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Evolutionary Humanism

David Wallace Croft

A sermon presented to the
Humanist Fellowship of North Texas
Plano, Texas
2006 Feb 25 Sat

My sermon for today is entitled “Evolutionary Humanism and Roundaboutness”. In this sermon, I propose, among other things, that the progress of evolution toward ever greater complexity and the inevitable increase in intelligence, as described in the 1953 essay “Evolutionary Humanism” by Julian Huxley, is related to the economic theory of roundabout methods of production.

In July of 2003, the Metroplex Atheists reading and discussion group finished the book How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science by Michael Shermer, 1999. One chapter of this book is dedicated to the subject of “contingency”, the idea that evolution of human level intelligence is an improbability. In September of 2003, the Humanist Fellowship reading and discussion group finished its first selection, a book on “Religious Naturalism” entitled The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough, 2000. In January of 2004, the same group covered the book Economics for Real People: An Introduction to the Austrian School by Gene Callahan, 2002. The section entitled “Roundabout Methods of Production” resonated with me in particular. Recently, I was pleased to be able to purchase a copy of New Bottles for New Wine by Julian Huxley, 1957.

I had previously read the first chapter of “New Bottles for New Wine” a couple of years earlier while visiting with other members of the transhumanist community at a party hosted by the founders of the Extropy Institute, Max and Natasha-Vita More. At that time, the transhumanist community had just awakened to the earlier definition provided by Huxley in his chapter entitled “Transhumanism” and we were interested in this earlier use of the term.

I had another motive for seeking out a copy of this book, however, in that I had guessed from the Biblical reference in the title that it might have some relevance in my quest for a new religion. Having secured my own copy, I immediately jumped to the last chapter on “Evolutionary Humanism” and found what I had been seeking: an early proposal to found a religion compatible with science:

This brings me back to where I started -- the idea of religion as an organ of destiny. It is clear, as I said earlier, that twentieth-century man needs a new organ for dealing with destiny, a new system of beliefs and attitudes adapted to the situation in which he and his societies now have to exist and thus an organ for the better orientation of the human species as a whole -- in other words, a new religion [Huxley p309].

Even more recently, the caption “The Wonder of Evolution” on the cover of the current issue of UU World magazine caught my eye [2006 Spring]. Could this contain an article on a science-based religion? I was not disappointed. The enclosed article by Amy Hassinger entitled Welcome to the Ecozoic Era describes an evangelistic husband and wife team, Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, a theist and an atheist, promoting what they called The Great Story, a reverent description of the birth of the universe and life on Earth.

This concept reminded me of a DVD that I rented recently, Genesis by THINKFilm, 2004. The video tells the great story in the fashion of a tribal elder intoning a creation myth by the campfire. What is shared is no myth, however, but our current scientific view. I enjoyed the scenes of natural beauty and wonder. I would recommend this video to any Religious Humanist.

In the UU World article, I noticed straight-away a reference to Julian Huxley:

The Great Story also aligns closely with humanism. In fact, Julian Huxley coined the term “evolutionary humanism” to describe his own religious orientation. The first Humanist Manifesto, in 1933, called for a new religious understanding, one based in the world, not outside of it. It declared that human beings were a part of nature, and that the scientific method could help us deepen our understanding of who we were [Hassinger].

This is echoed in the following quote by Huxley:

Science, as a system of discovering, organizing, and applying mutual knowledge, is already unified and universal in principle, though its efficiency as an organ of the human species could still be much increased. It remains for man to unify and universalize his religion. How that religion will take form -- what rituals or celebrations it might practise, whether it will equip itself with any sort of professional body or priesthood, what buildings it will erect, what symbols it will adopt -- that is something which no one can prophesy. Certainly it is not a field on which the natural scientist should venture. What the scientist can do is to draw attention to the relevant facts revealed by scientific discovery, and to their implications and those of the scientific method. He can aid in the building up of a fuller and more accurate picture of reality in general and of human destiny in particular, secure in the knowledge that in so doing he is contributing to humanity's advance, and helping to make possible the emergence of a more universal and more adequate religion [Huxley p310].

Compare this to the definition of Religious Naturalism provided by Wikipedia:

Religious Naturalism is a phrase coined by Ursula Goodenough, author of “The Sacred Depths of Nature”. It is a system of thought that posits that the need for religious experience can be fulfilled within a purely scientific understanding of the universe [Wikipedia].

Another reference to Huxley in the UU World article relates more closely to the thesis of my sermon today:

Huxley — the grandson of Charles Darwin’s ally, Thomas Henry Huxley — was one of several scientists in the 1930s who synthesized Darwin’s theory of natural selection with Mendelian genetics. He believed evolution was progressive, that it generated greater complexity through time, though it could lead to dead ends, such as species extinction [Hassinger].

I find confirmation that Huxley possessed this belief in the increase of complexity in his chapter “A Re-definition of Progress”:

The complexity of the bodily organisation of a bird or a mammal is more complex than a fish, a fish more complex than a worm, a worm more than a polyp, a polyp than an amoeba, an amoeba than a virus. Finally, in the human sector, a new complexity is superimposed on the old, in the shape of man's tools and machines, idea-systems, and the social organizations. And this, too, increases with time [Huxley p24].

After reading a short book by Ed Sexton entitled Dawkins and the Selfish Gene, 2001, I now have a new insight into complexity and the definition of life. This brief summary of the selfish gene theory reminded me that the difference between non-living and living entities that replicate is complexity. A crystal grows without variation. The fire of the Sun feeds upon itself. Both establish patterns which persist yet neither could be considered examples of life. DNA-based, artificial, and memetic life organisms, however, provide sufficient variation in their replication processes that successive generations are subject to optimization of their replicative power through natural selection. It is this variation in replication which leads to the progression of complexity and thus provides a satisfying definition of life.

You might recall from my earlier sermon The Founding of the Humanist Church and the History of Religious Humanism that Auguste Comte, the Father of Sociology, was also interested in progress. To my knowledge, the Church of Positivism founded by Comte in the mid-1800's was the first effort to create a science-based religion. The Brazilian flag still bears the motto “Order and Progress”, taken from his writings. I find it a curiosity that an article deeply critical of the influence of Comte, The Ghost That Haunted Brazil by Antony P. Mueller, is published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, the same organization that published the reference I am using on roundaboutness, the book “Economics for Real People”.

According to this book, roundabout methods of production was an economic theory first proposed by Eugen von Böhm-Boerk in the 1880's in which he “attributed the bulk of increases in productivity to the adoption of more time-consuming, or roundabout, methods of production” [Callahan, p133]. When I think of an example of this, I think of the transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural society. In the first case, no up-front investment is required: simply harvest the fruit off of the trees just as other animals do. Later, when all of the low-hanging fruit has been picked, some foresight and effort is required. Seeds must be planted and fields watered. The end result is an increase in productivity, as evidenced by the explosion in the human population, projected to reach 6.5 billion at 6:16 PM tonight.

How does this relate to the evolution of human intelligence? Compare this economic theory to the words of Julian Huxley in “Evolutionary Humanism”:

The next fact of importance is that during evolutionary time the avenues of possible progress have become progressively restricted, until to-day only one remains open. [...] The only avenue of major advance left open was through the improvement of brain and mind [Huxley p292].

Is this progress inevitable? I sometimes think of what are described as “living fossils”, species that are much the same today as they were hundreds of millions of years ago. I have read that despite appearances to the contrary, these species are still undergoing genetic evolution. The end result of these mutations, however, is such that they reinforce the basic body plan of the beast, making future mutations less likely to result in physical change. For them, evolution does not equate to progress.

How could this be? I think that these living fossil species are like long established companies that have found their niche within the marketplace. They are successful at what they do just the way they do it. Any upstart company that wants to dislodge them from their positions of market dominance must find some new roundabout method of production. Likewise, any upstart species that wants to find a niche in the food chain must acquire some new technique that gives it a relative advantage, whether it be fang, flight, or foresight.

I find support for this in convergent evolution, the observation that unrelated species independently evolve similar features. For example, in Australia there was a wolf-like creature, the recently extinct Tasmanian Tiger, with a pouch like a kangaroo. The fact that the placental wolf lacks a pouch and the marsupial had one suggests that they evolved independently. The fact that they look so much alike suggests that their basic body shape is optimal for surviving in their niche, that of hunting smaller animals.

In browsing the Web, I find suggestions that, in addition to humans, the Dingo might have been partially responsible for the extinction of marsupial carnivores such as the Tasmanian Tiger. The Dingo is a species of dog that engages in cooperative pack hunting. Did this behavior give it a relative survival advantage? If so, it would provide additional evidence of advance through the improvement of brain and mind.

Huxley places humans in a special place within the cosmos, equating our intelligence as the equivalent of the universe becoming conscious of itself. Of humans, he states:

Biology, I repeat, has thus revealed man's place in nature. He is the highest form of life produced by the evolutionary process on this planet, the latest dominant type, and the only organism capable of further major advance or progress [Huxley p293].

I think, though, that evidence is mounting that some other animal species are smarter than we previously thought. Having just finished reading The Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity by Eugene Linden, 2002, I now have more anecdotal evidence that consciousness is not solely a human characteristic. Suppose someday that all of humanity were to colonize outer space or cyberspace and leave the planet Earth exclusively to the animals as an uninhabited nature preserve. Given the economic theory of roundabout methods of production and the observation of convergent evolution, we might reasonably predict that over time some new species would evolve to fill the ecological niche best exploited by runaway intelligence.

Having said that, however, let me affirm that I am a Religious Humanist and that my primary allegiance is to the human species. I recommend “Evolutionary Humanism” by Julian Huxley to all Religious Humanists and I end this sermon by quoting from his closing: “My faith is in human possibilities” [Huxley p312].

What will I speak on for my next sermon? I am not certain but I will share with you some of the books that are exciting me right now. On the topic of Transhumanism, I am continuing to read The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Kurzweil, 2005. I also picked up a copy of Beyond Humanity: CyberEvolution and Future Minds by Paul and Cox, 1996. On the topic of Evolutionary Humanism, I have Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society by Wilson, 2002. I have resumed my reading of Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by Dennett, 1996. More recent titles by Dennett that are at the top of my wish list include Freedom Evolves, 2004, and his recently released Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, 2006. I am also continuing my regular participation in the local study group on Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Peikoff, 1993. Until next time, my love and respect.

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© 2006 David Wallace Croft
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