[Book] Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science

14. Marxism and Darwinism

Darwin's gradualism

“It is sometimes said that the standpoint of dialectics is identical with that of evolution. There can be no doubt that these two methods have points of contact. Nevertheless, between them there is a profound and important difference which, it must be admitted, is far from favouring the teaching of evolution. Modern evolutionists introduce a considerable admixture of conservatism into their teaching. They want to prove that there are no leaps either in nature or in history. Dialectics, on the other hand, knows full well that in nature and also in human thought and history leaps are inevitable. But it does not overlook the undeniable fact that the same uninterrupted process is at work in all phases of change. It only endeavours to make clear to itself the series of conditions under which gradual change must necessarily lead to a leap.” (Plekhanov) 66

Darwin regarded the pace of evolution as a gradual process of orderly steps. It proceeded at a constant rate. He adhered to Linnaeus' motto: “Nature does not make leaps.” This conception was reflected elsewhere in the scientific world, most notably with Darwin's disciple, Charles Lyell, the apostle of gradualism in the field of geology. Darwin was so committed to gradualism, that he built his whole theory on it. “The geological record is extremely imperfect,” stated Darwin, “and this fact will to a large extent explain why we do not find interminable varieties, connecting together all the extinct and existing forms of life by the finest graduated steps. He who rejects these views on the nature of the geological record will rightly reject my whole theory.” This Darwinism gradualism was rooted in the philosophical views of Victorian society. From this “evolution” all the leaps, abrupt changes and revolutionary transformations are eliminated. This anti-dialectical outlook has held sway over the sciences to this present day. “A deeply rooted bias of Western thought predisposes us to look for continuity and gradual change,” says Gould.

However, these views have given rise to a heated controversy. The present fossil record is full of gaps. It reveals long-term trends, but they are also very jerky. Darwin believed that these jerks were due to the gaps in the record. Once the missing pieces were discovered, it would reveal a gradual smooth evolution of the natural world. Or would it? Against the gradualist approach, palaeontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould have put forward a theory of evolution called punctuated equilibria, suggesting that the fossil record is not as incomplete as had been thought. The gaps could reflect what really occurred. Gould argues that evolution proceeds with leaps and jumps, punctuated with long periods of steady, gradual development.

“The history of life is not a continuum of development, but a record punctuated by brief, sometimes geologically instantaneous, episodes of mass extinction and subsequent diversification, Rather than a gradual transition, modern multicellular animals make their first uncontested appearance in the fossil record some 570 million years ago—and with a bang, not a protracted crescendo. This 'Cambrian explosion' marks the advent (at least into direct evidence) of virtually all major groups of modern animals—and all within the minuscule span, geologically speaking, of a few million years.” 67

Gould also points to the feature that the boundaries of geological time coincide with turning points in the evolution of life. This conception of evolution comes very close to the Marxist view. Evolution is not some smooth, gradual movement from lower to higher. Evolution takes place through accumulated changes which burst through in a qualitative change, through revolutions and transformations. Already at the end of the 19th century, the Marxist George Plekhanov polemicised against the gradual conception of evolution:

“German idealist philosophy, decisively revolted against such a misshapen conception of evolution. Hegel bitingly ridiculed it, and demonstrated irrefutably that both in nature and in human society leaps constituted just as essential a stage of evolution as gradual quantitative changes. 'Changes in being,' he says, 'consists not only in the fact that one quantity passes into another quantity, but also that quality passes into quantity and vice versa. Each transition of the latter kind represents an interruption in gradualness, and gives the phenomenon a new aspect, qualitatively distinct from the previous one'.” 68

“Evolution” and “revolution” are two sides of the same process. In rejecting gradualism, Gould and Eldredge have sought an alternative explanation of evolution, and have been influenced by dialectical materialism. Gould's paper on “Punctuated Equilibria” draws parallels with the materialist conception of history. Natural selection theory is a good explanation of how species get better at doing what they do, but provides an unsatisfactory explanation for the formation of new species. The fossil record shows six major mass extinctions took place at the beginning and end of the Cambrian period (600 million and 500 million years ago respectively), and the ends of the Devonian (345 million years ago), the Permian (225 million), the Triassic (180 million) and the Cretaceous (63 million). A qualitatively new approach is needed to explain this phenomenon.

The evolution of a new species is marked by the evolution of a genetic make-up that allows members of the new species to breed with each other, but not with members of other species. New species arise from a branching off from ancestral stocks. That is, as Darwin explained, one species descended from another species. The tree of life shows that more than one species can be traced back to one ancestral stock. Humans and chimpanzees are different species, but had one common extinct ancestor. Change from one species into another takes place rapidly between two stable species. This transformation does not take place in one generation or two, but over possibly hundreds of thousands of years. As Gould comments:

“This may seem like a long time in the framework of our lives, but it is a geological instant…If species arise in hundreds or thousands of years and then persist, largely unchanged, for several million, the period of their origin is a tiny fraction of one per cent of their total duration.”

The key to this change lies in geographical separation, where a small population has become separated from the main population at its periphery. This form of speciation, called allopatric, allows a rapid evolution to take place. As soon as an ancestral species is separated, the inter-breeding stops. Any genetic changes build up separately. However, in the smaller population, genetic variations can spread very quickly in comparison to the ancestral group. This can be brought about by natural selection responding to changing climatic and geographical factors. As the two populations diverge, they eventually reach a point where two species are formed. Quantitative changes have given rise to a qualitative transformation. If they ever meet in the future, then so genetically divergent are they, that they are unable to breed successfully; either their offspring will be sickly or sterile. Eventually, similar species with the same way of life would tend to compete, leading eventually to the extinction of the least successful.

As Engels commented:

“The organic process of development, both of the individual and of species, by differentiation, is the most striking test of rational dialectics.” Again, “The further physiology develops, the more important for it becomes these incessant, infinitely small changes, and hence the more important for it also the consideration of differences within identity, and the old abstract standpoint of formal identity, that an organic being is to be treated as something simply identical with itself, as something constant, becomes out of date.” Engels then concludes: “If there the individuals which become adapted survive and develop into a new species by continually increasing adaption, while the other more stable individuals die away and finally die out, and with them the imperfect intermediate stages, then this can and does proceed without any Malthusianism, and if the latter should occur at all it makes no change to the process, at most it can accelerate it.” 69

Gould correctly says that the theory of punctuated equilibria is not in contradiction to the main tenet of Darwinism, natural selection, but, on the contrary, enriches and strengthens Darwinism. Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker attempts to downgrade Gould and Eldredge's recognition of dialectical change in nature. He sees little difference between “real” Darwinian gradualism and “punctuated equilibria”. He states: “The theory of punctuated equilibrium is a gradualist theory, albeit it emphasises long periods of stasis intervening between relatively short bursts of gradualistic evolution. Gould has misled himself by his own rhetorical emphasis…” Dawkins then concludes, “in reality, all are 'gradualists'.”

Dawkins criticises the punctuationists for attacking and misrepresenting Darwin. He says we need to see Darwin's gradualism in its context—as an attack on creationism. “Punctuationists, then, are really just as gradualist as Darwin or any other Darwinian; they just insert long periods of stasis between spurts of gradual evolution.” But this is not a secondary difference, it is the essence of the matter. To criticise the weakness of Darwinism is not to undermine its unique contribution, but to synthesise it with an understanding of real change. Only then can Darwin's historic contribution be fully rounded out as an explanation of natural evolution. As Gould correctly says, “The modern theory of evolution does not require gradual change. In fact, the operation of Darwinian processes should yield what we see in the fossil record. It is gradualism that we must reject, not Darwinism.” 70

No progress?

The fundamental thrust of Gould's argument is undoubtedly correct. What is more problematical is his idea that evolution does not travel an inherently progressive path:

“Increasing diversity and multiple transitions seem to reflect a determined and inexorable progression toward higher things. But the palaeontological record supports no such interpretation. There has been no steady progress in the higher development of organic design. For the first two thirds to five-sixths of life's history, monerans alone inhabited the earth, and we detect no steady progress from 'lower' to 'higher' prokaryotes. Likewise, there has been no addition of basic designs since the Cambrian explosion filled our biosphere (although we can argue for limited improvement within a few designs—vertebrates and vascular plants, for example).” 71

Gould argues, particularly in his book Wonderful Life, that the number of animal phyla (basic body plans) was greater soon after the “Cambrian explosion” than today. He says diversity has not increased and there are no long-term trends in evolution, and the evolution of intelligent life is accidental.

Here it seems to us that Eric Lerner's criticisms of Gould are correct:

“Not only is there a huge difference between the contingencies that lead to the evolution of a particular species and a long-term trend in evolution, such as towards greater adaptability or intelligence, but Gould rests his case on facts that are an example of just such a trend!” says Lerner. “Over time, evolution has tended to concentrate more and more on specific modes of development. Nearly all chemical elements were in existence ten billion years ago or more. The types of compounds vital to life—DNA, RNA, proteins, and so on—were all present on earth some four billion years ago. The main kingdoms of life—animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria—have existed for two billion years; there have been no new ones in that time. As Gould shows, the main phyla have existed for six hundred million years, and the major orders (a lower grouping) for about four hundred million years.

“As evolution has sped up, it has become more and more specific, and the earth has been transformed by the social evolution of a single species, our own. This is exactly the sort of long-term trend that Gould, despite his great contribution to evolutionary theory, is ideologically determined to ignore. Yet it exists, as does the trend towards intelligence.” 72

The fact that evolution has resulted in greater complexity, from lower organisms to higher ones, leading to human beings with large brains capable of the most complex tasks, is proof of its progressive character. That does not mean that evolution takes place in a straight ascending line, as Gould correctly argues; there are breaks, retrogressions, and pauses within the general progress of evolution. Although natural selection takes place in response to environmental changes (even of a local character), it nevertheless has led to greater complexity of life forms. Certain species have adapted to their environment and have existed in that form for millions of years. Other species have become extinct having lost out in competition with other more advanced models. That is the evidence of the evolution of life over the past 3.5 billion years.

The reason for Gould's emphatic rejection of the notion of progress in evolution has more to do with social and political reasons than strictly scientific ones. He knows that the idea of evolutionary progress and “higher species” have been systematically misused in the past in order to justify racism and imperialism—the alleged superiority of the white man was supposed to give the nations of Europe the right to seize the land and wealth of the “lesser breeds without the law” in Africa and Asia. As late as the 1940s respectable men of science were still publishing “evolutionary trees” showing the white man on top, with the black and other “races” on separate and lower branches, a little higher than the gorillas and chimpanzees. When questioned about his rejection of the notion of progress in evolution as “noxious”, Gould justified himself as follows:

“'Progress is not intrinsically and logically noxious,' he replied. 'It's noxious in the context of Western cultural traditions.' With roots going back to the seventeenth century, progress as a central social ethic reached its height in the nineteenth century, with the industrial revolution and Victorian expansionism, Steve explained. Fears of self-destruction in recent decades, either militarily inflicted or through pollution, have dulled the eternal optimism of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nevertheless, the assumed inexorable march of scientific discovery and economic growth continue to fuel the idea that progress is a good and natural part of history. 'Progress has been a prevailing doctrine in the interpretation of historical sequence,' Steve continued, 'and since evolution is the grandest history of all, the notion of progress immediately got transferred to it. You are aware of some of the consequences of that'.” 73

One can sympathise with Gould's reaction to such ignorant and reactionary rubbish. It is also true that terms like “progress” may not be ideal from a strictly scientific point of view when applied to evolution. There is always the risk that it could imply a teleological approach, that is, the conception of nature as operating according to a pre-established plan, worked out by a Creator. However, as usual, the reaction has swung too far the other way. If the word progress is inadequate, it could be substituted by, say, complexity. Can it be denied that there has been real development in living organisms since the first single-celled animals until now?

There is no need to return to the old one-sided view of Man, the culminating point of evolution, in order to accept that the past 3.5 billion years of evolution has not just meant change, but actual development, passing from simpler forms to more complex living systems. The fossil record bears witness to this. For example, the dramatic increase in average brain size with the evolution of mammals from reptiles, some 230 million years ago. Similarly, there was a qualitative leap in brain size with the emergence of humans, and this, in turn, did not take place as a smooth quantitative process, but as a series of leaps, with Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalis, and finally Homo sapiens, representing decisive turning points.

There is no reason to suppose that evolution has reached its limit, or that human beings will experience no further development. The process of evolution will continue, although it will not necessarily take the same form as in the past. Profound changes in the social environment, including genetic engineering, can modify the process of natural selection, giving human beings for the first time the possibility of determining their own evolution, at least to some degree. This will open up an entirely new chapter in human development, especially in a society guided by the free and conscious decisions of men and women, and not the blind play of market forces and the animal struggle for survival.

Marxism and Darwinism

“The kinds of values upheld in Marxist doctrine are almost diametric opposites from those which emerge from a scientific approach on our present terms.” (Roger Sperry, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for Medicine.)

“The church takes her stand against the inroads of chaos and the twentieth century gods of Progress and a materialistic world-view… Genesis then rings true as ever, whether one follows an evolutionary account of biological origins or not.” (Blackmore and Page, Evolution: the Great Debate)

Using the method of dialectical materialism, Marx and Engels were able to discover the laws that govern history and the development of society in general. Unconsciously using a similar method, Charles Darwin was able to uncover the laws of evolution of plants and animals. As, Gould described it:

“Darwin applied a consistent philosophy of materialism to his interpretation of nature. Matter is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity.”

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution revolutionised our outlook on the natural world. Before him, the prevailing view amongst scientists was that species were immutable, having been created by God for specific functions in nature. Some accepted the idea of evolution, but in a mystical form, directed by vital forces which left room for the decisive intervention of the Supreme Being. Darwin represents a decisive break with this idealist outlook. For the first time, primarily though not exclusively through a process of natural selection, evolution provided an explanation of how species have changed over billions of years, from the simplest forms of unicellular organisms to the most complex forms of animal life, including ourselves. Darwin's revolutionary contribution was to discover the mechanism that brought about change, thereby putting evolution on a firm scientific basis.

There is a rough analogy here with the role played by Marx and Engels in the field of the social sciences. Long before them, others had recognised the existence of the class struggle. But not until Marx's analysis of the Labour Theory of Value and the development of historical materialism, was it possible to provide this phenomenon with a scientific explanation. Marx and Engels gave enthusiastic support to Darwin's theory, which provided confirmation for their ideas, as applied to nature. On 16th January 1861, Marx wrote to Lassalle: “Darwin's book is very important and serves me as a natural scientific basis for the class struggle in history. One has to put up with the crude English method of development, of course. Despite all deficiencies, not only is the death-blow dealt here for the first time to 'teleology' in the natural sciences but its rational meaning is empirically explained.”

Darwin's Origin of Species appeared in 1859, the same year that Marx published his Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, which fully rounded out the materialist conception of history. Darwin had worked out the theory of natural selection more than twenty years earlier, but refrained from publication for fear of the reaction to his materialist views. Even then, he only referred to human origins with the phrase “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” Only when he could not hide them any longer was The Descent of Man published in 1871. Such were its disquieting ideas, Darwin was rebuked for publishing “at a moment when the sky of Paris was red with the incendiary flames of the Commune.” He studiously avoided the question of religion, although he clearly had rejected Creationism. In 1880, he wrote:

“It seems to me (rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and Theism hardly have any effect on the public; and that freedom of thought will best be promoted by that gradual enlightening of human understanding which follows the progress of science. I have therefore always avoided writing about religion and have confined myself to science.”

Darwin's materialist conception of nature was a revolutionary break-through in providing a scientific conception of evolution. However, Marx was by no means uncritical of Darwin. In particular, he criticised his “crude English method” and showed how Darwin's deficiencies were based upon the influences of Adam Smith and Malthus. Lacking a definite philosophical standpoint, Darwin inevitably fell under the influence of the prevailing ideology of the times. The Victorian English middle-classes prided themselves on being practical men and women, with a gift for making money and “getting on in life”. The “survival of the fittest”, as a description of natural selection, was not originally used by Darwin, but by Herbert Spencer in 1864. Darwin was not concerned with progress in Spencer's sense—human progress based on the elimination of the “unfit”—and was unwise to adopt his phrase. Likewise, the phrase “struggle for existence” was used by Darwin as a metaphor, but it was distorted by conservatives, who used Darwin's theories for their own end. To Social Darwinists, the most popular catchwords of the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” and “struggle for existence”, when applied to society suggested that nature would ensure the best competitors in a competitive situation would win, and that this process would lead to continuing improvement. It followed from this that all attempts to reform social processes were efforts to remedy the irremediable, and that, as they interfered with the wisdom of nature, they could lead only to degeneration. As the celebrated Ukranian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it:

“Since Nature is 'red in tooth and claw', it would be a big mistake to let our sentiments interfere with Nature's intentions by helping the poor, the weak, and the generally unfit to the point where they will be as comfortable as the rich, the strong, and the fit. In the long run, letting Nature reign will bring the greatest benefits. 'Pervading all Nature we may see at work a stern discipline which is a little cruel that it may be very kind,' wrote Herbert Spencer.” 74

Darwin and Malthus

“Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence only increases in an arithmetical ratio.” (Thomas Robert Malthus, The Principle of Population.)

The laissez faire economics of Adam Smith may have given Darwin an insight into natural selection, but as Engels remarked:

“Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind, and especially on his countrymen, when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the Animal Kingdom.” 75

Darwin was inspired by Malthus's Essay on Population written in 1798. This theory purports to show that population grows geometrically and food supplies only arithmetically, unless checked by famine, war, disease, or restraint. It was shown to be false.

Unlike Spencer, Darwin understood “fitness” in relation only to a given environment, not to an absolute scale of perfection. In fact, neither of the two terms with which Darwin's name is chiefly associated, “evolution” and “survival of the fittest”, occurs in early editions of The Origin of the Species, where his key ideas are expressed by the words “mutability” and “natural selection”. On the 18th June 1862, Marx wrote to Engels: “Darwin, whom I have looked up again, amuses me when he says he is applying the 'Malthusian' theory also to plants and animals, as if with Mr. Malthus the whole point were not that he does not apply the theory to plants and animals but only to human beings—and with geometrical progression—as opposed to plants and animals.” Engels also rejected Darwin's crude description or jargon, and says: “Darwin's mistake lies precisely in lumping together in 'natural selection' or the 'survival of the fittest', two absolutely separate things:

“1. Selection by the pressure of over-population, where perhaps the strongest survive in the first place, but where the weakest in many respects can also do so.

“2. Selection by greater capacity of adaption to altered circumstances, where the survivors are better suited to these circumstances, but where this adaption as a whole can mean regress just as well as progress (for adaption to parasitic life is always regress).

“The main thing: that each advance in organic evolution is at the same time a regression, fixing one-sided evolution and excluding evolution along many other directions. This, however, (is) a basic law.” 76

Clearly, there exists a struggle for survival—though not in the Spencerian sense—in nature where scarcity exists, or danger to the members of a species through predators.

“However great the blunder made by Darwin in accepting the Malthusian theory so naïvely and uncritically,” says Engels, “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.” 77

Many species produce vast numbers of seeds or eggs to maximise their survival rate, particularly in the early years of life. On the other hand, the human species has survived in other ways, as its development is very slow, and where a great deal of energy and effort is invested in raising very few, late maturing offspring. Our advantage lies within our brain, and its capacity for learning and generalisation. Our population growth is not controlled by the death of large numbers of our offspring, and so cannot be compared crudely to other species.

History itself provides the final answer to Malthus. A.N. Whitehead has pointed out that from the tenth to the 20th century, a continually rising population in Europe was accompanied by generally rising living standards. This cannot be squared with the Malthusian theory, even if the question of “checks” is introduced, a means of “delaying the inevitable outcome”. A thousand years should be sufficient to demonstrate the correctness or otherwise of any theory. “The plain truth,” as Whitehead says, “is that during this period and over that area (i.e., Europe) the so-called checks were such that the Malthusian Law represented a possibility, unrealised and of no importance.” 78

Whitehead points out that the alleged “checks” were not even in proportion to the density of the population. For example, the plagues were mainly the result, not of population size, but of bad sanitation. Not birth control, but soap, water, and proper drains would have been the remedy. The Thirty Years War cut the population of Germany by half—quite a drastic “check” on population growth. The war had several causes, but excessive population has never been mentioned as one of them. Nor, to the best of our knowledge, has it played a noticeable role in any of the other wars in which European history is so rich. For example, the peasant uprisings at the end of the Middle Ages in France, Germany and England were not caused by excess population. As a matter of fact, they occurred precisely at a time when the population had been decimated by the Black Death. At the beginning of the 16th century, Flanders was thickly populated, yet enjoyed far higher living standards than Germany, where the grinding poverty of the peasants contributed to the Peasants' War.

Malthus' theories are worthless from a scientific point of view but have consistently served as an excuse for the most inhuman application of so-called market policies. In the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, as a result of which the population of Ireland was reduced from over 8 million to 4.5 million, the English landlords in Ireland continued to export wheat. Following sound free market principles, the “Liberal” government in London refused to introduce any measure which might interfere with free trade or prices, and cancelled the supply of cheap maize to the Irish, therefore condemning millions to death by starvation. The Malthusian principles of the English government were defended by Charles Grenville, secretary to the Privy Council thus:

“…The state of Ireland is to the last degree deplorable, and enough to induce despair: such general disorganisation and demoralisation, a people with rare exceptions besotted with obstinacy and indolence, reckless and savage—all from high to low intent on doing as little and getting as much as they can, unwilling to rouse and exert themselves, looking to this country for succour, and snarling at the succour which they get; the masses brutal, deceitful and idle, the whole state of things contradictory and paradoxical. While menaced with the continuance of famine next year, they will not cultivate the ground, and it lies unsown and untilled. There is no doubt that the people never were so well off on the whole as they have been this year of famine. Nobody will pay rent, and the savings banks are overflowing. With the money they get from our relief funds they buy arms instead of food, and then shoot the officers who are sent over to regulate the distribution of relief. While they crowd to the overseers with demands for employment, the landowners cannot produce hands, and sturdy beggars calling themselves destitute are apprehended with large sums in their pockets. 28th November, 1846.”

The real state of affairs was described by Doctor Burritt, who was horrified to see men working on roads with their limbs swollen to almost twice their normal size. The body of a twelve-year-old boy was:

“swollen to nearly three times its usual size and had burst the ragged garment which covered him. ... Near a place called Skull, we passed a crowd of 500 people, half naked and starving. They were waiting for soup to be distributed amongst them. They were pointed out to us, and as I stood looking with pity and wonder at so miserable a scene, my conductor, a gentleman residing at East Skull and a medical man, said to me: 'Not a single one of those you now see will be alive in three weeks: it is impossible.' … The deaths here average 40 to 50 daily. Twenty bodies were fortunate in getting buried at all. The people build themselves up in their cabins, so that they may die together with their children and not be seen by passers-by.” 79

There was no more reason for these people to die of hunger than it is for millions to starve today, while farmers are paid not to grow food in the European Union and USA. They are not victims of the laws of nature, but of the laws of the market.

From the beginning, Marx and Engels denounced the false theories of Malthusianism. Answering the arguments of “Parson Malthus”, in a letter to Lange dated 29th March 1865 Engels wrote: “The pressure of population is not upon the means of subsistence but upon the means of employment; mankind could multiply more rapidly than modern bourgeois society can demand. To us a further reason for declaring this bourgeois society a barrier to development which must fall.”

The introduction of machinery, new scientific techniques and fertilisers means that world food production can easily keep abreast of population growth. The spectacular growth in the productivity of agriculture is taking place when the proportion of the population involved in it continues to fall. The extension of the agricultural efficiency already attained in the advanced countries to the entire farming world would yield a huge increase in production. Only a very small part of the vast biological productivity of the ocean is used at present. Hunger and starvation exist mainly due to the destruction of food surpluses to keep up the price of food and the need to maintain the profit levels of the agro-monopolies.

The widespread hunger in the so-called Third World is not the product of “natural selection”, but very definitely a man-made problem. Not the “survival of the fittest”, but greed for profits of a handful of big banks and monopolies is what condemns millions to a life of desperate poverty and actual starvation. Just to pay back the interest on their accumulated debts, the poorest countries are compelled to grow cash crops for export, including rice, cocoa and other food, which could be used to feed their own people. In 1989, Sudan was still exporting food, while its people starved to death. In Brazil, it is estimated that about 400,000 children die of hunger every year. Yet Brazil is one of the biggest exporters of food. The same discredited ideas continue to re-surface from time to time, as an attempt is made to blame the nightmare conditions of the Third World on the fact that there are “too many people” (meaning black, yellow and brown people). The fact that in the absence of pensions poor peasants need to have as many children as possible (especially sons) to keep them in old age is conveniently ignored. Poverty and ignorance causes the so-called population problem. As living standards and education increase, the growth in population tends to fall automatically. Meanwhile, the potential for increased food production is immense, and is being held down artificially in order to boost the profits of a few wealthy farmers in Europe, Japan and the USA. The scandal of mass starvation in the late 20th century is even more repugnant because it is unnecessary.

Social Darwinism

Although they greatly admired Darwin, Marx and Engels were by no means uncritical of his theories. Engels understood that Darwin's ideas would be later refined and developed—a fact confirmed by the development of genetics. He wrote to Lavrov in November 1875: “Of the Darwinian doctrine I accept the theory of evolution, but Darwin's method of proof (struggle for life, natural selection) I consider only a first, provisional, imperfect expression of a newly discovered fact.” And again in his book Anti-Dühring:

“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.”

Engels sharply criticised Darwin's one-sidedness as well as the Social Darwinism that was to follow. “Hardly was Darwin recognised,” states Engels, “before these same people saw everywhere nothing but struggle. Both views are justified within narrow limits, but both are equally one-sided and prejudiced…Hence, even in regard to nature, it is not permissible one-sidely to inscribe only 'struggle' on one's banners. But it is absolutely childish to desire to sum up the whole manifold wealth of historical evolution and complexity in the meagre and one-sided phrase 'struggle for life'. That says less than nothing.” He then goes on to explain the roots of this error:

“The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for life is simply the transference from society to organic nature of Hobbes' theory of Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes (the war of each against all—ed.), and of the bourgeois economic theory of competition, as well as the Malthusian theory of population. When once this feat has been accomplished (the unconditional justification for which, especially as regards the Malthusian theory, is still very questionable), it is very easy to transfer these theories back again from natural history to the history of society, and altogether too naïve to maintain that thereby these assertions have been proved as eternal natural laws of society.” 80

The Social Darwinian's parallels with the animal world fitted in with the prevailing racist arguments that human character was based upon the measurement of men's skulls. For Daniel G. Brinton, American linguist and anthropologist, “the European or white race stands at the head of the list, the African or Negro at its foot” (1890). Cesare Lombroso, an Italian physician, in 1876, argued that born criminals were essentially apes, a throwback in evolution. It was part of the desire to explain human behaviour in terms of innate biology—a tendency that can still be observed today. The 'struggle for survival' was seen as innate in all animals including man, and served to justify war, conquest, profiteering, imperialism, racialism, as well as the class structure of capitalism. It is the forerunner of the cruder varieties of sociobiology and the theories of the Naked Ape. After all, was it not W.S. Gilbert whose satire proclaimed:

“Darwinian Man, though well-behaved,
At best is only a monkey shaved!”

Darwin stressed that “Natural Selection has been the most, but not the exclusive, means of modification.” He explained that the adaptive changes in one part could lead to modifications of other features that have no bearing on survival. However, as opposed to the idealist conception of life, epitomised by the Creationists, the Darwinians scientifically explained how life evolved on the planet. It was a natural process which can be explained by the laws of biology, and the interaction of organisms with their environment. Independently of Darwin, another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had also constructed the theory of natural selection. This prompted Darwin to go into print after more than twenty years delay. However, an essential difference between Darwin and Wallace, was that Wallace believed all evolutionary change or modification to be determined solely by natural selection. But the rigid hyper-selectionist Wallace would end up rejecting natural selection when it concerned the brain and intellect, concluding that God had intervened to construct this unique creation!

Darwin explained that the evolution of life, with its rich and varied forms, was an inevitable consequence of the reproduction of life itself. Firstly, like breeds like, with minor variations. But secondly, all organisms tend to produce more offspring than survive and breed. Those offspring which have the greatest chance of survival are those more equipped to adapt to their surroundings, and, in turn, their offspring will tend to be more like them. The characteristics of these populations will, over time, increasingly adapt to their environment. In other words, the “fittest” survive and spread their favoured characteristics through populations. In nature, Darwinian evolution is a response to changing environments. Nature “selects” organisms with characteristics best able to adapt to its surroundings. “Evolution by natural selection,” says Gould, “is no more than a tracking of these changing environments by differential preservation of organisms better designed to live in them.” Thus, natural selection directs the course of evolutionary change. This discovery by Darwin was described by Leon Trotsky as “the highest triumph of the dialectic in the whole field of organic matter.”

66. Plekhanov, G. Selected Philosophical Works, Vol. 1, p. 480.

67. Gould, S. Wonderful Life, pp. 54 and 24.

68. Plekhanov, G. The Development of the Monist View of History, pp. 96-7.

69. Engels, F. Dialectics of Nature, pp. 154, 162 and 235, 1946 edition.

70. Gould, S. The Panda's Thumb, p. 151.

71. Gould, S. Ever Since Darwin, p. 118.

72. Lerner, E. op. cit., p. 402.

73. Lewin, R. op. cit., p. 140.

74. Dobzhansky, T. Mankind Evolving, pp. 139-40.

75. Engels, F. Dialectics of Nature, p. 19, 1946 edition.

76. Engels, F. Dialectics of Nature, p. 236, 1946 edition.

77. Engels, F. Anti-Dühring, p. 86.

78. Whitehead, A. Adventures of Ideas, p. 77, our emphasis.

79. Johnson, P. Ireland, a Concise History, pp. 102 and 103.

80. Engels, F. Anti-Dühring, pp. 92 and 208-9.

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