T. H. Huxley: the evolution of post-Darwinian ethics

That which lies before the human race is a constant struggle to maintain and improve, in opposition to the State of Nature, the State of Art of an organized polity; in which, and by which, man may develop a worthy civilization, capable of maintaining and constantly improving itself.

Thomas Henry Huxley

T. H. Huxley was “Darwin’s bulldog,” tirelessly promoting the theory of evolution. However, there was one application of Darwin’s theory against which Huxley argued with equal force — social Darwinism.

The idea that the way to social perfection lay in unfettered personal, economic, and social competition was for Huxley a ruinously misapplied metaphor, a great fallacy which not only would not perfect society but surely would destroy it, at least in any form beneficial to more than the small group of fittest survivors.

Huxley made his case in a number of forums, but the best known survivors are his essay “Evolution and Ethics” (1893) and its explanatory “Prolegomena” (1894). Together, these essays forcefully present Huxley’s central objection to social Darwinism: that the same processes that lead to the improvement of plant and animal species lead to chaos and decline when applied to human societies.

Huxley is not fundamentally opposed to social engineering; rather, he writes, he does not trust that imperfect human leaders have the intelligence to apply the proper corrective, which he believes must include restricting population growth in order to avoid the kind of Malthusian collapse feared by so many Victorians (including both Huxley’s muse, Darwin, and his student, Wells).

In the “Prolegomena,” Huxley develops at great length the analogy of a garden, the maintenance of which requires constant intelligent struggle against the thoughtless forces of evolution and nature, which he calls “the cosmic process”:

The garden is in the same position as every other work of man’s art; it is a result of the cosmic process working through and by human energy and intelligence; and, as is the case with every other artificial thing set up in the state of nature, the influences of the latter, are constantly tending to break it down and destroy it.

The evolutionary process is entirely natural, but human societies are entirely artificial. The former knows no morality, while the latter can exist only within a moral framework. This fact, Huxley argues, makes utopian and passive ideals both naive and impractical. It is not likely that humanity will rise above the very traits and inclinations which led us to dominate this era of the cosmic process. These entirely human — and long-successful — characteristics must be recognized and restrained if society is to progress:

Since the cosmic process of evolution is amoral, there is no guarantee that good will win out over evil, that human society will thrive rather than fail. There is no guarantee — there is only the constant struggle of the gardener. …

Since law and morals are restraints upon the struggle for existence between men in society, the ethical process is in opposition to the principle of the cosmic process, and tends to the suppression of the qualities best fitted for success in that struggle.

In this way, we lay a veneer of morality over our baser natures and “we come to think in the acquired dialect of morals.” This moral struggle Huxley terms “the ethical process”:

That which lies before the human race is a constant struggle to maintain and improve, in opposition to the State of Nature, the State of Art of an organized polity; in which, and by which, man may develop a worthy civilization, capable of maintaining and constantly improving itself, until the evolution of our globe shall have entered so far upon its downward course that the cosmic process resumes its sway; and, once more, the State of Nature prevails over the surface of our planet.

In “Evolution and Ethics,” Huxley identifies the human qualities which served us so well in a primitive past and which threaten us so much in a social present:

For his successful progress, throughout the savage state, man has been largely indebted to those qualities which he shares with the ape and the tiger; his exceptional physical organization; his cunning, his sociability, his curiosity, and his imitativeness; his ruthless and ferocious destructiveness when his anger is roused by opposition. But, in proportion as men have passed from anarchy to social organization, and in proportion as civilization has grown in worth, these deeply ingrained serviceable qualities have become defects.

That Huxley believes this to be true lies at the heart of his opposition to social Darwinism, which lauds the “survival of the fittest” struggles for evolutionary growth as the best principles to apply to the growth and perfection of society. The fundamental flaw in this philosophy is the mistaken notion of unceasing growth, the wrong belief that evolution is a process by which successful species achieve a perfect state of unending and happy dominance. Huxley knows that there is no such process, and no such guarantee:

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.

Huxley argues that the conditions in which humanity first flourished have changed with the growth of civilization. Therefore, we need to alter our perception of what constitutes survival values:

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 to the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence.

Huxley is not naive enough to believe that society can be perfected, such that we can relax and enjoy the fruits of our perfect world forever. The cosmic struggle is relentless, and therefore so must be the moral struggle:

Moreover, the cosmic nature born with us and, to a large extent, necessary for our maintenance, is the outcome of millions of years of severe training, and it would be folly to imagine that a few centuries will suffice to subdue its masterfulness to purely ethical ends. Ethical nature may count upon having to reckon with a tenacious and powerful enemy as long as the world lasts.

Still, Huxley is guardedly optimistic:

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.

The idea that society must remain dynamic is echoed in Wells’s A Modern Utopia, which was reviewed here in December. The key is the struggle. Stop the struggle, and the weeds retake the garden, either through the cruel competitions of social Darwinism or the decay of a complacent utopia.


[This article is the second to come from readings for the SFU course,
The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells: Darwin, Decadence & the Macabre in the Late 19th C.]



2 thoughts on “T. H. Huxley: the evolution of post-Darwinian ethics

  1. This seems prescient for our times. Pinker struggles with the same issues in The Blank Slate. We have been given the functions of our brains by genetic evolution in a more primitive environment but must do our gardening in a complex greenhouse where mistakes can have huge consequences. We have seen that utopian attempts at design towards progress and control are disastrous and relying on primitive thinking lets things run riot. Muddling along hardly seems an option either.

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