RESURRECTING HUMAN EXCEPTIONALISM IN THE GUISE OF SCIENCE
An essay written by Professor Steve Fuller, published exclusively here
That which we were looking for, and could not find, was a hypothesis respecting the origin of known organic forms which assumed the operation of no causes but such as could be proved to be actually at work… The ‘Origin’ provided us with the working hypothesis we sought. Moreover, it did the immense service of freeing us forever from the dilemma — refuse to accept the creation hypothesis, and what have you to propose that can be accepted by any cautious reasoner?
T.H. Huxley, ‘On the Reception of the Origin of Species’
This is the famous passage in which Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, explains how he became a convert to evolution. And he became a ‘convert’ in the strong sense worthy of St Paul or St Augustine. He reoriented his life in his mid-30s from scientific research to publicizing and defending evolution. But interestingly, Huxley was never fully satisfied by Darwin’s claim that natural selection was the final court of appeal on matters of life and death — at least of humans. Indeed, he seemed to think that humanity’s species distinctiveness lay in resisting and at least temporarily overcoming natural selection. Huxley’s lingering misgiving about Darwin’s diminished view of humanity — rendering us literally equal to the other animals under the eyes of natural selection — would be a theme that runs through his successor generations, especially Thomas Henry’s grandchildren.
So what exactly bothered Huxley about creationism that drew him to evolution in the first place? The above quote, taken from a memoir of Darwin’s life, provides the answer — but it should be read without the spin subsequently put on it by evolutionists. Evolutionists normally regard Huxley’s conversion to their cause as predicated on a wholesale scepticism of creationism’s claims. Yet this fails to account for why Huxley scrupulously distinguished his own self-branded ‘agnosticism’ from ‘atheism’ even after his conversion to Darwin’s cause. Indeed, he declared himself a ‘seeker’, very much in the manner of his younger contemporary, the American philosopher William James. Both continued to try to find empirical access to the transcendent, be it in sacred scriptures (Huxley) or psychology experiments (James). To be sure, both went to their deaths without ever finding answers that fully satisfied them. The phrase ‘truth-seeking’ continues to pay homage to their sensibility.
In the case of Huxley’s problems with creationism, they were quite specific — and Darwin’s theory only partially addressed them. The key phrase in our opening quote is ‘proved to be actually at work’. Huxley’s biggest objection to creationism as presented in his day was its mystery-mongering about how nature could be as well designed as creationists claimed without explaining how God managed to pull it off. More to the point, whenever creationists came close to approaching this question, they recoiled from scientific investigation and reverted to a reading of the Bible that shielded it from scientific scrutiny. Huxley was so bothered by this move because creationists had been among the foremost contributors to our understanding of natural history, all along being guided by a design-based perspective. Georges Cuvier, Louis Agassiz and Richard Owen were all eminent scientists in Huxley’s youth and even today are regarded as distinguished contributors to natural history, notwithstanding their creationism. Yet, the creationists pulled their punches when it came to specifying the divine agent’s modus operandi.
For today’s evolution-leaning audience, this would be a convenient way to end the story. However, Huxley thought that creationists might be on to something — but it would require science to vindicate it. Here it is worth recalling that Darwin and other pioneering nineteenth century British scientific thinkers, ranging from Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage and George Boole to John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, were formally recognized as ‘dissenters’ vis-à-vis Christianity. In other words, they refused the authority of the Church of England on spiritual matters, preferring to go their own way, without embracing any other church or — or, for that matter, atheism. The popular uptake of Huxley’s coinage of ‘agnosticism’ should be seen as normalizing this pre-existing dissenting culture, which kept open the prospect of an alternative path to the divine mind, should one be found.
What all these agnostics retained from the Bible was something of its ‘prophetic’ character, namely, that it speaks not only to its original audience but potentially to times and places. But that message cannot be redeemed simply by staying faithful to the sacred book, which after all is a patchwork of texts that were compiled to shore up emergent clerical authorities. This basic point about the obliqueness and even unreliability of the Biblical message in its normal presentation had been central to the so-called ‘critical-historical theology’ prevalent in the nineteenth century, which influenced a host of secular thinkers from Karl Marx to Ernst Mach, and was the general stance taken by the dissenting culture of which Huxley was a part (Gregory 1992). Their overarching point was that taking the Bible ‘seriously’ today requires doing something other than what its original writers and readers did.
Here St Augustine provided a guide, as he had done in early modern Europe, when a revival of his works fuelled both the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, very often by the same people operating in the same spirit (Harrison 2007). The most influential doctrines of Augustine’s reading of the first book of the Bible — Genesis — were the counterpoint of imago dei and peccatum originis: Humanity is born in the image of God yet we remain tainted by Adam’s ‘Original Sin’, notwithstanding the mission of Jesus — let alone the ministrations of any self-appointed ‘church’. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the ‘church’ in question was based in Rome. However, starting in the second half of the eighteenth century — the period of the European Enlightenment — the anti-establishment sensibility spawned by the Reformation was turned on Protestantism itself. At this point, ‘dissent’, ‘criticism’, ‘non-conformism’ and ‘free thinking’ took root within Christendom. Scientific inquiry was increasingly invoked as expressing the requisite openness to the Bible’s prophetic voice. Science boldly questioned established authority’s poor reflection on our divine heritage, while acknowledging the task ahead to overcome the comprehensive liabilities of our animal natures; hence, the demonization of priests and valorization of scientists.
This helps to explain Huxley’s disdain for Bishop Samuel Wilberforce’s emollience in their iconic 1860 Oxford debate. Whereas Wilberforce saw himself as a ‘modern’ Anglican cleric whose manner was more that of a one-nation Tory politician than a sectarian Catholic priest, Huxley still saw him as trading on that earlier priestly image on matters about which Wilberforce, himself a Fellow of the Royal Society, should have known better. If we imagine Huxley as a counter-theologian, Wilberforce’s sin was that of hypocrisy. But his hypocrisy did not lie in his failure to admit that Darwin’s account of the ‘descent of man’ was accurate and exhaustive. After all, Huxley had his own doubts. Rather, Wilberforce’s hypocrisy lay in his attempt to pre-empt any further inquiry into the matter by appealing to the ‘common sense’ of his audience, as if that could settle the question of whether humans could have emerged from apes. Huxley’s point — a largely moral one — was that humanity is unlikely to rise above its fallen state if thought-leaders such as Wilberforce simply reinforced popular prejudice on matters of such existential import as the nature of humanity.
It is easy to see how this experience lay the foundation for Huxley’s lifelong promotion of science education as a replacement for religious education. His sense of righteous indignation is still present in Richard Dawkins and his self-styled ‘New Atheists’. However, they go much further than Huxley by suggesting that early religious training should be terminated as a form of child abuse! On the contrary, at the end of his life, Huxley wondered how the grand ambitions of science and technology, which resulted in the dawn of a new globalized age, would be sustained in the twentieth century, as people integrated Darwin’s account of the human condition into their self-understanding. In his 1893 Romanes Lecture, ‘Evolution and Ethics’, Huxley keenly recognized that Darwin’s vision of all species appearing equal in the eyes of natural selection was diametrically opposed to the divine privilege accorded to humanity in the Abrahamic religions, even after the fall, which had driven much of this glorious science and technology down to his own late Victorian times.
Here Huxley broke decisively with his fellow evolutionist Herbert Spencer, who agreed with Darwin that nature places absolute limits on human progress and that all large-scale attempts to reverse the workings of natural selection in the name of ameliorating the human condition were bound to fail and perhaps even add to our species misery. For this reason, and contrary to popular perception, Spencer’s brand of ‘Social Darwinism’ was against all forms of state intervention, including eugenics and imperialism, both of which Huxley supported. For Spencer, ‘survival of the fittest’ was not a policy to be promoted but a brute fact to be recognized. Huxley could not disagree more with that assessment. For him, humanity’s distinctiveness lies in our species ability to ‘overcome’ natural selection by increasing our capacity to prescribe our own selection conditions. Practically speaking, Huxley was celebrating the modern liberal professions. He cites law, medicine and engineering as responsible for, in Dawkins’ terms, ‘extending the phenotype’, enabling humanity to decide on our own terms — not nature’s — who lives and how they shall live.
Were he in our midst today, Huxley could easily accept the popular geological concept of the ‘Anthropocene’, which assigns to humans primary responsibility for changes in the Earth’s climate since the Industrial Revolution. However, he would not necessarily regard it as a threat to our species survival. Rather, he would see it as more evidence for humanity’s ‘counter-selectionist’ modus operandi as a species. Without being so naïve as to presume humanity’s indefinite longevity, he would probably take it as just one more challenge to our ingenuity — a test of our species exceptionalism. And by continuing to stand up to nature’s trials, we gradually rise above our fallen animal condition to take increasing control of both our own fate and that of the planet, if not beyond. In this way, science and technology slowly but surely redeem the salvation promises of the Abrahamic religions.
Huxley’s horizon was most clearly pursued by his eldest grandson, Julian, who is nowadays normally seen as a ‘statesman of science’, perhaps most notably as UNESCO’s first scientific director. Nevertheless, Julian’s research contribution was hardly negligible. He provided the first British version of the modern evolutionary synthesis, whereby Darwin’s account of natural history was wedded to Mendelian lab-based genetics. Interestingly, this achievement had been adumbrated in a series of popular books on the ‘science of life’ in 1920s and ’30s that Julian co-authored with one of his grandfather’s students, H.G. Wells (Olby 1992). In the style of that great futurist, the series focused on a variety of emerging sciences — including both Pavlov and Jung — designed to give readers the courage to carry forward ‘hominizing’ the planet, to recall a phrase of the Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose papally proscribed works Julian championed after Teilhard’s death in the 1950s (Teilhard 1959).
The timing of the original Wells-Huxley venture was telling. It was in the wake of the First World War — or the ‘Great War’, as it was then known — which had dampened many people’s faith in human progress. Two decades later, after the Second World War, as UNESCO scientific director, Julian more subtly carried the torch for this faith by facilitating the transit of biologists out of Nazi Germany to allow them to continue their research without any ideological taint. Perhaps he — and the Huxley family — speaks to us most directly today in his coinage of ‘transhumanism’ in the 1950s for the open recognition that our knowledge of modern evolutionary synthesis finally grants humanity the species privilege that it has long sought, first through religion and now through science. But with great power comes great responsibility, and Julian ended his days as a vocal champion of in vitro fertilization. Julian’s brother Aldous famously doubted humanity’s ability to rise to this challenge — and began to do so shortly after the Wells-Huxley literary venture with the publication of Brave New World in 1932. The future of humanity is defined by this sibling rivalry. Indeed, were I advising an alien who quickly needs to become acquainted with the historic struggles over what it means to be ‘human’, I would immediately turn their attention to the Huxley family.
Gregory, F. (1992). “Theologians, Science, and Theories of Truth in 19th Century.” In M.J. Nye et al. (eds.), The Invention of Physical Science. (Pp. 81–96). Dordrecht NL: Kluwer.
Harrison, P. (2007). The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Olby, R. (1992). ‘Huxley’s place in twentieth-century biology’, In K. Waters and A. Van Helden (eds), Julian Huxley: Biologist and Statesman of Science. Houston: Rice University Press.
Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1959). The Phenomenon of Man. (Introduction by Julian Huxley). London: Collins.
Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of a trilogy with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Humanity 2.0’ and the recent book, Nietzschean Meditations: Untimely Thoughts at the Dawn of the Transhuman Era.