Sunday, January 31, 2010


Thomas Riggins
(Engels and Philosophy)

Frederick Engels discusses the state of natural philosophy in the nineteenth century in light of the views of Herr Eugen Dühring in chapters seven and eight of Part I "Philosophy" of his
classic work Anti-Dühring (Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science.)

Dühring doesn't have much to say about the transition from the inorganic to the organic world. He seems to favor a gradual transition whereas Engels thinks of things in terms of a leap, no matter how gradual it appears to outside observation. Again, Dühring appears to be borrowing his views from Hegel without giving the latter credit. Hegel at least recognized the leap involved-- a quantitative change leading to a qualitative one, so he is far in advance of Dühring.

Dühring also lifts the idea of teleology in nature from Hegel, but in an incorrect and mangled fashion. Teleological explanations, i.e., nature working towards ends, are no longer fashionable in natural science-- since God was kicked out as an explanatory device. But even as he dumps all over Dühring, Engels seems more supportive of Hegel's view. In his Logic (the section on the Doctrine of the Notion),Hegel appeals to "purpose" to explain life arising out of chemism.

For Hegel this is an "inner purpose" which, Engels points out, is completely within nature itself and to be explained from the nature of the elements at hand. It is not "purpose" coming from the outside from some other source than nature itself (such as God, or eternal wisdom, etc.) Confusion with regard to these different meanings of purpose results in people "thoughtlessly ascribing to nature conscious and purposive activity." Dühring, who calls Hegel "crude" himself makes this mistake and speaks of nature "knowing'' and indirectly "willing" such and such actions and results. Hegel would never make such an error. Yet Dühring even has the nerve to attack DARWIN for, in his own words, "pseudo-scientific mystifications " when that is just what he himself has done.

Darwin is attacked for using the ideas on population put forth by Malthus as part of his theory of evolution. Dühring also says Darwin got his ideas from animal breeders and copied the views of Lamarck. So Darwin's views are "frivolous." Dühring, according to Engels holds that if you take out Lamarck then Darwinism "is a piece of brutality directed against humanity." Dühring doesn't like the struggle for existence aspect of the theory.

Marx and Engels were early enthusiasts of Darwin so it is no surprise that Engels mounts a major assault against Dühring on this issue. He both explains Darwin's theory and gives a robust defense. Natural selection is analogous to animal and plant breeding. In the latter case humans select the traits that pop up and breed those individuals to the neglect of others until they have created a new breed of plant or animal.

In nature there is no conscious selection. If a trait turns up, and is useful, and the individual survives to breed and pass it on, then eventually, if it leads to better reproductive survival and success it will produce a new population with the trait and the older population will die out and be replaced (all other things being equal). This is the origin of species. And there is a struggle for reproductive success-- "the survival of the fittest." [This phrase was first used by Herbert Spencer as a synonym for natural section but was picked up and used by Darwin as well.]

It was true that Darwin did use Malthus' theory of population to illustrate the struggle for survival in the natural world and this was an error. Malthus' theories have long been discredited, Engels says, and all trace of them could be booted out of Darwinism without in any way harming the theory. It would only strengthen it.

It is strange, then, that Engels does not mention the work of Michael Thomas Sadler (1780-1835) whose The Law of Population (1832) was a major anti-Malthusian work. But there were many other critics as well and for Engels the most important would have been none other than Karl Marx. Engels notes "the organisms of nature also have their laws of population, which have been left practically uninvestigated, although their establishment would be of decisive importance for the theory of the evolution of species." Since Engels' day this has come about through the development of population genetics as part of the modern evolutionary synthesis developed by scientists such as Ernst Mayer, J.B.S. Haldane, R.A. Fisher, Sewall Wright, George Gaylord Simpson and others.

Another complaint Dühring brings against Darwin had, at the time, more substance. He complains that Darwin's theory "produces its transformations and differences out of nothing." Engels admits that Darwin does not explain the CAUSES which produce the changes brought about by natural selection. The laws of genetic inheritance had not yet been discovered by the science of Darwin's day. [Actually they had been by Mendel but his work was ignored and they had to be discovered all over again at the beginning of the last century.]

Engels says these causes, whatever they are "up to the present are in part absolutely unknown." He should have left the "in part " out because what he thought was the known part turned out to be wrong. Engels writes: "In recent times the idea of natural selection was extended, particularly by Haeckel, and the variation of species conceived as a result of the mutual interaction of adaptation and heredity, in which process adaptation is taken as the factor which produces variations and heredity as the preserving factor."

Engels had read Erst Haeckel's [1834-1919] Schöpfungsgeshichte which, since Haeckel didn't like natural selection, put forth a theory explaining evolution based on Darwin, Lamarck and Goethe. By using Lamarck, the notion of acquired characteristics, independent of genetic mutation, being inherited maintained its unscientific foothold in biology. Haeckel was also one of the founders of "scientific" racism. Haeckel's influence on Engels had some unfortunate unintended consequences for the history of Soviet science (e.g., Lysenko).

Engels is correct is criticizing Dühring for attributing "purpose" to nature, but he himself adds some confusion to this point when he writes, with regard to tree frogs being green and polar animals being white, that although "the colours can only be explained of the basis of physical forces and chemical agents" the animals are nevertheless, with respect to their colours, "purposely ADAPTED to the environment in which they live." This use of "purpose" is a relic of Lamarck's evolutionary theory. The animals were adapted due to random genetic mutations that happened to prove of advantage in their environments-- they were not PURPOSELY adapted. Natural selection is the only modality at work in evolution that we can so far state we know to be at work. If Engels had known about Mendel's discoveries he would never had expressed himself in this way. But Engels' main point is that Dühring's view of purpose in nature, being due to "ideas," leads to Deism and hence to mixing up spirit with natural processes.

Engels next takes issue with Dühring's claim that Darwin traced the origin of all life on earth back to a single common ancestor. Dühring finds fault with this view and Engels quotes The Origin of Species to show that Darwin actually said "SOME FEW BEINGS" were at the root of all life on Earth. That was then. Today many, if not most, biologists hold that there was indeed a UNIVERSAL COMMON ANCESTOR from which all life has descended. Darwin actually ends The Origin of Species with the following: "There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

The view today, if it hasn't changed recently--science goes by so fast these days-- is that there are three great "kingdoms" of life, or FORMS. The first is the Archaea-- simple one celled critters without a cell nucleus. These are the oldest life forms. From them evolved the Eubacteria (bacteria) and also, a billion years later or so, the Eukarya-- critters one or many celled that have a cell nucleus-- this includes us and everything else that has a cell nucleus. Somewhere back there in the primeval soup the first Archaean cell started up and-- voíla--here we are and everything else too.

How do we know it came about this way? Well, we still don't know anymore than Engels, who wrote: "With regard to the origin of life, therefore, up to the present, natural science is only able to say with certainty that it must have been the result of chemical action."

The next attack on Dühring, in this first chapter on organic nature, concerns Dühring's characterizing Darwin as superficial for thinking the origin of new traits is sexual. Engels rejoins Darwin says natural selection is only concerned with the PRESERVATION of these traits not their origin. Without having Mendel's discoveries at hand, neither Darwin, nor Dühring, nor Engels have any idea how natural selection actually works. Basically there is a mutation in a gene making up the DNA in an X or Y (or both) chromosome[where sexual reproduction is concerned] and this is passed along to the off spring. If it is useful and the off spring lives to pass it on a new trait can become established and eventually a fish becomes a philosopher.

Dühring is also upset because he thinks Darwinists put down Lamarck and his theory of acquired characteristics. Engels says this in not true. Darwin and his followers do not "belittle" Lamarck and in fact recognize "his great services" and have "put him up again on his pedestal."

It is true that modern science does not "belittle" Lamarck. He was a great pioneer and the first one to advocate evolution based on natural law and a materialist framework. But his views on how evolution works and how new traits arise and are passed on-- just by the need for them or because animals acquire them from their environment-- has been basically disowned by modern science.

Engels still used some Lamarckian views in his scientific writings (Australian Aborigines can't learn geometry as easily as Europeans because Europeans have studied it longer) but that was the science of his day and it is difficult to jump out of your time and place 100% of the time. But he did write that "The theory of evolution itself is however still in a very early stage, and it thereby cannot be doubted that further research will greatly modify our present conceptions, including strictly Darwinian ones, of the process of the evolution of species."

Further research actually did modify the conceptions of Engels' day, but in the direction of strengthening and deepening our appreciation of the Darwinian theory. Engels would have been among the first to accept this.

This discussion is based on Part I Chapter VII of Anti-Dühring. Chapter VIII consists of some concluding remarks by Engels concerning Herr Dühring's views on the nature of life and consciousness, but the science is so out of date I don't think we gain much going over this chapter except to be reinforced in the view that Dühring was no match for Engels.

Engels does however make a methodological comment about definitions in science to which I want to call attention. In the antepenultimate paragraph of this chapter Engels says, "From a scientific standpoint all definitions are of little value." He means that to really understand a subject you have to have "an exhaustive knowledge" of it. In Marxism, I think, we have a lot of definitions from the classics. Definitions of the working class, of the capitalist class, of the state, of class struggle, of the dictatorship of the proletariat, etc., etc. These definitions are part of the common language Marxists use to communicate with each other and to explain Marxist ideas to non Marxists. There are some who get all upset with some of these definitions and want to to strike them out of the Marxist lexicon. Well, Engels has just said definitions are of little value in science because science seeks exhaustive knowledge. True, but we can't expect everyone to have digested all three volumes of Das Kapital before we can talk to them.

So, Engels continues by saying, "But for ordinary usage such definitions are very convenient and in places cannot well be dispensed with; moreover, they can do no harm, provided their inevitable deficiencies are not forgotten." So, maybe we should remember this before we start cleaning up our lexicon. There is a big difference between updating the lexicon and abolishing it. There are some people who no longer speak the common language at all and you would never suspect they were Marxists after listening to them.

In the next chapter of his book Engels will discuss "Eternal Truths." Let's see if he has found any other than death and taxes.