9 Huxley's Critique from Social Darwinism

By Douglas, Roy | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, November 2003 | Go to article overview

9 Huxley's Critique from Social Darwinism


Douglas, Roy, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


The economic doctrines of Henry George attracted the attention of two of the most famous nineteenth-century biologists: Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) and Alfred Russel Wallace. Each of them had played a major part in the development and publicity of Darwinism. Wallace, indeed, had arrived at Darwin's general conclusions quite independently of Darwin. In each case the man's distinction as a biologist guaranteed that his opinions on other subjects would receive serious attention. Wallace was greatly influenced by George, and although his eventual proposals were by no means the same as George's, he held the American's arguments in the highest regard, differing essentially on application rather than principle. Huxley, however, seemed to oppose George almost in toto, and his opposition was based in part on an interpretation or extrapolation of biological evidence--although it was also partly founded on economic, philosophical, or quasi-historical grounds. Some of Huxley's arguments were essentially a repetition, or a development, of the views advanced previously by W. H. Mallock, and these criticisms are examined in the chapter that deals with Mallock.

Biology and Natural Rights

Huxley's biological objections may to a considerable extent be separated from his economic objections; but the former cannot be separated from his attitude to philosophical problems like the existence of "natural rights," or from his criticisms of other authors--notably Jean Jacques Rousseau--who had written about "natural rights" and about land, and whose views on both subjects bore some relationship to those of George. Huxley, indeed, considered that "the doctrine of 'natural rights' is the fulcrum upon which [George], like a good many other political philosophers, during the last 130 years, rests the lever wherewith the social world is to be lifted away from its present foundations and deposited upon others." (1)

Huxley's disagreement with George is therefore expressed partly in attacks on Rousseau. Some of his objections were advanced in a correspondence with Herbert Spencer in The Times of November 1889, while his views were more fully developed in a series of articles that appeared in the Nineteenth Century not long afterward and were eventually reprinted in his Collected Essays. (2)

Huxley was a very lucid, but also a very prolix, writer. His essential "biological" arguments could be summed as follows: Men are not in any meaningful sense equal. Natural rights, in the ordinary sense of the term, do not exist; the only sense in which a man, or any other creature, possesses a "natural right" is that he has the "natural right" to do whatever he is capable of doing. Therefore, any economic or social theory that is based on the idea either that people are equal or that they possess natural rights (as the term is usually employed) is vain. Insofar as the theory of Henry George is based on the contention that all men possess natural and equal rights, it is valueless.

Huxley's essay "On the Natural Inequality of Men" is specifically directed against Rousseau, but also by implication against George and others who advanced "the revived Rousseauism of our day"--which in Huxley's view, "is working sad mischief, leading astray those who have not the time, even when they possess the ability, to go to the root of the superficially plausible doctrines which are disseminated among them." (3) From whose point of view, or on what moral basis, this "revived Rousseauism" was "working sad mischief' was not explained; presumably Huxley meant that it was in some way inimical to the general prosperity, perhaps the physical survival, of the human race. The doctrine that Huxley attacked, and that he claimed to see in Rousseau's Le Contrat social and his Discours, was as follows:

   1. All men are born free, politically equal, and good, and in the
   "state of
   nature" remain so; consequently it is their natural right to be
   free, equal,
   and (presumably their duty) to be good. … 

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