Thomas Huxley and natural morality

My final nod to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s enlightening biography of Charles Darwin is another reference to his “bulldog”, Thomas Huxley. As I mentioned before his attraction to natural selection, more than perhaps any other of Darwin’s immediate circle, was primarily because of its ability to “make atheism respectable.” Like Thomas Nagel in our time, he didn’t want there to be a God.

By the late nineteenth century, even as scientific support for natural selection was, for the moment, beginning to unravel, the applications of evolutionary thinking to all areas of life were becoming well established. In no area was this more true than in “Social Darwinism”, broadly considered as the idea that the “is” of nature’s struggle provides the “ought” of morality. The outworking of this, even then, varied enormously, but though it inspired the “fittest race” mentality that was used to endorse racism and lead in part to the militaristic justification for the First World War, more often than not it was used to baptise the prevalent morality of “decency” in Victorian society. This, needless to say, was virtually indistinguishable from Protestant Christian standards.

It’s noticeable how prevalent today amongst materialists is a similar application of evolutionary explanations of altruism, and so on, to equally “decent” ethics, only now conveniently applied to the twenty-first century western liberal consensus. Exceptions to this include Richard Dawkins’ moral “system”, which is also broadly western and liberal (as far as Gnu atheism hasn’t reverted to anti-religious fascism), but clearly can’t find its whole justification in selfish genes, and is expressed in terms of some vague human ability to “rise above” genetics.

Maybe this is a faint echo of where Thomas Huxley arrived later in life. Himmelfarb quotes him thus:

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 … but of those who are ethically the best. … The ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.

For a staunch evolutionist, that is both surprising and perceptive, but it’s a measure of the strength of materialism that well over a century has passed in which world-changers like fascism, communism and the modern western morality of “doing what comes naturally” have completely ignored his cautionary words.

In the west, optimism about the intrinsic goodness of humanity has gone from strength to strength, in the persistent emphasis on emancipation from traditional moral restraints, the insistence on personal autonomy, the denial of actual evil  and the promotion of “alternative” moralities as more-than-equal to what came before. Nobody, even within the churches, has been very committed to “combating the cosmic process”.

Huxley, it is clear, came to see things completely differently from that, though the same voices that have now commandeered society were ringing loudly in his own day. A startling quotation appears just a couple of pages later in Himmelfarb:

The doctrines of predestination, of original sin, of the innate depravity of man and the evil fate of the greater part of the race, of the primacy of Satan in the world, of the essential vileness of matter, of malevolent Demiurgus subordinate to a benevolent Almighty, who has only lately revealed himself, faulty as they are, appear to me to be vastly nearer the truth than the “liberal” popular illusions that babies are all born good, and that the example of a corrupt society is reponsible for their failure to remain so; that it is given to everybody to reach the ethical ideal if he will only try; that all partial evil is universal good, and other optimistic figments…

Now Huxley, of course, coined the term “agnostic” for himself, rather than atheist. But for him it meant:

… not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle…Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.

And Lenin observed that “[i]n Huxley’s case… agnosticism serves as a fig-leaf for materialism.” For practical purposes, then, Huxley was an atheist who yet denied a naturalistic explanation for morality. The question, then, is firstly whether he was right in his critique, and secondly whether his alternative makes any sense. I would argue “yes” to the first. As to the second, it seems pretty clear that he was trying to smuggle non-materialism into a materialist system by the back door. He rightly predicted (in Os Guinness’s memorable phrase) the “striptease of humanism”, but failed to anticipate Nagel’s conclusion that “the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.”

The data for such a conclusion, however, has been rolling in ever since his time.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Thomas Huxley and natural morality

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    This is not the stuff we would find in todays classrooms and discussed by those who will rely on Darwin for their worldview. My recent exchanges with Lou at BioLogos made me think about his references to gods. The Christian faith (with that of the Jewish faith, and at a later state Islam) were the means by which ‘gods’ (idols) were removed from human awareness and culture. Yet we have arguments by atheists that amount to, “You lot believe in these gods”. Such mental gymnastics are breathtaking – but none come close to the odd view that Darwin’s ideas (and the study of monkeys, flowers, fossils etc.) will form a basis for us to understand what is good and bad, and how we may battle with our propensity to do evil.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    People like Huxley seem to have addressed the deep issues – I think their project has proven abortive and wrongheaded, but it was informed by a real knowldege of religion, of philosphy and so on.

    Nowadays, the average atheist apologist seems rather to live in a world of recycled platitudes, with a rather truncated appreciation of what it is to be human (did Lou really mean that 19th century line that we are “just a collection of molecules”??). Which is why I don’t any longer find it very helpful to engage them on such matters, usually. Somebody has coined the phrase “atheist dittoheads” – I can appreciate why!

    On the substantive issue, the God of Abraham did indeed de-deify, though not disenchant, nature – and Christianity spread that higher and more coherent view of reality across the world. Atheism, pursued consistently, does finally disenchant it and render it little more than a human resource. Fortunately most atheists are no more consistent regarding nature than they are regarding morality.

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