"Ethics Opposes the Biological Struggle for Existence" by T. H. Huxley

T. H. Huxley (adapted from Lock & Whitfield Studio, London, circa 1880)

About the author…

Thomas Henry Huxley was born near London and, for the most part, self-educated. After several medical apprenticeships in his teens, Huxley joined the Royal Navy and served as a surgeon's mate on the HMS Rattlesnake. During the voyage to Australia and New Guinea, his discoveries in marine biology, especially his work with invertebrates, won his election to the Royal Society. Following his appointment to the Royal School of Mines as a Professor of Natural History, Huxley became close friends with Charles Darwin. As Darwin reluctantly published On the Origin of Species, Huxley enthusiastically championed Darwin's theory of evolution—as Huxley himself writes, "I am Darwin's bulldog."[1] In the famous evolution debate of 1860 at Oxford, when his opponent, Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford and professor of mathematics, posed the complex question, "Was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?," Huxley was said to reply he "was not ashamed to have a monkey for ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth."[2] In sum, H. L. Mencken observed, "All of us owe a vast debt to Huxley … for it was he, more than any other man, who worked that great change in human thought which marked the Nineteenth Century."[3]

About the work…

In his Romanes Lecture entitled "Evolution and Ethics," [4] Huxley argues that the moral progress of civilization is not a product of the evolution of the natural world. The phrase "survival of the fittest" simply means the adaptation to current conditions, with no implication whatsoever of moral improvement. In point of fact, civil law, customs, and morals sustain those who are ethically best; moreover, science and the arts have been instrumental in opposing the natural condition of competition for survival. Huxley reasons that only man's intelligence can effect modification of "the conditions of existence" and perhaps, as well, change mankind itself in order to stave off the natural circumstances of existence.

Ideas of Interest from Evolution and Ethics

  1. What is the question Huxley intends to address in this reading? Specifically, what is the hypothesis he intends to oppose?

  2. Explain the two fallacies Huxley argues are committed by the proponents of the ethics of evolution.

  3. Discuss the points of contrast Huxley draws between the practice of ethics and the process of the struggle for existence.

  4. What is the distinction Huxley makes between the physical sciences and the social sciences with respect to the ethical progress of society?

  5. On what basis does Huxley believe the ethical progress of society will continue in opposition to the natural "cosmic process" of the survival of the fittest? How certain is he of the future ethical progress of civilization?



The epithet possibly derived from Huxley's comment in a letter to Ernst Hęckel, the eminent German biologist, that "The dogs have been snapping at [Darwin's] heels …" Thomas Henry Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (London: D. Appleton, 1900), Vol. 1, 363.


"A Grandmother' Tales," Macmillan's Magazine 78, no. 468, (October, 1898): 433-434.


H. L. Mencken, A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, ed. Terry Teachout (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 158.


T. H. Huxley, "Evolution and Ethics," Romanes Lecture in Collected Essays (London: Macmillan, 1893-4), Vol. 9, 46-116.