Science and socialists

Darwin's new dawn

Mike Simons (1988)


Published in Socialist Worker Review issue 114, November 1988, pp26-27.

Transcribed by Jørn Andersen for Marxisme Online, 3 december 2001.



Charles Darwin, like Marx and Engels, was one of the nineteenth century's greatest revolutionary thinkers.

But, unlike Marx and Engels, Darwin was profoundly disturbed by the implications of his ideas. He delayed for 21 years before publishing in 1859 his greatest work, The Origin of Species, in which he outlined his theory of evolution.

His was the first fully materialist explanation of the natural world. As such it was a rebuff for superstition and religion and it was this that frightened him.

Born in 1809 into a bourgeois family, Darwin grew up in the aftermath of the French Revolution. On the continent the French Revolution saw a flourishing of ideas. In Britain the prevailing ideology was more reactionary than it had been a century before.

The British bourgeoisie, firmly established in power, saw the revolution in France as a threat. That threat was magnified by the upheaval caused by the industrial revolution – agitation against the Corn Laws and for a shorter working week, the vote and the end of child labour.

The bourgeoisie's defence against these threats included extreme intellectual reaction. They needed a static view of the world, a view that justified society's savagery and their comfortable position in it.

The orthodox view of the world when Darwin was at school and university was the Old Testament interpreted by the Church of England. Its preferred text from the Bible claimed:

"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun."

Alongside this static world view it was seriously argued that the world was created in seven days. Archbishop Usher even calculated from the Bible that the act of creation took place in 4004 BC.

Nonsense this may have been, but to dissent from it was dangerous. One of Darwin's biographers explained:

"In virtually every branch of knowledge, repressive methods were used. Lectures were proscribed, publications hampered, professorships were denied, fierce invective and ridicule appeared in the press. Scholars and scientists learnt the lesson and responded to the pressures on them."

"The ones with unpopular ideas sometimes recanted, published anonymously, presented their ideas in weakened form or delayed publication for many years."

Charles Babbage, inventor of the first computer, recorded the impact of this pressure, when in 1830 he wrote a book, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England and Some Causes.

Darwin felt the pressure too, as he explained in his autobiography:

"I was so anxious to avoid prejudice that I determined not for sometime to write even the briefest sketch of the theory of evolution."

Darwin, not prepared to publicly challenge the orthodoxy of his day, owed the insight needed to develop his theory of evolution to Malthus, the man dubbed by Marx a paid pleader for the bourgeoisie.

Malthus' primary aim was to campaign against any form of welfare or control of rampant industry. There was no scientific basis to his ideas. Darwin, on the other hand, understood the struggle for existence from his empirical studies during his voyage on the Beagle.

"In October 1838 I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long continued observation of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.

"Here then I had at least got a theory by which to work..."

So what was this theory and what was so threatening about it?

First, that organisms vary. Secondly, that these variations are inherited – at least in part – by their offspring. Thirdly, that organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive.

Darwin concluded that since not all survive, only those best adapted to their environment will survive to breed. Species will thus be modified as a result of this competition for survival and by changes in the environment.

This theory does away with God and the idea that there is design in the universe. All nature's changes are the product of purely material factors. New species are created, while others become extinct in a purposeless process.

Darwin was finally prevailed upon to publish his work only when it looked like he might be pipped at the post by a fellow naturalist, Alfred Wallace.

Wallace claimed that evolution applied to everything but the human mind. Darwin insisted that evolution applied to humans – mind included – as well as other animals and plants.

His was an expression of pure scientific materialism and unlike Wallace's theory it involved no compromise. It produced precisely the reaction Darwin expected from the church.

However, he found he had also written the world's first scientific best seller. The first print run was sold out in a day.

At the time of its publication the concept of evolution had won wide support among scientists, although no one until Darwin had come up with the mechanism by which it took place.

A great set piece battle – science versus religion – was held in Oxford at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1860.

Darwin's work was defended by Thomas Huxley against Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford.

Wilberforce demanded of Huxley whether it was "through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey".

Huxley, it is reported, made short shrift of this. He showed up Wilberforce's misunderstanding of the theory and explained Darwin's view, before "affirming my preference for the ape" rather than a grandfather who ridiculed science.

But Darwin's critics were less interested in whether man descended from apes or mammals evolved from reptiles than in the social consequences of the notion of perpetual change.

French cleric Monseigneur Segur noted:

"These infamous doctrines have for their only support the most abject passions. Their father is pride, their mother impurity, their offspring revolutions."

Marx and Engels understood the revolutionary significance of Darwin's ideas well. Marx wrote to Engels:

"Although it is written in the crude English style this is the book that contains the basis in natural history for our view. It serves me as a natural scientific basis for the class struggle in history."

Engels in Dialectics of Nature saw something else – the misapplication of Darwin's theory.

"The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for life is simply the transference from society to organic nature ... of bourgeois economic theory of competition. Once this feat has been accomplished it is very easy to transfer these theories back again from the natural world to the history of society and altogether too naive to maintain that thereby these assertions have been proved as eternal natural laws of society."

This process, the "survival of the fittest" applied to human society, provided the British bourgeoisie with a far more effective ideology than old time religion – and it still does.

Ruthless unfettered capitalism was likened to the struggle for existence in nature and success in business was deemed proof of superior human strains.

It was a philosophy enthusiastically embraced, particularly in America by the great "Robber Barons" who were building up giant industrial corporations. John D Rockefeller has a simple explanation for his success and a simple excuse for the vicious exploitation of workers in his companies:

"The growth of large business is merely the survival of the fittest. It is merely the working out of a law of nature," he said.

In Britain its application was slightly more refined. Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, decided to search for proof that favourable variations would be preserved by studying his friends.

He "had been greatly impressed by the many obvious cases of heredity among Cambridge men who were at university about my own time."

He carried out a survey of 400 judges, professors, politicians and found that they were the offspring of similar men. This was taken as evidence of the existence of superior human strains and Galton published his findings in the book Hereditary Genius.

Of course Galton excluded class as an explanation precisely because he was himself class conscious. He used his theories shamelessly for political ends:

"As regards democratic feeling, its assertion of equality is deserving of the highest admiration so far as it demands equal consideration for the feelings of all-just as in the same way their rights are equally maintained by law.

"But it goes further than this for it asserts that men are equally capable of voting and the rest. This feeling is undeniably wrong and cannot last."

From Galton's early assertions there began a rush to measure the individual. The "science" of biometrics was developed, then psychometrics, the measurement of the mind.

The "science" of eugenics – the improvement of human breeding stock by selective breeding and sterilisation – became fashionable. Its logic ended in the slaughter in the Nazi gas ovens.

Social Darwinism also had a fundamental impact on working class life through education and IQ tests. Today it is reasserting itself through sociobiology, which claims that natural selection is key to understanding areas of human behaviour.

In Darwin's day his assertion of man's similarity to apes was vital in breaking through the superstition and reaction of the age. Today, though, we can emphasise human differences from other animals. We are flexible animals with a vast range of potential behaviour.

We are not biologically programmed to live under capitalism. We are capable of making our own history.

Mike Simons



This article is one out of a short series on Science and socialists published in Socialist Worker Review issues 112 to 116 (September 1988 to January 1989):
Paul McGarr: Star wars (Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo)
Andy Wilson: The core of Newton
Mike Simons: Darwin's new dawn
Duncan Blackie: It's all relative (Einstein)
Malcolm Povey: The science factory (science and scientists in society)



Last updated 3.12.01