The "Descent of Man" by Charles Darwin came out 150 years ago this year

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We've commemorated this year as the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. We must also celebrate the book of Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. The first edition of this book appeared in London on February 23, 1871, a few days before the working population of Paris transported to the heights of Montmartre, Buttes-Chartre and Belleville the cannons that Adolphe Thiers wanted to confiscate from them.

Scientific revolution and proletarian revolution

The proximity of these two events is much more political than chronological. In the second half of the nineteenth century, capitalism was in full expansion and revolutionising society on all levels, industrial, technology, social and scientific. Its work of progress was quite real but it was neither linear nor harmonious. Capitalism paved the way for gas and electricity, but it condemned the proletariat to atrocious suffering, carried out endless massacres in the colonies and pushed the separation of humanity from its being to the limits. Capitalism remained a society of want based entirely on the exploitation of man by man, but it allowed a gigantic development of the productive forces. In such a society, at least at its beginnings, science took massive steps. It contributed to the accumulation of knowledge and to the development of human culture; but also, very often, it made science the impotent hostage to the bourgeoisie which captures its discoveries and directs them not towards the satisfaction of human needs but towards profit and war, destruction and death. This is something that is evident today since the majority of scientific progress (the conquest of space, the internet, artificial intelligence for example) have only been possible through the imperatives of militarism and imperialism. As capitalism has gradually reached the end of its historic mission, the proletariat has become the guardian of the cultural and scientific heritage accumulated by the human species. Rosa Luxemburg wrote in this regard: "Socialism, which links the interests of the workers as a class to the development and to the future of humanity as a great, cultural fraternity, produces a particular affinity between proletarian struggle and the interests of culture as a whole, engendering the apparent contradictory and paradoxical phenomenon which makes the conscious proletariat today in all countries the most ardent, the most idealistic advocates of knowledge and art of this same bourgeois culture of which it is today the disinherited bastard"[1].

Certainly, marxism is not a science, but it is a scientific and militant theory which contributes to the development of materialism and progressively integrates scientific advances from its different domains. The reason is simple: having no property, no estate within capitalist society (contrary to that of the bourgeoisie within feudalism), the proletariat is obliged to develop its consciousness and its theory to the highest point. It is solely because it is potentially armed with its consciousness, its revolutionary theory (marxism), its unity, its own organisation and world revolutionary party that it can emancipate itself and, at the same time, deliver humanity from the prison of class society.

That is why the discoveries of Darwin, and science in general, are so important. In taking on the question of The Descent of Man, February 4, 1868,[2] Darwin passed to the second episode of the new Copernican revolution that was about to be realised. The first had begun at the return of his voyage around the world on H.M.S Beagle (1831-1836), when he wrote his first words in his Notebooks on the Transmutation of Species (1837). This intense work of reflection, the cataloguing of all the observations made during the course of the voyage and the reading of reference works, resulted in the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859.

Assisted by a rigorously scientific approach, he demonstrated in this work that a genealogy of the living world existed, throughout which the generations of organisms followed one another by diversification. He thus discovered "descent with modification" and its motor-force, "natural selection". All organisms presented totally random variations. When it was necessary to displace and change from the milieu or when the milieu itself changed, advantageous variations were selected, leading to more numerous descendants for some individuals and a progressive elimination of others. In time this process resulted in the emergence of a new species which corresponded to a new stage of relative stability.

The theory of natural selection gave a boost to transformative ideas, which since Lamarck had been stuck in the impasse represented by the theory of the transmission of acquired characteristics. It was now possible to understand how each species, through the analysis of its history (its phylogeny), was the product of a previous species. It was possible to reach back, by rediscovering the common ancestors of several species, to the origins of life on Earth.

The step had thus been to lay a solid, scientific basis for transformation. But the second episode of this Copernican revolution was more important still. Since The Origin of Species, transformation generally became admissible and it was roughly understood that "man descended from apes" (or, more accurately, homo and the great apes came from a common ancestor). With The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin brought forward two major new scientific advances:

 - The species homo belonged to a series of animals certainly, but its emergence was made without rupture. There was only a difference of degree and not of nature. There was no sudden "upsurge" but a process of emergence.

- With the emergence of humanity, the selection of the most able and the elimination of the least apt tended to trail off to the benefit of the weakest and the worst off. The fight for existence was replaced by the progressive development of sympathy and the mutual recognition of the other. Natural selection produced civilisation which merges with the emergence of the human species. It is characterised by the development of links of solidarity, of communal rationality and moral sentiments[3]. This evolution unified affectionate feelings and rationality, resulting in the growing institutionalisation of altruism, a significant mark of the progress of civilisation.

The reverse effect of evolution

These two inseparable results are explained by the fact that, as biological variations, social instincts, behaviours and rational capacities are also transmitted by descent. For Darwin, we are witnessing a passage of nature to civilisation, but without a rupture since natural selection, characterised by the elimination of the weakest, favours the social instincts which lead to the protection of the less able. There is the elimination of elimination. In order to account for this overthrow without rupture, Patrick Tort talks of a "reverse effect of evolution"[4]. Effectively, it allowed the understanding that the suppression of elimination is very much a consequence of natural selection itself: civilisation was selected as advantageous through an eliminatory selection[5].

When The Origin of Species appeared, protests from the dominant class, its religious and scientific luminaries, were of course extremely violent. However, the time was open to an acceptance of the theory of evolution. There had been the examples of artificial selection from farmers, growers and breeders and it seemed evident that there was a resemblance between some species, just as between parents and children coming from the parent, even if the action of natural selection and its consequences were not really immediately understood.

Marx and Engels enthusiastically welcomed the new theory. On December 19, 1860, Marx wrote to Engels: "It is in this book that the historical-natural basis of our conception is found". Once again, the proletariat finds an ally in the natural sciences in its fight to go beyond empirical, mechanical materialism. After the publication of the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848, The Origin of Species in 1859 again showed that modern materialism was up to the task of profoundly explaining the transformation process both in life and in society.

But for Marx and Engels however this favourable welcome gave way to a certain scepticism and then outright rejection. In June 18, 1862, Marx wrote to Engels: "It is remarkable to see how Darwin recognises among the animals and plants his own English society, with its division of labour, competition, its opening of new markets, its inventions and its Malthusian struggle for existence". This quid pro quo, this missed rendezvous between Marx and Darwin would have negative consequences for the theoretical development of marxism. Look at this example of the prolonged blindness of Plekhanov, written in 1907: "Many confuse the dialectic with the doctrine of evolution. The dialectic is, in fact, a doctrine of evolution. But it differs essentially from the vulgar 'theory of evolution', which mainly rests on the principle that neither nature, nor history makes leaps forward and that all the changes in the world only happen gradually. Hegel has already demonstrated that, understood as such, the doctrine of evolution is inconsistent and ridiculous"[6]. The consequences of this poor interpretation of Darwin are expressed by a rejection of continuity and a speculative conception of the "qualitative leap".

Marxism and Darwinism

The main cause of this blunder was the rapid growth, from 1859, of Social Darwinism in Britain, Germany and the world. Darwin waited ten years before publishing The Descent of Man in which he finally applied to man his theory of evolution. He was well aware that the publication of his anthropology would have an explosive effect, and he spent a lot of time replying to criticisms, refuting arguments; he oversaw the many re-editions, reviewed and completed The Origin of Species. Herbert Spencer profited by creating a synthetic philosophy of evolution, a new system inspired by liberalism which applied to man the principle of the fight for existence, the elimination of the weak, a principle that Darwin had clearly limited to the world of Flora and Fauna. Darwin was forced to delineate himself from Spencer and Malthus, but it was too late, and the fraudulent theory of "Social Darwinism" imposed itself everywhere. One of its most ardent defenders was Carl Vogt, an agent of Napoleon III who had slandered Marx and who took charge of the French translation of The Descent of Man[7].

Progressively, throughout the 1980's, then in 2009 on the occasion of the bi-centenary of Darwin's birth, we saw a (re) discovery of his real anthropology. The precariousness of the most disadvantaged layers within capitalism, competition and war, the growth of predatory male behaviour, could lead us to think that the selection of advantageous variations, the elimination of the less able and the fight for existence were still the dominant factors in human society. This is the basis of the success of a Social Darwinism that invites us to accept capitalism as a natural and beneficial fatality: by leaving the strong to progress to the detriment of the weak, the people and the nation can progress and impose itself and, in the last analysis, vanquish military and economic competition and increase the rate of exploitation of the proletariat.

Socialism or barbarism

But in reality things are quite different. Civilisation develops through a reversal. As we see with the explanation of the reverse effect of evolution, there is both continuity and discontinuity. If one describes the process which goes from eliminatory natural selection up to the anti-eliminatory tendency of affective and social solidarity that's supposed to prevail in any "civilised" society, then we must conclude, as Patrick Tort explains it, that the break is the product of humanity rather than the break producing humanity. For the first time a species is not forced to adapt itself to its surroundings (selection of the most able) but is capable of adapting its surroundings, of transformation by producing its means of existence.

Contrary to the stupidities repeated by the ecologists, it is not the human species itself which is destroying nature; its ‘domination’ of nature simply means that it doesn't find what to eat directly in nature, but that it produces its means of existence. It is not the human species that destroys nature but a specific method of production, capitalism, which attacks biodiversity and breaks the organic equilibrium between humanity and nature.

Marxists were misguided in thinking that the making of tools was a distinctive criterion for the species homo. But scientific research shows that most animal species (vertebrates, invertebrates, mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, etc.) are perfectly capable of making or using tools and that the fundamental change with the appearance of the genus homo is the production of all life’s necessities.

The reconciliation between Darwin and Marx had finally become possible and the latter's first response was the right one. The idea discovered by the former was contained in the heart of the works of Marx. In The German Ideology for example, drawn up by Marx and Engels in 1846, a passage takes up the same description of the process as Darwin: "One can distinguish men from animals by consciousness, religion or by whatever else you want. They distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they start to produce their means of existence: they make a step here which is dictated by their physical existence. By producing their means of existence men indirectly produce their material life themselves".

Continuity in particular is recognised perfectly through the formula that "they make a step here which is dictated by their physical existence". Through the concept of the reversive effect, evolutionary continuity and the "qualitative leap" are also materialistically and dialectically reunified.

In creating civilisation, the human species doesn't rid itself of nature and biology. It is certain that, in phases of intense regression, barbarity and the elimination of the weakest distinctly reappears. But that is not the basis of human history. Civilisation has taken the form of a succession of modes of production finally resulting in capitalism in which the loss of mastery of the social forces created by man appears in all its dramatic breadth by turning them against humanity and against its biological and natural roots. In such conditions only the proletarian revolution can re-establish humanity’s mastery of its own becoming by overthrowing the power of the bourgeoisie and through creating a society which will be able to confront new biological, epidemiological and ecological problems that humanity will inevitably meet in the course of its voyage aboard its space-ship, planet Earth. 

Theory versus nihilism

Darwinian anthropology, in which we have seen the unbroken link with the theory of modified descent by the means of natural selection, has been falsified, ignored and attacked from all sides, in particular by those who could not accept that man could lose his transcendental nature. And it continues to be attacked today, not only by the Creationists and religious fundamentalists but also by all the idealists who decree a separation between The Origin of Species, the scientific value of which they concede, and The Descent of Man which they present as a philosophical work, thus creating a so-called disconnection of Darwin between science and ideology.

In the present situation where the proletariat (and its revolutionary perspective) is momentarily absent from the social scene, the way is opened up for the rejection of science and all scientific theory.

In the seventeenth century, James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, decreed that creation took place at the beginning of the night proceeding October 23 in the year 4004 B.C. There was even an intense debate about whether time began on the Saturday night or the Sunday morning. In the nineteenth century a majority of scientists were still defending the biblical legend that on the sixth day, man and domestic animals were created "according to its kind".

Today, conspiracy theories, absurd beliefs and scepticism towards science reflect the absence of perspective offered by existing society and appears as a return to obscure times. The fight of the working class against exploitation and the progressive affirmation of its revolutionary perspective will on the contrary be accompanied by a liberating development of consciousness and of the rational, coherent and scientific approach.

A. Elberg, June 20, 2021


[2] We finally have a rigorously scientific French translation led by Patrick Tort: La Filiation de l'homme et la Sélection liée au sexe (2013).

[4] Patrick Tort, The Darwin Effect (2008)

[5] See the long-time obscured but explicit passage of Chapter XXI: "However important it was, and still is..."

[6] Plekhanov, The Fundamental Questions of Marxism

[7] Anton Pannekoek, Patrick Tort, Darwinism and Marxism (2011)



Science and Class Consciousness