Evolutionary Biology and Historical Materialism

While belatedly reading the March-April issue of *American Scientist* I chanced upon a review of Ernst Mayr's *This is Biology: The Science of the Living World.* Much of the review focussed on Mayr's concept of organicism which he defines as "the belief that the unique characteristics of living organisms are not due to their composition but rather to their organization." The reviewer, Walter J. Bock, finds this definition to be inadequate as a representation of Mayr's views because while it covers many of his ideas it omits mention of the genetic program and of evolutionary explanations. The reviewer suggests that the definition of organicism ought to be expanded so as to encompass evolutionary history. And organicism will encompass a number though not all or even most functional explanations. The reviewer suggests that in the future biologists and philosophers will find the clarification of which functional explanations are included in organicism will constitute a major problem in elaborating the organicist paradigm.

The reviewer goes on to discuss Mayr's distinction between proximal and ultimate causation, that is functional versus evolutionary explanations in biological analysis. He goes on to suggest that it is a mistake to suppose that functional explanations versus evolutionary explanation are synonymous with nomological-deductive versus historical-narrative explanations. Instead the reviewer contends that while all functional explanations seem to deductive-nomological and all historical-narrative explanations appear to be evolutionary many kinds of evolutionary explanations are also deductive-nomological. However, the reviewer finds Mayr's discussions of functional explanations to be less than adequate. While no biological explanation can be considered complete without an evolutionary explanation it is in his opinion not the case that evolutionary explanations are necessary for functional explanations to make sense.

The question of the relationships between functional explanations and evolutionary explanations in Darwinian biology has close parallels in historical materialism. Indeed, it is my contention that G.A. Cohen's discussion of the nature of functional explanations in historical materialist theory can shed much insight on the nature of such explanations in biology. Cohen in his *Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence* argued that historical materialist explanations can be shown upon analysis to functional explanations. Like the reviewer in *American Scientist* Cohen stresses that functional explanations by themselves are quite adequate as explanations. However, if we want a more complete explanation we must turn to what Cohen calls elaborations. Elaborations provide fuller explanations and they locate the functional facts within longer stories that specify the explanatory roles of these facts more precisely. What Cohen calls elaborations closely correspond with what the biologist calls evolutionary explanations. Indeed, Cohen finds that in social theory elaborations fall into several categories including purposive elaborations, Darwinian elaborations, Lamarckian elaborations, and also what he calls self-deceptive elaborations in which the functional fact operates through the minds of agents but without their full conscious acknowledgement. In biology of course only what Cohen calls Darwinian elaborations would be recognized as being scientifically valid but in social theory the situation is more complicated and Cohen suggests that a full explanation of why a given functional fact is explanatory might require reference to two or more varieties of elaborations.

Thus, we have here an interesting situation. Cohen's discussion of the role of functional explanations in historical materialism draws heavily upon analyses of such explanations by biologists and philosophers of science. Yet as I have hoped to have shown the kind of analysis that Cohen makes of such explanations in historical materialism can in turn shed light on this issue as it is faced by biologists. In other words, evolutionary biology can shed light upon historical materialist theory and vice versa. It is perhaps, therefore, not too surprising that one of the leading philosophical analysts of evolutionary biology Eliott Sober is also a Marxist.

Jim Farmelant


Greetings all:

I am farther behind in preparing for a conference I leave for tomorrow, and so will spend less time here than I had hoped. Still, I hope I can toss a few things in to keep this line going until I get back the middle of next week.

I want to spend some time discussing Lamarck, as he is so often held in low esteem, if not openly ridiculed, and I think he is a far more important and significant figure in and out of biology than people give him credit for. I will pool together some of my notes for what will be in the very distant future, if it ever does see the light of day, an essay calling for a reconsideration of Lamarck's thought in behavioral biology. With these notes I will basically just try to cover Lamarck's thinking as it might pertain to Marxism, human society, and Darwinism.

Here, I thought people might find the following of interest. Much of this comes from Desmond & Moore's 1991 biography "Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist". Marx and Engels, no great fans of Malthus, called Darwin's "Origin of Species" a "bitter satire" on man and nature. Marx "laughed at the way 'Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society'."

Karl Marx sent a copy of "Das Kapital" to Darwin and Darwin did cut open the first few dozen pages. He supposedly was troubled by the German language (although he apparently had less trouble working through Haeckel's -- an early German evolutionist -- works and books). Darwin wrote to Marx that he wished he was 'more worthy to receive it, by understanding more of the deep and important subject of political economy'. Darwin, though, was a to-the-core liberal, and it seems just as likely that after getting the basis of Marx's arguments in those early pages and realizing these were not arguments he would incorporate into his own views, he simply decided not to go on with the book.

One of the things that has always interested me about evolutionary biologists' views of Darwin and Lamarck is that they can so easily dismiss the incorrect aspect of Darwin's thought and the often regressive socio-political views he held (he was opposed to women's education and opposed to birth control, among other things) because the strength of what he got right is so central and so powerful to understanding *anything* related to biology. Any shortcomings of the type listed above are typically passed off as his being a "product of those times". For Lamarck, on the other hand, the exact opposite is true. His truly revolutionary thinking is not given its due; the things he got wrong are considered "Lamarckian" and not a "product of his time". Before anyone gets the wrong idea -- I am an avid believer in natural selection and am therefore a "Darwinian"; on the other hand, I think there is a lot more to Lamarck's thought, including the inheritance of acquired characters, than Lamarck is given credit for. And that is what I will try to get to in about one week's time.

In solidarity,

Todd Freeberg


ESSAY from the New York Times

When Medicine Goes Too Far in the Pursuit of Normality

By ALICE DREGER

I realized recently that I suffer from a genetic condition. Although I have
not actually had my genome screened, all the anatomical signs of Double-X
Syndrome are there. And while I could probably handle the myriad
physiological disorders associated with my condition -- bouts of pain and
bleeding coming and going for decades, hair growth patterns that obviously
differ from "normal" people's -- the social downsides associated with it
are troubling.

Even since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, people with
Double-X remain more likely than others to live below the poverty line,
more likely to be sexually assaulted, and are legally prohibited from
marrying people with the same condition. Some potential parents have even
screened fetuses and aborted those with Double-X in an effort to avert the
tragic life the syndrome brings. Perhaps you know Double-X by its more
common name: womanhood.  (clip)


I read the essay 'When Medicine Goes Too Far in the Pursuit of Normality'
by Alice Dreger with much interest. Though the idea of human nature had a
progressive function to play in a certain enlightenment discourse, because
it was a potent weapon against feudal social distinctions and religious
strictures which got redefined as artificial customs stifling human nature,
once the rights discourse got enshrined in the bourgeois ideology, thoughts
on nature and biology came to play a mainly conservative role, justifying
slavery + colonialism, the exclusion of the oppressed (such as women,
blacks, indigenous peoples, colonial subjects, etc.) from the rights of
citizenship and equal participation in the public sphere, their
super-exploitation or marginalization in the labor market, and so on.

One of the vexing things about how nature and biology figure in oppressive
ideologies and social practices is that they are used to legitimate both
the defense of what exists _and_ active interventions in it. One one hand,
biological determinism says that the existing hierarchy is a fact of nature
and we should not (or in any case cannot) do anything to disturb the
natural order of things; on the other hand, through the technologies of
normalization, what occurs naturally and yet does not conform to the
prevailing notions of natural boundaries gets 'corrected'--with patently
artificial means, one might add--to conform to them. Nevertheless,
contradictions within a powerful ideology, even though they are flagrant,
are easily overlooked.

In this sense, biology is similar to Freudian psychoanalysis; one one hand,
according to Freud's own theory, sexes/genders and heterosexual norms are
costly achievements, work of culture and civilization, whose production may
require the intervention of psychoanalysis; on the other hand,
sexes/genders and heterosexual norms are naturalized through a stage theory
of sexual development.

Sexes as we know them seem indistinguishable from genders. That the former
is biological while the latter is social might make sense to some in
theory, but in practice, sexes are restrictive and inadequate concepts to
capture actual biological diversity that exceedes them and seem mainly
useful in shoring up the idea that gender hierarchy arises from natural
distinction and inequality.

Yoshie Furuhashi


Herbert Spencer and the Russian intelligentsia
As I understand it Herbert Spencer was quite popular among Russian
intellectuals including Populists at the end of the last century.
Generally, these intellectuals would adopt Spencer's general scheme
of social evolution but whereas for Spencer laissez-faire capitalism
was conceived of as the pinnacle of social development the Russians
would substitute some form of socialism in its place. This was
particularly true for such Populist thinkers as Peter Lavrov and
Nicolai K. Mikhailovsky. Since Plekhanov was a Populist before
becoming a Marxist it is not surprising that his thinking should
have remained under the influence of Spencer.

As far as Kautsky is concerned he came of age intellectually at
a time when the German biologist Ernst Haeckel was
championing Darwin's theories in Germany. In this he played
a role similar to that played by Thomas Huxley in Britain. Haeckel
not only popularized Darwinism in Germany but he was also a
vigorous proponent of a form of social Darwinism.

In addition to his strictly scientific work Haeckel attempted to
formulate a general philosophy of evolutionism
which he presented in his book *Riddle of the Universe.* Haeckel called
his outlook "the monistic philosophy of nature" and he saw it as
providing a resolution to the age-old conflict in philosophy between
materialism and idealism. In his view, this "monistic philosophy"
shattered the dualisms of traditional philosophy in particular its
central dogmas of the personality of God, the immortality of the soul
and the freedom of the will. He proposed a new "natural religion"
which would worship Nature itself, or the "Goddess of truth" that
"dwells in the temple of nature." To this end Haeckel founded the
Monist League which attracted to its membership a curious mixture
of rationalistic freethinkers as well as various assorted mystics and
occultists.

Haeckel was politically a conservative nationalist. He was an avid
supporter of Otto von Bismarck and he remained a supporter of the
Kaisers right up to the end of WW I. He lived to see the failed German
revolution of 1919 and was horrified to see a Jew, Kurt Eisner take power
in the short-lived Soviet Republic of Bavaria. As far as I can tell
Haeckel's version of social Darwinism primarily involved the attempt to apply
Darwinian principle to international relations (thus differing from the
British and American versions which attempted to apply Darwinism
to economics). For Haeckel international relations was characterized
by a struggle for existence between the various nations and races of the
world. Thus for Haeckel nationalism was applied Darwinism. This idea
easily blended with racialism that was becoming popular in Germany at
the same time.

Although Haeckel himself leaned to the right politically he was
influential amongst German intellectuals all across the political
spectrum. Kautsky was simply one of the many intellectuals on
the left who were influenced by him.

        Jim Farmelant