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Darwin and Marx’

In response to:

High on Science from the August 16, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

In his recent review, “High on Science” [NYR, August 16], M.F. Perutz was most indignant about my assertion that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was a transformation of nineteenth-century political economy. His belief that such a claim betrays a passé dogmatic Marxism still alive at Harvard, although dead in the rest of the civilized world, is rather quaint. Although the idea may sound a bit Marxy (and, indeed Marx was the first to point out the striking resemblance between Darwin’s theory and the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism), it is, in fact, received doctrine among modern historians of science. Of course, that does not make the idea right, but it does show that one doesn’t have to be a dogmatic Cambridge pinko to believe it. Perutz ought to look at the modern Darwin historiography, say the Journal of the History of Biology, for the last fifteen years. I especially recommend the justly famous work of Sylvan Schweber on the sources of Darwin’s thought in the writings of Dugald Stewart and the Scottish Economists.

During the last twenty years, as the externalist view has come to dominate the history of science, no better case for the influence of social forces on scientific discovery has been constructed than for Darwinism. After all, Darwin himself started the whole thing by telling us that he got the idea for the universal Struggle for Existence from reading Malthus’s famous tract against the old Poor Law. To the extent that any hypothesis about history can be said to be clearly true, the claim that Darwin’s view of the natural economy comes out of his understanding of political economy is clearly true, at least in the view of those who do history of science for a living.

It may be that what is bothering Perutz is the thought that the truth of Darwin’s theory is somehow being impeached when its origins are revealed. But no one with a vestige of understanding of elementary questions in philosophy would confuse the context of discovery with the context of justification (certainly not Marx, who had a doctorate in philosophy, and who thought Darwin was right about evolution).

Marxism may indeed be dead in Eastern Europe, but as “bourgeois” intellectual tradition becomes dominant, students will be taught on the banks of the Vltava and Vistula, as they are on the Charles and the Cam, that “Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is obviously nineteenth-century capitalism writ large, and his immersion in the social relations of a rising bourgeoisie had an overwhelming effect on the content of his theory.”

R.C. Lewontin
Marlboro, Vermont

M.F Perutz replies:

The most remarkable thing about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is that it has turned out to be dead right, even though he thought it out more than 150 years ago. Modern molecular genetics has underpinned it, and recent field observations have confirmed its occurrence even in man in historical times. Marxists maintain that Darwin’s theory reflected ruthless nineteenth-century capitalism, but neither Darwin’s notebooks nor the first chapters of The Origin of Species bear this out. Darwin returned from his voyage with the Beagle on October 2, 1836. He reports in his autobiography that he opened his first notebook in July 1837:

I worked on true Baconian principles, and without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale [Popperians please note!], more especially with respect to domesticated productions,… by conversations with skilful breeders and gardeners…I soon perceived that selection was the keystone of man’s success in making useful races of animals and plants.

Darwin noted that man’s selection can produce differences as large as those found in nature between species. “I was struck looking at Indian cattle with a Bump, together with Bison of some resemblance as if the variation in one was analogous to specific character of another species in genus.”

Darwin speculated about the way selection might operate in nature:

With respect to extinction we can easy see that variety of ostrich Petise may not be well adapted, and thus perish out, or on the other hand like Orpheus being favourable, many might be produced. This requires principle that the permanent varieties, produced by confined breeding and changing circumstances are continued and produce according to the adaptation of such circumstances, and therefore that death of species is a consequence…of non-adaptation of circumstances.

Referring to the extinction of species, Darwin added: “The constitution being hereditary and fixed certain physical changes (in the environment) at last become unfit the animal cannot change quick enough and perishes.” “All this agrees well with my view of those forms slightly favoured getting the upper hand and forming species.” 1 Gavin de Beer found that Darwin wrote all this before he began reading Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population even though in 1876 he was to write in his autobiography:

In October 1838, that is fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence that everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits 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.2

Darwin’s Origin of Species was first published in 1859. He begins by describing the way breeders exploit the natural variations of plants and animals to select the most vigorous and fertile variants for their stock. Darwin then goes on to postulate that in evolution nature has taken the breeder’s place. Chapter 2 deals with “Variation under Nature” and chapter 3 is called “Struggle for Existence.” In this chapter Darwin quotes Malthus whose Essay seems to have made him aware for the first time, not of the struggle for existence—the quotations from his notebooks show that he perceived this before he read Malthus—but of the geometric increase in the numbers of any species if the growth in its population remains unchecked. Darwin writes: “Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life…otherwise, on the principle of geometric increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product.” “Even slow-breeding man has doubled in twenty-five years, and at this rate, in a few thousand years, there would literally not be standing room for his progeny.” We are now well on the way to that nightmare.

Darwin’s fourth chapter, headed “Natural Selection,” is the crucial one that contains the essence of Darwin’s theory. Its first section is on “Natural Selection—Its Power Compared with Man’s Selection.” Again, in a letter to Alfred R. Wallace, written on May 1, 1857, Darwin remarked: “We [he and Wallace] differ only, that I was led to my views from what artificial selection has done for domestic animals.” It was the stock breeder rather than the entrepreneur who served Darwin as a model.

Darwin did not find ruthless competition to be the only factor that decided survival. He observed mutual help, altruism, and social relations to be vital in many species, including man. He wrote in The Descent of Man:

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to an individual man and his children over the other men in his tribe, yet that an advancement of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage of one tribe over another.

This is not nineteenth-century capitalism writ large. In 1838 when Darwin, aged only twenty-nine, and recently returned from his voyage on the Beagle, first conceived the theory of evolution and natural selection he had had but little experience of the unsavory side of nineteenth-century capitalism. He did experience and was profoundly shocked by the Spaniards’ brutal extermination of the Indians in the Argentine, but there is no evidence that this influenced his ideas on evolution.

It seems to me that Darwin’s sharp powers of observation and reasoning would have suffered him to formulate his theory of evolution, even if he had never heard of nineteenth-century capitalism. Perhaps Darwin himself gave the best answer to Lewontin’s assertions: “Whether true or false others must judge; for the firmest conviction of the truth of a doctrine by its author, seems, alas, not to be the slightest guarantee of truth.”3

  1. 1

    Francis Darwin, Charles Darwin: His life told in an autobiographical chapter, and in a selected series of his published papers (London: John Murray, 1902).

  2. 2

    Sir Gavin de Beer, Charles Darwin (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1963).

  3. 3

    Letter to Charles Lyell, May 25, 1858.

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