The Conscience of the Huxleys

The Huxleys

by Ronald W. Clark
McGraw-Hill, 398 pp., $8.95

Memories

by Julian Huxley
Harper & Row, $8.00

Letters of Aldous Huxley

edited by Grover Smith
Harper & Row, 992 pp., $15.00

This Timeless Moment

by Laura Archera Huxley
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 352 pp., $6.95

In his study The Huxleys, Ronald W. Clark discusses T. H. Huxley’s feeling of responsibility for the blow struck against religious believers as a result of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, which he supported so ardently:

…having realized that the ethical standards of Christianity, which he did respect, might well go out of the window with the religious dogmas for which he had only contempt, he saw the new requirement. This was nothing less than the construction of a new ethical formula, a new set of beliefs, a new pattern of rules by which humanity might live.

Huxley’s grandson Julian, on the first page of his Memories, states that his grandfather “coined the word agnostic to describe his own religious position.” He refused to believe in the existence of the God of the Old and New Testament and the Christian religions. But the nonexistence of God could not be proved either.

In the lives of T. H. Huxley and of his grandsons, Julian and Aldous, concern about the existence or nonexistence of God and a yearning for religion have been extended. Giving the Romanes Lecture at Oxford in 1893, T. H. Huxley took as his theme ethics and evolutionary theory, setting up the conscious moral purpose of man against Nature without moral purpose. Fifty years later when Julian Huxley was asked to give the Romanes Lecture he discussed evolutionary ethics, putting forward his theory of evolutionary humanism, that the task of evolution, which had begun unconsciously in inorganic and animal nature through natural selection, must now become purposive and ethical within society.

It is as though, having replaced the Victorian theology with Darwin’s evolutionary machine, members of the Huxley family have felt responsible to the public either for giving the machine religious and ethical characteristics, or for putting God back into it.

Humanism of the evolutionary variety, although it has many non-Huxley supporters, seems a special preserve in which Huxleys, with an inherited bad conscience toward an existent or nonexistent God, and toward a public deprived of the benefits of such a present or absent deity, endeavor to fill a theological and moral vacuum. In doing this before a public they provide the spectacle of the evolution of their family consciousness from generation to generation, Romanes Lecture to Romanes Lecture. Julian Huxley’s version represents, I suppose, a more evolved stage of his grandfather’s addressing himself to the same problems of evolution and ethics, to which Herbert Spencer (Ronald W. Clark quotes) objected that “the argument went practically…back to the old theological notions, which put Man and Nature in antithesis.”

Evolutionary humanism is a theory which seems open to the kind of objections that were made to Utilitarianism. Reading Julian Huxley’s Romanes Lecture when it was first published during the war, I felt apprehensive. For if evolution was the criterion of human values, Hermann Goering might turn out to be, on this scale, further developed than the lecturer. For unless values external to the process …

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Letters

No Utilitarian August 12, 1971