Julian Huxley : What Dare I Think?

A very interesting read. In this book Huxley expounds his personal philosophy, which goes by the name of ‘scientific humanism’, with particular emphasis in the first part of the book on what he sees as the necessity of eugenics, not only to combat the otherwise inevitable degeneration of the human race now that natural selection has ceased to play any serious role, but to actually improve the human race in future generations. In the latter part of the book he talks about the possibility of a new religion, one which wouldn’t conflict with but rather complement science and rationalism. His philosophy is perhaps best summed up in the following passage:

Scientific humanism is a protest against supernaturalism: the human spirit, now in its individual, now in its corporate aspects, is the source of all values and the highest reality we know. It is a protest against one-sidedness and fixity: the human spirit has many sides and cannot be ruled by any single rule; nor can it be restrained from making new discoveries in the adventure of its evolution. It insists that the same scientific procedure can be applied to human life as has been applied with such success to lifeless matter and to animals and plants – scientific survey, study and analysis, followed by increasing practical control. It insists on human values as the norms for our aims, but insists equally that they cannot adjust themselves in right perspective and emphasis except as part of the picture of the world provided by science. It realizes that human desires and aspirations are the motive power of life, but insists that no long-range or comprehensive aim of humanity can ever be realized except with the aid of the pedestrian and dispassionate methods, the systematic planning, the experimental testing which can be provided only by science. (p.173,6)

(details below)

While I’ve always been a big fan of his brother Aldous, Julian had somehow managed to escape my attention up to now, but reading this book showed me what an intelligent and far-sighted person he was and what a large overlap there is between his views and mine. Huxley was nothing if not a rationalist:

[…] our scientific humanism adopts as its guiding principle that we can consider everything in a scientific aspect, and that while doing so we must make every effort to rid ourselves of disturbing emotion. (p.137,4)

Philosophically we seem to have a lot in common:

Do not let us forget that all we can be directly aware of is experience – an interacting of our mind with outer events; everything else is construction or abstraction. (p.140,1)
The ordinary man, or at least the ordinary poet, philosopher and theologian, always was anxious to find purpose in the evolutionary process. I believe this reasoning to be totally false. (Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, however, just like most thinkers and writers, he doesn’t explicitly state what his philosophy is supposed to be aiming at, but is satisfied with vague general assumptions such as

It is clearly desirable for man to be more healthy […] (p.10,3)

I suppose most people would call this book ‘dated’, and it’s certainly true that there are things in it which few people would even think today, never mind publish. This is mainly due to Huxley’s unlimited optimism in what science can do for us in terms of increasing our control over nature – which includes ourselves – and his unquestioning attitude towards the desirability of such increased control, not just for the purpose of correcting what’s wrong with certain individuals (i.e. medicine) but to actually improve on nature, to speed up human evolution and guide it in the right direction:

Most of us would like to live longer; to have healthier and happier lives; to be able to control the sex of our children when they are conceived, and afterwards to mould their bodies, intellects and temperaments into the best possible forms; to reduce unnecessary pain to a minimum; to be able at will to whip up our energies to their fullest pitch without later ill effects. It would be pleasant to be able to manufacture new kinds of animals and plants at our pleasure, like so many chemical compounds, to double the yield of an acre of wheat or a herd of cattle, to keep the balance of nature adjusted in our favour, to banish parasites and disease germs from the world. (p.5,5)
It would be natural to suppose that biological science would have exploited to the full the possibility of control disclosed by its discoveries concerning the ductless glands, and would be capable of moulding the individual to its will; yet this is very far from being the case. The knowledge has been used practically, but almost solely in the medical field. The control practised has been almost exclusively the control of markedly abnormal conditions. (p.60,9)
But it must be possible to find answers to these questions [about hormonal functions]; and once the answers have been found, hitherto undreamt-of possibilities open out of control over the very essence of our selves, over both physical and mental aspects of our organism. (p.66,2)
The same sort of possibilities lie before the study of drugs. They, too, have in the past been used mainly for therapeutic purposes, to remedy definite defects of working in the bodily machine […] But, with rare exceptions, such as caffeine and alcohol, nicotine and cocaine, they find no place in everyday life; and of those which are so used, many are definitely harmful, and the rest can easily be abused. (p.66,4)

Regarding cocaine I’d be tempted to say ‘those were the days!’, but despite his awareness of the dangers involved, Huxley has a generally optimistic attitude towards drugs and sees them as having great potential to improve our lives. Unfortunately that’s another aspect of this book which now looks ‘dated’…

Some of his ideas conjure up images which could come straight out of Brave New World, if not out of a horror film:

For instance, the limit to human brain-power probably lies in the size of the female pelvis, which cannot give birth to babies with heads above a certain size. Abolish this cramping restriction, and you could embark upon an attempt to enlarge the human brain. Furthermore, as Haldane pointed out, ectogenesis would make it possible to practise an intensity and rapidity of eugenic selection enormously beyond what can be done if the human species keeps to its ancestral methods of development […] (p.55,3)

In spite of his great and now unfashionable faith in science, Huxley is well aware of its dangers:

I do not share the facile optimism which sees in every increase of power, every fulfilment of a wish, a necessary good. The knowledge provided by science is emotionally and morally neutral. And so is the power of control which inevitably arises out of that knowledge. It is a tool, which like other tools can be used for whatever ends its possessor sees fit, whether good, bad or indifferent. The effects of the industrial revolution and the subsequent inventions in the physico-chemical sphere have not been so rosy as to warrant the belief still, it would appear, widely held that every invention is inevitably good, and that progress is automatic. (p.7,1)

Huxley seems to have had a very healthy attitude to sex. Speaking about the new science of psychology, he says:

Already many new possibilities are opening up. There is the possibility that we may be able to bring children up without the deformation of fear, the friction and waste engendered by repression, the abnormal preoccupation with sex, which have in the past hindered the free use of the energy of human minds. We are just beginning to see that the rule-of-thumb methods of our ancestors might be replaced by a scientific cultivation of the mind, the one as different from the other as is modern scientific agriculture from the shifting cultivation of a primitive tribe. We can see the possibility; but as yet we can hardly envisage the result. What changes in conditions of work would be demanded by a population bursting with mental energy? What alterations in marriage and sexual relations in general would result from an uninhibited mental attitude towards sex? What would be the result upon our political system of an all-round enlargement of rationality and freedom? (p.70,7)

What most people will undoubtedly most object to in Huxley’s ideas is his insistence on the necessity and desirability of eugenics. He comes out with some excellent arguments to support his ideas, but his relatively mild suggestions as to how they might be put into practice would be qualified by most people these days as positively fascistic:

A simple method for exerting some control over population-growth, which could be introduced as soon as the obvious course has been taken of making birth-control information freely available to all, would be to link it on to public relief. A married man, whether through his own fault or that of economic forces beyond his control, is being supported wholly or mainly out of public funds. The State may fairly be asked to see that neither he nor his family shall starve; but it may fairly ask in return that he shall not increase the load to be carried, by increasing the size of his family. Continuance of relief could quite easily be made conditional upon his having no more children. Infringement of this order could probably be met by a short period of segregation, say in a labour camp. After three or six months separation from his wife he would be likely to be more careful next time. Sterilization has been suggested, but this seems disproportionate save in recidivist cases of philoprogenitiveness which seem otherwise incurable. (p.87,5)

According to Wikipedia he put this a bit more forcefully in 1941, ten years after this book was written:

The lowest strata […] are reproducing relatively too fast. Therefore birth-control methods must be taught them; they must not have too easy access to relief or hospital treatment lest the removal of the last check on natural selection should make it too easy for children to be produced or to survive; long unemployment should be a ground for sterilisation, or at least relief should be contingent upon no further children being brought into the world; and so on. (Wikipedia)

Seemingly later in his life he played down his previous interest in eugenics (according to Wikipedia his autobiography, published in the early 70s, makes no mention of it), but it’s unclear whether his views had changed or whether he simply wanted to avoid what was by then a taboo subject.

From the end of page 109 onwards he talks for several pages about family allowances, and how they should be proportional to income to encourage the more successful members of society to reproduce more (or, as he puts it, to remedy the existing economic disadvantages of having children). I’ve always wondered why family allowances seem to be given to the rich as well as to the poor, and at a flat rate in most countries (although not yet in proportion to income!). Does this reflect Huxley’s ‘biological’ reasoning? Is it a very mild attempt at biological planning and eugenics? An interesting question…

Today, everywhere in the world (which is rapidly becoming one big interconnected society), we see those who are the least educated, developed and rational (and conversely the most ignorant and religious) producing the most children, and eugenics a totally taboo subject. I suspect that Huxley wouldn’t have liked today’s world one little bit!

I find all this a very interesting illustration of how the second world war and the Communist dictatorships changed the way people think. Huxley was a very rational and dispassionate thinker, who saw things going in a bad direction and wanted to improve them by planning society, i.e. by encouraging the human race to take responsibility for its own development. In this book he’s confident that his views will soon be accepted and that science and rationality will triumph over ignorance. The Nazis and the Communist dictatorships changed all that. Not only did the Nazis give eugenics a bad name while the Communists did much the same for social and economic planning (not to mention the fact that euthanasia is still a taboo subject in Germany), but more generally, and in the long term perhaps more seriously, they made people distrust rationality itself. Humans were seen to be so ‘bad’, and the human race to have fucked up so badly, that they couldn’t be trusted to take responsibility for their own development and were better off leaving things to ‘God’ and to nature. Even today humanism and rationalism are regularly given the blame for millions of deaths in the 20th. century. The Nazis and Communists have a lot on their consciences…

In general Huxley has what I’d call a very healthy attitude to any kind of supernaturalism. He defines magic as “belief in mysterious powers and influences which are active for good or evil in the material world around us, and can be controlled, or at least propitiated, by methods wholly alien to those employed by science.” (p.128,8) and goes on to say:

Magic in this sense is still to be found among a surprisingly large proportion of our human species (p.129,0)
[…] we must combat the idea of magic wherever it lifts its head, in however up-to-date a guise it may appear. (p.131,1)
The only way to dissipate this attitude of mind is by education. Every child must be taught something about science. (p132,5)
There are not two regions of reality, one of which is accessible to scientific method and the other inaccessible. Rather there is a single reality, but scientific and other ways of approaching it and treating it. (p.139,8)

In the last part of the book, however (certainly from page 203 onwards – pages 193-202 were missing from the copy I was reading, although I didn’t have the feeling that I’d missed anything essential), he embarks on a long discussion of religion and talks a lot about religious evolution, ‘religious feeling’, ‘sacredness’ and suchlike, and as far as I’m concerned he’s just a bit too indulgent. Having decided that religion will always exist, because “The religious emotions are a natural product of man’s nature” (p.241,3), he tries to imagine a “religion congruous with science”, “a non-theistic religion”. I would say yes, religion has always been a part of human nature, but there again so have greed, envy, hate, competition and war. Just because something is ‘natural’ and has always been there doesn’t make it good! At one point he talks about “the uncritical excesses of Spiritualism and the strange fantasies of Christian Science” (p.225,9) but then comes out with the statement

After a bare three centuries of the scientific spirit we cannot expect our scientific view of the world to have attained any semblance of completeness; to the science of ten thousand years hence it will doubtless seem as patchy and insufficient as does early polytheism in comparison with developed scholastic theology. (p.226,5)

Doesn’t he realise that ‘developed scholastic theology’ is just more mumbo-jumbo with a civilised, intellectual dressing? He does say a bit later that “liberal Christian theologians” who insist on an ‘anthropomorphic idea of God’ “are trying the impossible game of having their cake and eating it.” (p.229,5), but isn’t he doing the same thing himself on a slightly higher level? He goes on to write many pages on the Christian idea of the Holy Trinity, telling us all about the advantages of modern Christian theology over the strict monotheism of Islam or the polytheism of ancient Greece. I reckon he either just hasn’t yet completely freed himself from his Christian cultural background or, perhaps for tactical reasons, he’s deliberately trying to avoid cutting himself off from the more liberal ‘believers’; why doesn’t he just admit that belief itself is the problem?

Huxley doesn’t quite seem to be able to make up his mind what he wants to do with God and religion. On the one hand he can say

God, in any but a purely philosophical, and one is almost tempted to say a Pickwickian, sense, turns out to be a product of the human mind. As an independent or unitary being, active in the affairs of the universe, he does not exist. (p.240,6)

On the other hand he frequently comes out with intelligent and perceptive statements but then completely misses their rationalist implications:

Finally, we come to less concrete but by no means less important fields over which religious emotion inevitably plays – the fields of abstract morality and truth. As is natural and unavoidable, the concrete is intertwined with the abstract, and, on the whole, precedes it in development. Many untutored savages would no more break an apparently irrational tribal tabu than would any of my readers commit a cold-blooded murder or deliberately pick a pocket; in both cases the prohibition is invested with an essentially religious compulsion, and to transgress would mean overcoming a non-rational and, indeed, sacred horror. (p.209,5)

Doesn’t he see that ‘a non-rational and sacred horror’ is not a good basis for moral judgements, and is just as likely to lead to the burning of witches as to the prohibition of murder? Doesn’t he see that there are perfectly good rational reasons for not committing murders and picking pockets, and that religion isn’t a necessary condition for morality?

In the process of religious evolution we meet with a curious phenomenon. Progress in morality and ethical ideas is often quite independent of the orthodox religion of the day, and may even be independent of any religious feeling at all. And intellectual progress, in clear thinking and increased knowledge, has even less connection with religion. Yet it has been the changes in man’s ethical and intellectual outlook which have chiefly determined the direction of religious evolution. And on the whole, especially in later centuries, it has been those more remote changes in regard to intellectual outlook which have had the greater effect. (p.215,1)

Doesn’t he see the obvious implication that religion is lagging behind human intellectual development, a leftover from pre-rational times which is not only no longer necessary but can actually be harmful, in that to a great extent it holds humanity back from what could be real progress?

This latter alternative [i.e. ‘dispersing God into the impotence of indwelling ubiquitousness’] is adopted by those religious philosophers who conclude that the universe is God. But to them, and to those others who identify God with the philosophical Absolute, the Unknowable behind phenomena, the unifying principle in reality, and so forth, we may legitimately reply that their conclusions may be of great interest for philosophy, but have ceased to have any but the remotest bearing on religion. Such a God could not be worshipped or prayed to, could not arouse the intense emotion or ecstasy of mystical experience, and, in fact, has really no kinship with the actual gods of actual religions. (p.239,8)

Much of what he says here is true, but can you not have a ‘mystical experience’ without God being involved? Is worshipping and praying such a good idea? Are ‘the actual gods of actual religions’ something we need or want? At one point he says that “knowledge is inevitably the most important raw material of theology.” (p.241,5), but as far as I’m concerned the most important raw materials of theology are ignorance and imagination!

Huxley’s ideas on religion sometimes remind me of the development of a “culte de l’Être Suprême” during the French Revolution, as if rationalism isn’t enough and man needs something ‘above’ his own rational mind to be complete and to live properly. He writes:

Man is a limited and partial creature, a product of material evolution. He is a relative being, moulded by the struggle to survive in particular conditions on a particular planet. We have no grounds for supposing that his construction is adapted to understand the ultimate nature or cause or purpose of the universe, and indeed every reason for supposing the contrary. […] The truly religious man must be content not to know many things, of which those that most vitally concern our present quest are the ultimate nature and purpose of the universe, and the truth as to the survival of personality after death. The obverse of this state of mind is the refusal to mistake wish for fact, the strength of one’s desire for a thing for proof that the thing exists. Most men desire immortality, and this is often adduced as evidence that man is immortal. But it is of the very essence of the scientific spirit to refuse admittance to desire and emotion in quest for knowledge – save only the desire of discovering more truth. (p.242,3)

I couldn’t agree more with these words, but don’t they strongly imply getting rid of religion altogether?



author Julian Huxley
title What Dare I Think?
first published 1931
language English
publisher / version read Chatto And Windus
read 25/01/2013 – 05/02/2013
download / read online archive.org


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