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DARWINIAN EVOLUTION AND HUMAN HISTORY

by Robert M. Young

What does Darwinian evolution mean to me as a Marxist? Let's start with the Marx part. There is no simple left and right in this matter, and there are many views within Marxism. Marx wrote to his close friend and collaborator, Frederick Engels, very soon after On the Origin of Species appeared. '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.' The next year he wrote ' It is remarkable how Darwin recognises among beasts and plants his English society with its labour, competition, opening up of new markets, "inventions", and the Malthusian "struggle for existence".’

Engels took up this theme several years later. 'The whole Darwinist teaching of the struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to living nature of Hobbes's doctrine of bellum omnium contra omnes [a war of all against all] and of the bourgeois economic doctrine of competition together with Malthus' theory of population. When this conjuror’s trick has been performed. . . the same theories are transferred again from organic nature into history and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved.'

My final quotation comes from Engels's speech at Marx's graveside. 'Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.'

I started with these quotations to convey two things — that Marx and Engels were very interested indeed in Darwinian evolution, and that there is no unequivocal answer to the question of its meaning to them. In the first quotation he spoke of Darwinism as the natural-scientific basis for their view. But the note later changed, to the point that Engels spoke of it as a conjuror's trick, and finally at the graveside Engels made an analogy between the history of life and human history, Darwin having discovered the law of the first and Marx the law of the second. 

There are aspects of each of these three positions in the various strands of Marxist, socialist and ultra-leftist traditions. At the moment it is all too apparent that right wing and liberal points of view are seeking in biological science legitimacy for their beliefs about the limits of human nature and the limits of equality. The voices we hear are from students of animal behaviour or ethologists, from sociobiologists, and these have been taken up and used as support by racists and other elitists. Indeed there is a current tide of neo-conservatism which repeats the tired old conservative litany and argues in a fairly resigned way that 'you can't change human nature' and roots this fatalism in evolutionary theory.

It is worth pointing out that there is also a long tradition of claiming that the laws of evolution make socialism inevitable. Appeals to Darwinism were made by Karl Kautsky, the leading intellectual of German socialism in the late nineteenth century. The same sort of appeals were made by Eduard Bernstein, the first revisionist and leading intellectual of social democracy who wrote a book on Evolutionary Socialism. In England, Marx's 'son-in-law', (i.e., the partner of his daughter, Eleanor), Edward Aveling, asked Darwin if he could dedicate one of his books to him. (Darwin politely declined.) The English Fabians were also evolutionists. G. B. Shaw and the Webbs saw evolution as the model for social change. So did the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald.

Moving nearer to our own time, the belief that society and nature followed laws which were both evolutionary and communist led to one of the most disastrous episodes in the Stalinist regime in the 1930s and 1940s — Lysenkoism. Nature's laws were said to be dialectical, and any biologist who adhered to non-orthodox views lost his job, often his liberty, and sometimes his life. Lysenkoism was an evolutionism which ignored or opposed the interesting developments in genetics in the rest of the world. But this was done in the name of Darwinism as seen by people who thought pure socialist will power could transform nature if theories of nature weren't ruined by what they saw as reactionary biological theories.

A final example of Marxists who looked to biology for legitimacy was the great critic of Stalinism, Herbert Marcuse, who nevertheless believed that the radicalism of the student and related revolts of the 1960s was instinctive — an instinctive radicalism rooted in biology. He also believed that the basic social process is a struggle for existence.

I said that Marxists, socialists and ultra-leftists appealed to biology. Marcuse is at the ultra-left extreme of Marxism. Moving along to anarchism, the gentle Russian émigré prince, Peter Kropotkin, argued that evolution was not just the struggle for survival but proceeded by co-operation or Mutual Aid. Modern day anarchists of the non-violent persuasion take the same line. Indeed, the periodical of the alternative living, self-help movement in America is called the Co-evolution Quarterly.

Now I think that the idea that Darwinian evolution is the basis for Marxism is silly and dangerous. I think that we should work out our social and political beliefs on their own terms rather than appeal to biology. And here the second of the three original positions comes in — Engels' remark about the war of all against all and the conjuror's trick of extrapolating external laws of society which one had stuffed into one's biological theory in the first place. One of the most important things I've learned from Marxism is that nature is a social category. That is, if we want to understand how a given society treats nature and human nature, we have to look at the relationship between its social structure (the way it produces and reproduces its goods, services and its social institutions) — between that and its ruling ideas, including its ideas of nature. Different epochs and different social systems look at nature differently. They frame their assumptions about it and their theories about it in different terms. Before the industrial revolution, nature was seen as a stable order. In Victorian times it was seen as progressive, but progress was based on struggle and sacrifice and competition for scarce resources. This social theory had close conceptual affinities with Darwin's explanation of the mechanism of evolution — natural selection or the survival of the fittest. Indeed, Darwin was crucially influenced by T. R. Malthus, whose gloomy population theory gave Darwin the key idea of population pressure in competing for scarce resources . In his later work on the Descent of Man, it is also true that Darwin's views on human tribes were decidedly racist.

So, instead of pointing to biological laws for a basis for socialism, the Marxist view which I have found the most helpful suggests that we look to people's social views to see how they will approach nature. On the one hand, the conservative and liberal view leads to the question 'What are the limits of human nature?' On the other, the sort of Marxist I was criticising above would say that nature guarantees progress and human perfectibility. In its extreme form, this position implies that there are no limits on human nature and society.

My own sort of libertarian Marxism points, rather, to the human limits of nature and asks how societies constitute their knowledge — what social forces and interests set up what sorts of research programmes and assumptions about nature. That's the critical and analytical task.

The positive task falls between conservative pessimism and pure utopianism. It treats human nature as historical rather than as primarily biological and introduces two conceptions between the fatalism of biological determinism and the voluntarism of utopianism. These conceptions are second nature and refractoriness. 'First nature' is the realm of the biologically given the genetic determinations or evolutionary heritage. Second nature, on the other hand, is an historical product — conventions deeply rooted in our social order — so deeply rooted that we experience them as natural and are tempted to attribute them to biology. Male domination, competitiveness, the nuclear family, hierarchical and authoritarian social arrangements, the division of labour - those are all expressions of second nature. They are given but given in history and society, not in the genes.

The concept of refractoriness signifies how hard it is to change a feature of convention — a continuum from mere fashion to some things as deeply embedded as a patriarchal social order. It is a measure of the relative intractability of second nature. In treating human nature as historical and in treating the transformation towards socialism as an historical project, we have to pay due attention to degrees of refractoriness while avoiding biological fatalism.

In introducing the concepts of second nature and refractoriness, I am opposing those tendencies within marxism as well as within conservative and liberal thought which draw on the belief that Darwinian evolution can guide us in formulating our social philosophies and strategies. I am also trying to put some ideas in the space between biological fatalism and utopianism.

Saying ’please’ and ’thank you’, and wearing a tie or blue jeans, or pink hair, lie at the least refractory extreme. They are mere fashions or conventions. Orthodox, meritocratic career structures lie in the middle range, while the nuclear family and alternatives to it, private property, jealousy and patriarchy lie at the most refractory end. Assessing degrees of refractoriness help us to assess what kinds of struggles to mount and how hard we may expect them to be.

You may say this is all very abstract, but it has the most important historical consequences for a Marxist. Here are some examples of failure to give due weight to second nature and to degrees of refractoriness. In my own subculture, the people who were politicised in the 1960s and called for total transformation in 1968 tried to overthrow all sorts of bourgeois institutions from the universities and the Pentagon to their own ways of living in nuclear families with conventional jobs. All these were supposed to be paper tigers, easily seen through and cast aside. The return of these arrangements and the personal and institutional maulings which occurred have led many of us to a much more temperate and gradualist strategy, including more communication between would-be subversive groups and activities and the more progressive aspects of existing society. Hence, for example, my broadcasting for the Open University.

Trying to force the refractory aspects of people and societies to change completely and quickly is against second nature and will produce failure or tyranny. I say this not in the same way that a neo-conservative would but as a prudential remark about the pace and method of change. This has been shown in the Soviet Union, where the enforced social engineering of Stalinism led to repression and to the Gulag Archipelago. It has been shown in China where the Maoist slogan 'Throw off nature's insolent yoke' led finally to a powerful reaction and the present policies which are decidedly technocratic. In Eastern Europe we have had demands for more traditional human rewards — goods and rights — mitigating the harshness of socialist discipline, notably in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. And, of course, the most appalling recent example of failure to gear social change to second nature and its refractoriness was the systematic murder of millions of Kampucheans who did not become instant socialists on the Pol Pot model.

Now I want to come back to Darwinian evolution. The connection is this: science and appeals to scientific socialism have been rooted in Darwinism by those who claimed that it provided a basis for Marxism. For example, the work of the Russian philosopher George Plekhanov was considered by Lenin to be 'the best there is in the whole international literature of Marxism', and Plekhanov regarded Marxism as 'Darwinism in its application to social science'. This sort of appeal to science in the realm of social policy is scientism. Scientism is extrapolation from a narrow rendering of the findings, methods and assumptions of science into areas where it has not been persuasively shown that their writ runs. In this case the appeal is from biological mechanisms to society. It provides the legitimacy for arguing for a 'correct line' — the scientific management of society. Some of the most appalling things have occurred in the name of socialism and have been justified by the 'correct line'. When their wrongness has been acknowledged, it is said that a ‘mistake’ has been made. Scientism has produced the most distressing results in socialist as well as conservative thinking. That is why I have no wish to extrapolate.

My position, then, opposes one tradition in Marxism with another as well as to rather a lot of other approaches which are nominally more conservative. The Marxist tradition I agree with treats ideas — including scientific ideas — as products of historical forces and is therefore critical of people who appeal to extrapolations from science to justify their ethical, social and political beliefs. I have no more time for a leftist who does this than I do for a sociobiologist who roots his belief in male dominance, hierarchy or territoriality in Darwinian evolution.

Here, for example, is a quotation from a university professor who has written on Darwinism and has now turned to The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex. 'The economy of nature fits the Darwinian paradigm in its most individualistic form... The economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end. Given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain [an individual] from brutalising, from maiming, from murdering — his brother, his mate, his parent or his child. Scratch an "altruist" and watch a "hypocrite" bleed. '

An extreme case, you may say, reminiscent of the high tide of social Darwinism at the end of the nineteenth century when the 'survival of the fittest' was invoked to justify the rankest robber barons — the Rockefellers and the British imperialists. It was, however, written in 1974, and its author went on to hold the most prestigious academic fellowship available in America. Indeed, a professor at Harvard who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his work On Human Nature has seriously advocated that ethics should be subordinated to the findings of biologists. His argument is that the social behaviour of lower organisms shows the basic principles and patterns of what is possible for humans. Sociobiology is the current guise in which some people express the belief that Darwinian evolution can serve as a guide to the limits of human nature and the social order.

Here I come to the crux of the problem of Darwinism for Marxists. Aspects of evolutionism are consistent with Marxism. The explanation of the origins of humankind and of mind by purely natural forces was and remains as welcome to Marxists as to any other secularists. The sources of values and responsibility are not to be found in a separate mental realm or an immortal soul. Marxism is a ’this-worldly’ rather than an ’other-worldly’ philosophy. It is also a materialism, with a definition of matter and its potential which is much richer than the impoverished idea of matter left over in a mind-body dualism which puts all meaning and purpose in the minds of God and people. Marx stressed neither mind nor matter but the engagement between man and nature — a transformative relationship based on human labour. Human nature was, for Marx, not an eternal essence but an ensemble of social relations — once again an historical product and an historical project — second nature, mutable.

So, while the naturalism, materialism and this-worldliness of Darwinian evolution are acceptable to Marxists, this does not mean that natural explanations take over from historical ones. Put another way, in Marxist approaches to humanity, genetics doesn't replace human labour. Homo faber, man the maker, does not bow to biological inevitability, much less to the seeking out of evolutionary bases for accepting the social status quo.

Some of the most ardent evolutionists saw evolution as a single cosmic process, accounting for matter, life, humanity, mind and society — ’man and all his works’. This was Herbert Spencer's view — a 'Synthetic Philosophy' promising inevitable human perfection.

Alfred Russel Wallace, who was the co-discoverer with Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection, took another line. He saw too much misery in the midst of plenty to accept such a sanguine view as Spencer’s. He thought that evolution couldn't account for man and mind and turned to spiritual explanations for human talents and for a vision of a better social order.

My own view is closer to that of their contemporary, T. H. Huxley. He had no time for spiritual explanations (and even coined the term 'agnostic' as a way of side-stepping whether or not there was anything at all in theism). But he was even more vehemently opposed to Spencer's evolutionary optimism and the social philosophies extrapolated from it. He argued that moral principles had to be opposed to the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. Never mind where the moral principles came from in the history of life and the history of society. Just don't try to extrapolate them from Darwinian evolution. Above all, don't ever justify suffering and deprivation by biological arguments. I should perhaps add that I also part company with Huxley over what is natural. He drew the line of nature’s indifference in a place which offends current sensibilities and considered black people and women to be biologically inferior. To be sure, he was liberal for his time and wished not to add to what he considered to be nature’s burden on them. Even so, he believed that they suffered from a natural inequality, a belief which is unacceptable to current enlightened opinion. Ideas of what is natural, as I have said, change over time.

As I see it, in a very general sense, Darwinian evolution explains the advent of human kind. But that's as far as evolution takes me. However untidy it may seem to someone who wants a single explanatory principle — a sort of Darwinian theology to replace its predecessors — human labour and human purposes react back on and transform nature. This is obvious in the case of our agriculture, architecture, transport and communications. We also intervene in evolution itself in very big ways through cultivation, ecology and very directly with herbicides, pesticides and drugs. Finally, for better or worse, we are currently on the threshold of direct control of both evolution and whole departments of human nature. This is being done by genetic engineering, cloning, gene transplants and direct cerebral implants which can convey messages straight to the brain and give precise information and instructions. So it is not on to say that human history is itself a product of evolution in any simple sense, since we are shaping evolution and even have the power to end it in a thermonuclear holocaust .

Darwinian evolution tells us about nature, but a Marxist analysis reminds us that the framing of nature — the setting of our social, including scientific, priorities — is an expression of the state of historical forces in a given period. In the nineteenth century biology stressed origins, scarcity, struggle, progress. In our own age the molecular biologists and genetic engineers are stressing codes, information, communication and control. It is still evolutionism but in very different terms with very different social resonances and consequences.

A Marxist analysis, as I say, also points to the role of human labour in transforming nature and human nature. It points to the relative autonomy of the social realm — to second nature and the different degrees of refractoriness we face in the project of creating a fair and generous society. One of the most refractory aspects of current culture is deference to scientific experts in setting our social priorities. People, not natural selection, make history, and the educators need educating about this. The people need to set their own priorities through treating values and politics on their own terms and not as expressions or mediations of Darwinian evolution.

I want, in concluding, to refer back to Engels's remarks at Marx’s graveside where he said that Darwin had discovered the law of development of organic nature while Marx had discovered the law of development of human nature. The relationship between organic nature and human nature is neither of one providing the basis for the other, nor is the way we look at nature merely the result of a confidence trick.

Marx wrote quite early in his career, 'We know only a single science — the science of history. History can be contemplated from two sides — it can be divided into the history of nature and the history of mankind. However the two sides are not to be divided off: as long as men exist the history of nature and the history of men are mutually conditioned.'

3555 words

This is the text (with some modifications and the restoration of cuts) of a radio talk given in an Open University course on Darwin to Einstein: Historical Studies on Science and Belief, 1980.

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ
robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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