27 August 2015

Review: Evolution & Ethics by Thomas Henry Huxley

Hardcover, 131 pages
Published 2009 (originally 1893)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Evolution & Ethics by Thomas Henry Huxley

Some Victorians were really into the idea of a society run along evolutionary lines, and this is easy to criticize-- especially if that Victorian is Herbert Spencer-- but Thomas Henry Huxley laid out a more nuanced than most. To Huxley's credit is that though he wants science applied to human life (laid out more fully in his earlier essay "Science & Culture"), he doesn't appeal to "nature" as some kind of obvious model for human behavior. Rather he recognizes that things are more complicated than that; for example, in his declaration that "the 'points' of a good or bad citizen are really far harder to discern than those of a puppy or a short-horn calf" (23). And unlike Francis Galton, he doesn't believe in getting rid of the "unfit," because all humans have been unfit at some point! Huxley says that the very idea that humanity is evolving to perfection is a misleading illusion; even though evolution by natural selection is not teleological, a lot of people-- including actual evolutionary biologists!-- seem to often forget that and assume some kind of endgame. (Just today, actually, I was listening to an excellent Radiolab episode about an organism that challenges our typical teleological thinking in evolution.) Huxley's essay provides a nice warning against the legitimately dangerous kinds of eugenics thinking that would come in the early 20th century. It's no wonder that his student, H. G. Wells, published a number of novels that resisted evolutionary ethical justifications, most notably The War of the Worlds; it's also quite a shame that more people didn't listen to Huxley, and instead listened to hateful people like Galton.

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