Darwin and the Scientific Understanding of Humanity - A Revolution in Science

With the publication of the Origin of the Species 150 years ago, Darwin described what happened in the hundreds of millions of years given to the Earth’s age by geologists such as Charles Lyell. Without this enormous timespan (which, in fact, grossly underestimates the current view that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old), natural selection would not have had time to work on the variations produced in the reproduction and produce the immense range of animal species present today. The work of Lyell and others in overthrowing the 6000 year age favoured by Christians working from the Bible chronology laid the basis for Darwin’s overthrow of the entire biblical creation story.

In fact Darwin’s(1) bombshell not only undermined the mythology of Christianity but of Judaism and Islam as well. No wonder he was vilified by religious bigots in his own time who said that Darwin claimed human beings were descended from apes (Darwin actually said we had a common ancestor). Darwin and Darwinism still is rejected by creationists and Islamic fundamentalists but modern official Christianity has now largely thrown in the towel if current clerical commentary on this Darwin anniversary are to be believed. Apparently now God thought up the process of evolution (which makes you wonder about “Man created in the image of God!”) but then Marx long ago predicted that the Church of England would give up all its principles before it gave up any of its property! The process of research has not been kind to religious fundamentalism as all the arguments against evolution have now collapsed.

Darwin did for biology what Galileo and Copernicus et al had done for astronomy and physics but he also did much more. Instead of filling in the details of an unchanging natural order ordained by God, in which the only real changes were extinctions, Darwin’s insight that natural selection played a role in the variation of species revolutionised biology. Biology could now chart the creative work of nature, a realm in which change was essential. And the dissolution of fixity in natural history could only aid the overthrow of ideas of the permanence of the social order, although, of course, the underlying causes of that overthrow in the sphere of thought lay outside of natural history: they were the growing weight in society of the working class and other material factors.

Welcomed by Scientific Revolutionaries

From the first time Marx and Engels came across Darwin, their appraisal of him was almost entirely positive.

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.(2)

In his 1888 introduction to The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Engels specifically mentions the parallels between his and Marx’s theory and Darwinism:

The Manifesto being our joint production, I consider myself bound to state that the fundamental proposition which forms the nucleus belongs to Marx. That proposition is: That in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which it is built up, and from that which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; That the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class - the proletariat - cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class - the bourgeoisie - without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction, and class struggles. This proposition, which, in my opinion, is destined to do for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology.

And, at Marx’s graveside, Engels declared:

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.

Competition between Genes, Individuals and Species

Darwin only had an inkling of the existence of genes. Only the work of Mendel, Crick, Watson and hundreds of others enabled us by the second half of the last century to understand their central role. William Hamilton, E.O Wilson and, most famously, Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (3) all established that competition between genes lies at the root of the variation upon which natural selection works. In explaining why these selfish genes give rise to “apparently altruistic” behaviour, Dawkins claims that the genes cause animals to act as if they were maximising the expected benefit to animals containing the same genes (4).

I have made the simplifying assumption that the individual animal works out what is best for his genes. What really happens is that the gene pool becomes filled with genes that influence bodies in such a way that they behave as if the had made such calculations.(5)

It should be pointed out that unrelated (6) human beings, have, on average, 99.8-99.9% of their base pairs in common (7), so most gene variants will be common to most human beings.

So, even according to Dawkins, altruistic behaviour can emerge on the basis of the selfish nature of the gene, even in the context of non-human animals.

The dialectical emergence of altruism on the basis of its opposite will come as no surprise to Marxists, although the existence of this phenomenon needs to be demonstrated, as, even if what is, is dialectical, this does not mean that what is dialectical is.

If altruism can emerge and give advantages to the genes embedded in non-human animals in their fight for existence, how much more it is necessary for those expressing themselves in humans, who are the social animal par excellence? This is not how free enterprise capitalism has vulgarised the issue where Darwinian competition is seen by capitalists as a selfish struggle between individuals. In fact, even in the world of genes there is cooperation since genes are bundled together in cells and genetic damage resulting in rogue elements within the cells is partially repaired or policed. What stands out is the primacy of cooperation over individualism. It is the same principle of co-operation which explains the rise of humanity from endangered primates to the masters of the earth. It will only be through the victory of the same principle which will save the earth and the future of humanity from the rapaciousness of free market capitalism.

Asocial Darwinism and Socialist Darwinism

What we are attacking here is the bourgeois tendency which goes by the name of “social Darwinism”, which takes the simplification of Darwinism that says that natural selection is the “survival of the fittest”(8), and transposes it to an analysis of society which makes of society the background for a struggle between individuals, sometimes using a reductionist “selfish gene” argument to do this (forgetting that phenomena of one character can arise on the basis of phenomena with different characters - another, much less rich, example is that pressure doesn’t even have a meaning for one molecule of a gas). The first problem with this is that it treats “fittest” as an unchanging absolute property of individuals, whereas Darwinism can only be summarised as the survival of the fittest if the “fit” is to the environment. The second problem is that Darwinism, unlike “social Darwinism”, does not exclude the solution to the problems posed by that environment being a fully social one.

And a social solution means that society is something more than a jungle(9) providing the background for a struggle of all against all. Competition between individuals must be blunted for human societies (even capitalist ones) to survive at all. As Engels put it (in the context of sexual competition):

Mutual toleration among the adult males, freedom from jealousy, was the first condition for the formation of those larger, permanent groups in which alone animals could become men.(10)

In their reduction of society to a mere backdrop to competition, the social Darwinists might better be described as asocial Darwinists.

So, for socialists, Darwinism was a step in throwing off the old superstitions regarding the natural world, and, rather than contradicting the possibility of a new form of society, really deserving of the name, it enables us to root that society in the very thing which led to our species: a social solution to the problems of its existence.


(1) We should also recognise that Darwin was not some isolated genius who alone thought up “evolution”. His views were also based on predecessors like Lamarck (despite his errors), and he even found in “Parson Malthus” (Marx) the idea that, as animals could not produce their own food, they must have some means for adaptation. In the end Darwin sat on his ideas for twenty years until Alfred Russel Wallace sent him a letter outlining (without the same depth of scientific research) exactly the same conclusions on the basis of Wallace’s own work in the Far East. This led to their common presentation to the Royal Society and to Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

(2) Engels, letter to Marx, 11th or 12th December 1858. (Teleology is the idea that things are in existence to fulfil a higher purpose).

(3) OUP, 1976, 2nd edition 1989.

(4) In his example, he is an animal who has found 8 mushrooms, and is accompanied by his brother (relatedness 1/2), cousin (relatedness [!) and an unrelated companion. He can eat 3 mushrooms (of nutritional value 6 each). If he eats these without informing his fellows, his genes get a benefit of 18. On the other hand, if he is “altruistic”, “... I shall also get some pay-off when my brother and cousin eat their two mushrooms each, because of our shared genes. The actual score comes to (12 * 1) + (12 * 1/2) + (12 * 1/8) + (12 * 0) = 19.5. The corresponding net benefit for the selfish behaviour was 18”. Thus, the altruism at the level of the individual is of the greatest benefit to the gene. See The Selfish Gene, p97.

(5) Ibid, p97.

(6) Of course, this really means human beings whose relationship is unknown!

(7) Biochemistry: The Chemical Reactions of Living Cells, 2nd edition, 2001, David and Carol Metzler, p1509. Three “base pairs” taken together, can be thought of, roughly speaking, as a “letter” in the genetic code.

(8) First made by Herbert Spencer, in 1864.

(9) Of course, even the jungle is not a “jungle”, as there are human and non-human societies in it.

(10) Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, available online at marxists.org , p22. Much of the factual information in this work has been superseded, but its methods of analysis have not.

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