Good, Evil, and the Cline

An introduction to Blinding Science, GOOD's new science column.The first thing a new columnist gets stuck on is the name. I...

An introduction to Blinding Science, GOOD's new science column.The first thing a new columnist gets stuck on is the name. I thought of calling this column "The Cline." My editor thought this name might be too esoteric, and we decided to go with something a lot better—the title you now see. But I still want to tell you about the cline.

First, I should mention an evolutionary biologist named Julian Huxley. The cline was his idea—along with UNESCO, the World Wildlife Fund, national parks in East Africa, and the enforced sterilization of the poor. This story, Huxley's story, is full of seemingly conflicting, messy details like this. But then, so is science and everything else.

Huxley was an early student of wildlife ecology, conservation, and management. He ran the London Zoo and worked for the British Army Intelligence Corps during the first World War. Throughout the mid-20th century Huxley traveled the world and was curious about everything in it. "If I am to be remembered," he wrote at the end of his life in a two-volume, thousand-page autobiography, "I hope that it will not be primarily for my specialized scientific work, but as a generalist; one to whom ... nothing human, and nothing in ... nature, was alien." Huxley is interesting because he did so many things, but he's fascinating because he was uncomfortably outspoken about one big thing. Not the cline, but eugenics.

Huxley came from good stock. His grandfather, a famous biologist, championed Darwin immediately following the publication of Origin of the Species. His brother Aldous wrote Brave New World. His father was a famous writer, too. Julian and a family friend named H.G. Wells wrote a book together called The Science of Life. It was, perhaps, this well-bred existence that led Huxley, in 1941, to declare that "The lowest strata are reproducing too fast ... they must not have too easy access to relief or hospital treatment lest the removal of the last check on natural selection should make it too easy for children to be produced or to survive; long unemployment should be a ground for sterilisation." Soon enough, Huxley found himself president of the British Eugenics Society. Here's where things get complicated: enter, the cline.

Huxley's greatest scientific achievement was the publication, in 1942, of Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. As the title suggests, Huxley didn't offer new findings so much as put together the old ones that still made sense to form one brilliantly written survey of evolutionary science and its working theories, from Darwin to present day. There were, however, a few original ideas in Evolution, appearing in the form of two important new words: one was clade; the other, cline. A clade is a group consisting of a single common ancestor, a single branch on the evolutionary tree. A platypus is a good example of a clade, because nothing else in existence is quite like it; but birds are all on a clade, too—they all spring from one common winged ancestor who took to the sky about 150 million years ago. A cline is, basically, a gradual change in the characteristics of a single species spread across many environments. The best example of this is us: People sure look different, but does it have to do with where we—or our ancient ancestors—are from? And what does this mean in terms of the species' evolution?

Huxley struggled with these questions. When it came to evolutionary theory, Huxley believed in progress without a goal. That is, evolution marches forward, just like time, but not necessarily upward. Not always. Evolution favors survivors above all else, otherwise, why would the alligator, nautilus, and coelacanth still be around and unchanged for hundreds of millions of years? Finding purpose in evolution's progress was, according to Huxley, bunk. But Huxley went a step further: Complex and intelligent organisms could actually alter the course of evolution. Huxley described how organisms could settle new lands that might have been hostile, unreachable, even inconceivable before. With new traits—like, say, opposable thumbs and a bigger brains—particularly bold members of such a species could strike out for brave new worlds or better still, change the environment around them rather than adapting to it. And yet, the control over environment came at great cost. Anyone who had lived through two World Wars knew this terrible truth all too well.

The end of the second World War was not a great time to be a eugenicist. The practice, nicely summarized by Huxley earlier (selective breeding to "improve" a species) played no small part in the controlled murder of at least five million Jews. Huxley, though, did not distance himself from the field. Instead, he produced a statement calling for the word 'race' to be replaced with 'ethnic group.' "Catholics, Protestants, Moslems [sic] and Jews are not races," he wrote, and no one ethnic group was inferior to another. He titled his statement "The Race Question." By decade's end Huxley was president of the Eugenics Society in England.* But Huxley had begun to sour on the field. He soon coined a new term, this one even more powerful than "cline.?"

It was the early 1960s, and Huxley was busy establishing parks in Africa and saving other important pieces of the planet through UNESCO. The word he came up with addressed evolution, but not in a scientific, Darwinian sense. Huxley had come to believe that humans were unique among species in our intellect, certainly, but also because we didn't have to worry about our species survival, really. We could choose to improve things—the world around us, for example. We could, in other words, transcend what it is to be, from Huxley's experience, human. He called this idea transhumanism.

Why are Huxley and the cline important? Because the man struggled with the differences of the world and attempted to catalog its messiness, and his word struggles to describe how some of these differences, this messiness, came about. The story of Huxley's life, the evolution of his own philosophy—beginning with eugenics, ending in transhumanism—shows how science (and scientists) can perpetuate evil, even while trying to make the world a better place. At the end of his life, Huxley realized that the choice to make things better, and in that sense better ourselves, was more powerful than anything else we could do. We could do good, and that was enough.

In this column, I hope to explore scientific progress and the nature of good and evil. A large theme, this, and one that will probably lead me to conclude that I've bitten off more than I could chew and ended up less certain of what constitutes good and evil than I am now. But that, to me, is kind of an exhilarating prospect.

* Huxley eventually turned his back on eugenics entirely, the most eloquent denial of the field may be from that multi-volume autobiography—he doesn't mention the field once.

Illustration by Will Etling.

via Michael Belanger / Flickr

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