I recently read a very old article because I was intrigued by the title: “The Uniqueness of Man” by Julian Huxley. Huxley (1887–1975) was an evolutionary biologist who received many awards for many things and headed many prestigious societies. He even came from a famous family—his father was a respected writer, his grandfather was pals with Charles Darwin, and his brother was the Aldous Huxley who wrote Brave New World.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about humanity—who we are, what our purpose is, and why we matter—these are all questions I’ve been contemplating. So when I happened upon this outdated article (originally published in 1941) by such an interesting figure, I was drawn in.
According to Huxley, humanity is unique because we are “the culmination of that process of organic evolution which has been proceeding on this planet for over a thousand million years.” We are the accidental product of chance, the unintentionally personal mistake of an impersonal universe. Do human beings have dignity? There is no dignity in our origins, but Huxley sees dignity in our current standing: “After Darwin, man could no longer avoid considering himself as an animal; but he is beginning to see himself as a very peculiar and in many ways a unique animal.”
Huxley spells out some of the features that make humanity unique. We are unique because we have developed the ability to think conceptually, we have learned to draw upon the learning of previous generations, we have learned to domesticate the animal kingdom, we have developed great diversity within the human race, and a few other features. Primarily, humanity is unique because of our unparalleled capacity for gaining and processing knowledge.
In Christian theology, humanity is significant because God made humanity in his image (Gen. 1:26–28). And Huxley agrees that humanity is unique, but this uniqueness is not theological; it is biological: “Biology thus reinstates man in a position analogous to that conferred on him as Lord of Creation by theology. There are, however, differences, and differences of some importance for our general outlook.”
Where does this leave us? According to Huxley, “the goal of the evolutionary maze…is not a central chamber, but a road which will lead definitely onwards.” Evolution leads to progress. But there’s no specific goal (how could an impersonal process have a goal?)—we’re simply headed onward, whatever that might entail. All we can be sure of is that changes will continue to happen.
Yet humanity’s uniqueness will play a major role in where we go from here. For Huxley, we have wasted too much time by failing to embrace our unique status. Instead of taking our proper seat at the pinnacle of the universe, we have instead “projected personality into the cosmic scheme.” Instead of valuing our own greatness, we have turned aside and attributed greatness that is duly ours to a non-existent God, we have attributed a personal will to the impersonal forces and matter that alone govern this world.
Huxley’s solution is to take the evolutionary bull by the horns: “progress has hitherto been a rare and fitful byproduct of evolution. Man has the possibility of making it the main feature of his own future evolution, and of guiding its course in relation to a deliberate aim.” In other words, our accidentally achieved greatness has granted us the capacity to choose where we go from here.
Huxley waxes eloquent as he closes the article:
“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’s significant that Huxley was a member of the British Eugenics Society, whose goal was to encourage reproduction amongst people with more desirable genetic traits and discourage reproduction amongst people with undesirable genetic traits. Huxley advocated taking the next phase of evolution upon our own shoulders: the impersonal universe has placed us on the throne, let’s recreate this world according to our ideals.
To be clear, Julian Huxley’s article is now 73 years old and should not be taken as a cutting edge statement on anything. What I find fascinating about it, however, is the acknowledgement that humanity is unique. In the naturalist, Darwinist scheme, humanity is simply the biggest accident in an infinite string of accidents. We’re not meant to be here. No one invited us. No one fashioned us. We simply showed up—uninvited, unannounced, unwelcome. Yet Huxley, like Darwin before him, still saw humanity as significant. Unique. Dignified.
You will have to be the judge of whether or not we should be proud of our significance as presented by Julian Huxley. But there is a point of continuity between Huxley and the Christian tradition: humanity matters. We are unique. Yet, as Huxley said, there are differences, “and differences of some importance for our general outlook.”
Biblically speaking, we matter in the universe because we matter to God. He crafted us in his image, “crowned us with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5), and gave us a mission to fulfill. God further dignified the human race by taking on flesh and blood, becoming fully human. Our significance will carry on when he raises our bodies from the grave to reign forever over the recreated earth.
We may well ask with David, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” But we do indeed recognize our significance. And unlike Darwin and Huxley, we acknowledge that our significance comes not in spite of our origins, but precisely because of them.