Foundations: Thomas Huxley and Racial Imperatives

January 7, 201355 Comments

Brenton Sanderson


The nineteenth century English biologist Thomas Huxley is today best known as a leading early supporter of Darwin’s theory of evolution. His eloquent defense of Darwin during his famous 1860 debate with Samuel Wilberforce led to the wider acceptance of evolution. Huxley’s polemical support for Darwin’s theory (which earned him the title of “Darwin’s Bulldog”) has, however, overshadowed his status as a man who was an acute thinker in his own right. Particularly worthy of greater attention is his essay “Evolution and Ethics” (1894) where he argues that ethics are a by-product of natural selection, and particularly of the struggle for existence between groups.

Huxley starts his essay by distinguishing between what he calls the “cosmic process” and the “ethical process.” The cosmic process is, for Huxley, the process that governs the universe (or more specifically and to the purpose of Huxley’s essay, all of the “forms of life which tenant the world”).[i] He notes that “one of the most salient features of this cosmic process is the struggle for existence, the competition of each with all, the result of which is selection, that is to say, the survival of those forms which, on the whole, are best adapted to the conditions which at any period obtain; and which are, therefore, in that respect, and only in that respect, the fittest.”[ii] Like Thomas Malthus and Charles Darwin before him, Huxley saw all living things as locked in a life and death struggle for existence – and human beings, like other living things, are fully implicated in this struggle which “tends to eliminate those less fitted to adapt themselves to the circumstances of their existence.”[iii] In “Evolution and Ethics,” Huxley observes that:

With all their enormous differences in natural endowment, men agree in one thing, and that is their desire… to do nothing but that which pleases them to do, without the least reference to the welfare of the society in which they are born. That is their inheritance (the reality at the bottom of the doctrine of original sin) from the long series of ancestors, human and semi-human and brutal, in whom the strength of this innate tendency to self-assertion was the condition of victory in the struggle for existence. (Emphasis added.)[iv]

Here Huxley, the man who gave us the term ‘agnostic’, offers us a thoroughly scientific and Darwinian interpretation of St. Augustine’s doctrine of “original sin.” Our original sin, according to Huxley, is not that we are born as humans, but rather that we are born (at least psychologically) as primates for whom self-interest — even accompanied by brutality — was paramount. Unlike the traditional Christian doctrine of original sin which requires us to believe in a fable about talking serpents and forbidden fruit, Huxley’s version of the doctrine rests on a simple acceptance of the law of natural selection, the characteristic feature of which “is the intense and unceasing competition of the struggle for existence.”[v]

Huxley book

If our original sin is to be born as mental primates, then, for Huxley, the only cure is for us to be made to feel ashamed of our primate nature. In identifying the biological reality at the bottom of the theological doctrine of original sin, Huxley recognized that any human group, if it hoped to cooperate and thereby survive as a group, had, of necessity, to develop internal defense mechanisms that could check the human animal’s “innate tendency to self-assertion.” Thus, in the interests of group survival, within any group “the cosmic struggle for existence, as between man and man, would be rigorously suppressed.”[vi] It is clear that, for Huxley, the only viable societal mechanism that could perform this task of suppressing human self-assertion was the socialization of children based on shame – emotionally wrenching and physiologically manifested shame.

Huxley observes that “every child, born into the world will still bring with him the instinct of unlimited self-assertion. He will have to learn the lesson of self-restraint and renunciation.”[vii] Children, from a very young age, had to be taught to be ashamed of their inborn animal desire “to do nothing but that which pleases them to do.” Reason, for Huxley, could not perform this service, because the instilling of shame had to occur long before the age of reason was reached; indeed, unless you first taught children to be ashamed of unreasonable behavior, you would have a hard time ever being able to reason with them at all. In short, without inculcating a shaming code in all members of a group, the group would merely be an agglomeration of different individuals, each of whom sought only “to do nothing but that which pleases them to do, without the least reference to the welfare of the society in which they were born.” For Huxley, shame was such a vital element in the ethical progress of mankind for reasons that relate directly to natural selection. In essence, it was shame that led to cooperation, and cooperation to group survival.

Social organization for the purposes of group survival is certainly not peculiar to man and Huxley notes that: “Other societies, such as those constituted by bees and ants, have also arisen out of the advantage of cooperation in the struggle for existence.”[viii] He points out that: “Wolves could not hunt in packs except for the real, though unexpressed, understanding that they should not attack one another during the chase.”[ix] For Huxley, it was axiomatic that, all things being equal, an individual who was part of a larger group increased his chances of survival due to the protection offered him by the size of the group. In the struggle for survival, loners are losers. Huxley posits that the most basic form of human social organization – the family – came about for precisely this reason, noting that “it is easy to see that every increase in the duration of the family ties, with the resulting cooperation of a larger and larger number of descendants for protection and defense, would give the families in which such modification took place a distinct advantage over the others. And, as in the [bee] hive, the progressive limitation of the struggle for existence between members of the family would involve increased efficiency as regards outside competition.”[x]


Thomas Huxley

But if the survival of the individual depends on the group, then the group that can be relied on the most will give its members an evolutionary advantage over those weaker groups that lack the same cohesiveness. If you are a member of a weak group, all the members of which scatter upon encountering a band of enemies, what advantage does your membership in it give you? It is always more adaptive to be a member of a strong group, and a strong group can be defined as one in which all members are united by a strong collective shaming code felt at a visceral (i.e., emotional) level. Aside from the ethnocentrism stemming from their phenotypic similarity, it is this which will make the members of the group feel as one. They are disgusted, angered, delighted, and shamed by the same things. Huxley notes that human socialization, involving the inculcation of a group-centered shaming code (the embryo of all human ethical systems), is greatly facilitated by the mutual affection of parent and offspring during the long human infancy, and, most importantly, by

the tendency, so strongly developed in man, to reproduce in himself actions and feelings similar to, or correlated with, those of other men. … It is needful to look around us, to see that the greatest restrainer of the anti-social tendencies of men is fear not of the law, but of the opinion of their fellows. The conventions of honor bind men who break legal, moral and religious bonds; and, while people endure the extremity of physical pain rather than part with life, shame drives the weakest to suicide. … We judge the acts of others by our own sympathies, and we judge our own acts by the sympathies of others, every day and all day long, from childhood upwards, until associations, as indissoluble as those of language, are formed between certain acts and the feelings of approbation or disapprobation. It becomes impossible to imagine some acts without disapprobation, or others without approbation of the actor, whether he be one’s self, or anyone else. We come to think in the acquired dialect of morals.[xi]

This acquired dialect of morals is what provides a group with a powerful sense of collective identity: it makes members of a group think and feel as a tribal community. This shared visceral code, when pushed to the extreme, makes it almost impossible for the individual to feel himself as an individual. This negation of the individual – so characteristic of almost all cultures besides Western culture – served an important collective purpose: it kept all the members of the tribe feeling viscerally in sync with one another, and prevented the emergence of groups within the tribe who might break down its solidarity. According to Huxley, this solidarity gave an enormous evolutionary advantage to those who had obtained it, which would explain why the tribe would react ferociously to any threat to it. It would act, in a sense, like the human immune system: the moment it detected a foreign agent that threatened the entire organism, it would not ask questions, but would promptly attack to eliminate the intruder as quickly as possible before it had a chance to reproduce and spread.

The whole point of an effective tribal shaming code is to make the person who has internalized it feel that it is entirely natural and obvious. It is instilled in us from infancy, and certainly before we have sufficient rational judgment of the world, or knowledge of ourselves, to voluntarily accept it.  We could not have chosen it for ourselves – rather it was chosen for us. That is why so many people find it virtually impossible to stop being ashamed of those things that they were taught were shameful from infancy. Even when we later become aware of it, and are able to offer rational criticism of it, we are nevertheless still subject to it at a visceral level – shameful conduct will automatically trigger physiological symptoms of panic and anxiety – we will blush, break out into a sweat, have trouble breathing, feel nausea, and so forth. The pre-emptive physiological judgment passed by the shaming code is not a product of moral reflection – it is a reflex reaction, but one that has been instilled by the society, rather than endowed by nature.

huxley shaming

In his essay Huxley emphasizes the survival value of the tribal mind in a world ruled by the cosmic process, (i.e., the law of the jungle). A tribe that shares a powerful visceral code that inhibits the natural tendency of the individual to self-assertion will present a united front against its enemies. It will stick together and not fragment and dissolve under stress in the face of conflict. In a strong group, when an individual is given a chance to desert his fellows in order to save his own skin, he will be inhibited from this act of selfish betrayal by an unbearable visceral shame. What will keep him loyal to the group are not his higher faculties of reflection and cogitation – all of which may be screaming to him, “Run for your life, you fool!” Rather, it is the physiological reactions that have been programmed into him from an early age through the process of shaming. It is his nervous system, his sweat glands, his bowels that force him to stand and fight with his group rather than to flee at the first opportunity. One is reminded of the fanatical, indeed suicidal, resistance of the Japanese and German armed forces in the closing months of World War II.

While this can also be dubbed a code of honor, Huxley would say that a code of honor is just the conscious psychological assent to the rightness of the physiological responses his culture has implanted in him. A warrior, for example, is first made to feel deep shame at betraying his comrades in battle; it is only after having been programmed to feel this shame under even the most dire circumstances that the warrior can come to take pride in the training and discipline that made him incapable of acting in his own self-interest.

The socialization of German children under National Socialism offers a compelling illustration of the use of a shaming code to engender intense group cohesion and promote selfless behavior. A constant refrain of the literature of the Hitler Youth was the idea of the individual sacrificing himself for his leader, where the basic idea was

of a group of heroes inseparably tied to one another by an oath of faithfulness who, surrounded by physically and numerically superior foes, stand their ground. … Either the band of heroes is reduced to the last man, who is the leader himself defending the corpses of his followers – the grand finale of the Nibelungenlied – or through its unparalleled heroism brings about some favorable change in fortune. [xii]

The socialization of the Hitler Youth emphasized group cohesion, selflessness, and hostility to the outgroup

The socialization of the Hitler Youth emphasized group cohesion, selflessness, and hostility to the outgroup

Huxley identified the flaw in any political ethic that like that of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) which was is based on enlightened self-interest alone: a rationally derived self-interest — even the most enlightened —  would not result in people willing to die for the group. If human beings had to wait until they were reasonable enough to see the advantage of entering into Hobbes’s celebrated social contract, they would long since have become slaves or the defenceless prey of the those groups whose social unity was based on a primordial and visceral sense of loyalty – a cohesion so intensely felt that it did not need rational arguments to create it.

In other words, those groups animated by a high degree of ethnocentrism and group cohesion would eliminate those whose fragile solidarity was merely based on reason and the social contract. Cohesive groups invariably out-compete individualist strategies. As Roger Scruton points out: “The error of individualism lies in the attempt to found a vision of society on the idea of rational choice alone – on an ‘abstract’ notion, as Hegel put it, of practical reason, which makes no reference to history, community, and the flesh.”[xiii]

Huxley’s Ethics and Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy

Huxley’s explanation for the emergence of human ethics ties in neatly with Kevin MacDonald’s theory of group evolutionary strategies that operate through the construction of culture. A key feature of any effective group evolutionary strategy will be the construction of an effective societal shaming code designed to reinforce group cohesion and solidarity. Jews are the prime example of a biological community with a powerful shaming code imposed by a set of practices aimed at socializing individuals into identifying strongly and exclusively with the ingroup. MacDonald notes that the defining feature of Jewish history has been that group interests, rather than individual interests, have been of primary importance.

Of the hundreds of human groups in the ancient world, only Judaism avoided the powerful tendencies toward cultural and genetic assimilation. Judaism as a group strategy depends on the development of social controls reinforcing group identity and preventing high levels of genetic admixture from surrounding groups. … As with all collectivist cultures Judaism depends on inculcating a very powerful sense of group identification. Socialization in collectivist cultures stresses group harmony, obedient submission to hierarchical authority, the honoring of parents and elders, in-group loyalty, and trust and cooperation within the in-group. … There has been a very conscious attempt on the part of the Jewish community to inculcate a sense of group belongingness among all Jews. One aspect of these socialization influences is to continually place group members in situations where group activities involve very positive experiences, but there is also socialization for developing feelings of separateness from gentile culture. [xiv]

Charles Murray notes that “traditional Jewish culture is not all that different from Confucianism or Islamic culture in the way that it embeds individual moral agency in family and community. Orthodox Jewish culture is effective in fostering human capital through its emphasis on education and indirectly through its effects on mating patterns, but duty takes precedence over vocation, and the interests of the family and community takes precedence over self-fulfillment.”[xv] Given the potential for post-Enlightenment Western social structure (based on individualism and moral universalism) to break down Jewish cohesiveness, the socialization of Jewish children took on, post-Emancipation, even greater importance as a way of maintaining the group identification and commitment of Diaspora Jews.

Orthodox Jewish “habits of mind” are inculcated from an early age

Orthodox Jewish “habits of mind” are inculcated from an early age

The incredible strength of group identification engendered by the traditional Jewish shaming code is revealed by the fact that, in post-emancipation Germany of the nineteenth century, assimilation did not occur at any level of the Jewish community. MacDonald notes that: “In addition to a very visible group of Orthodox immigrants from Eastern Europe, Reform Jews generally opposed intermarriage, and secular Jews developed a wide range of institutions that effectively cut them off from socializing with gentiles.”[xvi] In accounting for the overwhelming tendency of Jews to resist assimilation into German society, Jacob Katz asserts that: “What secular Jews remained attached to was not easy to define, but neither, for the Jews involved, was it easy to let go of: there were family ties, economic interests, and perhaps above all sentiments and habits of mind which could not be measured and could not be eradicated.”[xvii] These “sentiments and habits of mind” were the desired product of many centuries of eugenic practices which reinforced Jewish ethnocentrism, in conjunction with a virulently strong tribal shaming code which inculcated a fanatical devotion and commitment to the tribe and an equally fanatical intolerance and hatred of the outgroup. Like Jews, Muslim immigrants to the West have, by and large, not shown any inclination to assimilate themselves. Instead, like Jews, when they move to the West, they quickly begin to demand that the local culture start to transform itself to accommodate them.

Multiculturalism, as a Jewish intellectual and political movement, is just the latest attempt by Jews to erect a rigid barrier against the individualistic Western social structure that threatens to undermine Jewish cohesiveness through undermining and weakening the psychological grip of the traditional shaming code of Judaism. MacDonald observes that multiculturalism, like neo-Orthodoxy and Zionism, is simply another Jewish response “to the Enlightenment’s corrosive effects on Judaism” which involves the creation of a “defensive structure erected against the destructive influence of European civilization.”[xviii] It is an attempt to resolve the “fundamental and irresolvable friction between Judaism and prototypical Western political and social structure.”[xix]

Jewish history clearly indicates that the tribal mind and in-group fanaticism are functional adaptations to a world ruled by Huxley’s cosmic process (i.e. the law of the jungle) – functional in the sense that they increase the odds of survival. In his History of the Hebrew People the nineteenth century French historian and philosopher Ernst Renan maintained, like Huxley, that tribal fanaticism has played a dialectically necessary role in human ethical progress. The Jews were undoubtedly tribal fanatics, Renan observed; yet without their fanaticism they would not have preserved the cultural practices necessary for group survival. The essence of fanaticism is to follow blindly the collective mind without question or criticism. It is the negation of individual thinking that pays off in terms of the capacity of a group to survive in competition with other groups. The fanatic is the person who is willing to follow blindly, and to trust implicitly, and never to doubt or to question the authority of the group customs and traditions.

Jewish tribal fanaticism is highly adaptive

Jewish tribal fanaticism is highly adaptive

By sharp contrast, Western history has been punctuated by numerous instances where White people have appealed to their own conscience to condemn the behavior of members of their own biological community. During the Boer War, for instance, there were many in England who through the English were acting unjustly toward the Afrikaners, and who were particularly outraged by Lord Kitchener’s policy of interning Boer women and children in disease-ridden “concentration camps.” The tribal actor, on the other hand, cannot take a moral stance outside the perspective of his tribe. For the tribal actor, the highest ethical idea is: “My tribe, right or wrong.” The mere idea that his tribe could be wrong is unthinkable for the tribal actor, since he defines as right whatever the tribe deems right, and wrong as whatever the tribe deems wrong.

[i] Thomas Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, 2.

[ii] Ibid., 2.

[iii] Ibid., 24.

[iv] Ibid., 8.

[v] Ibid., 4.

[vi] Ibid., 6.

[vii] Ibid., 13.

[viii] Ibid., 7.

[ix] Ibid., 17.

[x] Ibid., 8.

[xi] Ibid., 9.

[xii] Quoted in: Kevin MacDonald, Separation and Its Discontents: Toward An Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism (1st Books Library, 2004), 162.

[xiii] Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy (New York: Penguin, 1996), 436.

[xiv] Kevin MacDonald, A People That Shall Dwell Alone, Judaism As a Group Evolutionary Strategy with Diaspora Peoples (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2002; originally published in 1994 by Praeger [Westport, CT]), c.

[xv] Charles Murray, Human Accomplishment (New York: Perennial, 2004), 404.

[xvi] MacDonald, Separation and Its Discontents, 166.

[xvii] Quoted in: Ibid.

[xviii] Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth Century Intellectual and Political Movements, (Westport, CT: Praeger, Revised Paperback edition, 2001), 316.

[xix] Ibid., 320.


Part II


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