Workers Vanguard No. 930

13 February 2009


A Salute to Charles Darwin

(Quote of the Week)

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. Through his theory of evolution through natural selection, or, as he preferred to call it, “descent with modification,” Darwin unshackled biological science from the chains of religion and metaphysics by providing a materialist explanation for the evolution of life on this planet through careful, meticulously recorded studies of variation within species. Yet, even as it forms the basis of modern biology, evolution continues to be explosive in the U.S., a constant target of the fundamentalist Christian right and reactionaries, including because it eliminates any scientific basis for racism. As we wrote in a 1985 amici curiae brief filed by the Spartacist League and Partisan Defense Committee in the Supreme Court against the teaching of the myth of Biblical creationism in Louisiana schools: “The study of scientific evolution is fundamental to man’s quest for a materialist understanding of our world and human society, not the least because it provides material evidence that we are all part of the same human race, definitively destroying the myths of racial superiority.”

Charles Darwin himself was an ardent opponent of slavery. In a 5 June 1861 letter to Harvard botanist Asa Gray, a devout Protestant who arranged for the Origin of Species to be published in America, Darwin wrote in the early days of the U.S. Civil War: “Some few, and I am one of them, even wish to God, though at the loss of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against slavery. In the long-run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity…. Great God! How I should like to see the greatest curse on earth—slavery—abolished!” And in a 17 September 1861 letter to Gray, he wrote: “If abolition does follow with your victory, the whole world will look brighter in my eyes & in many eyes. It would be a great gain even to stop the spread of Slavery into the Territories:—if that be possible without abolition, which I should have doubted.”

Charles Darwin also corresponded with his friend on the question of religion, replying to Gray’s defense of “intelligent design” in a 22 May 1860 letter: “I had no intention to write atheistically, but I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do…evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

In the following excerpt from an article (written in 1919 and revised in 1922) on the renegade from Marxism Karl Kautsky, revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky compared the historic breadth of Darwin’s scientific studies to Marx’s study of human society, pointing out that both reveal that long periods of seeming equilibrium are periodically interrupted by tumultuous periods of rapid, revolutionary change.

* * * * *

The Darwinian theory of the origin of species encompasses the entire span of development of the plant and animal kingdoms. The struggle for survival and the processes of natural and sexual selection proceed continuously and uninterruptedly. But if one could observe these processes with ample time at one’s disposal—a millennium, say, as the smallest unit of measure—one would undoubtedly discover with one’s own eyes that there are long ages of relative equilibrium in the world of living things, when the laws of selection operate almost imperceptibly, and the different species remain relatively stable, seeming the very embodiment of Plato’s ideal types. But there are also ages when the equilibrium between plants, animals, and their geophysical environment is disrupted, epochs of geobiological crisis, when the laws of natural selection come to the fore in all their ferocity, and evolution passes over the corpses of entire plant and animal species. On this gigantic scale Darwinian theory stands out above all as the theory of critical epochs in the plant and animal development.

Marx’s theory of the historical process encompasses the entire history of human social organization. But in ages of relative social equilibrium the fact that ideas depend upon class interests and the property system remains masked. The age of revolution is Marxism’s school of advanced study. Then the struggle of classes resulting from systems of property assumes the character of open civil war, and the systems of government, law, and philosophy are stripped bare and revealed as instruments in the service of classes. Marxist theory itself was first formulated in a prerevolutionary period, when the classes were searching for a new orientation, and it achieved its final form through the experiences of revolution and counterrevolution in 1848 and the following years.

—Leon Trotsky, “Karl Kautsky” (1922), reprinted in Portraits Political & Personal (Pathfinder Press, 1977)