Every ruling class has an ideology to back up its domination. Before capitalism, the productive forces were growing so slowly that the very idea of change seemed irrelevant. The ideological justification of class power then was based on the idea of a motionless life, a universe always identical to itself that God had created that way and had given to humankind (that is to the ruling class) to rule over. Everything was identical since the Creation. Evolution was meaningless, in nature as in society. On the contrary, tradition, ipse dixit, and old habits held sway.
Evolution as an ideology
Darwin is absolutely splendid – Engels
The emerging capitalist class in its struggle against the old ruling classes used the ideological weapons of individualism, personal ambition and merit: they deserved to rule because they were better, smarter than the others. According to the bourgeois outlook, by pursuing his own interests an individual becomes better and improves society as a whole. Competition is good for everyone.
During the Middle Ages, competition among nobles, although often based on economic reasons, was always ideologically supported on moral grounds (the code of chivalry and so on). Now, with the new emerging bourgeois society, competition was simply the means by which human beings could do better, that is to get rich and powerful. The old pessimistic philosophy of homo homini lupus [man is a wolf to his fellow man ] took on a new meaning: i.e. every businessman has the moral right to crush his competitors. In doing this, he helps humankind to improve. The idea of the “struggle for life”, as we noted, was not borrowed by bourgeois ideologists from the naturalists but it was the other way round.. It was the ideological outlook of the bourgeois that was imposed on the naturalists. In this context, evolution was acceptable, indeed it was a mirror of society as Gould notes:
“The theory of natural selection is a creative implementation of the principles of economics from Adam Smith to that of biology: the natural balance and order are not determined either by a superior control and external (divine) or by laws operating directly on the entire system: it springs from the struggle between individuals for their own benefit.”
Thus, competition produced a progressive gradual improvement of society. What a marvellous propaganda tool for the rising capitalist class! The law of the fittest was as valid in the jungle as it was in society.
A critique of the ideologies and theories of the ruling classes has been a fundamental task of Marxism since its very early days, which has been absolutely essential to help give clarity to the nascent labour movement. The founders of scientific socialism dedicated all their lives to studying the main discoveries of the natural and social sciences, assessing the scientific and political meaning of new ideas. The new ideas of Darwin featured among these.
In fact, it is remarkable to see how quickly Marx and Engels grasped both the importance of Darwin and his limits. This is because, in reality, they realised evolution was a reality even before Darwin. For instance, Marx wrote in 1844:
“Generatio aequivoca [spontaneous generation ]is the only practical refutation of the theory of creation. Now it is certainly easy to say to the single individual what Aristotle had already said: You have been begotten by your father and your mother; therefore in you the mating of two human beings – a species-act of human beings – has produced the human being. You see, therefore, that even physically man owes his existence to man. Therefore you must not only keep sight of the one aspect – the infinite progression which leads you further to inquire: Who begot my father? Who his grandfather? etc.”<
Needless to say, at the time Marx was no more than a radical philosopher, with a rough understanding of the debate on evolution. But what it reveals is that the founders of scientific socialism were always interested in this topic. When in 1859 some hundreds of copies of On the Origin of Species came out, one of them was bought by Engels. And within just a few days he understood that science has changed forever. What is even more remarkable, however, is that Engels was also able to immediately detect the weaknesses of Darwinism. He wrote:
“Darwin, by the way, whom I'm reading just now, is absolutely splendid. There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done. Never before has so grandiose an attempt been made to demonstrate historical evolution in Nature, and certainly never to such good effect. One does, of course, have to put up with the crude English method.”
Marx and Engels also recognized that in many aspects, Darwin used an approach that was similar to historical materialism in many ways. Marx stated in the Preface to the second edition of Capital that from his standpoint: “...the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history”. Engels, in summing up at Marx's funeral the achievements of his lifelong friend and comrade stated: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history”. Darwin on his part was frightened by the interest Marx took in his ideas as we can see from how he replied to Marx thanking him for sending him a copy of Capital.
In the following years, Marx and Engels always defended Darwin against his critics. But they were also aware of the fact that the weak points in Darwinism were used to support capitalism, becoming part of the dominant ideology. Marx, for instance, wrote to Engels:
“It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes' bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society”.
The fact that Darwin was not a radical, to say the least, was detrimental to his theories. Capitalist ideology was a fetter on the development of the theory of evolution. This was particularly clear with gradualism. For Marx and Engels it was obvious that gradualism has nothing to do with evolution. In a letter to Engels, Marx quotes a minor scientist of his time precisely because he rejected gradualism:
“A very important work which I shall send on to you (…) is: ‘P. Trémaux, Origine et Transformations de l’Homme et des autres Êtres, Paris 1865. In spite of all the shortcomings that I have noted, it represents a very significant advance over Darwin (…) Progress, which Darwin regards as purely accidental, is essential here on the basis of the stages of the earth’s development, dégénérescence, which Darwin cannot explain, is straightforward here; ditto the rapid extinction of merely transitional forms, compared with the slow development of the type of the espece, so that the gaps in palaeontology, which Darwin finds disturbing, are necessary here”.
The “specialists”, that is professional biologists and evolutionists, were to take another century before they could grasp this idea, as we will see in discussing Gould. This was not by chance. The role of gradualism was not minor. Evolution could be accepted only inasmuch as it was forced into a gradualist theory. Darwin was instinctively aware of this, and his epigones also politically.
S. J. Gould, The Panda's Thumb, Italian edition, p. 81.
K. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Third Manuscript (http://marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-Manuscripts-1844.pdf).
Engels to Marx, 12 December 1859 (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/letters/59_12_11.htm).
Marx to Engels, 18 June 1862 (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1862/letters/62_06_18.htm).
Marx to Engels, 7 August, 1866 (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1866/letters/66_08_07.htm).