Evolutionary Humanism Revisited: The Continuing Relevance of Julian Huxley

Timothy J. Madigan


Following in the footsteps of his celebrated grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley, Sir Julian Huxley (1887-1975) was one of the twentieth century's leading exponents of evolutionary theory. Also like his grandfather, he espoused a humanistic approach to life. Indeed, much of his popular writings addressed the connections to be found between these two areas of interest. He called for a concerted effort to both appreciate the implications of evolution for the human species, and for that species to finally begin to take a hand in directing its own evolutionary course. For this, a new idea-system was necessary. In his introduction to the 1961 anthology The Humanist Frame, Huxley wrote:

This new idea-system, whose birth we of the mid-twentieth century are witnessing, I shall simply callHumanism, because it can only be based on our understanding of man and his relations with the rest of his environment. It must be focused on man as an organism, though one with unique properties. It must be organized round the facts and ideas of evolution, taking account of the discovery that man is part of a comprehensive evolutionary process, and cannot avoid playing a decisive role in it.

Huxley called this approach "evolutionary humanism." It added a dimension to the humanist outlook which had hitherto been little appreciated. Although humanism as a worldview broke from dogmatic religious teachings, before the time of Darwin it tended to share with theistic religions a static approach. The proper study of humans tended to continue along previously established lines and, even after Darwin, evolutionary theory was often relegated to discussions of non-human life. As Michael Ruse points out in his book Monad To Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, T. H. Huxley himself, "Darwin's Bulldog" and the Victorian Age's primary defender of the theory of evolution, was nonetheless careful to relegate this defense to only his popular lectures. In the classroom and in scholarly papers, Julian's grandfather evaded discussion of this controversial notion, since he was interested in having the field of biology accepted as a proper discipline, and therefore feared involving it too closely with what he himself saw as primarily a metaphysical system. In Ruse's words:

In major part, Huxley did not want evolution to have any part in his professional science! "Darwin's bulldog" excluded it, keeping it firmly down at the popular level—at least inasmuch as professional science was a matter of the day-to-day work within the discipline. There was essentially no place for evolution, either in physiology or morphology. As Huxley grew in power, and as he developed biology, the profession of biology and the subject of evolution became badly estranged.

Such reticence was not due solely to an urge to distance the discipline of biology from unwanted controversies, however. Huxley had his own personal qualms about accepting the mutability of species. Ruse continues:

. . . at some deep level, evolution was incompatible with Huxley's ontology and his pedagogy. . . Huxley always thought in typological terms, and his teaching—focusing on exemplars: earthworm, crayfish, frog, etc.—was based on such thinking, explicitly. Notwithstanding his popular philosophy, his professional philosophy was static.

For a long period of time even such agnostics and humanists as the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) shied away from exploring the implications of evolution for the future of the human species, let alone addressing how it had led to the contemporary members of the species. No doubt this hesitancy was due to a perceived need to distance agnosticism from its connection with the evolutionary teachings of Herbert Spencer—teachings which had been used to justify the abolition of social programs aiding the poor, the insane, the handicapped and others deemed to be losers in the "struggle for existence." The American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) was one of the few humanists who felt that Darwin's teachings had radical implications for understanding human nature.

Julian Huxley was deeply influenced by his grandfather (who died when he was eight years of age). In his autobiography, he discussed his "calling":

I thought of my grandfather defending Darwin against Bishop Wilberforce, of the slow acceptance of Darwin's views in the face of religion and prejudice, and realized more fully than ever that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection had emerged as one of the great liberating concepts of science, freeing man from cramping myths and dogma, achieving for Life the same sort of illuminating synthesis that Newton had provided for inanimate nature. I resolved that all my scientific studies would be undertaken in the Darwinian spirit, and that my major work would be concerned with evolution, in nature and in man.

In this regard, Julian differed from his grandfather's approach, for he made no sharp distinction between his public and his scholarly writings. His entire career was essentially devoted to defending and exploring the evolutionary perspective, and demonstrating its relevance to the human condition. Graduating with first class honors in biology from Oxford University, he had a teaching career at such distinguished institutions as Balliol College in Oxford, the Rice Institute in Houston, Texas, New College in Oxford, and King's College, London. At the latter, he was named Professor of Zoology, becoming the first biologist in Britain to earn a four-figure income. It was there that he completed work on the book which he felt would best synthesize the connection between biological evolution and the evolution of human culture. Written in 1925, he called it Religion without Revelation.

Defining "religion" is never an easy task, as John Dewey was also to discover when he came to write A Common Faith in 1933especially when the definition breaks away from a notion of a divine being or a special type of worship service. While fully recognizing this, Julian Huxley nevertheless felt that "evolutionary humanism" could best be understood as the latest and most scientifically accurate development of the human need for understanding the cosmos and finding one's proper place within it. Religions, like other cultural artifacts, are created by humans to answer basic needs (one can see here the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach's anthropological approach to religion). The desire for mystical transcendence is simply the deeply felt thirst for knowledge, the wish to "see a World in a grain of sand/And a Heaven in a wild flower", to quote William Blake. But previous religions had become static, too concerned with preserving dogmas and rituals, and were no longer in tune with the new scientific understanding of evolution that had revolutionized such fields as geology, biology, physics, paleontology, and cosmology. In the final chapter of his book, Huxley offered what he called "Evolutionary Humanism as a Developed Religion." In his view:

Twentieth-century man, it is clear, needs a new organ for dealing with destiny, a new system of religious beliefs and attitudes adapted to the new situation in which his societies now have to exist. The radically new feature of the present situation may perhaps be stated thus: Earlier religions and belief-systems were largely adaptations to cope with man's ignorance and fears, with the result that they came to concern themselves primarily with stability of attitude. But the need to-day is for a belief-system adapted to cope with his knowledge and his creative possibilities, and this implies the capacity to meet, inspire and guide change.

This belief-system was evolutionary humanism. The central idea of this new religion was human fulfillment. Man's most "sacred" duty, Huxley expounded, "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 realisation of his own inherent possibilities." He was rather vague in his attempt to elaborate upon just what constitutes such inherent possibilities, yet he clearly saw evolutionary humanism as the only approach which not only welcomed the realities of a dynamic universe but also sought to take an active role its own destiny. This was a cause which Huxley continued to defend for the rest of his career. In his later book, Essays of a Humanist, which appeared in 1964, he even offered a prophetic aspect:

Man is not merely the latest dominant type produced by evolution, but its sole active agent on earth. His destiny is to be responsible for the whole future of the evolutionary process on this planet. . . This is the gist and core of Evolutionary Humanism, the new organization of ideas and potential action now emerging from the present revolution of thought, and destined, I prophesy with confidence, to become the dominant idea-system of the new phase of psychosocial evolution.

As the twentieth century nears its end, one can judge just how prescient Huxley's confident prophecy was. Sad to say, not very. So-called "scientific creationists" pose a constant threat to the teaching of evolution in biology courses across the United States, the most technologically advanced country in the world. And while such a threat is not very prevalent in European countries, the importance of evolution for the human species is still little addressed in philosophical and sociological circles. As Daniel C. Dennett makes evident in his recent work Darwin's Dangerous Idea, "today, more than a century after Darwin's death, we still have not come to terms with its mind-boggling implications."

In addition, Huxley's concept of "religion without revelation" remains controversial. Traditional theistic religions have neither withered away nor been superseded in the evolutionary sense that Huxley predicted. Indeed, religious fundamentalism of various stripes is one of the principal causes of social disharmony at the close of the twentieth century. The humanistic approach has not become dominant, and a scientific exploration and understanding of the universe has come into heavy criticism not only from fundamentalists but also from the so-called "postmodern" school of thought, which tends to see science as merely another—and not necessarily superior—ideology.

Humanists themselves often differ with Huxley's ascription of the term "religion" to their worldview. As also happened with John Dewey, who compared the scientific attitude to a "religious" cause in his book A Common Faith, fellow humanists have pointed out that the use of such terminology—as well as words like "sacred", which Huxley was also prone to use—tended to confuse rather than clarify the issues being discussed. It is not easy—and is perhaps impossible—to separate notions like worship, revelation and reverence from any form of religion. Thus, Huxley's "religion without revelation" has proved to be unpalatable to both theistic transcendental religionists, who have held on to their old-fashioned comforting belief systems, and scientific secular humanists, who see no need to promote their materialistic worldview using shopworn sacerdotal words - putting old wine into new skins, as it were.

Finally, Huxley himself has been taken to task for his enthusiastic commingling of evolutionary theory with the broader notion of Progress, an approach which caused his own scientific work to be generally downplayed by his fellow scientists, who continued to hold to the model of T. H. Huxley, maintaining a dichotomy between professional and popular science. Much of Huxley's writings have a teleological aspect, which his grandfather would surely have objected to.

It is by no means clear that the human species is either ready or able to shoulder the awesome responsibilities involved with determining its own course. For all his optimistic predictions, Huxley's vision has not come to pass. Ironically, it is primarily traditional religions, which he predicted would be transcended, that continue to be the primary stumbling block to his vision.

Julian Huxley thus remains a transitional figure in the cause of interpreting evolution from a spiritualism to a materialism. It is not surprising that he became interested in writings which attempted to synthesize these differing views. As Michael Ruse writes: "Toward the end of his life, Huxley became a (non-Believing) enthusiast for the ideas of Father Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist who saw the whole of reality as undergoing constant change and moving upward to Christ, the ëOmega Point.' In a move which shocked his orthodox fellow biologists, it was Huxley who wrote the introduction to the translation of Teilhard's masterwork, The Phenomenon of Man."

Nonetheless, Huxley is still a figure who needs to be reckoned with. While Ruse states that "For all his surface brilliance, as a creative scientist Julian Huxley was not of the first rank,"he adds that "it was Huxley's role to articulate and put the final seal of approval on the synthesis between Darwinian selection and Mendelian genetics. He made himself the spokesman for the twentieth-century evolutionary edifice." This was a role which cannot be easily dismissed. In addition, Huxley was clearly a visionary. He recognized that all human beings need a source of inspiration, some purpose higher than their own well-being, in order to motivate themselves. Professional scientists, secure in their secular monasteries, often missed this point, to the detriment of their own disciplines, which needed to be connected to the greater community, both for funding and for other means of support.

Perhaps Julian Huxley's greatest contribution to humanity was his constant campaign to educate the general public. In this, he was also following in his grandfather's footsteps, for the latter was famous for his lectures on science to workingmen. Huxley dedicated much of his later life to the cause of UNESCO, which sought to increase educational and cultural opportunities for people throughout the world. And it is not surprising that—again like John Dewey—he made an explicit connection between his educational advocacy and his humanistic worldview. One of the chapters in Essays of a Humanist is entitled "Education and Humanism." His interest in Teilhard's notion of the "noosphere", shorn of its religious trappings, can be seen in the following passage, which also beautifully captures the humanistic core of his philosophy:

The world has become one de facto. It must achieve some unification of thought if it is to avoid disaster. . . and this can only come about with the aid of education. We must remember that two-fifths of the world's adult population. . . are still illiterate, that the world's provision for education at all levels is lamentably inadequate, and that the underdeveloped countries are all clamorously demanding more and better education. . . make no mistake, the basic task before the educational profession today is to study and understand the evolutionary humanist revolution in all its ramifications, to follow up its educational implications, and to enable as many as possible of the world's growing minds to be illuminated by its new view of human destiny.

Such a task remains imperative. Julian Huxley felt that evolutionary humanism was necessary for the betterment of our species. In this regard, he continues to be an inspirational and compelling figure.


1. Julian Huxley, ed. The Humanist Frame (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1961), p. 14.

2. Michael Ruse, Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 218.

3. Ibid., p. 218.

4. Julian Huxley, Memories, Vol. 1 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1970), p. 73.

5. Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation (New York: Mentor Books, 1958), p. 188.

6. Ibid., p. 194.

7. Julian Huxley, Essays of a Humanist (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 121.

8. Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 21.

9. Ruse, p. 338.

10. Ibid., p. 329.

11. Ibid., p. 330.

12. Huxley, Essays of a Humanist, pp. 145-146.

Further Readings

Birx, H. James. Interpreting Evolution: Darwin & Teilhard de Chardin. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Clark, Ronald C. The Huxleys. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Dennett, Daniel C.. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Hutcheon, Pat Duffy. Leaving the Cave: Evolutionary Naturalism in Social-Scientific Thought. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996.

Huxley, Julian S. Essays of a Humanist. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

————. Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1967.

————. Evolution in Action. New York: Mentor Books, 1957.

————. Evolutionary Humanism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992. Refer to the introduction by H. James Birx, pp. vii-xii.

————. Memories, Vols. I and II. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1970.

————. Religion Without Revelation. New York: Mentor Books, 1957.

Huxley, Julian S., ed. The Humanist Frame. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961.

Huxley, T. H. & Julian S. Huxley. Touchstone for Ethics 1893-1943. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947.

"Julian Huxley" in I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Twenty-Three Eminent Men and Women of Our Time. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1941, pp. 129-141.

Ruse, Michael. Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959. Refer to the introduction by Sir Julian Huxley, pp. 11-28.

Wuketits, Franz M. Evolutionary Epistemology and Its Implications for Humankind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990.