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ALTRUISM AND OTHER UNNATURAL ACTS: T. H. HUXLEY ON NATURE, MAN, AND SOCIETY* SCOTT F. GILBERT! In Western thought, there are two major models of the relationship between nature and ethics. The first and more ancient conception, philosophically formulated at least as early as Pythagorus, is that nature, being created by a benevolent deity, reflects the attributes of its creator. It therefore may serve as an example for proper moral behavior. This model of nature as a guide for ethical conduct found its ascendency in classical Stoicism and the natural theologies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The second conceptualization of this relationship holds that nature is inherently amoral, and for a man to follow nature is only to pursue his worst instincts. This model is the hallmark of Pauline Christianity especially as seen in the Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians. Indeed, Paul posits an "evolutionary" anthropology, allowing man to rise out of the "evil" kingdom of nature into that special grace afforded men only. "But if you act like animals, hurting and harming each other, then watch out, or you will completely destroy one another. . . . And those who belong to the ChristJesus have put to death their human nature, with all its passions and desires" [I]. Paul's view that human nature represents the basest part of him was generally accepted by Christendom until the Renaissance and was manifest in the Church's doctrines calling for the renunciation of the physical in favor of the spiritual good. In Victorian England, however, natural theology—the attempt to elucidate God's existence, omnipotence, and benevolence from his creations—was still a popular approach to the study of nature. One of the most important correlates of this view is that what is considered to be "natural" is thereby moral and right. To be in accord with nature is to be *This essay received honorable mention in the secondPerspectives Writing Award competition for authors under 35. flnstitute for Enzyme Research, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin 53706.© 1979 by The University of Chicago. 0031-5982/79/2203-0077$01.00 346 Scott F. Gilbert ¦ Altruism and Other Unnatural Acts in harmony with God's benevolently planned creation. This principle was classically enunciated by that great hero of the natural theologians, Cicero: "True law is right reason in agreement with Nature; it is of universal application, unchanging, and eternal" [2, p. xiv]. This doctrine was picked up by Aquinas from whom all other Christian natural theologians have received it1 [2, p. xiv]. The era in which Darwin and Huxley wrote was heavily imbued with this notion. Paley's Natural Theology, first published in 1802, remained well read and, even as late as 1920, was allowed as an alternative to logic in Cambridge University's entrance examination [3, p. 21]. Transcendentalist writers preached their sermons of natural intuitivism, and art glorified nature with her own godhead. Man's virtue, they said, is greatest when he emulates nature. The Victorians sought justification for their ethics from nature. In his essay, "Nature" (1872), John Stuart Mill, criticizing this attitude of his contemporaries, noted that "Naturam sequi [to follow nature] was the fundamental principle of morals in many of the most admired schools of philosophy. . . . The Stoics and the Epicureans, however irreconcilable in the rest oftheir systems, agreed in holding themselves bound to prove that their respective maxims of conduct were the dictates of nature. . . ." Even today, ". . . that any mode of thinking, feeling, or acting is 'according to nature' is usually accepted as a strong argument for its goodness . . . and the word 'unnatural' has not ceased to be one of the most vituperative epithets in the language" [4, p. 9]. In his "Data on Ethics" (1879), Herbert Spencer claimed, "My ultimate purpose, lying behind all proximate purposes, has been that of finding for the principles of right and wrong in conduct at large, a scientific basis" [5, p. xiii]. For this task, Darwinism seemed perfect. In 1859, Darwin's The Origin ofSpecies challenged many contemporary ideas about theology and man's place in nature. However it did not challenge the contemporary view that nature can provide a basis for ethics. Rather, the scientific vindication of the belief...


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