Saturday, 9 January 2010

Marx and Darwin

As promised, a little late due to hard drive issues, here's the talk I gave just before xmas. Well, I said most of this stuff anyway - I may have truncated it a little to avoid comrades slipping into a coma. A brief warning: if you find your eyes growing heavy seek medical advice immediately, or watch this.

It's entirely possible that I'm dead wrong on some or all of the below so please correct me if you know better. Cheers.

Update: I've tried to tidy up a few quotes here and there. You always spot these things after you hit publish, don't you?


Welcome to tonight's talk on Marx and Darwin. I thought it would be interesting to do a piece on Marx and Darwin, partly to tie in with the 150th anniversary of Origin of Species (and the 200th of Darwin's birth) and partly because there are a lot of ways in which evolution was revolutionary and impacted on political ideas. The problem with this is that it is such a huge subject it was hard to know how to focus on it or an SWP meeting. Should I focus on its revolutionary character for religion, or for the way biologists thought about the natural world? Should I look at how Marx related the idea?

In the end I thought that I would take a brief look at the theory itself, and a couple of broad trends in political thought that have used their interpretations of Darwin's ideas to define what it means to be human (and hence what kind of psychologies and societies we have).

Although it won't be the main focus of the talk, I think we should start briefly with the theory because it is important to be clear about what the theory of evolution does and does not say; what it is and is not for. This will help when we look at the broader arguments about human nature. Politically, because I think it's undeniable that Darwin's work has been both used and abused for political purposes since its development 150 years ago, and as Marxists we should want to understand its uses and limitations in public debate.

I've therefore chosen three ways that Darwin's ideas have been used, in the hope of bringing out what I think are some of the important lessons to take from the theory of evolution. We'll look at the errors of determinism, of humanity as a 'special case' in the universe and of misconceptions about the meaning of 'survival of the fittest,' the most famous slogan of evolutionary theory.

What is evolution?

Firstly, what is evolution? What does it actually say? Last time I gave a talk it was on the subject of Marx and religion, and I suggested that Marx's most famous comment on religion, 'the opium of the people,' told us very little about Marx's actual position on religion, and in fact was usually used to distort Marx's views by his critics. Darwin's most famous phrase is, of course, 'survival of the fittest,' and I want to say that this suffers from precisely the same problems.

Darwin expressed his theory far better than I could, so I'm going to quote probably the most famous passage from Origin of Species in its entirety.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth and Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by Reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

(Darwin 1998:368-9)

So these are key features of the theory of evolution, a set of processes that are observable everywhere we look in the world around us. A favourite example of mine is Nylonase, a protein that could only have developed in the last 50 years. Bacteria in waste pools outside Japanese Nylon plants were found to have adapted to produce a protein that broke down nylon. These plastic eating bacteria responded in only a few decades to be able to derive a brand new food source for themselves and created a brand new protein in the process. But of course the same process of change and adaptation is everywhere we look in the natural world, and is shown in the fossil and genetic record.

This is one reason why I think that 'survival of the fittest' is not a very useful way of thinking about evolution. It is too general an expression to convey the real heart of the theory. In any given ecosystem advantageous characteristics will allow a given species to survive, and give it an advantage over others, yes, so in that sense the fittest will survive, but what evolution really offers us is an insight into just how dynamic life is: conditions of life change all the time. Let's take an example. One of Darwin's arguments for the non-existence of a benevolent God was the parasitic wasp. These are wasps which lay their eggs inside the cocoons of caterpillars. As the larvae grow they do so by feeding on the caterpillar, devouring it from the inside. The larvae are struggling against each other for resources as they grow, they have to struggle to survive their own natural enemies such as birds, but equally the very niche that they occupy is dependent on plentiful supplies of caterpillars, which are dependent on wider environmental factors – food supplies, stable temperatures, lack of predators and so on. Any of these factors can change the fundamental nature of the existence of the parasitic wasps themselves.

But the scope of evolution immediately gives it a political dimension in a way which, say, Newton's laws of motion or even Galileo's observations do not. Because there are unavoidable issues that it raises about what it means to be human: what are we, what are we here for, and are there limits on the kinds of societies we can build for ourselves? Sometimes science has unavoidably huge political consequences, and evolution falls into that category, along with astronomy, geology and particle physics. These areas of study have all shown our universe and ourselves in a new light, often with the potential to challenge the ideas laid out by ruling classes that justify their rule.

Marx and Darwin

Marx wasn't slow to see the importance Darwin's work had politically and in discussions on 'human nature,' (although the same can't be said for Darwin's perception of the importance of Marx. When he died, the copy of Capital that Marx had sent him was found in his study, its pages still uncut – obviously never read. This shouldn't surprise us: Darwin's idea may have been one of the most radical the world had ever seen, but he himself was a solid member of the Whig establishment, a liberal bourgeois with no desire to change the social order. In fact one of the reasons Darwin delayed publication of his theory for so long was because he was worried that it would undermine the social order).

But to return to Marx. He was well-placed to absorb Darwin's theory, because Marxism is an historical materialist political philosophy, which is to say that it seeks to understand the world through its objective and material features. The contention of Marx is that history is based not on ideas or Great Men or supernatural intervention but rather material factors which are themselves influenced by prior factors. In Marx's own words,

The first premise of human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. The first fact to be established, therefore, is the physical constitution of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of Nature.

(Marx, German Ideology, quoted in Bottomore and Rubel 1963: 69)

For Marx, Darwin's great achievement is in providing a plausible, materialist account of life and the origins of humanity. For many of his contemporaries, that was its danger.

I don't want to go too much into Marx's views here, as my main focus is going to be on the wider political repercussions of the theory, but he spends a significant proportion of his book Anti-Dühring taking on some early misconceptions about evolution and affirming its scientific status. He is careful to highlight evolution's role in explaining the natural world and, importantly for any scientific proposition, the limitations of the theory thus far advanced:

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.

(Marx 1877:I:5)

Darwin and Religion

It's generally thought that Darwin faced a lot of opposition from the Church when he published Origin of Species. The reality is that the establishment did not take long to accept the theory, and Biblical literalism had been on the decline for much of the previous century, as the development of science had led to advances in geology and biology.

Already before Darwin biologists such as Bouffon, Lamarck and Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus Darwin had started to come up with explanations for changes in species over time, although none were as complete as Darwin's and they were all wrong in certain key respects.1

That is not to say that there were no vociferous opponents of evolution, but these quickly became marginalised voices, especially in the Church of England.2

The modern controversy in religious terms is very much at the fringes of mainstream religion. Particularly in Christianity, the main established churches all agree with the scientific consensus on the origins of humanity.

Nevertheless, the claims of evolution obviously did challenge certain ideas about human beings, particularly our apparently special status in the universe. We seem to be the product of the same blind forces that produces earthworms, nylonase and parasitic wasps. It does provide an unanswerable problem for literalists, in the same way that Galileo's observations had 200 years earlier.

Evolution and Eugenics

Today, one of the most common criticisms you can hear of Darwin's work is the legacy of the eugenics movement. At it's crudest, the objection runs something like this: you know who else believed in Darwin? The Nazis, that's who!' This is the idea that evolution undermines our moral sense of ourselves. The eugenics movement in general and the Nazis in particular seemed to have a Darwinian take on the world. In eugenics, it was thought that 'undesirable' traits could simply be bred out, as though humans were so many pea plants. Undesirable for eugenicists like Galton meant things like 'idiocy' and other characteristics that not only have a strong social component in their formation, but also in their definition. The classic example might be the 'proof' that native-born Americans were smarter than immigrants, following the administration of IQ tests to army recruits in World War One. Standard questions included:

Christy Mathewson is famous as a:

writer, artist, baseball player, comedian

(Selden 1999:88)

An easy question to answer I'm sure you'll agree. But what I'm trying to bring out here is the fundamental problem that anyone following Darwinian ideas looking for moral precepts must face: the world shown by evolution is highly dynamic. Anyone seeking to look to 'survival of the fittest' as a guide for how we should live ultimately faces the problem that evolution is about adaptation and change. If there is a moral to draw from evolutionary theory, it is that only change is permanent in nature. Eugenics looked to the idea of purifying human stock, but the obvious problem with this is that purification means nothing, especially for creatures as widely spread and as socially sophisticated as human beings. As Marxists we should look to be careful about the limitations of a biological theory in describing social phenomena and be critical of ideas that conflate the two, as eugenics did so crudely.

Evolutionary Psychology (EP)

This is a large and complex field, seeking to establish evolutionary causes to psychological phenomena. Clearly this is a controversial thing to be doing, because of the sheer complexity of drawing out what you might want to call 'root' psychological structures, thrown up by evolution and on which general social conditions have little impact. In fact for some the temptation is to reverse the picture: to look at particular social conditions and suggest that they arose because of inbuilt psychological traits. I'm not going to suggest that these things shouldn't be looked at; what I'm going to suggest is that there is sometimes an excessively reductionist agenda behind evolutionary psychology to 'psychologise away' real problems. For example, two pioneers of EP, Cosmides and Tooby take the following to be one of the foundations of the field:

The brain is a physical system. It functions as a computer with circuits that have evolved to generate behaviour that is appropriate to environmental circumstances.

(Wikipedia, quoting Cosmides and Tooby 1997: Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer)

In some ways this might seem reasonable. The brain is undoubtedly physical. But it is not necessary for the mind to be. To get an idea why, it might be a good idea to look at one of Marx's key concepts: value. David Harvey is fond of saying that value is 'immaterial but objective'3 – it objectively exists, it is a function of the way that society produces for itself; but it cannot be analysed atomically or as part of the physical universe. In the same way, just because brain activity is necessary for consciousness, it does not follow that consciousness is only brain activity. A large social component seems likely to be involved. I won't go into the philosophy too heavily, because what I am trying to get at is the problem of views on evolution that are too reductive: reducing humans to isolated individuals whose behaviour is computationally generated and runs to a large extent on pre-determined lines. In Anti-Duhring, Marx is scathing about Duhring's interpretation of evolutionary theory because he sees it as reading far too much into what is said and not really understanding what it means, as Duhring pulls a spiritual, Hegelian sense out of it. EP can go the other way, and try to understand humans without looking at the concrete circumstances they experience. At its crudest this manifests itself in the common criticism of socialism, that it wouldn't work because 'people are too greedy' – something I'm sure every socialist has heard from the bore at every party they've ever been to. Of course, this absolutely fails to take into account the particular historical development of capitalism, seeing it as an inevitable outcome of our inherent greed rather than that the system that has evolved reinforces selfishness. It also fails to take into account that the notion of 'selfishness' is itself socially constructed: is it selfish to vote for strike action in your union? I'm sure that anyone who has ever seen media coverage of a strike will have heard that argument, but it fails completely to take into account the options open to workers facing cuts in living conditions under capitalism, and the dire consequences that might have.


What I've tried to argue is that evolution is a powerful explanatory device, and that it can help Marxists in presenting a materialist conception of natural history, in showing that we don not need to appeal to a supernatural explanation for our origins and that we can't rely on any such intervention for justice on our behalf – we have to do it for ourselves.

However, it is important to avoid naïve readings of evolution. We should not be worried by our lack of a special, favoured status, but equally we cannot make evolution either a moral compass or a source of deterministic writing-off of our problems. We need to recognise that social constructions play a huge role in our perceptions of the world around us and focus on the concrete situations in front of us that Marxist analysis can provide.


Bottomore, TB and Rubel, M 1963. Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy. Pelican.

Darwin, Charles 1998. On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

Harvey, David. Reading Marx's Capital lecture 2 available at Accessed 09/01/2010.

Marx, Karl 1852. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Available at Accessed 09/01/2010.

Marx, Karl 1877. Anti-Duhring. Available at

Russell, CA. 1973. Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies. Hodder & Stoughton Educational.

Selden, Steven 1999. Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America. Teachers College Press.

Wikipedia, Evolutionary Psychology article. Available at Accessed 09/01/2010.

1For further information on this, see Buffon, Lamarck and Darwin: The Originality of Darwin's Theory of Evolution, by JS Wilkie in Russell (Ed.) pp 238-281

2See for example Evolution and the Churches, by Owen Chadwick, op. cit. pp 282-293

3See his lectures on Reading Capital – details in Bibliography.


ryutin said...

[[ youngs an interesting writer on darwin from a somewhat marxist perspective]]

Christie Malry said...

Cheers, although the URL didn't work for me for some reason...

ryutin said...

sorry i made a mistake trying to post it

Christie Malry said...

No worries - worked that time, although you may have seriously overestimated the amount of time I have - that's quite some treatise the guy's got going there...