Evolutionary theory and the political left

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Evolutionary theory and the political left have had a complicated relationship with one another.

Many important political figures on the left have never publicized their views on biology, and so their opinions of evolutionary theory are unknown. To some extent, Marxists are the exception.[citation needed] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels spoke favorably of evolutionary theory, arguing that it mirrored their view of the progress of human society by class struggle and revolutions.[citation needed] Most later Marxists agreed with them, but some - particularly those in the early Soviet Union - believed that evolutionary theory conflicted with their economic and social ideals.[citation needed] As a result,[citation needed] they came to support Lamarckism instead, which led to Lysenkoism and caused disastrous agricultural problems.

Among other groups on the political left, the most significant work related to evolutionary theory is Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, a book authored by anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin argued that co-operation and mutual aid are as important in the evolution of the species as competition and mutual strife, if not more so.

Comparative history[edit]

Scientific theories of evolution developed at approximately the same time as left-wing political theories. The Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744 — 1829) published his theory of evolution in Philosophie Zoologique in 1809. Although he supported the then novel views that the Earth was ancient and organisms evolved through common descent, his mechanism was one of advancement, not natural selection (which would come later). This mechanism of advancement fitted in with cultural ideas of the Great chain of being, up which organisms would advance. While in France these ideas fitted with revolutionary philosophy and were accepted by the scientific establishment, in the United Kingdom such ideas were taken up by socialist agitators who stirred the mob to overthrow the social order and Chartists who even demanded the vote for working men. In England the scientific establishment was dominated by university clergymen who sought to demonstrate divine rule and justify the existing social hierarchy.

Karl Marx (1818 — 1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820 — 1895) published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, with Marx's work Das Kapital published in three volumes in 1867, 1885 and 1894. These works established the principles of communism, which had at its core the evolution of societies by advancement between different states. This, they argued, was caused by class struggle, and the proletariat should co-operate to overthrow the bourgeoisie.

When Karl Marx read Darwin's work on evolution he immediately believed that it supported his worldview and theory of class struggle. Karl Marx sent Darwin an autographed copy of his Das Kapital; Darwin responded with a polite "thank you" letter, but never read the book.[1] Marx believed that Darwin's work both helped to explain the internal struggles of human society, and provided a material explanation for the processes of nature, something which his philosophy was heavily based on. However, he had difficulty accepting the apparent support Darwin's book gave to the theories of Thomas Malthus.

In 1861 Karl Marx wrote to his friend Ferdinand Lassalle, "Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle. ... Despite all shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, ‘teleology’ in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained."

The radical economist Herbert Spencer (1820 — 1903) coined the phrase survival of the fittest in his 1851 work Social Statics to describe his revolutionary liberal economic theory, which in 20th century terms would be considered right-wing. Spencer supported the Whig Malthusian argument that programmes to aid the poor, (i.e. the proletariat) did more harm than good, in direct contrast to Tory paternalism, and to communism which advocated "to each according to their needs, from each according to their ability".

Charles Darwin (1809 — 1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 — 1913) published their theory of evolution by natural selection in 1858, with Darwin's Origin of Species following a year later. Darwin's thesis was that organisms were able to reproduce because of differential survival (ecological selection) or attractiveness (sexual selection).

Spencer became a strong advocate of Darwinism, and the phrase survival of the fittest was included in the 6th edition of The Origin of Species published in 1872. Darwinism thus became associated with Spencer's economics and social philosophy.

Darwin was part of an upper middle-class elite. His cousin, Francis Galton (1822 — 1911) considered the implications of natural selection for human breeding, and developed what he later termed eugenics. This was taken up by others as a pseudoscience and the concepts were introduced that persons of noble blood, and those of Caucasian race should be selected by society to breed over those of lower classes and other races. In terms of class struggle, this could be seen as a form of oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie.

Despite the new emphasis on natural selection, Darwin did, from the 3rd edition of Origins, include certain aspects of Lamarckism since disproven, such as the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The concept of advancement however was also still present, as can be seen in Darwin's 1871 Descent of Man

Darwin's theory was far from complete however, and the period between Darwin's death and the neo-Darwinian modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1920s and 1930s has become known as the eclipse of Darwinism because of the rejection of natural selection in favour of Lamarckian advancement.

Other noted left-wing thinkers in the late 19th century weighed in on the subject including Sir George Archdall Reid (1860 — 1929) in 1896 who published a work The Present Evolution of Man, and the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842 — 1921) in 1902 published Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which particularly opposed the "nature red in tooth and claw" concept.

The great British evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane (1892 —1964) and his esteemed pupil John Maynard Smith, (1920 — 2004) were both communists, and both worked for the British governments during the first and second world wars respectively.


Main article: Lysenkoism

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Soviet Union became the world's first communist state. Parallel to that state's development was the development of the modern evolutionary synthesis and the end of the eclipse of Darwinism. Lysenkoism was a campaign against genetics that was orchestrated by the non-scientific agronomist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898–1976) and supported by Stalin. Lysenko was the leading proponent of the ideas of Ivan Michurin, a form of Lamarckism, during the early years of the Soviet Union. Lysenko's "science" of agriculture was anti-genetic, instead proposing change in species through hybridization and grafting.

Lysenko began his campaign in 1928, as an unknown agronomist who "invented" a new agricultural technique, vernalization (using humidity and low temperatures to make wheat grow in spring). He promised to triple or quadruple yields using his technique. In reality, the technique was neither new (it was known since 1854, and was extensively studied during the previous 20 years) nor useful.

Soviet mass-media presented Lysenko as a genius who developed a new, revolutionary technique. Between 1934 and 1940, under Lysenko's admonitions and with Stalin's blessings, many geneticists were executed (including Israel Agol [2], Solomon Levit, Nikolai Vavilov, Grigorii Levitskii, Georgii Karpechenko and Georgii Nadson) or sent to labor camps (including the most well-known Soviet geneticist, Nikolai Vavilov, who was arrested in 1940 and died in prison in 1943). Genetics was stigmatized as a "fascist science" and "bourgeois science". Some geneticists, however, survived and continued to work in genetics, dangerous as it was.

In 1948, genetics was officially declared "a bourgeois pseudoscience"; all geneticists were fired from work (some were also arrested), and all genetic research was discontinued. Nikita Khrushchev also valued Lysenko as a great scientist, and the taboo on genetics continued through the 1950s (but all geneticists were released or rehabilitated posthumously). Only in the middle of the 1960s was it waived.

Lysenkoism caused serious, long-term harm to Soviet biology. It represented a serious failure of the early Soviet leadership to admit to having made a mistake even in the face of agricultural disaster. Lysenkoism also spread to China, where it continued long after it was eventually denounced by the Soviets.

Group selection[edit]

One of the concepts accepted until the 1960s was that of group selection, namely that individuals should work for the benefit of the species as a whole rather than themselves. This has parallels in selflessly benefitting society rather than oneself. Critiques of group selection (see George C. Williams), and the development of alternative explanations for altruistic behavior (such as kin selection), however, have led to a strong circumscription of the possible role of group selection. John Maynard Smith, who was a communist until leaving the party in protest at the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, coined the term "kin selection", and was influential in the development of game theory as a tool for the analysis of animal behavior (see Maynard Smith, 1982).

One should only benefit one's relatives who share the same genes (kin selection) or be altruistic if that is reciprocated (see evolution of altruism, prisoner's dilemma). Group selection is now only recognised in certain restrictive circumstances.

Modern developments[edit]

Others on the left such as Australian bioethicist Peter Singer in A Darwinian Left have embraced modern evolutionary theory but reach different political and economic lessons than more conservative observers.

Meme theory, put forward by British ethologist and prominent advocate for atheism Richard Dawkins, proposes evolutionary mechanisms for the development and propagation of "ideas" as well as social institution such as religions. Meme theory also suggests that not only is genetic evolution taking place within human society, but memetic evolution is as well. The issue is then raised of diffusion of memes versus the diffusion of genes, and many would argue that the evolution and propagation of memes within human society far exceeds the importance of the evolution and propagation of genes.

Popular scientific author and ecologist Jared Diamond has also put forward materialistic explanations, that work within an evolutionary framework, to explain the differences between various cultures almost exclusively through the variations in environmental factors.

The theories of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have been subjected to various leftist and feminist criticism. Some such critics, including geneticist and Marxist social commentator Richard Lewontin, dismiss these explanations as manifestations of a conservative and morally deleterious biological determinism. They claim that evolutionary accounts of human ethology claims that matters such as sexism and xenophobia are evolved and innate features of human behaviour, and therefore resistant to political change.[1]

References and external links[edit]

  1. ^ See, for example, Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature (Richard Lewontin, with Steven Rose and Leon J. Kamin) (1984) ISBN 0-394-72888-2