Excerpt from We Are Amphibians: Julian and Aldous Huxley on the Future of our Species
“The question of questions for mankind . . .”
Yogi Berra was right when he quipped, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” In the broadest sense, this is a story about what the future used to be. Julian and Aldous Huxley were born during the reign of Queen Victoria, but each made his mark during the most tumultuous decades of the twentieth century. Born in 1887, Julian established his reputation as a biologist just prior to the First World War and later worked to advance the “modern synthesis” in evolutionary biology by integrating new discoveries from across the spectrum of the life sciences. As the first director-general of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and a cofounder of the World Wildlife Fund, Julian remained a tireless advocate for science education and wilderness preservation until his death in the winter of 1975. Seven years his junior, Aldous Huxley made his name in the 1920s as the most savage and erudite satirist of his generation, and his fifth novel, begun as a spoof of H.G. Wells, set the standard for every dystopian fable that has followed in its wake. After the publication of Brave New World in 1932, Aldous Huxley’s work increasingly defied categorization, knocking holes in the walls between science, religion, art, and mysticism. Facing the painful advance of oral cancer in the last years of his life, Aldous kept writing until the afternoon he died – a few hours after President Kennedy was assassinated – on November 22nd, 1963.
Throughout their long careers, both brothers shared a passionate concern for the same fundamental question: What is the outlook for Homo sapiens, and for the complex web of life from which our species has evolved? Their grandfather, the Victorian biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, had identified this as the ultimate question. In 1863, he opened his first book on evolution, Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, with the following declaration:
The question of questions for mankind – the problem which underlies all others, and is more deeply interesting than any other – is the ascertainment of the place which Man occupies in nature . . . Whence our race has come; what are the limits of our power over nature, and of nature’s power over us; to what goal are we tending . . .
Due primarily to the exponential increase in both human population and the technological powers wielded by our species, “the question of questions for mankind” has become at once more urgent and more difficult to answer. In the year 2000, the biologist Eugene F. Stoermer and the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen introduced a new term, “the Anthropocene,” to signify a fact that Julian and Aldous had both intuited during the first half of the twentieth century: the impact of human activity has become so vast in the industrial age that it signals the beginning of a new epoch in the history of the earth. In novels such as Brave New World and Ape and Essence, Aldous Huxley had explored future scenarios in which what we think of as “nature” would be completely transformed by the promethean power of our technologies. Julian Huxley, whose own essays and fiction on the potential of applied biology had provided some of the inspiration for Brave New World, reached very similar conclusions about the power of humans to transform life on earth. While teaching biology at King’s College London in the mid 1920s, Julian had imagined the possibilities of engineering new life forms, and the interaction between human technologies and biological evolution sustained his attention throughout his career. In a 1957 essay entitled “Transhumanism” Julian declared that our species “is, in point of fact determining the future direction of evolution on this earth.”
In addition to their early sense of our growing impact on this planet, Julian and Aldous Huxley were also among the first public intellectuals to herald the potential of new technologies to change humanity itself. In 1921, over a decade before he would publish Brave New World, Aldous sketched a brief description in his first novel, Crome Yellow, of a future world in which babies would be hatched in “vast state incubators” so that the “family system will disappear.” In 1926, Julian presented his own take on the future convergence of biology and engineering in a fantastic tale published in the Yale Review entitled “The Tissue Culture King”. Soon reprinted in the pioneering pulp science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, Julian’s story introduced readers to a wide range of innovations that had barely been imagined at the time, anticipating the possibility of human cloning and the creation of chimeras through genetic manipulation.
Long before their contemporaries, Julian and Aldous Huxley agreed that industrial civilization was steadily transforming our planet, and emerging discoveries in the life sciences would ultimately transform human nature as well. The Huxley brothers frequently disagreed, however, about whether this state of affairs was cause for optimism or for grief. Julian, who retained the same Victorian faith in progress that had been part of his grandfather’s worldview, tended to see the growth in human power over nature – so long as it was guided by rational men much like himself – as a harbinger of progress toward a better world for all. Aldous, who shared something of the temperament of another family forebear, Matthew Arnold, expressed grave doubts about whether the fruits of industrial civilization were bringing us any closer to a better world.
Such differences aside, Julian and Aldous Huxley carried on lively correspondence throughout their lives and shared an encyclopedic array of common interests. When Aldous died in 1963, Julian Huxley arranged a remarkable memorial for his younger brother at the Society of Friends Meeting House in London in December of 1963, and then published the collected recollections of Aldous’s illustrious friends and colleagues. The greatest shared conviction that united Julian and Aldous Huxley throughout their lives was the sense that the human race needed a new touchstone to make sense of the world and chart a path forward after the Darwinian revolution of the late nineteenth century. Their grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, had fought passionately to advance the acceptance of evolution, but even he had been aware, especially at the end of his life, of the enormous gap that had been left by the destruction of the longstanding religious verities about the origin, purpose, and destiny of humankind.
Although they rejected religious dogma, both Julian and Aldous Huxley saw it as essential for the future of our species that the religious impulses of our ancestors must not be allowed to atrophy and die. Julian’s substitute for old time religion was a secular gospel of progress through science and technology. For Aldous, the true path was not the way forward, but the way out: the transcendence of time itself through meditation and the contemplation of nature, and, in the last decade of his life, with the aid of psychedelic drugs. For Aldous, the progress of a society was not to be measured in its advancements in science and technology, but rather the level of intelligence and compassion which its culture could bring to the everyday tasks of living and self-cultivation. For all of their differences, the religious ideas of Julian and Aldous Huxley were each rooted in the concept of evolution. Although they discerned different paths to a better future, both saw the species of Homo sapiens as a work in progress, conceiving of human nature and protean and wonderfully complex.
To express this idea, both Julian and Aldous both echoed the seventeenth century theologian and naturalist Sir Thomas Browne when he declared, “Thus is man that great and true Amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live not only like other creatures in diverse elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds . . .” For Aldous, human beings could be aptly described as amphibians because we must operate in so many different elements at once. As animals whose minds have been shaped by language, we must reconcile the dynamic flow of sense experience with the more static world of signs and symbols. As mortal beings prone to believe in values and ideals that transcend time itself, we must somehow reconcile our imperfect understanding of our past, present and future with our intimations of eternity. For Julian, the most important parallel between Homo sapiens and our amphibian ancestors was our transitional status. Just as the first amphibians had braved the harrowing passage from sea to land over three hundred million years ago, our species was now moving from a familiar element into something entirely new. As Julian saw it, we were leaving the realm of slow evolution through natural selection and entering the accelerated realm of self-directed evolution, guided by our own discoveries in science and technology. With their distinctive views of the human condition, Julian and Aldous would each influence discourse on the future of our species in the late twentieth century. Aldous Huxley’s writings on mysticism, psychedelic drugs, and what he called the unexplored realm of “human potentialities” would help give birth to what came to be called the human potential movement in the sixties and seventies. Julian Huxley’s call for human beings to grab the reigns of our future evolutionary progress would appeal to a growing number of secular progressives and technophiles, who, employing the term he had coined in the 1950s, would come to describe themselves as advocates of transhumanism by the end of the twentieth century.
On a more fundamental level, the amphibian metaphor that Julian and Aldous Huxley both embraced reflected their common interest in ecology. In his own way, each saw the human drama as thoroughly enmeshed in what Charles Darwin had called “the tangled bank” of terrestrial life. For Julian this commitment was manifested in his work helping to found such institutions as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Aldous Huxley’s commitment to envisioning an ecologically sustainable form of civilization for the human race inspired the remarkable series of university lectures he delivered in the last years of his life, and his final novel, Island. While much of the current discourse on the future of our species emphasizes the potential of technologies such as genetic engineering, bioelectronics, and nanotechnology as a means to enhance our power over nature, Julian and Aldous Huxley ultimately came to agree that our prospects for survival are inextricably tied to our respect for both the mystery and the fragility of the web of life that supports our species. This common point of reference has given their intellectual legacy an enduring resonance. The ecological and religious dimensions that both Julian and Aldous Huxley brought to their lifelong debate about the long term prospects of our species lent their ideas a depth and complexity too often lacking in contemporary discourse about the future.
Throughout their long careers in the twentieth century, both Julian and Aldous Huxley remained acutely aware of their Victorian inheritance. Neither brother could forget the legacy of their grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley, the iconoclastic man of science who had been nicknamed “Darwin’s bulldog” for his passionate defense of evolution. Even in the last years of his life, Aldous Huxley described himself as being, in the tradition established by his grandfather, “a cheerleader for evolution,” while the elder Huxley brother was so concerned with carrying on his grandfather’s legacy that one of his peers once quipped that Julian, “was so busy trying to be a Huxley that he couldn’t be himself.” Before either of them had begun their careers, the term “Huxleyan” had already become part of the English language as term denoting the relentless skepticism and intellectual bombast epitomized by their grandfather. Although the Huxley brothers no doubt valued the intellectual inheritance signaled by their family name, the technological breakthroughs and global catastrophes of the twentieth century would compel each of them to revisit and radically re-imagine the paradigm of our place in nature that T.H. Huxley had advanced in the last decade of the nineteenth century.