Friday, February 04, 2005

T. H. Huxley on "The Ethics of Evolution"

I would like to quote, for your review and comment, an excerpt from a biography of T. H. Huxley called Scientist Extraordinary by Cyril Bibby, 1972, pg 137-8. This is a part of his lecture on Evolution of Ethics endowed by George Romanes, given in Oxford on May 18, 1893. Romanes had requested that he avoid talking about religion or politics. In a letter to Romanes just before the lecture he described his effort to do so as a "regular egg-dance", and made a somewhat disingenuous offer of withdrawal, which was obviously not accepted. I have carried this with me for several years since coming across it and find it incredibly insightful and timeless. None of my local friends or co-workers care much about this subject so I am just looking for someone else's opinion.
As for the idea of an innate justice in the common order of things, Huxley could not see it. "If there is a generalisation from the facts of human life which has the assent of thoughtful men in every age and country", he said. (id. 58), "it is that the violator of ethical rules constantly escapes the punishment which he deserves; that the wicked flourishes like a green bay tree, while the righteous begs his bread; that the sins of the father are visited upon the children; that in the realm of nature, ignorance is punished just as severely as wilful wrong; and that thousands upon thousands of innocent beings suffer for the crime, or the unintentional trespass, of one." In an attempt to reconcile such facts with their own concepts of justice, the Greeks had peopled the universe with an assemblage of largely autonomous gods and goddesses. Similarly, the Hindus had developed the concept of Karma, passing from life to life in a series of transmigrations and by its successive modifications eventually producing a sort of cumulative justice. But, on the whole, he preferred the great Semitic trial of this issue, taking refuge in silence and submission. As for those who were currently propounding what they called "the ethics of evolution", their logic was fallacious (id. 80): "Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but in itself is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before." And therefore, he urged (id. 83), "Let us understand once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less on running away from it, but on combating it."

Also here is a contemporary review of the Romanes Lecture.

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