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Bioethics in Evolutionary Humanism

Federal Agency for Civic Education publishes gbs statement


Michael Schmidt-Salomon auf dem taz.lab 2016 (Foto: Evelin Frerk)

In many bioethical debates, an exclusive, ideologically charged term of "human dignity" is used - which already violates human dignity from the standpoint of evolutionary humanism, says Michael Schmidt-Salomon. Because: The individual's dignity is determined by the fact that the individual determines their dignity.

The term "Evolutionary Humanism" was introduced in the early 1960s by Sir Julian Huxley, evolutionary biologist and first general director of UNESCO. The precursors of this worldview reach as far back as Antiquity - e.g. up to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who 2,300 years ago already anticipated essential insights of modern times, including the doctrine of the world's atomic structure, the rise and fall of species, infinity of the universe, mortality of the soul, the social contract, and the individual pursuit of happiness as the fulcrum of people-oriented ethics and politics. Partly inspired by Epicurus, partly independent, unconventional thinkers in later centuries such as Giordano Bruno, Montaigne, La Mettrie, Jefferson, Paine, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Einstein, Russell, or H.G. Wells created essential foundations for the concept of evolutionary humanism which Julian Huxley could resort to in the middle of the 20th century.

Evolutionary humanism as a conceptual framework and worldview

As early as 1945 Huxley had drafted a 60-page basic text for UNESCO, which showed that the newly created World Organization for Education, Science and Culture could fulfil its tasks only on the foundation of a framework concept based on science and humanism. Originally, the text was supposed to be printed as an official UNESCO document, but this was prevented at the last moment because some commissioners were outraged that Huxley wanted to make "atheism disguised as humanism" the basis of UNESCO.

The resistance of the UNESCO commission members was exaggerated, but not entirely unfounded. While Huxley sought to create a cross-traditional, interdenominational and ideologically neutral framework model, this model - and this applies to an even greater extent to evolutionary humanism, which later emerged from it - had all the characteristic features of an independent worldview. In fact, evolutionary humanism, based on scientific knowledge and humanistic values, provides clearly defined answers to the existential fundamental questions of human existence (Where do we come from? Where do we go? What's the meaning of life? What is ethically just?).

This creates tension with other ideological or religious views that answer these core questions in a non-evolutionary or non-humanistic way (e.g. by referring to a "divine creation" or to a predetermined set of values such as Sharia law). However, evolutionary humanism also features traits that are untypical of worldviews. It does not define itself as absolute, but tries to develop a framework model that takes other ideological or religious positions equitably into account. Moreover, its worldview is not static, but oriented towards constant further development. This also explains why evolutionary humanism, which the Giordano Bruno Stiftung represents today, sometimes differs significantly from the positions propagated by Julian Huxley in the 1960s. This openness to new findings and alternative perspectives also becomes apparent in the field of bioethics.

Ethical guidelines for the open society

Evolutionary humanists refuse to impose their worldview on people who think differently. They advocate for a worldview neutral state which grants everyone the freedom to live according to their own philosophical or religious convictions (provided that this does not violate the rights of third parties). In this respect, evolutionary humanists follow the concept of the "open society" described by Karl Popper, which is based on the four fundamental principles of liberality, equality, individuality, and secularity.

In an open society it is not freedom that needs to be justified, but the restriction of freedom does. Thus, responsible citizens may do and don't do as they please - as long as there are no good constitutional reasons forbidding them to do respectively don't do so! Such "good constitutional reasons" only exist if there is rational, evidence-based, and ideologically neutral proof that the citizen's behaviour violates rights of third parties. The state may by no means restrict actions merely because, from the perspective of certain ideological or religious groups, they appear to be "immoral", "undignified", "godless", or "irrational".

For this reason, evolutionary humanists link the concept of human dignity to the right to self-determination of the individual, which results in a purely formal, ideologically neutral concept of human dignity, which can be defined as follows: The inidivudal's dignity is determined by the fact that the individual determines their dignity - not the state, not the family, not the religious community (of course not evolutionary humanism either). If one assumes such a concept of dignity, the real diversity of religious and ideological viewpoints can, according to the calculation, be more appropriately taken into account when answering bioethical questions than generally happens.

Example: euthanasia

A worldview neutral state must enable a devout Catholic to follow the convictions of Pope John Paul II, who said that a dying person should bear the "cross of Christ" and not prematurely end his suffering, since "suicide" is as "unacceptable" as "murder". At the same time, however, the rule of law must also allow a follower of Friedrich Nietzsche to be "free for death and free in death". Between the ostracism of suicide by John Paul II and the celebration of suicide by Nietzsche is a broad spectrum of different ideologically influenced values that have been disputed for centuries. Any member of the civil society may take part in this dispute, but the liberal state under the rule of law must refrain. Under no circumstances may it - as happened in 2015 when § 217 of the German Criminal Code was passed - become the advocate of a specific, namely Christian worldview and declare its values the generally binding norm. Accordingly, the Giordano Bruno Stiftung fiercely criticized the so-called "Euthanasia Prevention Act".

Example: abortion / embryo protection

Human life begins with the fusion of sperm and egg. But at what stage are we dealing with a human person? It is clear that embryos in the empirical sense are not yet persons, i.e. living beings with ego-consciousness. Embryos are not even capable of suffering; they have no interests that could be considered in an ethical conflict. Only from the 20th week of pregnancy begins the development of the cerebral cortex, so from a certain stage of the fetus' development (not the embryo!) we are dealing with a sentient living being whose "interests" must be considered.

Nevertheless, fetuses are neither empirical persons nor legal entities. It is generally accepted that individuals should be regarded as legal persons from birth. Even though the infant is not yet a person with ego-consciousness, birth is a meaningful "natural border" to grant personal rights to the individual. This corresponds to Article 1 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all human beings are "born free and equal in dignity and rights" (for good reason it does not say that they are "conceived" with dignity and rights!). From a rational perspective, it is clear that unconscious and insensitive embryos cannot possess human rights. Opposite views are based on religious-ideological preassumptions, for instance based on the dogma of "simultaneous animation" that was first proclaimed in 1869 (!) (previously, according to Catholic doctrine, abortions were permissible up to the 3rd month). Such "animation concepts" are neither rational nor evidence-based nor ideologically neutral - which is why they must under no circumstances be used to restrict civil liberties! The Giordano Bruno Stiftung is therefore in favour of revising the laws on abortion and embryo protection, which are contrary to the interests of many citizens. The foundation refers, for instance, to government harassment of women willing to have abortions, to unjustified restrictions in the field of preimplantation diagnostics (PGD), and to the fatal ban on the use of embryonic stem cells in medicine.


As we have seen, evolutionary humanism as a framework model protects beliefs that appear "irrational" from its own ideological perspective (e.g. the right of a believer to suffer "following Jesus" and to forego all palliative medicine). In principle, such an "ideological distance" should likewise be possible for the members of a religion. They should too understand that they do not have the right to impose their convictions (e.g. religious "animation concepts") on dissenters.

This text was published on the website of the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education) under the Creative Commons License (by-nc-nd/3.0/). The name of the author/rightholder is to be named as follows: by-nc-nd/3.0/ Author: Michael Schmidt-Salomon for

Other bpb articles in the category "Religion, Philosophy and Bioethics" address the topics "Bioethics in Islam", "Bioethics and Judaism" or "Bioethics and the Protestant Church".