Evolution & Ethics

29 04 2010

In 1893, Thomas Henry Huxley gave the second ever Romanes Lecture at Oxford University. It was entitled ‘Evolution & Ethics’. In this lecture, delivered in some of the finest of 19th century prose, Huxley presented one of the most clear rebukes given then and since against the coarse injection of evolution into ethics. Even though I’m of the belief that evolution is central to a complete understanding of morality, Huxley’s arguments still stand, and I hold them in the highest regard. Here are a few snippets with which anyone interested in the intersection of evolution and ethics should be familiar:

“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 murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and 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 that 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, 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 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.”

“Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.”

“As I have already urged, the practice of that which is ethically best – what we call goodness or virtue – involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as tho the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live. Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community, to the protection and influence of which he owes, if not existence itself, at least the life of something better than a brutal savage.”

“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.”

And one final note: Huxley was not only a great biologist, natural philosopher and defender of evolution, but he was one of the rare English thinkers of his time to give great credence to Eastern thinkers. Here is just one insightful passage from Evolution and Ethics that hints at his surprisingly nuanced view of Indian philosophy, and at his ability to weave that into a distinctly English narrative:

“The earlier forms of Indian philosophy agreed with those prevalent in our own times, in supposing the existence of a permanent reality, or ‘substance,’ beneath the shifting series of phenomena, whether of matter or of mind. The substance of the cosmos was ‘Brahma’, that of the individual man ‘Atman’; and the latter was separated from the former only, if I may so speak, but its phenomenal envelope, by the casing of sensations, thoughts and desires, pleasures and pains, which make up the illusive phantasmagoria of life. This the ignorant take for reality; their ‘Atman’ therefore remains eternally imprisoned in delusions, bound by the fetters if desire and scourged by the whip of misery. But the man who has attained enlightenment sees that the apparent reality is mere illusion, or, as was said a couple of thousand years later, that there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”



2 responses

12 05 2010

Thanks for pulling out the important pieces of Huxley’s Lecture.

I often wonder how to best make moral deductions from evolution; this is helpful.

Also, I think it is interesting that someone realized that eugenics and genocide do not necessarily follow from evolution in the 19th century–25 years before Mein Kampf no doubt.

My only question would be about how he “the ethical progress of society” depends on “combating” natural selection (or survival of the fittest)? This seems to have an inherent premise, namely that the progress of society depends upon the highest aggregate survival rate. I am not sure such a premise is reliable.

12 05 2010
Tim Dean

Hi Nick,

My take is that, by ‘ethical progress of society’, Huxley is strongly influenced by the Indian philosophy he refers to throughout most of the lecture. Both Buddhism and Hinduism say that good and evil are both built in to the world: so the world, or life, or the ‘cosmic process, is not intrinsically good. Buddhism has the first of the noble truths, that life is suffering. Hinduism has creation, maintenance and change/destruction as the three fundamental forces of the world.

Huxley’s criticism of the early evolutionary ethicists is that they see nature as being intrinsically good – i.e. something we should seek to emulate and imitate. Huxley’s point is that nature can lead to pleasure or suffering, so simply ‘imitating’ it is not the ethical thing to do. But we also need to understand the source of good and evil, which means understanding the cosmic process, i.e. not ‘running away’ from it. And once we’ve understood the source of evil, then we can ‘combat’ it.

At least, that’s my take on it.

What I find particularly fascinating about Huxley is that there are actually strong ‘western’ arguments against evolutionary ethics (is/ought fallacy, rejection of teleological nature of evolution etc) – and many only read the last few pages of Huxley and assume he’s referring to those. But, in fact, he’s arrived at his conclusion from Indian philosophy. Although I don’t think that makes his point any weaker – in fact, I think it only reinforces its strength.

On the survival-as-a-value issue, I think that’s a fascinating one. I don’t think Huxley argues it explicitly, but I do think survival is taken as an implicit premise or value in many moral systems – if not highest survival rate, then survival in general.

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