Topics Worth Investigating

  1. In this reading Huxley argues that human beings are subject to the struggle for existence, natural selection, and survival of the fittest. Yet, he sees social and moral progress as checking this "cosmic process" at every step. How do you think Huxley accounts for the survival of altruistic individuals—individuals who would seem to be selected against by evolutionary processes? Discuss the current controversy over the theory of inclusive fitness in the contemporary evolutionary discussion of conflict and cooperation.[1]

  2. Clarify Huxley's comparison of "the evolution of the ęsthteic faculty" with the evolution of the moral faculty. What does he mean by implying that understanding does not affect the intuition of the good or the beautiful? Is Huxley anticipating G. E. Moore's argument that good is a nonnatural property?[2]

  3. By Occam's Razor isn't it reasonable to suppose that the rise of civilization together with the moral progress in civilization is a result of a natural process? Isn't mankind's successes through intelligence and organization no different from the natural biological processes of other organisms? Why does Huxley suppose that civilization arose in opposition to nature?

  4. Huxley asserts that the ethically best conduct is "not no such to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive." Given that man is a social animal, as Aristotle remarks, can't the argument be made that human beings survive best as social animals, where as Adam Smith observes, the pursuit of self-interest is socially beneficial.[3] Henry David Thoreau clearly made this point by stating, "There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived …"[4]

  5. Morality and legality involve prescriptive law, statements as to what should or ought to happen, whereas science involves descriptive law, statements as to what actually happens. Prescriptive laws can be violated or broken; descriptive laws have no exceptions. So then is it not contradictory for Huxley to suppose evolutionary processes are checked by the laws and customs of men?

  6. Huxley points out astronomy, physics, and chemistry have furthered ethical progress in civilization. He then asserts that with their advancement, physiology, psychology, ethics, and political science have the potential to effect a revolution in social life. Trace the major results in these sciences over the past hundred years and show whether Huxley was correct in concluding the application of the resultant explosion in knowledge in these sciences would provide "a revolution in practice."

  7. As almost an afterthought in the reading, Huxley adds to the hope for ethical progress by noting:

    And much may be done to change the nature of man himself. The intelligence which has converted the brother of the wolf ought to be able to do something towards curbing the instincts of savagery in civilized men.

    First, in light of the initial paragraph in our reading, does this passage imply T. H. Huxley would support the transhumanism of Julian Huxley (the prominent biologist and his grandson):

    The human species can, if it wished, transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.[5]

    Second, explain why, or why not, you think man's nature could be shaped by the applications of scientific knowledge not only to evolve the nature of mankind into a state beyond what we now call a human being but also to advance his physical, mental, and moral capacities in a socially just manner while insuring individual rights?

  8. Research and discuss the ethics of the various contemporary proposals, in Huxley's words, "to change the nature of man": transhumanism, abolitionism, extropianism, immortalism, postgenderism, eugenics.[6]

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See, for example, Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tarnita1, and Edward O. Wilson, "The Evolution of Eusociality," Nature 466 (26 August 2010): 1057-1062, and William D. Hamilton, "The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior" I and II, Journal of Theoretical Biology 7 (1964), 1-16 and 17-52. Edward O. Wilson argued previously "As more complex social behaviour by the organism is added to the gene's techniques for replicating themselves, altruism becomes increasingly prevalent and eventually appears in exaggerated forms." E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975), 3.


G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), 41.


"By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it." Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Charleston: SC: BiblioLife, 2009), 184,


Henry David Thoreau, "On Civil Disobedience" in Walden and Other Writings, ed. Joseph Wood Krutch (New York: Bantam Dell 110.


Julian Huxley, New Bottles for New Wine (London: Chatto & Windus, 1957), 13-17.


For useful summary definitions and list of references and sources see Transhumanism in the online Wikipedia.