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Darwinism and its discontents – why science can’t slay the dragon of superstition

John McAnulty reflects on Darwin’s anniversary year in a prequel to a longer study

14 November 2009

The anniversary year of the ‘On the Origin of Species’ has seen a renewed interest in Darwin and in the theory of evolution and many celebratory articles have been carried in socialist journals. Few go beyond celebration to look at the often strained relationship between Darwinism and Marxism or try to explain why, 200 years after the birth of Darwin and 150 years after the publication of the book establishing the theory of evolution, the majority of humans would still reject a rational explanation for their place in the world that has survived a century and a half of scientific study to emerge as the foundation of our understanding of biology.

Darwin's theory of the origin of species is one of the fundamental and pivotal theories of modern science. It presents a convincing mechanism for all the wide variety of living things, for their evolution over time, and for the interaction of living things and their environment that makes up modern ecology. Alongside its daughter science, genetics, it stands posed to massively increase our control over our own bodies, over disease and over the natural world in the coming century.

Yet it is in the 21st century that Darwinism has come under the greatest attack from the forces of religious fundamentalism and obscurantism.

The reason for this is quite simple. Darwinism goes well beyond its status as a scientific theory. By explaining the origin of species through a process of natural selection, Darwin removed the need for a god to fulfill the same function. In the film “Creation” the point is dramatically underscored when Darwin explains the theory to a friend who exclaims in delight (and to Darwin’s horror) “wonderful – you’ve killed God!” The award-winning film has not been distributed in America. 

Although it is not widely understood to be the case, support for Darwinism contradicts Theism - the idea of a God personally involved in creation and the day-to-day running of the world, and restricts the faithful to Deism - the possibility of a God as a vague 'initial cause' Not only that, the theory of evolution situated humans inside the animal kingdom, subject to the same evolutionary pressures as other living things. Understanding ourselves became a task for reason and rationality, rather than an appeal to religious obscurantism.

For much of the 20th century Darwinism was seen in opposition to Marx, as a defender of order against the opponents of capitalism. Yet initially it was seen as a deadly threat to that order. These contradictory roles arose from the contradictory nature of capitalism itself.

Much of capitalist society rests on the application of rationality and science to production, to research and to the structure of society and the everyday working life of individuals. At the same time capitalist society is dedicated to the irrational aims of defending class rule and subordinating human needs to the profit motive.

These contradictions lead to a contradictory approach to the question of religion. On the one hand, application of rationality in the service of capital sweeps away all the pretences of social solidarity and of any obligation on the capitalist to treat the poor and oppressed as their brethren. On the other hand, religions teach the poor to respect a class structure endorsed by god and to look for happiness and the satisfaction of their needs in the afterlife rather than the here and now. The result is that capitalism tears down religion, and the background ethical issues that they distortedly express, only to support it as an abstract ideology. Religions themselves changed. Protestantism arose partly from the need to break out of the constants of feudal society, especially the ban on charging interest on loans, and partly to free the merchants from being forced to donate to charitable works. 

Today US Christian fundamentalism preaches that riches are a result of god's favor, a message entirely opposite to the original biblical Christianity. The role of religious obscurantism is seen clearly in the North of Ireland, where imperialism depends on the darkest forms of religious fundamentalism to form the leadership of the local executive and panders to their religious bigotry and kow-tows to their rejection of science in relation to both evolution and climate change.

Initially the origin of species was seen as too dangerous a threat to religion to be allowed to stand. A sharp battle broke out between different factions of capitalism, with the most reactionary elements fighting to throw back science and impose biblical superstition.

The reactionaries were defeated and the victors immediately set about making Darwinism itself a reactionary ideology. The new social Darwinism drew on the authority of Darwin to argue that unrestrained capitalist exploitation and savage repression of the working class were the result of our biological make-up - that society, like nature, is 'red in tooth and claw'.

The rise of mass working class organizations made it much more difficult to advance these ideas, but they remain the staple diet of right-wing movements today and have been reborn in new currents that preach genetic determinism - the idea that social problems such as crime are the result of faulty genes.

The latest edition from this perspective is the theory of sociobiology - the idea that the prehistoric environment in some way uniquely fixed human character for all time.

Marxists reject these views. We believe that all human activity has a material foundation, but we reject utterly the view of mechanical materialism - that activity at one level of reality determines our behavior at another level.

The bestiality and massacre throughout our history are part of our biological capacity, just as the acts of solidarity and self-sacrifice are. Any explanation that claims that we are forced by our genes to murder and oppress others is nonsense. The oppression must be explained in its own terms, by the political ideology that drives it, the class aims expressed by the ideology and the underlying economic forces. 

Marxists support a dialectical view of the world. Nothing is uniquely determined. If economic forces give rise to our political consciousness, it is then possible for our political consciousness to change economic reality.

The Marxist response to 'social Darwinism' is to argue that the laws used to explain one level of reality cannot be extended to another. The laws of Physics apply to living things, but they are of little use in explaining the development and behavior of living systems. In the same way the laws of Biology apply to society, but explaining social behavior in humans requires the sort of social and economic explanation offered by Marxism.

This sort of understanding enabled Marx to be amongst the first to welcome and support Darwinism and Marxism to be in the forefront in opposing social Darwinism. It was a political sophistication beyond the Stalinist gravediggers of the revolution.

They opposed social Darwinism by opposing the biological theory. Stalin's henchman, Lysenko, faked experiments 'proving' that animals evolved due to direct environmental pressure rather than genetic change. The result was that under Stalinism science degenerated into a dogma that persecuted individual scientists and distorted science to support a corrupt bureaucracy. This had disastrous outcomes for workers - dogma applied to agriculture meant inevitable crop failures.

The greater strength and self-confidence of capitalist society allowed for a wider level of individual freedom amongst scientists. That individual freedom did not mean that science was free. At one extreme there was the witch hunts and repression of the McCarthy era in America, designed to make sure that the scientists produced weapons of mass slaughter without expressing any concern about their use. At the other extreme was the social structure of science and academic life, holding scientists to narrow specialisms, advising caution about drawing political conclusions - all the forces that allowed capitalism to avoid the clear conclusions of climate research and environmental degradation.

Marxism claims to go beyond science. Because science is a social construct in the service of capitalism it will always be constrained by ideology that reflects the interests and worldview of capitalism. This is clearly the case in the ideas of social Darwinism and is even the case in discussions within science - 'the selfish gene' is an idea loaded down with social metaphor.

From a Marxist perspective the mechanism of adaptation is an extraordinary powerful one. Its power does not end with biological evolution. Adaptation may be the main mechanism organizing the basic neural elements of thought and identity and is clearly an important element in many aspects of our behavior as we unconsciously fit into different social milieus. 

What an adaptive process cannot deal with is human intention. If humans were simply biological units personal consciousness would be superfluous and we would act as directed by selfish genes or on the basis of habit patterns grounded in our history as hunter-gatherers.

Adaptative mechanisms also lack direction. People often speak of evolutionary progress but a more realistic picture is of the 'tree of life'. Life constantly adapts and changes. All living organisms are the outcome of that process. All are equally adapted - the buttercup just as much as the human. Evolution does not ascend to humans or plan to produce humans. Biological evolution simply makes human society one possibility among many. Intentions, purposes, goals - they all come from humans themselves. 

Marxists believe they can deal with these weaknesses by advancing the concept of dialectical materialism. Human consciousness and society rest upon a material base. These material conditions determine the way in which we think and out picture of the world but, because the relationship is dialectical, humans are not simply passive objects formed by the forces of production but active agents who can struggle to change the world and society they live in and, in the process of struggle, can burst the bounds of existing society to create a new one.

If consciousness determined being then a clear explanation of the theory of education and a greater level of education would be sufficient to see it established. If being determines consciousness without any restrictions then the slow decay of the capitalist mode of production would also mean a slow decline of scientific understanding and a descent into religious fundamentalism and barbarism.

Marx argued that once being determines consciousness it is possible for consciousness to determine being – that through struggle the working class could save humanity and establish a socialist society where the savagery of class struggle would be suppressed and rationality would rule over superstition. Then at last people could see clearly their relationship with the world of life in the long history of planet earth and the book “Origin of species” would finally come into its own.


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