International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Evolutionary Humanism

by Julian Huxley

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

Julian Huxley, the grandson of Darwin’s “bulldog” Thomas Henry Huxley and the older brother of the novelist Aldous Huxley, was one of the leading evolutionists in the first half of the twentieth century. His Evolution: The Modern Synthesis was the day’s definitive statement of neo-Darwinism, the combination of Charles Darwin’s natural selection and Gregor Mendel’s theory of heredity, genetics. Julian Huxley was also an ardent evolutionary naturalist, eager to use science to build a world picture, one that could lead to understanding and directives for moral action, and that could replace what he regarded as an exhausted Christian religion.

This stimulating collection of essays (first published in 1964) brings together many of Huxley’s seminal pieces in which he articulates and justifies his secular religious stance. It begins gently with a piece (“The emergence of Darwinism”) that introduces us to the background science, but moves quickly to the central doctrine in his world picture, progress. Many argue that the essential point in a selection-based vision of life’s history is that there can be no better or worse. What succeeds in one situation may well be fatal in another. In “Higher and lower” Huxley takes strong issue with this kind of thinking, arguing that it is just silly to hold that humans are no more worthy than other organisms. Would we say that a dog is no more than his fleas? It is interesting to note that Huxley turns to Darwin’s countryman Herbert Spencer – a very strong booster of progress – rather than to the author of the Origin of Species for insights into how one might articulate notions of organization and use these to show overall evolutionary improvement.

Through his long life, Huxley was dedicated to education. He was director of the London Zoo and did much to bring in children and to teach them about the living world. He was also the first director of UNESCO – it was he who insisted that the organization include science. “Education and humanism” and other essays in the collection demonstrate this concern. The emphasis is on the positive, teaching science and technology, teaching a love of inquiry both for its own sake as well as for its pragmatic payoffs. At the same time, and here we hear echoes of life in the 1930’s, we must stress the unity of humankind and the falsity of notions that put one race or people above others. For Huxely, this is as much bad science as it is immoral.

In the final essays, Huxley expresses his concerns about social issues like overpopulation. “Eugenics in evolutionary perspective,” is surely the most controversial and the one that will most trouble the modern reader. By and large, most today are prepared to accept a modicum of negative eugenics (using the techniques of modern genetics to ferret out and prevent horrendous biological defects) But positive eugenics, trying to use biology to build a better species, strikes most as horrendous. Huxley, however, endorses this idea, leaving the reader to question whether he is bravely going where few dare follow or simply showing the hubris of his age and class, believing that all we need to solve life’s problems is a little more science, properly applied, by the right people.