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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Evolution and Ethics
By Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895)
 
From ‘Collected Essays,’ Vol. ix.

THERE is another fallacy which appears to me to pervade the so-called “ethics of evolution.” It is the notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent “survival of the fittest,” therefore men in society, men as ethical beings, must look to the same process to help them towards perfection. I suspect that this fallacy has arisen out of the unfortunate ambiguity of the phrase “survival of the fittest.” “Fittest” has a connotation of “best”; and about “best” there hangs a moral flavor. In cosmic nature, however, what is “fittest” depends upon the conditions. Long since, I ventured to point out that if our hemisphere were to cool again, the survival of the fittest might bring about in the vegetable kingdom a population of more and more stunted and humbler and humbler organisms, until the “fittest” that survived might be nothing but lichens, diatoms, and such microscopic organisms as those which give red snow its color; while if it became hotter, the pleasant valleys of the Thames and Isis might be uninhabitable by any animated beings save those that flourish in a tropical jungle. They as the fittest, the best adapted to the changed conditions, would survive….  1
  But if we may permit ourselves a larger hope of abatement of the essential evil of the world than was possible to those who, in the infancy of exact knowledge, faced the problem of existence more than a score of centuries ago, I deem it an essential condition of the realization of that hope that we should cast aside the notion that the escape from pain and sorrow is the proper object of life.  2
  We have long since emerged from the heroic childhood of our race, when good and evil could be met with the same “frolic welcome”; the attempts to escape from evil, whether Indian or Greek, have ended in flight from the battle-field; it remains to us to throw aside the youthful over-confidence and the no less youthful discouragement of nonage. We are grown men, and must play the man,
                          “strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,”
cherishing the good that falls in our way, and bearing the evil in and around us with stout hearts set on diminishing it. So far we all may strive in one faith towards one hope:—
  “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down,
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles;
… but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note may yet be done.”
  3
 
 
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