Evolutionary humanism is a philosophical point of view centered on human interests and values in the context of natural selection and additional forces of evolution. Evolutionary humanists have called attention to the unity of the body and the mind, human continuity across populations and with other life forms, and natural instead of supernatural explanations. Evolutionary humanists often have human welfare and social reform in mind as an ultimate benefit of their scholarship, following philosophical traditions of humanism.
Humanism, in philosophy, is an attitude that emphasizes individual dignity, value, and self-realization through reason. Evolutionary humanism similarly appreciates individual differences and the implication of heritable variation across generations. Evolutionary humanists look at cooperative strategies in terms of individual and inclusive fitness benefits and are generally critical of unilineal social evolutionary arguments. Evolutionary humanists are concerned with the development of idea and moral systems through time and the relationship between art and the evolutionary process.
A basic premise of humanism is that people are rational beings who possess within themselves the capacity for truth and goodness. Evolutionary humanism also assumes rationality in selection of adaptive traits and behaviors. Cost-benefit analyses are often made by evolutionary humanists in order to test hypotheses about factors involved in the evolution of traits. Truth and goodness are but one possible outcome, however. Evolutionary humanism must also include under study the development of malevolent human behaviors, such as ethnocentrism and warfare, and apparently maladaptive traits, such as drug abuse and celibacy.
Julian Huxley (1887-1975), grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley (Darwin’s “Bulldog”), was an innovative thinker in early evolutionary humanism. Huxley explored the relationship of human culture and its relationship to genetical evolution. For Huxley, evolution was directional in the sense that greater variety, complexity, and specificity of organization occur, albeit amidst evolutionary dead-ends. He applied this to analysis of idea systems and found that some idea systems might be potent and perpetuate even if inaccurate, giving examples such as the predictions of Marxist-Leninist theory regarding the state and the alleged supernatural benefits of human sacrifice by the Aztecs and resulting failure of their socioreligious strategy. Some of Huxley’s ideas related to culture as an instrument of human evolution have been modeled in contemporary dual transmission theory. Idea systems may change to an extent that they do not fit the developing conditions of human life (for example, frequency dependent and runaway directional selection). Huxley suggested that the scientific investigation of the human “psychosocial sphere,” considering observable historical and biological processes, would lead to the construction of a new, open-ended framework of comprehension. Huxley’s emphasis on the unity of the mind and body, such as his discussion of the function of emotions, is a precursor of evolutionary psychology.
A recent application of evolutionary humanism in anthropology is Biopoetics: Evolutionary Exploration in the Arts (1999). In this volume dealing with literary and visual culture, the authors explore inherited influences on aesthetic preferences, from body decoration to ecstatic states and science fiction. One revelation of this collection of evolutionarily minded analyses of literature and art is the surprising degree to which ancient and classic art reflect humanity’s evolved tendencies, predispositions, and concerns.
- Cook, B., & Turner, F. (1999). Biopoetics: Evolutionary explorations in the arts. Lexington: Paragon Books.
- Huxley J. (1992). Evolutionary humanism. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. New York: Vintage Books.