The Origin of Specious
In a quickie interview for Mount Holyoke’s house organ on the occasion of Charles Darwin’s two hundredth birthday and the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, biologist Stan Rachootin characterized the roots of the academic left’s hostility to Darwin this way,
Marx realized the close connection between Darwin’s thinking and capitalism. Therefore, Darwin had to be wrong. Engels, who was willing to read and use science, tried to argue that Darwin had a great deal of evidence beyond some ideas shared with Malthus and Adam Smith. But he could not budge his master.
Rachootin botches Marx’s reaction to Darwin. Badly.
Marx and Engels—the former in no way the latter’s “master,” an ad hominem attack on Rachootin’s part—reacted to the publication of the Origin of Species with something approaching glee. While contrary to an oft-repeated myth Marx never dedicated Capital to Darwin, he did write of his great appreciation of what he called Darwin’s “epoch-making work” and “the basis in natural history for our view.”
But this was no bandwagon. Much of Marx’s early career was aimed at refuting the mysticism Darwin’s book helped smash. Marx’s dissertation attempted to rehabilitate Epicurean naturalism. He would famously wrestle the dialectic away from Hegel’s religiosity. His interests, however, were more than philosophical. Marx and Engels were long-time science geeks, writing copiously on the latest scientific advances of their day. And their writings were no mere epitomes. They routinely synthesized results across fields and debated the implications of new results.
Contra Stephen Jay Gould, it’s no coincidence evolutionary biologist E. Ray Lankester, he of homoplasy fame and Thomas Huxley’s protégé, attended Marx’s funeral after several years of a firm friendship. As John Bellamy Foster describes it, the ostensibly strange pairing shared a common interest in early human ethnology. In turn, the young Lankester denounced capitalist misdeeds and, under cover, routinely debunked sceancists.
Marx did indeed eventually turn on Darwin, but specifically against the naturalist’s use of Thomas Malthus, Marx’s epistemological nemesis. Malthus’s arguments around logistic population growth were framed against England’s Poor Laws and, more generally, the poor’s access to social resources. Malthus’s class essentialisms, unlike Marx’s, would prove central to just about every anti-poor argument since, including Herbert Spenser, who railed against even sewage systems, Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons,” Murray and Hernstein’s “dysgenic headwind,” and Roger Starr’s “planned shrinkage.”
While the capacity to procreate beyond the environment’s carrying capacity sets the stage for natural selection among non-human animals, an argument Darwin, not Malthus, made, it explains little of humanity’s present state, as Malthus attempted to argue. By our consciousness and the sweat of our brow, we have the ability to change our carrying capacity. It’s this niche construction Malthus (and many present-day biologists) neglected.
But Marx’s point of order shouldn’t be confounded with out-and-out rejection as Rachootin paints it. Indeed, the dialectic duo, as Engels did in Anti-Dühring, routinely defended Darwin against distortions left and right, particularly from Social Darwinists.
In fact, a reversal of the usual story is in order. The “reluctant Mr. Darwin” was late to the game. Foster documents the radical philosophers and naturalists who long advanced theories of evolutionary change through the early 19th century against the underpinnings of a reactionary church. England was in a revolutionary fervor and wracked by strikes and labor unrest. Darwin, fearing he’d be tainted as a materialist, God forbid, avoided advancing his theory for decades for fear of offending his bourgeois circle.
One could argue then that Darwin was in his way the obstructionist. Although that’d be bending the stick too far, it’d be in the service of a greater point. The social roots of the theory of natural selection, contrary to Darwin’s hagiography, did not grow solely out of Down House. They extended out to the fetid slums of rebellious London twenty miles away.