The First Religion Devoted to Evolution

Julian Huxley (1887-1975) is remembered as one of the most eminent biologists and science writers of the 20th century. He's less well known for what he considered to be his true life's work: the establishment of a new religion he called "evolutionary humanism."

Huxley was the grandson of Charles Darwin's friend and "bulldog," Thomas Henry Huxley, and the brother of novelist Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World. He was also one of the architects of the "Modern Synthesis" that ultimately united Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics.

Huxley abandoned his traditional academic career in the early 1930s to write for popular audiences and by the 1950s, he was arguably the world's most prominent and authoritative voice on scientific matters. Huxley was a sort of early twentieth century version of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and historians have come to refer to him as the "statesman of science." A committed leftist, he argued fiercely argued that science had failed to prove any innate racial differences (although he personally suspected such differences existed). He was also an ardent and unrepentant eugenicist.

The Invention of Evolutionary Humanism

Huxley's genteel progressivism seems at odds with the popular image of eugenics. While many eugenics enthusiasts were racists on the the far right of the political spectrum, Huxley was part of a "reform eugenics" movement which was popular among British socialists like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.

For these reform eugenicists, social equality was a necessary prerequisite for identifying genetic inequality. And that's where Huxley's notion of evolutionary humanism came in. He wrote that evolutionary humanism elevated this mission to a religious quest:

The lineaments of the new religion ... will arise to serve the needs of the coming era... Instead of worshipping supernatural rulers, it will sanctify the higher manifestations of human nature, in art and love, in intellectual comprehension and aspiring adoration, and will emphasize the fuller realization of life's possibilities as a sacred trust.

The key to achieving these aims was to educate the public, enabling them to think in evolutionary terms. In Huxley's mind, a widespread acceptance of an evolutionary worldview represented the process of evolution "reaching self-consciousness [and] becoming aware of itself."

The First Religion Devoted to Evolution

In order to make sense of evolutionary humanism as a religion, however, you also have to understand Huxley's somewhat idiosyncratic approach to evolution itself. Biologists generally define evolution in terms of allele frequencies, mutations, selection, and drift. For Huxley, this was just a small part of a much broader picture. He radically expanded the concept so that all directional change was evolution. In Huxley's view, "the whole sum of reality is, in a perfectly legitimate sense, evolution." It was also, for Huxley, inherently progressive. Evolution necessarily moved towards "higher," or more complex, states of being.

Huxley broke this universal process of evolution down into three stages: cosmic, biological, and psychosocial. Cosmic evolution was the slow development of complex structures through physical and chemical processes; the formation of stars and production of heavier elements, the gradual formation of planets, and the emergence of simple organic chemistry. Biological evolution was more or less what we think of by the word "evolution" today, although Huxley believed that most biological progress ended roughly five million years ago, and that only minor improvements, especially among early hominids, had occurred since. Progress was the whole point of evolution, but had only just gotten started in the last, psychosocial stage.

The Psychosocial Future

In the psychosocial stage of evolution, Huxley argued, humans had transcended the limitations of biology, and were now evolving in an intellectual and social realm. Rather than genetic mutation, evolution operated on acquired knowledge and shared cultural experience. DNA was replaced by memory and language.

Huxley believed that if evolution was acting on ideas and thoughts, then the most important products of evolution were no longer organisms or species, but what he called "idea-systems." Psychosocial evolution was taking place inside minds that could understand it. This meant that those minds could control and direct their own evolution, transforming a merely progressive view of evolution into an explicitly teleological one. Evolution could be given a purpose. These beliefs may sound familiar to anyone who has read Richard Dawkins' theory of memes, or knows a bit about transhumanism (Huxley actually wrote an essay called "Transhumanism" in the 1950s).

Huxley defined an idea-system as "a picture of the universe at large… and of man's place and role in nature, his relations with the rest of the universe." Religions were idea-systems, as were certain political and philosophical ideologies, including Communism, Nazism, capitalism, and even "gloomy Existentialism." The march of history was the evolution of idea-systems; as they evolved, the people who inhabited them enjoyed ever-increasing social, cultural, technological, and scientific progress.

In Huxley's view, existing idea-systems had reached their evolutionary limits and were no longer contributing to human progress. In fact, he saw the dominant idea-systems of the mid-twentieth century as not only standing in the way of progress, but actually threatening humanity with extinction.

The First Religion Devoted to Evolution

The survival of the human species would require a new idea-system, a secular religion based on evolutionary and humanistic principles that would radically change the way people thought about each other and the world they inhabited. Through improved education, evolutionary humanism would become a unifying ideology, shared by the entire world, ensuring universal peace and prosperity, and accelerating evolutionary progress towards unimaginable new heights.

Obviously, Huxley's new religion never really took off. Although humanist organizations were enthusiastic about it, many scientists like Peter Medawar ridiculed Huxley's "mystical" approach to evolution — although others, including Theodosius Dobzhansky, faulted him for not being mystical enough. By the time of his death in 1975, Huxley's view of evolution had been largely abandoned, and his new religion went extinct.

Jon Phillips is graduate student who studies the history of science, focusing on the intersection of evolutionary biology and politics. He has an MA from the University of Chicago and will be starting his PhD at Johns Hopkins this fall. He also writes profiles of prominent scientific racists for the Southern Poverty Law Center.