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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16.3 (2002) 225-238

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Evolution and Ethics:
The Huxley/Dewey Exchange

John Teehan
Hofstra University

Evolution has been a controversial theory since before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Darwin's own apprehension concerning the impending outcry over his work is well known. Almost one hundred and fifty years later, evolution seems to have lost little of its power to stir up resistance and opposition. For those working within evolutionary studies it causes little surprise (though perhaps no little dismay) to witness the ongoing battle against evolution waged by certain religious groups. What perhaps is surprising, however (though not necessarily dismaying), is to witness the ongoing struggles within evolutionary studies over possible extensions of evolutionary theory. I refer here to the issue of evolutionary ethics—not the evolutionary study of moral emotions or behavior, though this field is not without controversy, but specifically the implications of evolutionary theory for the normative study of ethics. That those generally opposed to evolution would also be opposed to evolutionary ethics is mere consistency. That those who accept evolution would be opposed, at times passionately opposed to evolutionary ethics is a much more significant fact.

Telling evidence of this is found in Ullica Segerstrale's Defenders of the Truth, in which she writes of the controversy over E. O. Wilson's keynote address to the Human Behavior and Evolution Society Conference in 1996. Wilson is, of course, the author of Sociobiology—and one of the seminal figures in the evolutionary study of human behavior. The Human Behavior and Evolution Society is the professional organization for those pursuing the study of humanity from an evolutionary perspective, and is a group that Wilson helped to found. Nevertheless, after his speech the organizers of the conference wrote a letter to Wilson, which was distributed to the entire membership of the [End Page 225] society, in which they questioned whether Wilson had intended to yoke normative issues to evolution. John Beckstrom (the author of the letter) informed Wilson that if that was, indeed, what he intended, "I would have to oppose vigorously your position and I expect many in attendance with whom I later discussed your speech, would do likewise" (Segerstrale 2000, 363). As Segerstrale documents, this was not the first instance of such a split between Wilson and his evolutionary colleagues, nor is it the only example of profound disagreement within the field over the moral implications of evolution.

In fact, not only is this a robust contemporary controversy, it is one that dates to the very beginning of the evolution debates. In 1894, T. H. Huxley published "Evolution and Ethics" (originally his Romanes Lecture of 1893), introduced by an equally lengthy prolegomena. This is a work likely known to most students of the subject, written as it was by Darwin's famed bulldog. What is clearly not well known is that a response of the same title was published a few years later (1898) by a then young and not yet famous American philosopher, John Dewey. It is curious to note that despite Dewey's eminence in twentieth-century philosophy, and his embrace of evolutionary thinking, he has been all but ignored in the ongoing debate over evolution and ethics. It may prove fruitful to revisit this nineteenth-century exchange, both to see what light it may shed on the contemporary scene and to evaluate Dewey's possible contribution to the discussion.

Huxley and Ruthless Evolution

Thomas Henry Huxley provides a stellar heritage for those evolutionists who warn against the dangers of conflating the principles of evolution and the rules of ethics. Huxley was the fearless and brash proponent of Darwinism, who not only took the fight to unconvinced scientists, but staunchly defended it against religious and social critics of the day. Yet when it came to the question of evolution and ethics, he seemed to do an about-face. He wrote, "Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but...


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