[Classics] Anti-Dühring

7. The Organic World

“A single and uniform ladder of intermediate steps leads from the mechanics of pressure and impact to the linking together of sensations and ideas” {D. Ph. 104}.

With this assurance Herr Dühring saves himself the trouble of saying anything further about the origin of life, although it might reasonably have been expected that a thinker who had traced the evolution of the world back to its self-equal state, and is so much at home on other celestial bodies, would have known exactly what’s what also on this point. For the rest, however, the assurance he gives us is only half right unless it is completed by the Hegelian nodal line of measure relations which has already been mentioned. In spite of all gradualness, the transition from one form of motion to another always remains a leap, a decisive change. This is true of the transition from the mechanics of celestial bodies to that of smaller masses on a particular celestial body; it is equally true of the transition from the mechanics of masses to the mechanics of molecules — including the forms of motion investigated in physics proper: heat, light, electricity, magnetism. In the same way, the transition from the physics of molecules to the physics of atoms — chemistry — in turn involves a decided leap; and this is even more clearly the case in the transition from ordinary chemical action to the chemism of albumen which we call life.[39] Then within the sphere of life the leaps become ever more infrequent and imperceptible. — Once again, therefore, it is Hegel who has to correct Herr Dühring.

The concept of purpose provides Herr Dühring with a conceptual transition to the organic world. Once again, this is borrowed from Hegel, who in his Logic — the Doctrine of the Notion — makes the transition from chemism to life by means of teleology, or the science of purpose. Wherever we look in Herr Dühring we run into a Hegelian “crudity”, which he quite unblushingly dishes out to us as his own deep-rooted science. It would take us too far afield to investigate here the extent to which it is legitimate and appropriate to apply the ideas of means and end to the organic world. In any case, even the application of the Hegelian “inner purpose” — i.e., a purpose which is not imported into nature by some third party acting purposively, such as the wisdom of providence, but lies in the necessity of the thing itself — constantly leads people who are not well versed in philosophy to thoughtlessly ascribing to nature conscious and purposive activity. That same Herr Dühring who is filled with boundless moral indignation at the slightest "spiritistic" tendency in other people assures us

“with certainty that the instinctive sensations were primarily created for the sake of the satisfaction involved in their activity” {D. Ph. 158}.

He tells us that poor nature

“is obliged incessantly to maintain order in the world of objects” {159} and in doing so she has to settle more than one business “which requires more subtlety on the part of nature than is usually credited to her” {165}. But nature not only knows why she does one thing or another; she has not only to perform the duties of a housemaid, she not only possesses subtlety, in itself a pretty good accomplishment in subjective conscious thought; she has also a will. For what the instincts do in addition, incidentally fulfilling real natural functions such as nutrition propagation, etc., “we should not regard as directly but only indirectly willed” {169}.

So we have arrived at a consciously thinking and acting nature, and are thus already standing on the “bridge” — not indeed from the static to the dynamic, but from pantheism to deism. Or is Herr Dühring perhaps just for once indulging a little in “natural-philosophical semi-poetry”?

Impossible! All that our philosopher of reality can tell us of organic nature is restricted to the fight against this natural-philosophical semi-poetry, against “charlatanism with its frivolous superficialities and pseudo-scientific mystifications”, against the “poetising features” {109} of Darwinism.

The main reproach levelled against Darwin is that he transferred the Malthusian population theory from political economy to natural science, that he was held captive by the ideas of an animal breeder, that in his theory of the struggle for existence he pursued unscientific semi-poetry, and that the whole of Darwinism, after deducting what had been borrowed from Lamarck, is a piece of brutality directed against humanity.

Darwin brought back from his scientific travels the view that plant and animal species are not constant but subject to variation. In order to follow up this idea after his return home there was no better field available than that of the breeding of animals and plants. It is precisely in this field that England is the classical country; the achievements of other countries, for example Germany, fall far short of what England has achieved in this connection. Moreover, most of these successes have been won during the last hundred years, so that there is very little difficulty in establishing the facts. Darwin found that this breeding produced artificially, among animals and plants of the same species, differences greater than those found in what are generally recognised as different species. Thus was established on the one hand the variability of species up to a certain point, and on the other the possibility of a common ancestry for organisms with different specific characteristics. Darwin then investigated whether there were not possibly causes in nature which — without the conscious intention of the breeder — would nevertheless in the long run produce in living organisms changes similar to those produced by artificial selection. He discovered these causes in the disproportion between the immense number of germs [in the original Keime, ‘shoots’,‘embryos’] created by nature and the insignificant number of organisms which actually attain maturity. But as each germ strives to develop, there necessarily arises a struggle for existence which manifests itself not merely as direct bodily combat or devouring, but also as a struggle for space and light, even in the case of plants. And it is evident that in this struggle those individuals which have some individual peculiarity, however insignificant, that gives them an advantage in the struggle for existence will have the best prospect of reaching maturity and propagating themselves. These individual peculiarities have thus the tendency to descend by heredity, and when they occur among many individuals of the same species, to become more pronounced through accumulated heredity in the direction once taken; while those individuals which do not possess these peculiarities succumb more easily in the struggle for existence and gradually disappear. In this way a species is altered through natural selection, through the survival of the fittest.

Against this Darwinian theory Herr Dühring now says that the origin of the idea of the struggle for existence, as, he claims, Darwin himself admitted, has to be sought in a generalisation of the views of the economist and theoretician of population, Malthus, and that the idea therefore suffers from all the defects inherent in the priestly Malthusian ideas of over-population {D. Ph. 101}. — Now Darwin would not dream of saying that the origin of the idea of the struggle for existence is to be found in Malthus. He only says that his theory of the struggle for existence is the theory of Malthus applied to the animal and plant world as a whole. However great the blunder made by Darwin in accepting the Malthusian theory so naively and uncritically, nevertheless anyone can see at the first glance that no Malthusian spectacles are required to perceive the struggle for existence in nature — the contradiction between the countless host of germs which nature so lavishly produces and the small number of those which ever reach maturity, a contradiction which in fact for the most part finds its solution in a struggle for existence — often of extreme cruelty. And just as the law of wages has maintained its validity even after the Malthusian arguments on which Ricardo based it have long been consigned to oblivion, so likewise the struggle for existence can take place in nature, even without any Malthusian interpretation. For that matter, the organisms of nature also have their laws of population, which have been left practically uninvestigated, although their establishment would be of decisive importance for the theory of the evolution of species. But who was it that lent decisive impetus to work in this direction too? No other than Darwin.

Herr Dühring carefully avoids an examination of this positive side of the question. Instead, the struggle for existence is arraigned again and again. It is obvious, according to him, that there can be no talk of a struggle for existence among unconscious plants and good-natured plant-eaters:

“in the precise and definite sense the struggle for existence is found in the realm of brutality to the extent that animals live on prey and its devourment” {118}.

And after he has reduced the idea of the struggle for existence to these narrow limits he can give full vent to his indignation at the brutality of this idea, which he himself has restricted to brutality. But this moral indignation only rebounds upon Herr Dühring himself, who is indeed the only author of the struggle for existence in this limited conception and is therefore solely responsible for it. It is consequently not Darwin who

“sought the laws and understanding of all nature's actions in the kingdom of the brutes” {117}, —

Darwin had in fact expressly included the whole of organic nature in the struggle — but an imaginary bugbear dressed up by Herr Dühring himself. The name: the struggle for existence, can for that matter be willingly sacrificed to Herr Dühring's highly moral indignation. That the fact exists also among plants can be demonstrated to him by every meadow, every cornfield, every wood; and the question at issue is not what it is to be called, whether “struggle for existence” or “lack of conditions of life and mechanical effects” {118}, but how this fact influences the preservation or variation of species. On this point Herr Dühring maintains an obstinate and self-equal silence. Therefore for the time being everything may remain as it was in natural selection.

But Darwinism “produces its transformations and differences out of nothing” {114}.

It is true that Darwin, when considering natural selection, leaves out of account the causes which have produced the alterations in separate individuals, and deals in the first place with the way in which such individual deviations gradually become the characteristics of a race, variety or species. To Darwin it was of less immediate importance to discover these causes — which up to the present are in part absolutely unknown, and in part can only be stated in quite general terms — than to find a rational form in which their effects become fixed, acquire permanent significance. It is true that in doing this Darwin attributed to his discovery too wide a field of action, made it the sole agent in the alteration of species and neglected the causes of the repeated individual variations, concentrating rather on the form in which these variations become general; but this is a mistake which he shares with most other people who make any real advance. Moreover, if Darwin produces his individual transformations out of nothing, and in so doing applies exclusively “the wisdom of the breeder” {125}, the breeder, too, must produce out of nothing his transformations in animal and plant forms which are not merely imaginary but real. But once again, the man who gave the impetus to investigate how exactly these transformations and differences arise is no other than Darwin.

In recent times the idea of natural selection was extended, particularly by Haeckel, and the variation of species conceived as a result of the mutual interaction of adaptation and heredity, in which process adaptation is taken as the factor which produces variations, and heredity as the preserving factor. This is also not regarded as satisfactory by Herr Dühring.

“Real adaptation to conditions of life which are offered or withheld by nature presupposes impulses and actions determined by ideas. Otherwise the adaptation is only apparent, and the causality operative thereupon does not rise above the low grades of the physical, chemical and plant-physiological” {D. Ph. 115}.

Once again it is the name which makes Herr Dühring angry. But whatever name he may give to the process, the question here is whether variations in the species of organisms are produced through such processes or not. And again Herr Dühring gives no answer.

“If, in growing, a plant takes the path along which it will receive most light, this effect of the stimulus is nothing but a combination of physical forces and chemical agents, and any attempt to describe it as adaptation — not metaphorically, but in the strict sense of the word — must introduce a spiritistic confusion into the concepts” {115}.

Such is the severity meted out to others by the very man who knows exactly by whose will nature does one thing or another, who speaks of nature's subtlety and even of her will! Spiritistic confusion, yes — but where, in Haeckel or in Herr Dühring?

And not only spiritistic, but also logical confusion. We saw that Herr Dühring insists with might and main on establishing the validity in nature of the concept of purpose:

“The relation between means and end does not in the least presuppose a conscious intention” {102}.

What, then, is adaptation without conscious intention, without the mediation of ideas, which he so zealously opposes, if not such unconscious purposive activity?

If therefore tree-frogs and leaf-eating insects are green, desert animals sandy-yellow, and animals of the polar regions mainly snow-white in colour, they have certainly not adopted these colours on purpose or in conformity with any ideas; on the contrary, the colours can only be explained on the basis of physical forces and chemical agents. And yet it cannot be denied that these animals, because of those colours, are purposively adapted to the environment in which they live, in that they have become far less visible to their enemies. In just the same way the organs with which certain plants seize and devour insects alighting on them are adapted to this action, and even purposively adapted. Consequently, if Herr Dühring insists that this adaptation must be effected through ideas, he as much as says, only in other words, that purposive activity must also be brought about through ideas, must be conscious and intentional. And this brings us, as is usually the case in his philosophy of reality, to a purposive creator, to God.

“An explanation of this kind used to be called deism, and was not thought much of” — Herr Dühring tells us — “but on this matter, too, views now seem to have been reversed” {111}.

From adaptation we now pass on to heredity. Here likewise, according to Herr Dühring, Darwinism is completely on the wrong track. The whole organic world, Darwin is said to have asserted, descended from one primordial being, is so to speak the progeny of one single being. Dühring states that, in Darwin's view, there is no such thing as the independent parallel lines of homogeneous products of nature unless mediated by common descent; and that therefore Darwin and his retrospectively directed views had perforce to come to an end at the point where the thread of begetting, or other form of propagation, breaks off {111}.

The assertion that Darwin traced all existing organisms back to one primordial being is, to put it politely, a product of Herr Dühring's “own free creation and imagination” {43}. Darwin expressly says on the last page but one of his Origin of species, sixth edition, that he regards

“all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings”.

And Haeckel even goes considerably further, assuming

“a quite independent stock for the vegetable kingdom, and a second for the animal kingdom”, and between the two “a number of independent stocks of Protista, each of which, quite independently of the former, has developed out of one special archegone of the moneron type”[40] (Schöpfungsgeschichte, p. 397)

This primordial being was only invented by Dühring in order to bring it into as great disrepute as possible by drawing a parallel with the primordial Jew {D. Ph. 110} Adam, and in this he — that is to say, Herr Dühring — suffers the misfortune of not having the faintest idea that this primordial Jew had been shown by Smith's Assyrian discoveries[41] to have been a primordial Semite, and that the whole biblical history of creation and the flood turns out to be a part of the old heathen religious myths which the Jew have in common with the Babylonians, Chaldeans and Assyrians.

It is certainly a bitter reproach against Darwin, and one for which he has no defence, that he comes to an end at once at the point where the thread of descent breaks off. Unfortunately it is a reproach which has been earned by the whole of our natural science. Where the thread of descent breaks off for it, it “ends”. It has not yet succeeded in producing organic beings without descent from others; indeed, it has not yet succeeded even in producing simple protoplasm or other albuminous bodies out of chemical elements. With regard to the origin of life, therefore, up to the present, natural science is only able to say with certainty that it must have been the result of chemical action. However, perhaps the philosophy of reality is in a position to give some help on this point as it has at its disposal independent parallel lines of products of nature not mediated by common descent. How can these have come into existence? By spontaneous generation? But up to now even the most audacious advocates of spontaneous generation have not claimed that this produced anything but bacteria, embryonic fungi and other very primitive organisms — no insects, fishes, birds or mammals. But if these homogeneous products of nature — organic, of course, as here we are only dealing with these — are not connected by descent, they or each of their ancestors must, at the point “where the thread of descent breaks off”, have been put into the world by a separate act of creation. So we arrive once again at a creator and at what is called deism.

Herr Dühring further declares that it was very superficial on Darwin's part

“to make the mere act of the sexual composition of properties the fundamental principle of the origin of these properties” {116}.

This is another free creation and imagination of our deep-rooted philosopher. Darwin definitely states the opposite: the expression natural selection only implies the preservation of variations, not their origin (p. 63). This new imputation to Darwin of things he never said nevertheless helps us to grasp the following depth of Dühringian mentality:

“If some principle of independent variation had been found in the inner schematism of generation, this idea would have been quite rational; for it is a natural idea to combine the principle of universal genesis with that of sexual propagation into a unity, and to regard so-called spontaneous generation, from a higher standpoint, not as the absolute antithesis of reproduction but just as a production” {116}.

And the man who can write such rubbish is not ashamed to reproach Hegel for his “jargon” {D. K. G. 491}!

But enough of the peevish, contradictory grumbling and nagging through which Herr Dühring gives vent to his anger at the colossal impetus which natural science owes to the driving force of the Darwinian theory. Neither Darwin nor his followers among naturalists ever think of belittling in any way the great services rendered by Lamarck; in fact, they are the very people who first put him up again on his pedestal. But we must not overlook the fact that in Lamarck’s time science was as yet far from being in possession of sufficient material to have enabled it to answer the question of the origin of species except in an anticipatory way, prophetically, as it were. In addition to the enormous mass of material, both of descriptive and anatomical botany and zoology, which has accumulated in the intervening period, two completely new sciences have arisen since Lamarck’s time, and these are of decisive importance on this question: research into the development of plant and animal germs (embryology) and research into the organic remains preserved in the various strata of the earth’s surface (palaeontology). There is in fact a peculiar correspondence between the gradual development of organic germs into mature organisms and the succession of plants and animals following each other in the history of the earth. And it is precisely this correspondence which has given the theory of evolution its most secure basis. The theory of evolution itself is however still in a very early stage, and it therefore cannot be doubted that further research will greatly modify our present conceptions, including strictly Darwinian ones, of the process of the evolution of species.

What, of a positive character, has the philosophy of reality to tell us concerning the evolution of organic life?

“The ... variability of species is a presupposition which can be accepted” {D. Ph. 115}. But alongside it there hold also “the independent parallel lines of homogeneous products of nature, not mediated by common descent” {111}.

From this we are apparently to infer that the heterogeneous products of nature, i.e., the species which show variations, descend from each other but not so the homogeneous products. But this is not altogether correct either; for even with species which show variations,

“mediation by common descent is on the contrary quite a secondary act of nature” {114}.

So we get common descent after all, but only “second class”. We must rejoice that after Herr Dühring has attributed so much to it that is evil and obscure, we nevertheless find it in the end readmitted by the backdoor. It is the same with natural selection, for after all his moral indignation over the struggle for existence through which natural selection operates we suddenly read:

“The deeper basis of the constitution of organisms is thus to be sought in the conditions of life and cosmic relations, while the natural selection emphasised by Darwin can only come in as a secondary factor” {115}.

So we get natural selection after all, though only second class; and along with natural selection also the struggle for existence, and with that also the priestly Malthusian overpopulation! That is all, and for the rest Herr Dühring refers us to Lamarck.

In conclusion he warns us against the misuse of the terms: metamorphosis and development. Metamorphosis, he maintains, is an unclear concept {112}, and the concept of development is permissible only in so far as laws of development can be really established {126}. In place of both these terms we should use the term “composition” {114}, and then everything would be all right. It is the same old story over again: things remain as they were, and Herr Dühring is quite satisfied as soon as we just alter the names. When we speak of the development of the chicken in the egg we are creating confusion, for we are able to prove the laws of; development only in an incomplete way. But if we speak of its’ “composition” everything becomes clear. We shall therefore no longer say: This child is developing finely but: It is composing itself magnificently. We can congratulate Herr Dühring on being a worthy peer of the author of the Nibelungenring not only in his noble self-esteem but also in his capacity of composer of the future.[42]


[39] Engels made a note here, which he subsequently included in Dialectics of Nature (see MECW, volume 25, pp. 530-34).

[40] Protista (from the Greek protistos — meaning first) are, according to Haeckel's classification, a vast group of simple, both unicellular and non-cellular, organisms.

Monera (from the Greek moneres — meaning single) are, according to Haeckel, structureless masses of albumen, devoid of a nucleus but performing all the essential vital functions: eating, locomotion, reaction to irritation, multiplication.

The terms protista and monera were introduced by Haeckel in 1866 in his book Generelle Morphologie der Organismen.

[41] The reference is to the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh and the Accadian version of the Deluge story discovered in 1872 by George Smith, the English Assyriologist and archaeologist.

[42] Ring of the Nibelung — Richard Wagner's monumental tetralogy: RheingoldValkyrieSiegfried and Götterdämmerung.

Here Engels jokingly calls Dühring the "composer of the future", referring to the term "composition" proposed by Dühring. Wagner's adversaries had ironically called his music the "music of the future", the occasion being Wagner's book Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, Leipzig, 1850.

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