ESSAYS OF A BIOLOGIST contains seven essays, besides the preface, which is an essay in itself. According to the author, the two most important studies are at the beginning and the end, but all are variations on the same theme.
Huxley’s main purpose in all the essays is to demonstrate that biological science can be the basis of a new and stimulating religion. It is easier to explain what this religion is not than what it is, a fact which is perfectly understandable when one considers how complicated human knowledge and human culture have become. According to Huxley, a primitive religion based upon supernaturalism is for primitive people, but as science advances knowledge, and human relations become more and more complex, religion must adapt itself if it is to be effective. In ancient times, when little was known about the universe or man’s place in it, a religion based upon supernaturalism, ritual, revelation, and priestcraft was sufficient, but in the twentieth century it is an anachronism.
If religion is to serve modern man, it must first be stripped of all outworn and antiquated theology. To people bred in the Christian tradition, such a stripping would seem to destroy religion entirely. Huxley believes, however, that it would only clear the way for a more realistic, powerful, and effective religion. It would be like tearing down an old building which had outlived its usefulness to build in its place a fine new structure, architecturally planned to fit present conditions.
Although Huxley never mentions the word semantics, he applies the principles of semantics to such words as religion and God. He does not discard the symbols, as some humanists have done, but seeks, rather, to give them new meaning. Both word symbols have meant many things to many people, and still do. In the terms of semantics, they are “loaded” words, more fraught with connotation than denotation. In seeking to give these words new meaning, therefore, Huxley is merely doing what many scholars, both religious and secular, have attempted to do, each according to his convictions. Because of his beliefs, Huxley has been called an atheist, but the word atheist is more often a term of vituperation than an exact, descriptive term. If it denotes the denial of any God whatsoever, then Huxley is not an atheist, but the founder and prophet of a new religion based on biological science.
Biology has reached the same point that physics and chemistry reached a century before: the extension of control. But, whereas control in chemistry and physics has enabled man to do more and experience more, biological science can give man control over body and mind to the extent that his entire view of the universe and his relation to it is transfigured.
The biologist, by studying evolution, has discovered proof that progress in the development of living organisms is not a delusion but a fact. This progress can be demonstrated in a purely objective manner, as Huxley shows in the essay “Progress, Biological and Other.” Among living organisms, progress can be measured by (1) increasing efficiency of body organs, (2) improved co-ordination, (3) growth in size, (4) increasing accuracy and range of senses, (5) the development of capacity for knowledge, (6) memory and educability, and (7) emotional intensity. That these are actual gains can be proved by the fact that they all lead to greater control over the external world and greater independence from environment.
But progress is no longer merely physical and organic. In man, evolution has entered a “Psychozoic Era” in which progress will be measured in terms of the mind rather than of the body. Before the development of self-consciousness in man, evolution was entirely blind, depending on chance variation and selection. Now, through man, evolution is conscious of itself and therefore better able to guide and control itself. Unfortunately, man has always shown a pronounced aversion to taking any responsibility for the state of the...
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