Read CHAPTER VI of Freedom in Science and Teaching‚ from the German of Ernst Haeckel., free online book, by Ernst Haeckel T. H. Huxley, on


Every great and comprehensive theory which affects the foundations of human science, and which, consequently, influences the systems of philosophy, will, in the first place, not only further our theoretical views of the universe, but will also react on practical philosophy, ethics, and the correlated provinces of religion and politics. In my paper read at Munich I only briefly pointed out the happy results which, in my opinion, the modern doctrine of evolution will entail when the true, natural religion, founded on reason, takes the place of the dogmatic religion of the Church, and its leading principle derives the human sense of duty from the social instincts of animals.

The references to the social instincts which I, in common with Darwin and many others, regard as the proper source and origin of all moral development, appear to have afforded Virchow an opportunity in his reply for designating the doctrine of inheritance as a “socialist theory,” and for attributing to it the most dangerous and objectionable character which, at the present time, any political theory can have; and these startling denunciations so soon as they were known called forth such just indignation and such comprehensive refutation that I might very properly pass them over here. Still we must at least shortly examine them, in so far as they supply a further proof that Virchow is unacquainted with the most important principles of the development-theory of the day, and therefore is incompetent to judge it. Moreover, Virchow, as a politician, manifestly attributed special importance to this political application of his paper, for he gave it the title, which otherwise would have been hardly suitable, of “The Freedom of Science in the Modern Polity.” Unfortunately he forgot to add to this title the two words in which the special tendency of his discourse culminates; the two pregnant words, “must cease!”

The surprising disclosures in which Virchow denounces the doctrine of evolution, and particularly the doctrine of descent, as socialist theories and dangerous to the community, run as follows: “Now, picture to yourself the theory of descent as it already exists in the brain of a socialist. Ay, gentlemen, it may seem laughable to many, but it is in truth very serious, and I only hope that the theory of descent may not entail on us all the horrors which similar theories have actually brought upon neighbouring countries. At all times this theory, if it is logically carried out to the end, has an uncommonly suspicious aspect, and the fact that it has gained the sympathy of socialism has not, it is to be hoped, escaped your notice. We must make that quite clear to ourselves.”

On reading this statement, which seems extracted from the Berlin “Kreuz-Zeitung,” or the Vienna “Vaterland,” I ask myself in surprise, “What in the world has the doctrine of descent to do with socialism?” It has already been abundantly proved on many sides, and long since, that these two theories are about as compatible as fire and water. Oscar Schmidt might with justice retort, “If the socialists would think clearly they would feel that they must do all they can to choke the doctrine of descent, for it declares with express distinctness that socialist ideas are impracticable.” And he proceeds to add, “And why has not Virchow made the gentle doctrines of Christianity responsible for the excesses of socialism? That would have had some sense. His denunciation flung so mysteriously and so confidently before the great public, as though it concerned ’a sure and attested scientific truth,’ is, at the same time, so hollow that it cannot be brought into harmony with the dignity of science.”

With all these empty accusations, as with all the empty reproaches and groundless objections which Virchow brings against the doctrine of evolution, he takes good care in no way to touch the kernel of the matter. How, indeed, would it have been possible without arriving at conclusions wholly opposed to those which he has declared? For the theory of descent proclaims more clearly than any other scientific theory, that that equality of individuals which socialism strives after is an impossibility, that it stands, in fact, in irreconcilable contradiction to the inevitable inequality of individuals which actually and everywhere subsists. Socialism demands equal rights, equal duties, equal possessions, equal enjoyments for every citizen alike; the theory of descent proves, in exact opposition to this, that the realisation of this demand is a pure impossibility, and that in the constitutionally organised communities of men, as of the lower animals, neither rights nor duties, neither possessions nor enjoyments have ever been equal for all the members alike nor ever can be. Throughout the evolutionist theory, as in its biological branch, the theory of descent the great law of specialisation or differentiation teaches us that a multiplicity of phenomena is developed from original unity, heterogeneity from original similarity, and the composite organism from original simplicity. The conditions of existence are dissimilar for each individual from the beginning of its existence; even the inherited qualities, the natural “disposition,” are more or less unlike; how, then, can the problems of life and their solution be alike for all? The more highly political life is organised, the more prominent is the great principle of the division of labour, and the more requisite it becomes for the lasting security of the whole state that its members should be variously distributed in the manifold tasks of life; and as the work to be performed by different individuals is of the most various kind, as well as the corresponding outlay of strength, skill, property, &c., the reward of the work must naturally be also extremely various. These are such simple and tangible facts that one would suppose that every reasonable and unprejudiced politician would recommend the theory of descent, and the evolution hypothesis in general, as the best antidote to the fathomless absurdity of extravagant socialist levelling.

Besides, Darwinism, the theory of natural selection which Virchow aimed at in his denunciation, much more especially than at transformation, the theory of descent which is often confounded with it Darwinism, I say, is anything rather than socialist! If this English hypothesis is to be compared to any definite political tendency as is, no doubt, possible that tendency can only be aristocratic, certainly not democratic, and least of all socialist. The theory of selection teaches that in human life, as in animal and plant life everywhere, and at all times, only a small and chosen minority can exist and flourish, while the enormous majority starve and perish miserably and more or less prematurely. The germs of every species of animal and plant and the young individuals which spring from them are innumerable, while the number of those fortunate individuals which develop to maturity and actually reach their hardly-won life’s goal is out of all proportion trifling. The cruel and merciless struggle for existence which rages throughout all living nature, and in the course of nature must rage, this unceasing and inexorable competition of all living creatures, is an incontestable fact; only the picked minority of the qualified “fittest” is in a position to resist it successfully, while the great majority of the competitors must necessarily perish miserably. We may profoundly lament this tragical state of things, but we can neither controvert it nor alter it. “Many are called but few are chosen.” The selection, the picking out of these “chosen ones,” is inevitably connected with the arrest and destruction of the remaining majority. Another English naturalist, therefore, designates the kernel of Darwinism very frankly as the “survival of the fittest,” as the “victory of the best.” At any rate, this principle of selection is nothing less than democratic, on the contrary, it is aristocratic in the strictest sense of the word. If, therefore, Darwinism, logically carried out, has, according to Virchow, “an uncommonly suspicious aspect,” this can only be found in the idea that it offers a helping hand to the efforts of the aristocrats. But how the socialism of the day can find any encouragement in these efforts, and how the horrors of the Paris Commune can be traced to them, is to me, I must frankly confess, absolutely incomprehensible.

Moreover, we must not omit this opportunity of pointing out how dangerous such a direct and unqualified transfer of the theories of natural science to the domain of practical politics must be. The highly elaborate conditions of our modern civilised life require from the practical politician such circumspect and impartial consideration, such thorough historical training and powers of critical comparison, that he will not venture to make such an application of a “natural law” to the practice of civilised life, but with the greatest caution and reserve. How, then, is it possible that Virchow, the experienced and skilled politician, who, above all things, preaches caution and reserve in theory, suddenly makes just such an application of transformation and Darwinism an application so radically perverse that it actually flies in the face of the fundamental ideas of these doctrines? I myself am nothing less than a politician. In direct contrast with Virchow, I lack alike the gift and the training for it, as well as taste and vocation. Hence I neither shall play any political part in the future, nor have I hitherto made any attempt of the kind. Though here and there I have occasionally uttered a political opinion, or have made a political application of some theory of natural science, these subjective opinions have no objective value. In point of fact I have by so doing overstepped the limits of my competence, just as Virchow has by going into questions of zoology and particularly that of the transformation of apes: I am a layman in political practice, as Virchow is in the province of zoological hypothesis. Moreover, such success as Virchow has attained during the twenty years of his painful, wearisome, and exhausting activity as a politician does not, in truth, make me pine for such laurels.

But this at least I, as a theoretical naturalist, may demand of practical politicians, that in utilising our theories for political ends they should first make themselves exactly acquainted with them; they then, for the future, would forbear drawing conclusions from them, the very opposite to those which ought reasonably to be inferred. Misunderstandings would never thus be wholly avoided, it is true, but what doctrine is universally secure against misunderstanding? And from what theory, however sound and true, may not the most unsound and frantic inferences be drawn?

Nothing, perhaps, shows so plainly as the history of Christianity how little theory and practice harmonise in human life; how little pains are taken, even by those whose calling it is to uphold established doctrines, to apply their natural consequences to practical life. The Christian religion, no doubt, as well as the Buddhist, when stripped of all dogmatic and fabulous nonsense, contains an admirable human kernel, and precisely that human portion of Christian teaching in the best sense social-democratic which preaches the equality of all men before God, the loving of your neighbour as yourself, love in general in the noblest sense, a fellow-feeling with the poor and wretched, and so forth precisely, those truly human sides of the Christian doctrine are so natural, so noble, so pure, that we unhesitatingly adopt them into the moral doctrine of our monistic natural religion. Nay, the social instincts of the higher animals on which we found this religion (for instance the marvellous sense of duty of ants, &c.) are in this best sense strictly Christian.

And what we may ask what have the professed supporters, the “learned divines” of this religion of love done? Their deeds are written in letters of blood in the history of the civilisation of mankind during the last 1800 years. All else that differing church-religions have accomplished for the forcible extension of their doctrines and for the extirpation of heretics of other creeds, all that the Jews have been guilty of towards the heathen, the Roman emperors towards the Christians, the Mohammedans towards Christians and Jews alike all this is outdone by the hecatombs of human victims which Christianity has demanded for the spread of her doctrines. And these were Christians against Christians orthodox Christians against heterodox Christians! think only of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages, of the inconceivable and inhuman barbarities committed by the “most Christian kings” of Spain, by their worthy colleagues in Frankfort, in Italy, and elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands then died that most horrible death by fire, simply because they would not bend their reason to pass under the yoke of the grossest superstition, and because their loyalty to their convictions forbade them to deny the natural truth that they clearly discerned. There are no deeds more hideous, base, and inhuman than those that at that time were committed nay, are still committed in the name and on account of “true Christianity.”

And finally, how do matters stand with regard to the morality of the priests who announce themselves as the ministers of God’s Word, and whose duty is therefore above all others to carry out the saving doctrines of Christianity in their own lives? The long, unbroken, and horrible series of crimes of every kind which is offered by the history of the Roman Popes is the best answer to this question. And just as these “Vicars of God on earth” did, so did their subordinates and accomplices, so, too, have the orthodox priests of other sects done; never failing to set the practice of their own course of life in the strongest possible contrast to those noble doctrines of Christian love which were constantly on their lips.

And as with Christianity so it is with every other religious and moral doctrine which ought to have proved its power in the wide domain of practical philosophy, in the education of youth, in the civilisation of nations. The theoretic kernel of this doctrine may always and everywhere stand in the most glaring contradiction to its practical working-out, testifying to the endless inconsistency of human nature: but what can all this matter to the scientific inquirer? His sole and only task is to seek for truth and to teach what he has discerned to be the truth, indifferent as to what consequences the various parties of state or church may happen to draw from it.