On Patrick Tort’s The Darwin Effect

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

A materialist conception of the origins of morals and civilisation 

On the occasion of the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and of the 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species, a multitude of books, each one with titles more mouth-watering than the other, has filled the bookshops. Numerous more or less scientific authors have suddenly discovered an attraction for Darwin, each one trying to earn the best seller of the year slot, especially after the grand success of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (which has sold over two million copies world wide). For the ‘public at large', it is thus rather difficult to find one's bearings among all these books on science. For our part, we have chosen the one by Patrick Tort[1], L'effet Darwin, Selection naturelle et naissance de la civilisation (Editions du Seuil) - The Darwin Effect, Natural Selection and the Birth of Civilisation, which offers us a very enlightening explanation of the materialist conception of morals and of civilisation in Darwin's thought. 

Darwin and the natural selection of social instincts

To our knowledge, Patrick Tort is the only author who has bypassed the media focus on The Origin of Species and presented and explained the second great work of Darwin (less well known and often badly interpreted), The Descent of Man, published in 1871.

Patrick Tort's book shows very clearly how Darwin's epigones grabbed hold of the theory of descent with modification through natural selection, developed in The Origin of Species, and took advantage of Darwin's long silence on the origins of man in order to justify eugenics (theorised by Galton) and ‘social Darwinism' (initiated by Herbert Spencer).

Contrary to an idea that predominated for a long time, Darwin never adhered ideologically to the Malthusian theory of the elimination of the weakest in the social struggle brought about by demographic growth. In The Origin of Species he simply used this theory as a model for explaining the mechanisms of organic evolution. It is thus totally wrong to attribute to Darwin the paternity for all the ultra-liberal ideologies advocating unbridled individualism, capitalist competition and the ‘law of the strongest'.

In his fundamental work, The Descent of Man, Darwin is actually categorically opposed to any mechanical and schematic application of elimination by natural selection to the human species that has embarked on the path of civilisation. Patrick Tort explains in a remarkably well-argued and convincing manner, supported by numerous quotes, how Darwin saw the application of his law of evolution to man and human societies.

In the first place, Darwin connected mankind phylogenetically to the animals, more precisely to the common ancestry it must have had to the catarrhini apes of the distant past. He argued that there was a natural transformation into the human species, showing that natural selection had also fashioned man's biological history. Nevertheless, according to Darwin, natural selection did not only select beneficial organic variations, but also the instincts, and more particularly the social instincts, throughout animal evolution. These social instincts culminated in the human species and have fused together with the development of rational intelligence (and thus of reflective consciousness).

This joint evolution of social instincts and of intelligence was accompanied in man by the ‘indefinite extension' of moral feelings and altruist sympathy. It is the mot altruistic individuals and groups, the ones most capable of showing solidarity, who have an evolutionary advantage over other groups.

As for the supposed ‘racism' which Darwin is accused of to this day, one passage suffices to refute the charge:

"As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately show us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures".

(The Descent of Man, chapter IV)[2]

According to Patrick Tort, Darwin gives us a naturalist, and thus materialist explanation for the origins of morality and culture.  

Concerning the origins of morality in particular, it's in the chapters of The Descent of Man that deal with sexual selection that we find his most striking observations.  Patrick Tort explains that, according to Darwin, the prime vector of altruism among numerous animal species (mainly mammals and birds) resides in the indissolubly natural and social instinct of reproduction. Thus the development and ostentatious display of birds' secondary sexual characteristics (bills, nuptial plumage and other decorative excrescences) carries with it a ‘threat of death': "Covered in its heavy and splendid mating plumage, the Bird of Paradise is certainly irresistible, but can hardly fly any more and is thus in great danger from predators. As for the females, they will take care of their progeny and, in order to defend the offspring, may put themselves in danger. The social instincts thus have an evolutionary history, and contain the possibility of self-sacrifice, culminating in human morality. Darwin thus produces a genealogy of morals without any reference to extra-natural agencies" (Patrick Tort, Darwin et la science de l'évolution, Editions Découvertes/Gallimard).

Finally, contrary to the received idea that Darwin was a fervent promoter of the inequality of the sexes by giving an advantage to the ‘stronger' sex, quite the opposite is the case if you look at it from the perspective of evolutionary tendencies. For Darwin (and it is here that he connects to the vision of Engels in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, as well as August Bebel in his book Woman and Socialism), it is the females (and by extension women) who are the first bearers of the altruistic instincts: in the animal kingdom, it is the females who choose the reproductive male and, as a result, make an ‘object choice' (the first form of the recognition of otherness), just as it is they who most often expose themselves to predators to protect their young.

The theory of the ‘reverse effect of evolution'

Thanks to his remarkable mastery of the work of Darwin and of dialectics, Patrick Tort comes to develop a theory (which he had already elaborated in 1983 in his book La pensée hierarchique et l'évolution) of the ‘reverse effect of evolution'.

What is this theory?

It can be summarised by a very simple phrase: "through the social instincts, natural selection selects culture, which is opposed to natural selection"

To avoid paraphrases, let's cite a passage from Tort's book:

"Through the bias of social instincts, natural selection, without any ‘leap' or rupture, has thus selected its opposite, i.e: an ensemble of normative, anti-eliminatory forms of social behaviour - thus anti-selective in the sense that the term selection is given in the theory developed in the origin of species. And thus, correlatively, an anti-selective ethic (= anti-eliminatory), translated into principles, rules of conduct and laws. The progressive evolution of morality appears therefore as a phenomenon that cannot be disassociated from evolution, and this is a logical conclusion of Darwin's materialism and of the inevitable extension of the theory of natural selection to the explanation for the destiny of human societies. But this extension, which too many theoreticians, their vision distorted by the screen erected around Darwin by the evolutionist philosophy of Spencer, have hastily interpreted through the false and simplistic model of liberal  ‘social Darwinism' (the application to human societies of the principle of the elimination of the weakest in a context of a generalised competition for survival) can only be understood in a rigorous way through the modality of the reverse effect, which obliges us to see the reversal of the selective mechanism as the basis for accessing the stage of ‘civilisation'....The reverse operation is the correct basis for drawing the distinction between nature and culture while avoiding the trap of a magical ‘break' between the two terms: evolutionary continuity, through this mechanism of progressive reversal linked to the development (itself selected) of social instincts, produces in this way not an effective break, but the effect of a break which derives from the fact that natural selection, in the course of its own evolution, subjects itself to its own law - its newly selected form, which favours the protection of the ‘weak', taking over from the previous form of the elimination of the weak because it is more advantageous. The new advantage is thus no longer of a biological nature: it has become social".

The "reverse effect of evolution" is thus this movement of progressive turnaround which produces the "effect of a break" without thereby provoking an effective break in the process of natural selection[3]. As Patrick Tort explains very clearly, the advantage gained from the natural selection of social instincts is no longer, for the human species, of a biological order, but has developed into something social.

In Darwin's thought, there is thus materialist continuity in the link between social instincts, cognitive and rational advances, and morality and civilisation. This theory of the "reverse effect of evolution" provides a scientific explanation of the origins of morality and culture, and thus has the merit of cutting through the false dilemma between nature and culture, continuity and discontinuity, biology and society, the innate and the acquired, etc.


Darwin's anthropology and the perspective of communism


In the article published on our website ‘Darwin and the workers' movement', we recalled how marxists welcomed the work of Darwin, particularly his principal work, The Origin of Species. Marx and Engels, as soon as Darwin's book appeared, immediately recognised in his theory an approach analogous to that of historical materialism. On 11 December 1859, Engels wrote a letter to Marx in which he says "Darwin, by the way, whom I'm reading just now, is absolutely splendid... Never before has so grandiose an attempt been made to demonstrate historical evolution in Nature"

One year later, on 19 December 1860, Marx, after reading The Origin of Species, wrote to Engels: "here is the book which contains the basis, in natural history, for our ideas". Nevertheless, some time afterwards, in another letter to Engels dated 18 June 1862, Marx went back on his judgement by making this unfounded criticism of Darwin: "It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions' and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence'. It is Hobbes' bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel's Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom', whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society".

Engels also took up this criticism by Marx in Anti-Duhring (where Engels alluded to Darwin's "Malthusian blunder") and in The Dialectics of Nature.

Because of Darwin's long silence on the question of human origins (he didn't publish The Descent of Man until 1871, eleven years after The Origin of Species[4]), his epigones, notably Galton and Spencer, exploited the theory of natural selection to apply it schematically to contemporary society. The Origin of Species was thus assimilated in a facile manner to the Malthusian theory of the "law of the strongest" in the struggle for survival.

Unfortunately, Darwin's long silence on the origins of man contributed to sowing confusion for Marx and Engels, who, not having become aware of Darwin's anthropology (which was not developed until 1871[5]) mixed up Darwin's thinking with the fundamentalist liberalism or obsession with purification promulgated by two of Darwin's epigones.

The history of the relations between Marx and Darwin, between Marxism and Darwinism, was thus that of a ‘missed rendez-vous' (to use an expression of Patrick Tort's in certain of his public conferences). Not altogether however, because despite his criticisms of 1862, Marx continued to hold Darwin's materialism in great respect. Although he hadn't yet become aware of The Descent of Man, in 1872 Marx offered a copy of the German edition of his major work, Das Kapital, with this dedication "To Charles Darwin, from a sincere admirer". When this book is opened today (it's in the library of the house where Darwin lived) you can see that only the first few pages have been cut. Darwin thus paid little attention to Marx's theory because economics seemed to him to be outside his sphere of competence. However, one year later, in 1873, he gave evidence of his sympathy in a thank-you letter: "Dear sir; I thank you for the honour that you have done me by sending me your great work on Capital and I heartily wish that I was more worthy to receive it, but understanding more of the deep and important subject of political economy. Though our studies have been so different, I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge and that this in the long run is sure to add to the happiness of Mankind. I remain, Dear Sir, Yours faithfully, Charles Darwin."

This is how the two rivers, despite the ‘missed rendez-vous', did to some extent mix their waters.

Furthermore, the workers' movement, after Marx, did not take up the latter's criticism of Darwin from 1862. And this was the case even though the great majority of marxist theoreticians (including Anton Pannekoek, in his pamphlet Marxism and Darwinism) rather left The Descent of Man to one side.

Certainly Pannekoek, like Kautsky (in his book Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History) saluted Darwin's theory of social instincts. But they didn't fully understand that Darwin had formulated a theory of the genealogy of morals and civilisation and a materialist vision of their origins. A theory which, in many respects, joins up with the monist conception of history and leads finally to the perspective of communism, that is to say, the aspiration towards the unification of humanity in a world human community. Such was Darwin's ethics, even though he wasn't a marxist and had no revolutionary conception of the class struggle.

In a way, you can say today that if there hadn't been this ‘missed rendez-vous' between Marx and Darwin at the end of the 19th century, it is very probable that Marx and Engels would have accorded to The Descent of Man the same importance as L H Morgan's study of primitive communism, Ancient Society (which Engels drew on heavily on for his Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State).

Neither Morgan nor Darwin were marxists; nevertheless, their contributions (the first in the domain of ethnology, the latter in the domain of the natural sciences) remain a considerable acquisition of the workers' movement.

Today the human species is confronted with the unprecedented outbreak of ‘every man for himself', the ‘war of each against all', of competition exacerbated by the historic bankruptcy of capitalism.

Faced with the decomposition of this decadent system, the world working class, the class of associated producers, must more than ever favour, through its combat against capitalist barbarism, the extension of the social feelings of the human species in order to develop a revolutionary consciousness in its ranks. This is the only way that humanity can go onto the stage that follows civilisation: communist society, the real world human community, founded on unity and solidarity[6].

Sofiane 23. 3 09

[1] Patrick Tort is attached to the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris. He is the editor of the monumental Dictionnaire du darwinisme et de l'évolution. He set up and directs the Institut Charles Darwin International (www.darwinisme.org) and has devoted 30 years of his life to the study of the work of Darwin, whose entire work he proposes to translate into French in the framework of the Institut (35 volumes are envisaged , to be published by Slatkine: two volumes have already appeared)

[2] It should also be pointed out that Darwin was ferociously opposed to slavery and on a number of occasions denounced the barbarism of colonisation.

[3] To illustrate his theory, Patrick Tort uses a topological metaphor, that of the Möbius strip, which enables us to understand how, thanks to a gradual reverse process, you can go over to the "other side" of the strip without any discontinuity (see the demonstration of this ‘effect of a break' without a punctual break in The Darwin Effect

[4] Darwin didn't want to provoke too quickly a new ‘shock' in the right-minded society of his day. This is why he preferred to wait until the first ‘shock' of The Origin of Species had died down before going any further. It was not at all evident that even among his peers in the scientific community the idea of man having a common ancestor with the great apes would be readily accepted

[5] When Darwin decided to publish The Descent of Man in 1871, Marx and Engels were not paying attention because they were too preoccupied by the events of the Paris Commune and the organisational difficulties in the International Workingmen's Association, which was being subjected to the manoeuvres of Bakunin.

[6] Obviously this ‘communist' society has nothing to do with Stalinism, with the state capitalist regimes which dominated the USSR and the eastern countries up until 1989. Its real contours were presented in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 or Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme (Marx, 1875), especially in the following passage: "In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly -- only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"