Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/December 1893/Evolutionary Ethics

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THE preceding article concludes Prof. Huxley's famous Romanes Address, the first part of which was given in The Popular Science Monthly for November. As bearing on the author's main contention that the ethical progress of society is opposed to the cosmic process of evolution, the following letter will be read with interest.—Ed.


To the Editor of The Popular Science Monthly:

Sir: He who crosses swords with Prof. Huxley in a dialectical encounter takes his life in both hands. I am not unaware, therefore, of my temerity in entering the lists against a scholar so fully equipped on all subjects; and my timidity is greatly increased when I venture to question his interpretation of the law of the "survival of the fittest," a subject upon which he is universally recognized as an authority. Yet it is because of what I deem to be a misinterpretation of that law that goes to the very marrow of a recent discussion by him that I venture to differ with him.

In his exceedingly thoughtful and suggestive Romanes Lecture on Evolution and Ethics, Prof. Huxley maintains that the cosmic process of evolution is directly opposed to the ethical development of mankind, "that the cosmic process has no sort of relation to moral ends" [see this number of the Monthly, p. 189], and that the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest can never help man toward ethical perfection. "Social progress," he says, "means a checking of the cosmic process at every step, and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which exist, but of those who are ethically the best. As I have already urged, the practice of that which is ethically best—what we call goodness or virtue—involves a course of conduct which, in all [the Italics are mine] respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive" [pp. 188, 189]. Holding these views it is to be expected that Prof. Huxley should describe man's development in the following words: "Man, the animal, in fact, has worked his way to the headship of the sentient world, and has become the superb animal which, he is, in virtue of his success in the struggle for existence. The conditions having been of a certain order, man's organization has adjusted itself to them better than that of his competitors in the cosmic strife. In the case of mankind the self-assertion, the unscrupulous seizing on all that can be grasped, the tenacious holding of all that can be kept, which constitute the essence of the struggle for existence, have answered" [November Monthly, pp. 21, 22].

Are the qualities here emphasized the only essential ones? Does this statement include all the facts or cover the whole truth? To me it seems to be far from doing this, although it states clearly and vigorously what all must admit to be partially true.

The benefits of co-operation in the development of man are too well recognized to be denied. Physically weaker than many of the animals that surrounded him, he could not long have survived in a struggle for existence against them had he been forced to continue that struggle alone. Nor could he have attained the mental development upon which so much of his success has depended without contact with his fellows. The most important if not the necessary condition of man's success in the struggle for existence is society. Social growth becomes possible only through the survival of the socially fit. In an advancing society this process must ever tend toward the production and preservation of the "ethically best." Recognition of the rights of others has been equally as important in the evolution of man as self-assertion. Indeed, it may be claimed that, under the conditions of social life, it is a necessary consequence of self-assertion. Men could not live long together unless they recognized the right of each to his own, and respected it. The survival of a society, like the survival of the individuals composing it, becomes possible only through adaptation to the necessary conditions of life, and it will not be denied by Prof. Huxley that morality is essential to social well-being. Indeed, he admits as much, for he says: "One of the oldest and most important elements in such systems is the conception of justice. Society is impossible unless those who are associated agree to observe certain rules of conduct toward one another; its stability depends on the steadiness with which they abide by that agreement; and so far as they waver, that mutual trust which is the bond of society is weakened or destroyed" [November Monthly, p. 24].

I am somewhat at a loss to reconcile this statement with the general teaching of the lecture. It seems to me that this moral development is just as much a part of the "cosmic process" as physical or mental development, neither of which are excluded by Prof. Huxley. Moral development comes, to be sure, in recognizable quantities, rather later in history than the others, and is of greater consequence in a high civilization than in a low; is, indeed, or ought to be, considered one of the principal signs of the existence of the former. While it was essential in even the lowset form of social organization, it was for a long period of less apparent importance. The earlier struggles for existence were chiefly intertribal or international, and in these the qualities emphasized by Prof. Huxley as necessary for success were undoubtedly predominant. While the struggle still goes on in this form, it no longer occupies the time and attention of mankind to the same extent as formerly. Among civilized societies at least the struggle for existence has also taken on another form, and the conditions of success have greatly changed. Industrial competition has taken the place of war, and notwithstanding that the theories and the methods of international conflict are still somewhat potent in this field, they are so mostly because our ethical, and, for that matter, even our intellectual, training has not gone far enough. It can not be denied that the reign of industrialism, or at least the absence of war, has softened the manners if it has not changed the character of men. Prof. Huxley himself bears witness to this, for he says, "The cosmic nature born with us and, to a large extent, necessary for our maintenance, is the outcome of millions of years of severe training, and it would be folly to imagine that a few centuries will suffice to subdue its masterfulness to purely ethical ends" [p. 190].

It can, however, be shown, I think, that those societies will become the victors in the struggle for industrial supremacy, who are mentally and morally the most highly developed, or, in other words, socially the fittest. In an article on Ethics and Economics, published in The Popular Science Monthly for October, 1888, I have discussed this proposition at some length, but the following quotation will, I think, answer my present purpose:

"For the purpose in hand, we desire to call attention to the necessity of basing our political economy on moral rather than on selfish instincts. Powerful though the latter be, they are more or less anti-social in their nature, and therefore would not of themselves favor economic growth. That depends for its development on social growth, and it is only when the selfish instincts are held in due check and subordination to the higher impulses that the latter is possible. Strength, keenness, and shrewdness are important factors in determining the survival of the individual, and, in so far as they do this, they favor also the survival of the race. But of more importance still are those traits which, by enabling men to live together in peace, render possible the organization of labor in such manner as to secure the greatest economic return. In a word, our political economy, which has been unmoral, must be made moral, if it is to be the science which shall direct men into the proper paths for the production and distribution of wealth" (pp. 773, 774).

If this be true, then even under existing conditions it may be said that "the stars in their courses" fight for righteousness. For it would appear that co-operation, which has been so essential to man's success in the struggle for existence, by cultivating the moral qualities upon which social fitness depends, has at length brought about conditions where moralization becomes a prime factor in the success and survival of society. At all events it can, I think, be maintained that the law of the survival of the fittest admits of another interpretation than that put upon it by Prof. Huxley. It is not of necessity, as he thinks, opposed to the ethical progress of the race, but under it and because of it men become better through the survival of the socially fit.

Robert Mathews.
Rochester, N. Y., June 29, 1893.
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