Posts Tagged ‘Huxley’

Huxley: Evolution Does Not Rule Out Teleology

May 9, 2013

Not only did Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley, argue that evolution did not necessarily lead to atheism, he also considered that it did not entirely rule out teleology. He considered that it demolished the older teleological view, that organisms possessed particular organs for a particular function. Nevertheless, he felt that evolution left untouched a wider teleological view, that viewed the structure of living creatures as flowing from the forces and patterns of molecules contained in the gaseous nebula of the primordial universe. He also noted that William Paley, the great defender of special creation, had stated in his Natural Theology that creatures could be produced through a series of mechanical processes established and maintained by an intelligence. Huxley wrote:

‘A second very common objection to Mr. Darwin’s views was (and is) that they abolish Teleology, and eviscerate the argument from design. It is nearly twenty years since I ventured to offer some remarks on this subject, and as my arguments have as yet received no refutation, I hope I may be excused for reproducing them. I observed “that the doctrine of Evolution is the most formidable oppoent of all the commoner and coarser forms of Teleology. But perhaps the remarkable service tot he philosophy of Biology rendered by Mr. Darwin is the reconciliation of Teleology and Morphology, and the explanation of the facts of both, which his views offer. The teleology which supposes that the eye, such as we see it in man, or one of the higher vertebrata, was made with the precise structure it exhibits, for the purpose of enabling the animal which possesses it to see, has undoubtedly received its death-blow. Nevertheless, it i snecessary to remember that there is a wider teleology which is not touched by the doctrine of Evolution, but is actually based upon the fundamental proposition of Evolution. This proposition is that the whole worle, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed. If this be true, it is no less certain that the existing world lay pontentially in the cosmic vapour, and that a suifficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of th eproperties of the molecules of that vapour, have predicted, say the state of the fauna of Britain in 1869, whcih as much certainty as one can say what will happen to the vapour of the breath on cold winter’s day …

‘… The teleological and mechanical views of nature are not, necessarily, mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the more purely a mechanist the speculator is, the more firmly does he assume a primordial molecular arrangement of which all the phenomena of the universe are the consequences, and the more completely is he thereby at the mercy of the teleologist, who can always defy him to disprove that this primoridal molecular arrangement was not intended to evolve the phenomena of the universe.”

‘The acute champion of Teleology, Paley, saw no difficulty in admitting that the “production of things” may be the result of trains of mechanical dispositions fixed before hand by intelligent appointment and kept in action by a power at the centre, that is to say, he proleptically accepted the modern doctrine of Evolution; and his successors might do well to follow their leader, or at any rate to attend to his weighty reasonings, before rushing into an antagonism that has no reasonable foundation’.

Now Huxley here appears to assume a Newtonian ‘clockwork’ universe, in which the action of every atom is predetermined and one could predict the future state of the cosmos by observing the pattern of atoms and the interactions in the present. This conception of the cosmos has been seriously challenged by quantum physics and its discovery that atoms and sub-atomic particles follow probabilistic laws. The late palaeontologist and writer on evolution, Steven Jay Gould, denmied that the pattern of life was predetermined. He believed that if the history of the Earth was replayed, then it would be completely different with entirely new creatures arising. The Roman Catholic theologian, John F. Haught, in his God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, has nevertheless argued that evolution is teleological, in that new, higher forms of life have successively appeared from more primitive forms. Alister McGrath, in his Darwinism and Divine, also notes modern philosophers and theologians who have argued that God could act in nature to create new forms precisely through quantum indeterminacy. Thus Huxley, and some contemporary theologians and scientists, still consider that evolution is still teleological. For these contemporary theologians, God is still acting in the world, shaping His creatures through the evolutionary process. It’s a view that Paley was prepared to accept. This also means that Paley’s conception of special creation could also extend into something like modern Intelligent Design theory. Huxley was an opponent of special creation, but he did not argue, and indeed respected Paley, for considering the possibility of evolution, even if Paley believed that it was driven by a divine intelligence.


John F. Haught, God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Boulder: Westview Press 2008)

Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘ON the Reception of the Origin of Species’ (London, 1887), in D.C. Goodman, ed., Science and Religious Belief 1600-1900: A Selection of Primary Sources (Dorchester: John Wright and Sons/ The Open University 1973) 455-82.

Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2011).

Buffon’s Scepticism of Evolution

May 6, 2013

From the way the history of the theory of evolution is presented, you could be forgiven for believing that no-one had considered it as a possible explanation for the origin of life before Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century. Other theorists of evolution had appeared earlier in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century – Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, Lamarck, Chambers, the author of the Vestiges of a Natural History of Creation, and finally the co-discoverer of Natural Selection with Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace. Yet as Rebecca Stott has demonstrated in her book, Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists, some philosophers had considered that life had evolved as far back as the time of Aristotle and one of his followers, Theophrastus. One of the pioneers of modern evolutionary theory was G.L. leclerc, Comte de Buffon. His Natural History, published from 1749 to 1767 was an encyclopedic discussion of the history of the Earth and its creatures. It created a taste for natural history amongst the French public, and shaped the way it was investigated in France for over a century. His esxsay on the pig is considered one of the classics of French Enlightenment writing. Examining the animal’s physiology, Buffon argued that it contained vestiges indicating its descent from an earlier species. Buffon was cautious about expressing his personal views of the history of the Earth. It appears, however, that he was probably much more sceptical about the Genesis account of the creation of the world than he appeared in his writings. In his History and Theory of the Earth of 1749 he argued that the world was formed through gradual, uniform geological processes. His essay in the same volume ‘An Examination of Other Theories of the Earth’ attacked scholars who attempted to mix natural history with theology. While Buffon acknowledged the possibility that animals could be formed through evolution, he was sceptical of its ability to do so.

Buffon opens his essay, ‘The Ass’ with the statement that ‘This animal, even when examined iwth minute attention, has the appearance of a degenerated horse’. He then proceeds to describe the similarities and differences between the two animals. He then expanded this argument to consider the similarity, in body plan, between humans, horses, and other kinds of animals, including birds, reptiles, whales and fish. He suggested that this showed

‘that the Supreme Being, in creating animals, employed only one idea, and, at the same time, diversified it in every possible manner, to give men an opportunity of admiring equally the magnificence of the execution and the simplicity of the design’. Buffon was sceptical of the existence of the taxonomic families into which contemporary biologists grouped animals. For him the only animal divisions that really existed were those of species. ‘If these families really existed’, he argued, ‘they could only be produced by the mixture and successive variation and degeneration of the primary species: and if it be once admitted, that there are families among plants and animals, that the ass belongs to the family of hte horse, and differs from his only be degeneration; with equal propriety may it be concluded, that the monkey belongs to the family of man; that the monkey is a man degenerated; tha tman and the monkey have sprung from a common stock, like the horse and ass; that each family, either among animals or vegetables, has been derived from the same origin; and even that all animated beinigs have proceeded from a singlespecies, which, in the course of ages, has produced, by improving and degenerating, all the different races that now exist’. If this was true, it would mean that ‘no bounds could be fixed to the powers of Nature; she might, with equal reason, be supposed to have been able, in the course of time, to produce from a single individual, all the organised bodies in the universe’.

Buffon rejected this, first arguing from Scripture that God had formed each creature individually. He then stated that since the time of Aristotle twenty centuries previously, no new species had been seen to emerge. He noted that although Nature proceeded with gradual and often imperceptible steps, the gap between different creatures was not always equal. He then went on to suggest the number of variations that had to be produced to form a creature of a different species from, and which could not breed with, those of its parents. He believed that if evolution existed, it always acted through degeneration, which invitably produced weak and infertile offspring. Buffon therefore concluded that

‘Though, therefore, we cannot demonstrate, that the formation of a new species, by means of degeneration, exceeds the power of Nature; yet the number of improbabilities attentind such a supposition, renders it totally incredible: for, if one species could be produced by the degeneration of another, if the ass actually originated from the horse, this metamorphosis could only have been effected by a long succession of imperceptible degrees. Between the horse and ass, there must have ben many intermediate animals, the first of which would gradually recede from the nature and qualities of the horse, and the last would make great advances to that of the ass. What is become of these intermediate beings? Why are their representatives and descendants now extinguished? Why should the two extremes alone exist?’

Buffon concluded that the ass was a unique animal, not at all descended from the horse.

‘We may, therefore, without hesitation, pronounce the ass to be an ass, and not a degerated horse, a horse with a naked tail. The ass is not a marvellous production. He is neither an intruder nor a bastard. Like all other animals, his family, his species, and his rank, are ascertained and peculiar to himself. His blood is pure and untainted; and, though his race be less noble and illustrious, it is equally unalloyed, as ancient as that of the horse.’ Buffon ends his discussion of the ass by arguing for its good qualities, qualities that also demanded respect.

Now Buffon was clearly hindered in considering the potential of evolution of create new species through the lack of fossil evidence for them available in his time and the lack of knowledge of geological deep time. It was only decades later, with Hutton and Lyell, that biologists were able to provide ages of the Earth that allowed for the development of species by the gradual, imperceptible steps of time that biologists required. What Buffon’s essay also shows, is that many biologists and natural historians in Buffon’s day also rejected evolution because they did not see it as a scientifically viable theory, apart from its conflict with the authority of Scripture. This attitude continued into the 19th century. Most of Darwin’s opponents were other scientists, not theologians.

My point here is that the conflict over the theory of evolution in the 18th and 19th centuries was not simply that of theology versus scripture, but also over scientific validity of the theory itself. When Bishop Samuel Wilberforce famously debated Huxley over Darwin’s theory, he opened the debate by saying that even if the theory was theologically offensive, it would still have to be accepted if it was true scientifically. Unfortunately, the 18th and 19th century debates and conflicts over Evolution tend to be presented as simply between advancing science and backwards religion. While one element of the conflict was on religious grounds, the scientific element of the debate also needs to be remembered and included.

Darwin, Huxley, the Nazis and the Morality of Science

July 26, 2008

One of the most controversial features of Ben Stein’s documentary about the institutional persecution of those scientists who support Intelligent Design, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, is its statement of the origins of the Nazis’ racial ideology, which culminated in the Holocaust, in Darwinism. The film’s many critics have angrily denounced it for using the horrors of the Holocaust to suggest that Darwin or his followers could ever have been responsible for one of the most horrific atrocities of the 20th century. Yet to historians the link between Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection and the genocidal racism of the Nazis is entirely uncontroversial. Regardless of their religious views, historians of the 19th and 20th century, and particularly those of Fascism and Nazi Germany, have accepted that Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection was one factor in the rise of Nazism, along with a number of others such as Hegelian philosophy and Von Treitschke’s ideas of German racial superiority. The fact that Natural Selection, and specifically the doctrine of the ‘survival of the fittest’, was a part of Nazi racial theory doesn’t mean that Darwinism is necessarily wrong. It does, however mean that scientists, and those who base their political doctrines on their ideas, aren’t automatically the best judges of morality.

Immoral Radition Experiments Demonstration that Science Not Guide to Morality

This should be entirely uncontroversial, even a matter of common sense. In the 20th century scientists were often responsible for the perpetration of great horror and suffering in experiments that were grossly immoral, quite apart from the Holocaust. The disclosure in the 1990s that the American authorities had conducted a series of radiation experiments on members of the armed forces and civilians, often on the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society, caused a massive scandal. The fact that this occurred, not in a totalitarian state like Nazi Germany or Communist North Korea, but in America, a country whose people feel is the most democratic nation on Earth, whose constitution is one of the most profound statements of innate and inalienable human rights, was a profound shock. Quite possibly it further contributed to the alienation and distrust many Americans feel towards the state, a feeling of suspicion and paranoia that found its reflection in the X-Files on TV. Horrifically immoral experiments like these have no doubt contributed to the suspicion many people have of science as a potentially amoral, degrading and dehumanising enterprise in which living things and people are dispensable, to be experimented upon as scientists, bureaucrats and politicians wish, and whose suffering can be entirely disregarded in the greater interests of the state and science. Of course the vast majority of scientists are as moral as their fellow citizens, and rightly view such atrocities with condemnation and contempt. Nevertheless, these episodes possess the power to shock and appall because of science’s immense power, a power which can easily appear to some to give them the ability to behave as they wish, above the moral constraints of the rest of society, regardless of the harm, cruelty and suffering they may inflict.

Scientists Expected to be more Moral due to Great Power

Part of the problem here may also be that scientists are somehow expected to behave better, to be more moral, because of their greater insight into the nature of the physical world. The immense benefits created by science are obvious, and clearly the medical professionals engaged in treating and healing disease rightly enjoy immense respect. It’s therefore particularly shocking and disturbing when instead of healing and improving life, science is directed towards inflicting pain and destroying it. Hence the horror and disgust surrounding the Holocaust, and human experimentation in Nazi Germany, wartime Japan, America and elsewhere.

Enlightenment Claim that Philosophy and Science Superior to Religion as Guide to Morals

Part of the horror and intense controversy surrounding such scientific abuse may also derive from the fact that since the Enlightenment science, or its spokesmen, have attempted to claim for it a status as the only reliable guide to morality previously reserved for philosophy and religion. In the 18th century sceptical rationalist philosophers, such as Voltaire, Diderot and Bentham, believed that it was only through the application of human reason that society could be properly reformed, and a just social order created, in contrast to what they saw as the superstition and tyranny created and maintained in traditional European society. In the 19th century, Darwin’s greater defender, T.H. Huxley, strongly believed that science was far more moral, and would be a far better guide to morality, than tradition religious belief. Indeed, ‘Huxley argued at great length to prove that Darwinism would be a greater eithical force than Christinaity had ever been.’ 1 Huxley’s view of the superiority of science as a guide to ethics in contrast to the churches wasn’t unique. In Germany during the 19th century the medical materialism of part of the scientific establishment contributed to a large proportion of the membership of liberal and left-wing movements being composed of doctors and other scientists. These doctors and scientists felt that scientific materialism would create a far more moral society than the repressive society of contemporary Germany, with its feudal social order in which religion was an integral part of the political establishment.

Questions of morality have traditionally been the province of philosophy and religion. Philosophers and theologians down the centuries have devoted much effort in defining morality, and attempting to develop practical guides for moral conduct. This has not changed with the rise of science. While science clearly has a major role to play in suggesting practical solutions to major problems, such as in the eradication of pests or the role of disease, nevertheless moral questions themselves still remain the proper subject for philosophers and theologians. Similarly, whatever their skill as scientists, it does not mean that scientists are necessarily more moral than any other member of society. Insight in one area, such as physics or biology, does not give one a greater insight into the nature of evil or what constitutes the truly good life, any more than great skill in any other field of human endeavour.

Claim that Darwinism Superior Guide to Morality than Religion Partly Responsible for Rejection of Judaeo-Christian Humanitarianism

Moreover, by claiming that Darwinism was superior to Christianity and other forms of traditional religion, Huxley, and similar evolutionary biologists like Ernst Haeckel in Germany, made it possible for some scientists and laymen to disregard traditional Judaeo-Christian humanitarian concerns as unscientific and morally backward. And from the criticisms of Stein’s movie, Expelled, for mentioning that there was a link between Darwin’s theory and the Holocaust, it seems that Huxley made it extremely difficult for some to accept that Darwinian evolutionary theory played a role in the rise of Nazism. Now as I said, the fact that Darwinism was one of the influences on the emergence of Nazism does not mean that Natural Selection is wrong, or diminish Darwin’s achievement as a scientist. It simply means that science, including Darwinism, is by no means a reliable guide to morality, and that society, and science, still needs to be morally guided by philosophy and religion.

Similarity between Religious Views of Huxley and Hitler

Hitler probably derived his bizarre racial theories from German and Austrian Volkisch neo-pagan magazines like Ostara when he was a tramp in Vienna before the First World War. HItler’s own religious views were pantheistic, in which God was considered to be the sum total of the laws of the universe, in contrast to the personal God of Judaism and Christianity. In his Table Talk for the night of 11th to 12th of July 1941, Hitler stated

‘Man has discovered in nature the wonderfull notion of that all-mighty being whose law he worships.

Fundamentally in everyone there is the feeling for this all-mighty, which we call God (that is to say, the dominion of natural laws through the whole universe). The priests, who have always succeeded in exploiting this feeling, threaten punishments for theman who refuses to accept the creed they impose.’2

He also stated that progress lay in the discovery of those laws of nature and adherence to them. ‘In any case, we shall learn to become familiar with the laws by which life is governed, and acquaintance with the laws of nature will guide us on the path of progress.’ 3 Now living a life in harmony with nature and its laws had been a moral ideal since ancient Greece. In the 18th century Enlightenment philosophes such as Rousseau had also recommended it as part of their campaign to create a more moral and humane society. In the case of the Nazis, it became immoral and sinister through their conception of racial conflict and genocide as part of the laws of nature.

Huxley also seems to have shared this pantheistic conception of God, declaring that the Almighty as ‘the sum of the customs of matter.’ 4 Huxley and Darwin were certainly not Nazis, no matter how much the Nazis may have based their own racial ideology on the idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’. Nevertheless, it does seem to indicate that Hitler was influenced by the pantheistic religious views that evolutionary biologists such as Haeckel expounded, while he elsewhere rejected Huxley otherwise very traditional Victorian morality.

Conclusion: Holocaust Example of What May Happen When Judaeo-Christian Morality Rejected in the Name of Science and Continued Need for Jewish and Christian Morals in Science

While the influence of Darwinism, along with a number of other 19th century ideologies on the Nazis certainly does not mean that Darwinism is wrong, the suffering and carnage they inflicted, along with those of the Communist states, were an example of the horror that can result when traditional religion is rejected in favour of a totalitarian political ideology claiming a basis in science, considered as being morally far superior to religion and traditional religious morality. The holocaust, and similar atrocities are instead a demonstration that science has not superseded Judaeo-Christian morality, but indeed needs to be governed by it.


1. Harry Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, Second Edition (London, Longman 1988), p. 400.

2. Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens, trans., Hitler’s Table-Talk: Hitler’s Conversations Recorded by Martin Bormann (Oxford, OUP 1953), p. 6.

3. Cameron and Stevens, Table-Talk, pp. 6-7.

4. Hearder, Europe, p. 399.