Reading about Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in school did not ruffle any feathers in our young minds. After all, once explained, the whole story about evolution made common sense. It was much later when reading Marx and Engels, especially Engels’ little classic The Part Played by Labour in the transition From Ape to Man, that one began to realize the great significance of the work of this British naturalist. The oft quoted ‘fact’ of Marx wanting to dedicate his magnum opus, Das Capital to Darwin added another layer of awe for him. Unfortunately, this ‘fact’ was little more than a myth, as Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx published in 2000 proved.
Last couple of days, I have been reading the sixth chapter of John Bellamy Foster’s much acclaimed work Marx’s Ecology which brings many other important and interesting facts to light. For one, Foster points to Darwin’s categorical commitment to materialism, though it was of the non- dialectical variety. This was despite Darwin’s own social position within the aristocracy. His initial conservatism and probably his own surprise at the radicalism of his discovery led him to remain quiet for about twenty years. A paper that drew similar conclusions, and authored by a much younger scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, kicked him into action and in sharing his studies with the world. Darwin still remained quiet on his attitude to religion, preferring to attack it only discreetly “with science” rather than undertaking any direct confrontation. However, he remained a consistent materialist in his outlook. In an article, Darwin versus Intelligent Design, Foster quotes from one of Darwin’s letters written in 1860.
With respect to the theological view of the question: This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to 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 with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.
While Marx may not have actually thought of dedicating his magnum opus to Darwin, one can understand why the myth originated, and why it was so readily believed for nearly a century.