value of psychoanalysis lay in its ability to probe and resolve rationally the pathological mental state of individuals. How did Freudian explanations illuminate the ethical problem of moral

[48] Ibid., 123.


obligation? In Huxley's discussion, they provided an explanation of why humans might feel obligation, but they did not provide an ethical justification for those feelings. The new psychology, therefore, did not supply a solution to the problem Thomas Henry Huxley recognized in evolutionary accounts of the moral sentiment. Like earlier treatments of the moral sentiment that relied on "custom" for answering the philosophical question of why we "ought" to help our neighbor, Julian Huxley's extended psychological derivation failed to justify what it described.

Huxley's discussion of general ethical standards was no more successful. He argued for those actions, policies, and beliefs that furthered human progress. He measured human progress by the realization of values that were intrinsically worthy, the furthering of individual fulfillment, and the changing of society to promote social evolution. But these were very vague categories. What did intrinsically valuable mean? For Huxley they were obvious: aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual experiences. But aside from asserting their importance, Huxley did not attempt any justification of them. He was clear that they did not contribute to survival. Rather, they were the values of "high culture"; of considerable importance to a small fraction of the population and traditionally the yardstick by which they measured civilization. But they could, and have, been viewed differently: as the tools of repression, the products of vanity, commodities, and so on. Jerry Falwell, Jacques Derrida, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Allan Bloom, Václav Havel, Madonna, and Noam Chomsky (to name just a few) probably would have differed with Julian Huxley about the significance of high culture as well as what was "intrinsically valuable."

Similarly, the value of individual fulfillment and the social engineering to bring it about were values typifying Western, democratic, liberal thought. In Huxley's day, as in ours, it was not universally accepted, even in the West. And even if it were, the issue in ethics has not been consensus but justification.

Huxley's ethics was a projection of his values onto the history of man. In classic Whig fashion, he conceptualized the past as leading to what he valued in the present and posited the direction of future evolutionary progress from the same perspective. Sincere—and often inspired—as his rhetoric was, it ultimately depended on a shared commitment by his reader rather than logical arguments. Cosmic evolution and biological evolution were blind


processes, as Huxley described in numerous publications. And yet he demanded his reader accept the idea that this neutral universe had a direction and that man had an obligation (real, not merely psychological) to further its progress. He could do this by creating values and purpose, according to Huxley. But if man created these values and goals, how were we to be assured of their moral value? To project man's beliefs (the ones of which Huxley approved) onto the cosmos was to create a modern myth, and perhaps there is the key to Huxley's position.

From early in his career Huxley wanted to replace the Christian worldview with a scientific humanism. Huxley believed that the difference between his philosophy and religion was that religion was based on the hypothesis of the existence of a god, whereas his views were based on the scientific method. But what he actually proposed was the creation of a new myth, one dressed in the guise of evolutionary biology but nonetheless with an entire set of assumptions, values, and beliefs. Like many of the attempts since Comte to use science to go beyond religion but still maintain the sense of religious awe, Huxley's naturalism assumed the vision he pretended to discover.

7. Syntheses, Modern and Otherwise: 1918-1968

Preferred Citation: Farber, Paul Lawrence. The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics. Berkley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.