Daily Archives: February 24, 2014

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 idealisations 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]

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[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.

Summary of Jacques Monod’s “Chance and Necessity”

Jacques Monod nobel.jpg

Jacques Monod (1910 – 1976) was a French biologist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965 for his discoveries in molecular biology. His classic book Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (1971) is an antipode to Teilhard’s The Phenomena of Man, as well as other versions of progressivism.

According to Monod, our early ancestors did not feel themselves strangers in the world amongst plants that grew and died, and animals that ate, fought, protected their young and died. Instead, they saw things like themselves whose purpose was to survive and produce progeny. They also saw rivers, mountains, oceans, lighting, rain, and stars in the sky, assuming no doubt that these objects had purposes too. If humans have purposes, nature must too—and with that single thought animism was born, nature and humans were connected.

However, modern science largely severed this connection, whereas Teilhard tried to revive it, placing him squarely in the company of thinkers trying to restore the connection between human and nature’s purposes. Hegel’s grand system, Spencer’s evolutionism, and Marx and Engels’ dialectical materialism all insert meaning and purpose into purposeless evolution. The cost though is abandoning objectivity, for chance is the source of innovation in biology. In Monod’s famous words:

Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypothesis. It is today the sole hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the supposition—or the hope—that on this score our position is likely ever to be revised.[i]

For Monod chance destroys both teleology and anthropocentrism. Errors in the replication of the genetic messages—genetic mutations—are essentially random. The process is explicitly non-teleological—they are not goal seeking processes initiated and controlled by rational entities. (Still, Monod does invoke the softer term teleonomy—goal-oriented structures and functions that derive from evolutionary history without guiding foresight.) As for anthropocentrism, we were not destined to be, we are accidents. “The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game. Is it any wonder if, like the person who has just made a million at the casino, we feel strange and a little unreal?”[ii]We are neither the goal nor the center of creation.

So we seem lost, but we didn’t always feel this way. For eons of time, humans survived in groups with the cohesive social structures necessary for survival, leading to the acceptance of tribal laws and the mythological explanations that gave them sovereignty. From such people,

 …we have probably inherited our need for an explanation, the profound disquiet which goads us to search out the meaning of existence. That same disquiet has created all the myths, all the religions, all the philosophies, and science itself. That this imperious need develops spontaneously, that it is inborn, inscribed somewhere in the genetic code, strikes me as beyond doubt.[iii]

Human social institutions have both a cultural and biological basis, with religious phenomena invariably at the base of social structures to assuage human anxiety with narratives, stories, and histories of past events. Given our innate need for explanation, the absence of one begets existential angst, alleviated only by assigning humans a proper place in a soothing story of a meaningful cosmos. But just a few hundred years ago science offered a new model of objective knowledge as the sole source of truth.

It wrote an end to the ancient covenant between man and nature, leaving nothing in place of the precious bond but an anxious quest in a frozen universe of solitude. With nothing to recommend it but a certain puritan arrogance, how could such an idea win acceptance? It did not; it still has not. It has however commanded recognition; but that is because, solely because, of its prodigious power of performance.[iv]

Science undermines the ancient stories as well as the values that were derived from them, leaving us with an ethic of knowledge. Unlike animistic ethics, which claim knowledge of innate, natural, or religious law, an ethics of knowledge is self-imposed. An ethic of knowledge created the modern world—through its technological applications—and it is the only thing that can save the world. Our knowledge has banished cosmic meaning, yet it might also be our redemption. He concludes: “The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.”[v]


Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology

[i] Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (New York: Vintage, 1972), 112.
[ii] Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, 145.
[iii] Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, 167.
[iv] Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, 169.
[v] Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, 180.