Can we develop an evolutionary ethics? Can we derive an Ought from the Is of natural processes? People have certainly tried.
The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus was the prophet of evolutionary theory (his Essay on Population inspired both Darwin and Russell Wallace to arrive at their theories). Malthus observed the natural law of population working on all animals, including humans, and suggested this natural law produced higher more virtuous types, capable of insight and self-control, while killing off lesser types. His philosophy was a biological morality:
the various impressions and excitements which man receives through life may be considered as the forming hand of his Creator, acting by general laws, and awakening his sluggish existence, by the animating touches of the Divinity, into a capacity of superior enjoyment.
Darwin himself presented a somewhat moralized vision of nature as dynamic process, in which ‘higher’ or ‘superior’ species out-competed and replaced inferior species — he thought European imperialism and the domination and eradication of other races was an example of this evolutionary progress. At other times he was much more ambivalent about whether evolution led to biological or moral ‘progress’ — ‘Never say ‘higher’ or ‘lower’’ he tells himself in one note.
His friends and successors were more ready to develop moralized visions of evolution. Herbert Spencer, especially, suggested societies could be ordered to encourage competition and enable the ‘survival of the fittest’, a philosophy which proved popular with America’s oligarch class.
Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton thought ‘fittest’ meant ‘most intelligent’, and he developed an evolutionary religion — eugenics — in which scientists intervene in the evolutionary process to encourage the smartest to breed more, while sterilizing the less smart. And Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s faithful public defender, went from seeing nature as a moral teacher to, by the end of his life, seeing it as an amoral force which we should resist.
In the early 20th century, the philosopher GE Moore mocked such attempts to create an evolutionary ethics. In his Principia Ethica (1902), Moore wrote that Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinist philosophy suffered from the naturalistic fallacy, i.e it observed some data in the natural world, and then declared it good. Monkeys rape each other, therefore that is good. Praying mantises devour their sexual partners, therefore that is good. Aztecs sacrifice humans and cut out their hearts, therefore that is good.
And yet, the idea there is a total separation between the world of nature and our moral capacity is also not very satisfactory.
By the 1920s, thinkers were again attempting to articulate an evolutionary ethics. Julian Huxley, the grandson of TH Huxley, developed a philosophy which he initially called ‘evolutionary humanism’ and later termed ‘transhumanism’, which he thought would eventually take over the world.
Julian’s religious evolution
Julian was a shy child, who loved to escape into nature and observe wildlife. But a great deal was expected of him as a Huxley. He grew up, he said, with an inferiority complex in relation to his famous grandfather. He got a scholarship to Eton, went to Oxford, and started a career as an academic biologist, but then suffered a nervous breakdown. He felt, he said, like a house divided against itself. Worst of all, he felt cut off from nature, which had previously been his solace.
He emerged from this hellish and suicidal phase with a new feeling of unity, integration, and re-connection to nature. He came across a quote by the scientist Lord Morley: ‘The next great task of science will be to create a religion for humanity’.
I was fired by sharing his conviction that science would of necessity play an essential part in framing any religion of the future worthy the name…I was aiming at a harmony which, although only vaguely perceived, I yet felt must exist and, if it existed, and could be found, would not only being satisfaction to myself, but might save others from some of the conflicts and pains which I had been through.
He left his academic career and became the leading public scientist of his generation — he co-founded the Brains Trust, the most popular radio programme during WW2, and won an Oscar for a short film, ‘The Private Life of Gannets’. But in fact, like Richard Dawkins, he was more of a religious prophet than a public scientist. He was the first president of the British Humanist Association, and he spoke and wrote far more on his religion of ‘evolutionary humanism’ than on the latest scientific research.
What did he mean by ‘evolutionary humanism’? Firstly, he rejected as incredible any religion involving gods or supernatural beings. He thought the idea of a personal deity was obviously absurd but also dismissed the idea of God as the Absolute or ‘ground of being’, which his brother Aldous defended in the 1930s and 1940s.
And yet Julian himself is something of a panpsychic or pantheist. He insisted the universe, both mind and matter, was made of one substance, which he called ‘world-stuff’ (a phrase he borrowed from William James).
Evolution is the dynamic development of this world-stuff into various forms. Julian thought there was a direction in evolution towards greater complexity, and also towards greater actualization of world-stuff’s mental potential. He wrote:
Through sense organs and brains, the mind-like potentialities of the world-stuff have been progressively intensified and actualised…
Once a certain level of mental development has evolved in animals, a new phase of evolution begins — not just the biological evolution of genes and phenotypes, but psycho-social evolution, cultural evolution, the development of new rituals, new ideas, new modes of thinking and behaving. What Richard Dawkins would call ‘memes’.
The Otter Potential Movement
Obviously, this cultural evolution has been particularly intense in humans over the last 10,000 years, but Julian thought he could observe it in other animals as well. They learn new behaviours, like the blue tits who learned how to open milk bottles, or the monkeys who learn how to use tools. This emphasis on cultural evolution reminds me a little of Sheldrake’s idea of ‘morpho-genetic fields’ — Julian was also a believer in telepathy and I wonder if he thought new forms could spread telepathically.
He is at his most likeable when he is a naturalist, observing nature at play:
One of the most interesting phenomena of biology is the appearance during evolution of activities which are enjoyed for their own sake. Anybody who has ever watched birds closely will know that a number of species indulge in acrobatic “flight games”, which they enjoy just as the human species enjoys skiing or skating. Adelie Penguins…indulge in ‘joyrides’ on ice-floes drifting past their rookery in the current, and will swim back to repeat the ride on another floe. Otters even invent sports: after a snowfall they will run over the crest of a little rise, then turn on their backs and enjoy an inverted slide down the slope.
He called this development of new modes of behaviour ‘animal potentialities’. This was in 1954, about four years before his brother Aldous started talking and writing about the evolution of ‘human potentialities’. Otters were there first. You can see that Aldous’ vision of human potential was actually inspired by his brother. Here is Julian writing in his 1951 essay ‘Transhumanism’:
A vast New World of uncharted possibilities awaits its Columbus…We need to explore and map the whole realm of human possibility, as the realm of physical geography has been explored and mapped. How to create new possibilities for ordinary living? What can be done to bring out the latent capacities of the ordinary man and woman for understanding and enjoyment; to teach people the techniques of achieving spiritual experience (after all, one can acquire the technique of dancing or tennis, so why not of mystical ecstasy or spiritual peace), to develop native talent and intelligence in the growing child, instead frustrating or distorting them?
Three years later, Aldous would publish Doors of Perception, in which he described himself as a heroic explorer penetrating deep into the New World of the subconscious. Subsequently, Aldous evolved from a position of deep pessimism about humanity, to a much sunnier view, where he thought humans were evolving new mental and spiritual potentialities, thanks to the mass popularisation of techniques like therapy, meditation and psychedelics. This vision was taken up by the Sixties counter culture, by places like Esalen. But it was the terminally unhip Julian who first articulated this vision, and passed it on to his younger brother.
By the end of the 1950s, the two brothers were singing from the same hymn sheet. Julian was laying out a vision for evolutionary humanism and the ‘fulfilment society’, while Aldous was preaching a ‘tantric Darwinism’ and a society of self-actualized beings.
From man to superman
For both, it was quite an elitist Nietzschean vision of humans (or some humans) evolving into superbeings. Julian doesn’t directly discuss Nietzsche at any length, but his Modernist generation were deeply influenced by the German philosopher, and Julian’s transhumanist vision, in which humanity transcends itself, seems partly inspired by Nietzsche’s idea of the superman (‘man is something to be overcome’). Julian called his evolutionary humanism a ‘transvaluation of values’, referring to Nietzsche’s phrase.
Both Huxley brothers thought cultural evolution happens through sudden leaps forward, thanks to geniuses. This could be a ‘genius blue-tit’, who suddenly decides to peck their way through a milk bottle top. Or it could be a scientist like Darwin, or an artist like David Bowie, who develops new cultural forms and inspires endless imitation in fans and other artists, as Bowie inspired a generation of New Romantics (watch this great documentary on that).
Julian imagined humans evolving into transhumans, or superhumans. He writes:
there is no inherent reason why the average of the best present human minds should represent the limit of possibility… mind could be developed by selection to a pitch which would bring its owners to the same height of incomprehensibility to us at our present level, as it our present level to the cats and dogs who sit by the fire and hear us talking, but cannot comprehend.
He thought a ‘select few’ were chosen — by evolution, no less — to direct humans’ evolution into superhumans. He wrote:
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.
Humans are evolution becoming conscious of itself, he declared. It is a mystical vision, and sometimes he imagines the voice, or voices, of evolution giving him moral orders:
The facts of evolution, once clearly perceived, indicate the position we men should take up and the function we are called on to perform in the universe. ‘Stand there’, they say, ‘and do thus and thus’. If we neglect to do as they order, we not only do so at our peril but are guilty of a dereliction of our cosmic duty.
This sense of cosmic mission must have been inflated when, at the end of World War 2, Julian was abruptly asked to be the first president of UNESCO, the new global body in charge of culture and education. He immediately wrote a manifesto imagining UNESCO as the vehicle to spread his religion of evolutionary humanism. The world population was expanding too fast, he warned, and this was destroying the ecosystem and debasing average human IQ, as the stupidest people were outbreeding the smartest. UNESCO would spread the gospel of scientific planning, birth control and eugenics. His manifesto so startled American fundamentalists, they tried to block his appointment, and made sure he only held the UNESCO job for two years. But he kept on preaching eugenics, population control and environmentalism the rest of his life — evolution had appointed him, after all!
Today, evolutionary humanism and transhumanism haven’t quite become the dominant global religion, but they are still influential and will perhaps become more so as genetic medicine transforms our lives.
Sam Harris, for example, has developed an evolutionary ethics which sees all beings experimenting with new forms of self-actualization, leading to a ‘moral landscape’ of various peaks of flourishing. Robert Wright has suggested evolution tends towards non-zero cooperation and that Buddhism is the most evolved religion. Others espouse ‘evolutionary spirituality’ or ‘conscious evolution’ — there was recently a hippy ‘evolutionary festival’. Many psychonauts embrace an evolutionary mysticism, in which psychedelics enable us to encounter and channel the awesome intelligence of nature. Here, for example, is James Oroc, in his 2018 book The New Psychedelic Revolution:
we are the sharpened spearhead of humanity, we are the ones who have had what the psychologist Abraham Maslow describes as the ‘absolute peak experience’, which he believed was the ultimate achievement of being human, and something that occurs only for a tiny fraction of the human population. We are the 5% who have to help humanity move into its next phase, the recognition of our own divine origins…
Does evolutionary ethics make sense?
Julian’s fellow scientists were generally rather embarrassed by his moralising of evolution. The biologist Sir Peter Medawar, for example, criticized Julian’s suggestion that evolution naturally tends to moral progress, or that one can speak of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ forms in nature. Evolution simply leads to the adaptation of species to their environment — whatever breeds more is ‘fitter’, at least for a while.
Personally, I quite like Julian’s vision of this fiery ball of ‘world-stuff’ or ‘mind-stuff’ constantly forging new forms and new experiments in fulfilment, some of which will catch on, some of which will immediately fade away. It’s not a million miles from virtue ethics theories like Stoicism, in which the divine intelligence of nature leads to higher forms, or to the pragmatism of William James, or the individualism of John Stuart Mill with his ‘experiments in living’.
The tricky thing is that so many different philosophers claim the sanction of nature for their ethics — Marxists, anarchists, nationalists, cosmopolitans, racists, pacificists, Buddhists, New Agers and neoliberals have all, during the last century, claimed their ethical and political philosophies are somehow more ‘evolutionary’ than everyone else’s.
Does cultural evolution definitely progress? The furnace of cultural evolution throws out countless forms, but some very bad ideas can last a very long time. Julian himself writes:
Evolution on the human level, although it has been operating for the barest fraction of geological time, has already produced very extraordinary new results, impossible even to conceive of on the biological level — for example, Dante’s Divina Commedia, guided missiles, Picasso’s Guernica, Einstein’s theory of relatively, ritual cannibalism, the Parthenon, the Roman Catholic church, the films of the Marx brothers, modern textile mills, Belsen, and the mystical experiences and the Buddhist saints.
I find that I broadly agree with the possibility Julian Huxley, and more recently Sam Harris, have articulated — we could develop an evolutionary ethics of flourishing, in which humans explore different cultural models of flourishing, and try to assess the results, using every method at their disposal including empirical evidence. I do feel that natural processes tend towards systems of greater connectedness and intelligence (I’m not a biologist, so I may well be wrong).
But we should be humble about how precise such an ethics could be. There is a limit to which science can measure moral qualities like goodness or courage, not to mention ‘closeness to God’. Any evolutionary ethics needs a very strong dose of ‘agnosticism’ (a word coined by Thomas Huxley). We should be very careful before we assume we know what evolution ‘wants’, or that we are the appointed agents of its advance. Evolutionary ethics is prone to exactly the same human frailties as other forms of religion — over-certainty, spiritual inflation, contempt for those who think differently, and a willingness to sacrifice human beings on the altar of your ideals. More humans were killed for the ‘good of the species’ in the 20th century than for God.
With regard to the risk of elitism or superbeing-worship, an evolutionary ethics should recognize that culture evolves not through the creations of superbeings who tower above us, but more through what Brian Eno called ‘scenius’ — the network of creative individuals and audiences inspiring each other and fostering new forms. Bowie did not simply summon new forms out of nothingness. Artists and scientists collaborate, copy and steal. And — as Julian and Aldous sometimes insisted — the more diverse a species, the richer the cultural ecosystem. We should not impose one ideal on the human race and it would be disastrous if consumer genomics led to standardization.
Finally, nature is far more creative and powerful than we are. For decades, Julian imagined himself as the appointed agent of evolution, steering its course like a child steering a toy car. All his work to promote eugenics and prevent the intellectual degeneration of humanity achieved precisely nothing. Instead, all that time, human IQ was not sinking lower and lower, as the eugenicists predicted. It was rising all the time! Nature is in control. Leonardo da Vinci wrote: “Human ingenuity will never devise any inventions more beautiful, nor more simple, nor more to the purpose than Nature does.”