Julian Huxley, Evolution and Meaning

Sir Julian Huxley (1887–1975) was an English evolutionary biologist,  humanist and internationalist. He was a leading figure in the mid-twentieth century evolutionary synthesis which united Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics—one of the great scientific achievements of all time. Huxley hailed from one of the most famous intellectual families in English history. His brother was the celebrated writer Aldous Huxley; his half-brother a fellow biologist and Nobel laureate, Andrew Huxley; his father was the writer and editor Leonard Huxley; his paternal grandfather was the acclaimed writer and intellectual Thomas Henry Huxley, a friend and supporter of Charles Darwin; his maternal grandfather was the academic Tom Arnold; and his great-uncle the famous poet Matthew Arnold.

In his 1939 essay, “The Creed of a Scientific Humanist,” Huxley argues that much of our unhappiness derives from our asking unanswerable or ill-conceived questions, something philosophy, religion, and science often discover after much wasted effort. For example, asking what form of magic kills people is the wrong kind of question because nothing magical kills people. Similarly, asking who rules the universe is the wrong kind of question—all the scientific evidence points to it ruling itself, and besides, even if there were godlike rulers we could not know them. Gods have been created by humans from various elements of their experience; they are probably anthropomorphic idealizations without any basis in reality. As for the question of an immortal afterlife, it is irresolvable, and we waste time considering it. Real salvation is to be found in the possible harmony between ourselves and the external world. Huxley is not deterred by those who say repudiating god and immortality leaves life meaningless, pointing to Buddhists, agnostics, and Stoics as exemplars of individuals who have led noble and devoted lives without such beliefs.

According to Huxley science provides the best means of realizing meaning in the modern world. It explains forces that were once dark and mysterious; provides insights into our psychology; improves both us and our world; and reveals the vast immensity, history and future of the cosmos. From the scientific perspective we have reason to hope that the future will be better than the past, that we can expedite cultural evolution with our knowledge. Most importantly, “In man evolution could become conscious.”[i] While we have taken the first brief steps toward such consciousness, we should continue onward, as all of human history represents but the infancy of human potential. We should have faith is in life, in its potentially unlimited progress. Evolutionary biology thus has gives us a new view of human destiny. We are the protagonists of the evolutionary epic, agents of a process who can impose their principles to guide evolution. This is the purpose of our lives.

Man is that part of reality in which and through which the cosmic process has become conscious and has begun to comprehend itself. His supreme task is to increase that conscious comprehension and to apply it as fully as possible to guide the course of events. In other words, his role is to discover his destiny as an agent of the evolutionary process, in order to fulfill it more adequately.[ii]

Almost twenty years later in his 1957 book New Bottles for New Wine, Huxley presented a more complete account of cosmic evolution, akin to Teilhard’s, but without the religious overtones. He began with the now familiar idea that the universe becomes conscious of itself in human beings, given their awareness of the past history and possible future of that universe. Evolution is the history of the realization of new possibilities—the flight of birds; the social interaction of insects; the emergence of mind, intelligence, insight, and language; as well as self-conscious awareness of purpose. It is our duty to realize as many of these potentialities as possible or, as Huxley dramatically and insightfully puts it:

It is as if man had been suddenly appointed managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution—appointed without being asked if he wanted it, and without proper warning and preparation. What is more, he can’t refuse the job. Whether he wants to or not, whether he is conscious of what he is doing or not, he is in point of fact determining the future direction of evolution on this earth. That is his inescapable destiny, and the sooner he realizes it and starts believing in it, the better for all concerned.[iii]

The process of evolution began with inorganic/cosmic evolution, followed successively by organic/biological evolution, and now psychosocial/cultural evolution. As we have seen cosmic evolution proceeded excruciatingly slow, but pockets of increasingly complex matter gradually coalesce. Living matter arose which imperfectly copied itself, and from this material natural selection initiates a faster process of change, eventually producing the staggering complexity of animals. (A rabbit or a dog is an amazingly complex organization of matter.) In our species mind arose, possessing the power of language and conceptual thought, with the capability of transmitting behaviors, ideas, and values from one mind to another. We now spearhead the evolutionary process. We are its trustees.

Huxley saw his vision of evolution replacing traditional religious views of human destiny. While historically the function of religion has been to cope with human ignorance and fear, and to maintain social and spiritual stability, new belief systems must utilize our knowledge to guide and advance our development. Huxley suggests his new belief system is a type of religion.

The religion indicated by our new view of our position in the cosmos must be once centered on the idea of fulfillment. Man’s most sacred duty, and at the same time his most glorious opportunity, is to promote the maximum fulfillment of the evolutionary process on this earth; and this includes the fullest realization of his own inherent possibilities.[iv]

Huxley’s evolutionary humanism prescribes both our present fulfillment and the progressive realization of our potentialities. This leads to his exaltation of the scientific spirit. We find fulfillment in our duty to understand, accumulate, and organized knowledge. “Thus scientific research in all fields is essential, and its encouragement is one of the most important tasks of civilization.”[v]Moreover science has discovered that truth is provisional, with science progressing toward that truth. The provisional nature of science invokes humility, yet at the same time takes pride in the extraction of knowledge from the ignorance that long engulfed us—science is progressive although incomplete. Most importantly, evolutionary humanism gave meaning to Huxley’s life.

[Evolutionary humanism] has enabled me to see this strange universe into which we are born as a proper object both of awe and wondering love and of intellectual curiosity. More, it has made me realize that both my wonder and curiosity can be of significance and value in that universe. It has enabled me to relate my experiences of the world’s delights and satisfactions, and those of its horrors and its miseries to the idea of fulfillment, positive or negative. In the concept of increased realization of possibilities, it provides a common measuring rod for all kinds of directional processes, from the development of personal ethics to large-scale evolution, and gives solid ground for maintaining an affirmative attitude and faith, as against that insidious enemy … the spirit of negation and despair. It affirms the positive significance of effort and creative activity and enjoyment. In some ways most important of all, it has brought back intellectual speculation and spiritual aspiration out of the abstract and isolated spheres they once seemed to me to inhabit, to a meaningful place in concrete reality; and so has restored my sense of unity with nature.[vi]


[i] Julian Huxley, “The Creed of a Scientific Humanist” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000, 81.

[ii] Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation, (London: Max Parrish, 1959), 236.

[iii] Julian Huxley, New Bottles for New Wine (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 13-14.

[iv] Huxley, Religion without Revelation, 293.

[v] Huxley, Religion without Revelation, 304.

[vi] Huxley, Religion without Revelation, 310-11.

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