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Workers Vanguard No. 935

24 April 2009

Evolution vs. Political Reaction


25 February 2009

In your “Salute to Charles Darwin” ([WV No. 930] 13 February) you hail his theories for “destroying the myths of racial superiority.” This is a triumph of oversimplification and wishful thinking. While Darwin was personally against slavery, evolutionary concepts have been used to support eugenics and racist pseudoscience. Darwin’s investigations of the natural world intersected with a pre-existing trend in sociology which glorified racial and class supremacy, and condemned the weak, poor, and “inferior” to extinction. This trend was exemplified by Thomas Malthus—incidentally an Anglican parson—and Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” It reached its nadir with the Nazis. While scientifically invalid, the creation myth had long provided stronger support for egalitarianism: as John Ball, a leader of the English Peasant Revolt asked, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

Niall C.

WV replies:

Normally we would have no reason to respond to a letter that excoriates Darwinism, implicating it in the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, and exalts religious belief. Such assertions would usually be accompanied by a diatribe against “godless communism,” “race mixing,” homosexuality, sexual promiscuity and abortion (as can be found in some of the tracts produced by the fundamentalist Christian right). Not so with Niall C., who in a previous letter to WV (see “Communiqué from Wikiality,” WV No. 890, 13 April 2007) indicated that he sees himself as a leftist, and who now writes in defense of egalitarianism.

It is troubling that his letter omits more than a few important considerations. For Marxists, it is hardly news that, in societies based on the class exploitation of the many by the few, science has not infrequently been employed to humanity’s disservice by those in the ruling strata in their pursuit of continuing and expanding their sway. Among the most grotesque expressions of such disservice were the agonies visited on the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. What is lacking in Niall C.’s letter is any appreciation of science’s benefits, for example, the planetwide increases in human life spans. The discovery that pathogenic microorganisms are the cause of the common debilitating diseases afflicting mankind has led to an astounding reduction in childhood mortality in the last century. These and other gains are frequently forfeited to the rapacious imperialist order.

On the other hand, the virtues of religious belief are left unspecified—for good reason. With no evidence in reality, there are no merits of such belief other than as a solace for existing misery. In primitive societies, as a hunter or gatherer wholly dependent on an inexplicable, cruel and ever-changing nature, man devised a system of explanations for natural occurrences. Since the onset of class society, religion, while continuing to provide an “explanation” for a natural order that man could not otherwise explain, has primarily served as the handmaiden of the ruling masters, with benefit only insofar as the powers that be sought to effect any sort of progress.

There have been religious types like John Ball, associated with the 14th-century Wat Tyler serf rebellion in England, and Thomas Müntzer, leader of the 16th-century peasant uprising in Germany, who spoke and fought against societal injustice and oppression in the service of all. Both of these were enthusiastically harried, tortured and beheaded (Ball was hanged, drawn and quartered) by those committed to God and king (Martin Luther played a major role in inspiring the mobilization against Müntzer). Indeed, prior to the Enlightenment, virtually all social struggle was posed in religious terms, or as Trotsky put it when referring to Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War, “under the integument of ecclesiastical disputes” (Where Is Britain Going? [1925]). At the same time, one wonders if Niall C. has ever heard of the “curse of Ham”—drawn from the Book of Genesis—a Christian justification for the enslavement of black Africans by Europeans.

For his part, Darwin was a fervent abolitionist well before his trip on the Beagle to the Galápagos Islands. His family, composed of Unitarians and enlightened Anglicans, had for generations been abolitionist activists as well as believers in the common descent of all mankind from Adam and Eve. Having shown little interest in medicine (his father’s profession), Darwin was sent to Christ’s College at Cambridge in the hope he might pursue a clerical career. Niall C., evidently, would be pleased had Darwin’s investigations continued along these lines.

Not so Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. As Engels wrote in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880), “Nature works dialectically and not metaphysically…. In this connection Darwin must be named before all others. He dealt the metaphysical conception of Nature the heaviest blow by his proof that all organic beings, plants, animals, and man himself, are the products of a process of evolution going on through millions of years.” It was not Cambridge’s seminary that led Darwin to this now incontestable finding; it was his travels and further investigations into the origin of species. Darwin’s theory, which provided a material explanation for natural phenomena, eliminated the necessity for a supernatural explanation for the incredible diversity and complexity of living organisms. Descent with modification, natural selection and a lot of time are all that is needed. I.e., Darwin took God out of evolution and gave a plausible, testable mechanism to explain all varieties of life.

Neither Darwin’s anti-slavery fervor nor his revulsion to man’s inhumanity to man ever dampened. He was appalled by the treatment of slaves in Brazil, by the extermination of the indigenous tribes in Argentina and by the brutalities visited on the Xhosas in South Africa. In the journals of his travels on the Beagle, Darwin wrote with scathing passion:

“Those who look tenderly at the slave-owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;—what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children—being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbors as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty.”

— Quoted in Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)

Recently released, Darwin’s Sacred Cause compellingly argues that Darwin’s abolitionist sentiments especially steeled him in his developing scientific conviction that all mankind were members of one species. Although he made a strong argument for this in The Descent of Man (1871), the actual molecular basis of heredity was unknown in Darwin’s lifetime. The structure of DNA was not discovered until 1953 by Watson and Crick, and the host of technological advances in protein and gene sequencing and anthropological findings that have destroyed the myths of racial superiority have only existed for a few decades. Darwin could not have had such tools—nor did we claim that. In WV No. 930, we cited the 1986 amicus curiae brief presented by the Spartacist League and the Partisan Defense Committee to the Supreme Court against the teaching of the myth of Biblical creation in Louisiana schools. That brief noted that it was “the study of scientific evolution” that provided “material evidence that we are all part of the same human race, definitively destroying the myths of racial superiority.”

Darwin would, in all probability, have been surprised by the finding that it was possibly only 50 to 100 thousand years ago that the Adams and Eves of Homo sapiens sapiens migrated out of Africa, scant time in which to develop the posited genetic variations claimed by the “social Darwinists” and their modern counterparts, the sociobiologists. Darwin would have much appreciated the evident probability that the progenitor of all life on earth was the cyanobacteria, the first photosynthetic biota that have left fossil evidence going back almost 3.8 billion years. Darwin’s theory in no way determined these outcomes; matters have simply turned out that way. (We recognize, of course, that scientific knowledge is dynamic and, unlike religious belief, changeable in the face of evidence.)

As profound as was Darwin’s grasp of common descent with modification, his grasp of social reality was at times little better than pedestrian. Quite telling in this regard was Darwin’s tendency to see the white “subspecies” (as he then perceived the different supposed races), and more specifically the Victorian gentleman, as the pinnacle of existing civilization (Charles Dickens’ view of such types was rather more jaundiced). Darwin was, to some extent, influenced by Thomas Malthus’s view that the numerical growth of “subspecies” (Darwin seemed to see the Irish as such a “subspecies”) led to competition for insufficient resources (primarily food) and, thus, to the elimination of the unsuccessful. He became willing to consider that the slaughter of colonial peoples in the wars of the expanding European powers, the brutality of which he abhorred, might be the operation of natural selection, the survival of the fittest, within the human species. And although Darwin never attempted to verify these leanings by creating “facts” to support them, others, to his dismay, soon did.

Marx and Engels were also concerned about human civilization, meaning for them, as it no doubt did for Darwin, the social progress of man. For Marx and Engels, this was based not on the struggle between “subspecies” but on the existing social relationships of production. As Engels succinctly put it in his 1883 “Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx”:

“The production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”

The soft-wired, plastic and intrinsically social featherless bipeds that constitute mankind are not in the final analysis conditioned by innate talents or instincts, but rather by their social arrangements. Great and seemingly impregnable societies have been overthrown by so-called barbarians to the eventual benefit of human progress. The fall of the Western Roman Empire helped spawn the feudal order in which capitalism, which was to become the most productive society yet known to man, gestated and ascended, rising to world dominance through the agency of revolution and war.

Civilization does not continually advance. Throughout history, human societies have also paused, decayed or moved backward. As we wrote in a prior article, “Hail Charles Darwin!” (WV No. 854, 16 September 2005):

“This motion, its tempo and direction are intrinsically linked to the economy and class struggle. Science is not independent of these processes. At the time of the industrial revolution, when the ascendant bourgeoisie challenged and replaced the feudal order, there was not only tremendous progress in the material results of knowledge (e.g., the steam engine), but also leaps in ideas of human freedom (the Enlightenment). But the French Revolution’s philosophy of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ was limited in application to the new ruling bourgeoisie once it had achieved its own fundamental class interest: the abolition of feudal restrictions on private moneymaking through exploitation of the working people. Marx surpassed the radical idealism of the French Revolution, understanding from his analysis that the dominant ideas of every historical period are those of the ruling class. Enlightenment philosophy could find universal material expression only through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of workers rule—the dictatorship of the proletariat as a bridge to communism.”

In the aftermath of the capitalist counterrevolutions in East Europe and the USSR, it has become even more commonplace for people to think that their reality can be shaped by what they believe and feel rather than by what they are and what they do. Such idealism has led many to concur with the view of the newly elected president, Barack Obama, that racial oppression is a thing of the past and that unity of purpose and “hope” will right all wrongs. In fact, in the face of this mammoth economic crisis, the race-caste oppression of black people can and will only worsen and the wrongs visited on America’s working people will only multiply and deepen, until they are answered by class struggle; and U.S. imperialism will continue to rain death and destruction down on its victims, until it is overthrown through an American workers revolution. We do not know if Niall C.’s belief in the effectiveness of religious-based egalitarianism extends to the realm of economic social reality, nor do we care. As Marx wrote in his 1845 “Theses on Feuerbach,” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”


Workers Vanguard No. 935

WV 935

24 April 2009


Racist Police Terror U.S.A.

Oscar Grant Executed in Cold Blood, Black Oakland Under Siege


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Defend Irish Republicans Against State Repression!


Evolution vs. Political Reaction



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For Trade Union Protest Against State Repression!

Britain: Cop Rampage at G20 Protest Killed Ian Tomlinson


Free All Anti-NATO Protesters! Drop All Charges!


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The Capitalist State and the Renegade “Bolshevik Tendency”

On “Jail Killer Cops”


Join the Labor Black Leagues!