One must look into this book to see what the title means; but the title under which it was published in England is more informative: The Uniqueness of Man — which is also the title of the first of the essays. These essays, fifteen in number, are very miscellaneous, being reprints of magazine articles between 1927 and 1939, to very diverse readers. In seeking a thread to bind this collection, the author points out that they were all written during a period when an old order was passing and the birth-throes of a new order were supervening; so that they may be regarded as contributory to a general aspiration towards social amelioration. To the reader however a much closer bond of unity may be found in the fact that they together constitute a revelation of the mind of Professor Huxley himself, and of whatever school of thought he may be taken as representing. The author is no scientific recluse, but a man interested in human welfare and desirous to promote it. He is also greatly interested in the biological side of science, and has much knowledge in this field. The remaining question therefore is how to bring these two elements into useful relation to one another. It may seem to some however that the two elements do not mix very well, and even get in each other's way; so that we could be happier with either, were t'other fair charmer away. For Professor Huxley is charming when he describes and comments on interesting facts in biology and zoology and anthropology; of the way of the snake in the grass, the birds in their courtships, the untutored savage in his inspired ignorance. He has also a pretty good notion of what is the matter with us today, and of how much better things might be if they were not what they are. The same might be said of Mr. Wells. But his scientific philosophy seems rather a hindrance than a help.
In the essay on The Uniqueness of Man, he says that the gap between man and animal, lessened in the earlier days of Darwinism, has again widened, and that man stands unique in the powers of conceptual thought and of formulating principles by the aggregation of facts. His view of the plan of evolution is far broader than the narrow views of bygone times; in place of a single line of development, he sees innumerable lines of deviation from a main trunk. The general law is one of dispersal into variations; the continuity of development is preserved only by the rare exceptions which do not thus become lost in unprofitable variation. It short, it is a series of experiments, of which most are failures, but which are ultimately crowned with success. (In this we are reminded of what is taught in The Secret Doctrine as to the various abortive attempts to produce man in the earlier stages of cosmic evolution.) But then comes the question, Who is trying the experiments and making the mistakes and achieving the ultimate successes? The work is the work of Mind. But Mind is excluded as an agent, because it is represented as a product of the process. The animals are shown not to possess it in the requisite degree; it is only in man that it arrives — and this because his brain is so much more plastic. "Mythical gods," and "philosophical absolutes" are waved away; but what takes their place? Is the universe automatic? Very well, but automatic means self-moving, voluntary as opposed to influenced, possessing inherent power — attributes applicable to the Causeless Cause of ancient philosophy, or to the God of theology. Such a power, such an intelligence, such a purpose, has to be assumed at the outset, in order that the machine may be set running at all. And yet these attributes are represented as the result of the process. Such an upside-down outlook as this may well prove an obstacle in the way of social planning. The only conceivable evolution is an evolution of beings. Moreover evolution cannot be a creating, by blind experiment, of things entirely new; but it is a bringing into manifestation of things that have pre-existed in potency. Mind must be at the beginning, not at the end only. Mind brings into being a series of vehicles for its own progressive expression.
We are left quite in the dark as to the origin of these powers of conceptual thought and generalization, to which Professor Huxley assigns such importance. He calls upon us to use our powers ("Let us not put off our responsibilities onto the shoulders of mythical gods or philosophical absolutes, but shoulder them in the hopefulness of tempered pride.") It is an interesting speculation at what precise point in the evolutionary process blind experimentation and haphazard forces gave place to responsibility and the power of conscious planning. We are whole-heartedly with Professor Huxley in the wish that man should use his powers to further his own betterment; but we are not at all satisfied with his account of the manner in which man became possessed of those powers. And that is why we say his philosophy gets in his way. The same confusion between cause and effect is seen elsewhere: as for instance in speaking of a nation whose character has undergone a great change in a short time, it is said that biological causes could never have produced such an effect, and that it must be due to the social changes. But social changes are elsewhere spoken of as effects which we must bring about. However some justification may perhaps be found by saying that there is action and reaction between man and his environment, so that each alternately features as cause or effect.
Professor Huxley takes a just view of the relation between the agent and the machine, condemning alike those who say that change of heart alone is enough, and those who say that change of circumstances alone is enough. We must of course work at both ends. The final essay, "Life Can be Worth Living," illustrates well what we have said. There is earnestness of purpose, intuitive grasp of essentials, breadth and balance of ideas; but everywhere a cautious dread of arousing old specters of theology or some other -ology. Much faith in the power of human intelligence and goodness.
Man, as individual, as group, and collectively as mankind, can achieve a satisfying purpose in existence. . . . I believe that there exists a scale or hierarchy of values, ranging from simple physical comforts up to the highest satisfactions of love, aesthetic enjoyment, intellect, creative achievement, virtue. I do not believe that these are absolute, or transcendental in the sense of being vouchsafed by some external power or divinity; they are the product of human nature interacting with the outer world.
He believes that among human personalities there exist the highest achievements of the universe; and that the State exists for individuals and not individuals for the State. An individual is not an isolated or separate thing; he is a transformer of matter and experience.
It is in the devotion of the sacrifice that he becomes most himself. . . . Finally, I believe that we can never reduce our principles to any few simple terms. Existence is always too various and too complicated. We must supplement principles with faith. And the only faith that is both concrete and comprehensive is in life, its abundance and its progress. My final belief is in life.
Yes; truly man's destiny is in his own hands. He is a being endowed with innate creative powers. All philanthropists recognise this, if not directly, then by necessary implication. Yet it is an immense advantage to have a philosophy which gives an understandable account of the origin of such powers, rather than a philosophy which can give no rational explanation. The efforts of all sincere philanthropists, whatever their beliefs, must be respected as contributory to the general forward movement. This book, as previously noted, combats the idea that attention to the spirit alone is enough, and that the circumstances will then adapt themselves without direct attention; it insists on the need for attention to outward things also. We have to put food into the children's stomachs before we can put knowledge into their heads. Social planning, it is true, tends to deal with mankind too much in the abstract, and to rely on the formula. But living people are many and various, and actuated by forces that will not submit to formulation; so that progress is achieved by experience, opportunism, the application of various means to particular ends as they come up, rather than by attempts to apply formulas and rules. People will not of their own accord mold their lives by fixed rules and cold logic; and if force is used in the effort to make them do so, then we get tyranny and the suppression of free choice.
This book shows how greatly earnest and intelligent aspirations may be hampered by a fantastic philosophy of the origin and nature of man and of the world of which he is a part. Could there be a better way of helping progress than by replacing these ideas by a philosophy which gives a consistent and adequate account of the universe and its living components? The teachings of Theosophy have already infiltrated into the world of thought to a degree which causes wonder to those with an experience of half a century; and this process may be expected to continue with acceleration in the years to come.
1. Man Stands Alone. By Julian S. Huxley. Harper Bros., 1941. $2.75. (return to text)