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Evolution and the Flux of Forms

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

Huxley: Prophet of Science. By Houston Peterson. New York: Longmans Green and Company. $3.50. Huxley. By Clarence Ayres. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. $3.00.

We often forget the price which others have paid for conceptions which we take for granted. In intellectual circles, evolution is a commonplace. The notion that living creatures have not sprung ready-made from the hand of the Creator, but have arisen in a long process of temporal development from individuals of a quite different type, is a conception so completely taken for granted as to be almost trivial. Yet this intellectual state has been achieved only after the most strenuous battles. So vigorous and vituperative did the struggle between sci-ence and religion in England become that before the battle had subsided the President of the Royal Society had been termed a tool of the devil, and one of England’s most important Bishops had achieved the title of “Soapy Sam.”

The scientist around whom this battle raged was Thomas Huxley. The political period was that of Queen Victoria and Gladstone. It is fitting, if for nothing more than a reminder of our indebtedness, that two books on Huxley and this struggle should come from the publishers for our reading at the present time. The one, by Houston Peterson, is more sober and systematic, treating Huxley’s life in chronological order; the other, by Clarence Ayres, has a freshness of expression, combined with a fair survey of the significant events and a more positive appraisal of the merits of his work. Both books review Huxley’s contribution from a philosophical standpoint, which is that of the outlook which Huxley established. This is necessary for an appreciation of his accomplishments; it is not sufficient, however, for a final appraisal of their adequacy.

Of course the latter undertaking can come only in an age which has passed on to a new scientific standpoint. Curiously enough this new outlook is already at hand. If either Ayres or Peterson had considered the modification in the significance of the concept of time which contemporary physics has already established, a more mature appraisal would have been possible.

Yet this omission may be in a sense fortunate, for before we can go on to the new lesson which current physics has to teach, we must first master the one which Huxley brought home to our elders in the last quarter of the last century.

No one can read either of these books on Huxley without realizing that England has enjoyed a great advantage over America because its intellectual leaders were forced to face this man and witness their traditional philosophical and theological opinions being battered down in public by the unequivocal logic and specific evidence which he brought forward. There is a decisiveness about Huxley’s refusal to soften down the conflict between science and religion, which clears the intellectual atmosphere. It is difficult to escape the opinion that American thought is still stifled because we have had no Huxley to demonstrate decisively both to the Modernists as well as the Fundamentalists in religion that certain ideas will not jibe with zoological knowledge concerning the origin and nature of man. England had her “Soapy Sams” in the church and saw them go down to a humiliating defeat; America, as Ayres suggests, still has hers and sees them flourish. This can only mean that we have not yet fully learned the lesson which Huxley has to teach. It is safe to say that there can be no sound intellectual health in us until this is done.

Yet it is now clear that we must go beyond Huxley. By this I mean very much more than that Darwin’s doctrine of the changing character of forms must be applied, as Dewey has indicated, to psychology, sociology, and ethics as well as to biology. The transition beyond Huxley and Darwin must apply to Dewey also.

A few comments will make this clear. The fundamental fact revealed by Darwin for living creatures in general, and applied by Huxley to the origin and character of man in particular, is that forms are subject to change with time. There can be no doubt about this. The crucial question, however, concerns the extent to which it is the case. The biological evidence does not answer this question. We know that there are forms in nature which are temporal, but this does not prove that all forms are temporal. We are concerned here with the ultimate status of the concept of time. Is everything subject to its destructive influence? Upon this question physics speaks with greater authority than biology and gives a fairly definite answer. Einstein has shown that time is not as ultimate and all-sufficient as nineteenth-century science supposed. Already contemporary physics has indicated that nature involves constant as well as changing structures. It becomes clear therefore that Darwin’s, Huxley’s, and Dewey’s doctrine of the temporal status of forms must now be supplemented with a polar doctrine of temporal and eternal forms. All this may be summarized by saying that the Middle Ages emphasized the completely eternal character of forms, the modern world their purely temporal character, whereas we are now discovering the presence of both types; Huxley is a part of the picture but not the whole of it.

This necessary supplementation of Huxley’s doctrine of forms is very important with reference to his ethical theory. He saw clearly that evolution gives no assurance of automatic progress toward a better state. “Let us understand, once for all,” he writes, “that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.” But if man is a purely cosmic system, as Huxley emphasized, it is difficult to understand how man can fight the cosmos. Yet Huxley says: “The history of civilization details the steps by which men have succeeded in building up an artificial world within the cosmos.” It is clear that Huxley must either give up his doctrine that man, like the apes, is one with inorganic nature, or else admit that the ethical character of human civilization is the expression of, and is not in opposition to, the cosmic process. The latter alternative is the only one compatible with his theory of man, but it is valid only if the temporal flux of forms which gives all ethical standards a purely temporary relative status is supplemented by a constant formal principle having equal basis in the cosmos itself.

The establishment of this viewpoint is the fundamental problem of our day. Contemporary life is witnessing the breakdown of sheer individualism whether in the biological or the economic field, just as contemporary physics is discovering the inadequacy or insufficiency of the purely temporal principle. Similarly in the political realm we have liberty without justice. Individualism has outrun any constant, controlling, unifying principle. The rediscovery of the principle of unity and constancy is upon us. Its application must balance individual against individual to soften struggle and revolution and unbridled competition with an authority of the whole, whether it be exerted over man or nation. Liberty must be tempered with justice. There must be both Huxley and Plato. Both are right. There is the flux of forms and the form constant through the flux. Both types of form constitute nature and human nature. Conduct which ignores either must fail. Liberty without justice is negated not merely, as Huxley thought, by man in a defiant gesture against the cosmos, but by the very cosmos itself. The point is so important as to bear repetition: there are cosmic structures which are temporary and cosmic structures which are eternal; both temporal development and eternal being exist in any natural system.

To determine precisely how these two principles fit together, and to secure for the rediscovered eternal forms the same scientific authority which the doctrine of the temporal character of biological forms now enjoys, so that man will see that he must weave justice as well as liberty into his institutions if they are to survive—this is the tremendously important task of our time. In this undertaking Huxley’s standpoint is necessary but not sufficient. A new scientific philosophy which will do for Einstein and Planck and Darwin what Huxley did for Darwin alone, is necessary.


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