Evidently, the “new” cause of tech millionaires and billionaires like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk is the survival of our species, at any cost, until it reaches a “transhuman” plane. Once reached, humans, or I guess post-humans, will push out into the universe physically and virtually for the next 10e100 years, and perhaps beyond.
Yes, it sounds like bad science fiction or dorm room philosopy, but this idea, labeled “longtermism,” is being lustily promoted by a few very serious thinkers, including Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, research fellow at the Global Priorities Institute, and Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute, and has managed to attract, as of 2023, at least $46 billion in committed funding.
Émile P. Torres, a one-time acolyte and now very public critic, calls longtermism “quite possibly the most dangerous secular belief system in the world today.” According to Torres, longtermism is “straight out of the playbook” of Julian Huxley, who carried his thinly veiled faith in eugenics to his death in 1975. And longtermerists are not even veiled.
So, who was Julian Huxley?
Grandson of “Darwin’s bulldog,” T. H. Huxley, Julian Huxley was a prolific public intellectual who came of age during the heyday of eugenics in the 1910s and 20s. Like many of his generation, he was enthralled. Huxley is credited with the term “modern synthesis,” the label for theory of evolution that holds sway today. Unfortunately, his chief talent was not science, but rationalization. His lifelong defense of eugenics, under a string of euphemisms, like evolutionary humanism, did little more in the long run than provide fodder for 40 years of polarizing reactionary politics, and have now returned from the dead.
Here is how Huxley described the genesis of his idea and its scope:
While still a young lecturer at Oxford I became convinced of the necessity of extending the general theory of evolution to cover the manifestations and processes of human nature as well as those of nature in the customary sense, but at the same time of the folly and indeed danger of simply extrapolating biological principles into the human sphere. Thus in some public lectures which I gave in 1913 while Professor of Biology at the Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Texas, I formulated the concept of a critical point between the biological and the human psychosocial phase of evolution, a threshold whose crossing involved a radical change in the methods and the results of the process. (Huxley 1964a, 5)
Though his concept of the “psychosocial” phase of evolution would not be formed until much later, Huxley did formulate the essential core of his “grand idea” early in his intellectual career. It remained unchanged for 60 years. Until his death in 1975, Huxley never stopped defending the idea that human beings could, indeed must, take charge of the evolutionary process to forestall genetic degeneration and drive human progress. He would first call this idea “scientific humanism,” and then later, “evolutionary humanism.” It was an ideology (Huxley called it a new religion) that played against cultural and class insecurities to promote a creed of progress through science and planning. In Essays of a Humanist, Huxley writes, “[man] is not merely exceedingly young; he is also exceedingly imperfect, an unfinished and often botched product of evolutionary improvisation” (254). He adds, “The human species is in desperate need of genetic improvement …. Luckily it not only must but can be improved (259). Huxley never tired of promoting his idea through lectures, books, articles, essays, and those few professional pulpits – Chair of the Department of Biology at Rice Institute, Secretary of the London Zoological Society, Secretary-General of UNESCO – behind which he found himself for two- or three-year stints during his life.
“Genetic improvement” is of course a euphemism for eugenics, a word notably missing from the above quote. As C. Kenneth Waters notes in his introduction to Julian Huxley: Biologist and Statesman of Science, “most of the literature on Huxley has been written by Huxley himself or by former colleagues, students, and sympathizers … One part of Huxley’s past they chose to ignore was his nearly lifelong work in eugenics and his association with the Eugenics Society” (Waters & Van Helden, 21). That is no surprise, but still rather amazing, for even a quick review of Huxley’s published essays show eugenics to be among his central concerns. Of course, after World War II, the word “eugenics” carried images of racial cleansing and Nazi death camps, and Huxley, as would be expected, became a bit more careful when using it in his writings from the mid-30’s and on. But tellingly, Huxley never disowned the word. He did try, from the mid-1930s on, to clarify that “his” eugenics, as opposed to the Nazi conception, was a rational, progressive, and from Huxley’s perspective, a “scientifically true” conception. Humanity had to make the attempt. A “rationalized eugenics,” according to Huxley, was humanity’s only hope. In 1962, at his second appearance as keynote speaker before the British Eugenics Society (the first being in 1936), Huxley said, “eugenics can make an important contribution to man’s further evolution: but it can only do so if it considers itself as one branch of [the] new nascent science [of Evolutionary Possibilities], and fearlessly explores all the possibilities that are open to it” (Huxley 1964a, 252). Rather than rethink his commitment to eugenics, Huxley instead developed a complete metaphysical system, an ever-more elaborate rationalization.
Julian Huxley’s grand idea was nothing more than wishful thinking wrapped in a package that sounded like science. At its foundation, were false, or at least highly questionable, assumptions about scientific objectivity, human exceptionalism, and most critically, inevitable evolutionary progress. Huxley’s “Evolutionary Humanism,” his rational, more “evolved” and evolving religion, was a self-serving and exclusionary ethics. The irony of course is that Huxley, for all his apparent intellectual gifts, was unable to truly embrace Darwin (as the philosopher William James and other “pragmatists” had been able to do a generation before), and come see the whole of human culture, with its multiplicity of ideas, as a “biological” phenomenon, most likely the result of natural selection, still subject to random variation and blind selective pressure, and still evolving. Huxley was as unsettled by ideas of contingency and relativity as any religious fundamentalist, or apparently, as many billionaire influencers are today.
Huxley, Julian. (1927). Religion Without Revelation. Ernest Benn Limited: London.
—. (1941). Man Stands Alone. Harper & Brothers: New York.
—. (1953). Evolution in Action. Harper & Row: New York.
—. (1957). Knowledge, Morality & Destiny. Harper & Brothers: New York.
—. (1947). UNESCO: Its Purpose and Its Philosophy. The Frederick Printing Co., Ltd:
—. (1964a). Essays of a Humanist. Harper & Row: New York.
—. (1964b, originally published 1942). Evolution: The Modern Synthesis.
John Wiley & Sons: New York.
Torres, Émile P. “Against Longtermism.” Aeon. Oct. 19, 2021. https://aeon.co/essays/why-longtermism-is-the-worlds-most-dangerous-secular-credo.
Waters, C. Kenneth. Albert Van Helden. (Eds). (1992). Julian Huxley: Biologist and
Statesman of Science. Rice University Press: Houston.