Charles Darwin and Materialism

(12th Feb 2009 marks the 200th birth anniversary of Charles Darwin)

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.

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7 Replies to “Charles Darwin and Materialism”

  1. darwin poor fellow found it difficult to get out of a teleological framework and so while deep down he knew from his research that chance rules in the universe he still says in this quote that there are laws with some purpose which are the mainstays of evolution and chance plays a smaller part. marx, however gave no place to chance and believed that there were teleological laws of social development and the dialectical development of history had but one end – the overthrow of capitalism and the eventual withering away of the state. dialectics are too simplified a linear representation of the complex development of nature where most things are unpredictable.

  2. One of the nicest posts I have read recently!
    The moment one reads science particularly the natural sciences one is lead to the conclusions Darwin raises his his letter. It was reading about vestigial organs in the human body that was a marked moment in my questioning any specific design.And then Darwin’s theory fit into all these puzzle pieces and made sense as you put it.

    By the same token I’d add that reading quantum physics made me question The laws of opposites and several other codifications in Engels’s philosophical stance. I’d go on to say that Science alters not just our view of theology but philosophy – material, dialectic or other and economics as well.

  3. @rahul and @vidya: Marx and Engels inherited dialectics from Hegel and the Greeks (there was along interregnum in between as far as development of dialectics is concerned.) The amazing thing is not how simplistic the ‘laws’ of dialectics look today in the light of developments in science since M&E, but the extent to which dialectics was used by them to make advances in human thought- in developing historical materialism in general and the analysis of capitalism in particular.

    In case of both M & E, the whole canvas of their studies is mind boggling. Whatever be later interpretations regarding anti- Duhring and Dialectics of Nature, it is a tribute to Engels that he took time to study the natural sciences. In fact, Foster makes a case that M&E’s writings on natural sciences were much more nuanced than we tend to give them the credit for.

  4. I don’t believe in chance, or a mechanical dialectical view.

    Marx talking about the withering away of the state, wasn’t advocating something idealist. His studies of the state, were based on the Paris Commune of 1871.

    I think it’s a strawman argument, to say that Marx believed in a mechanical view of history as straight line to the withering away of the state.

  5. the moment you introduce non-linearlity into dialectics it ceases to be dialectics. as for ‘withering away of the state” the way it has been described in both the critique of the gotha programme by marx and in anti duhring by engels, the only two places where this concept is put forward, it is nothing but idealistic and wishful thinking.

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