DEFENCE OF CHARLES DARWIN FROM AN ATTACK ON HIS WORKS BY CHRIS KNIGHT
In the current issue of Revolution Internationale, number 434, and on the ICC's French website, there is an article by Chris Knight entitled “Human solidarity and the selfish gene”: https://www.chrisknight.co.uk/2007/10/13/solidarity_selfish-gene/ . As the introduction of RI notes, Knight puts forward the argument that solidarity is basic to humanity. What surprises me is that Knight arrives at his conclusion by way of a scurrilous attack on Charles Darwin which completely contrasts with RI's previous defence of Darwin and his materialist analysis. It's not a class line but in the absence of any critique from RI on Knight's attack on Charles Darwin I will make an attempt at defending his analyses in line with previous texts from the ICC that have done just this. In this respect, see for example “On Patrick Tort's 'The Darwin Effect'”, “Darwin and the Workers' Movement” and “Marxism and Darwinism” by Anton Pannekoek, parts one and two, all on this website. The article on Patrick Tort is more relevant here because it deals mostly with Darwin's greatest work “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex”. Knight's conclusion that solidarity is basic to humanity is exactly that of “Descent...” a hundred and forty years earlier. But this book, along with many elements of Darwin's analyses, doesn't seem to be factors that the radical anthropologist Knight, is familiar with.
A couple of Knight's gratuitous insults to start with: he rightly says that Darwin was pressed into publishing “The Origin of Species” by the independent discovery of descent with modification through natural selection by fellow scientist Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace, Knight says, would have got all the “scientific glory” had he published first. Anyone who's read anything by Alfred Russel Wallace would know that he didn't have a glory-seeking bone in his body and throughout their lives both these men saw their work as a joint enterprise of scientific endeavour. Two very different men who worked closely together and were great friends; Wallace didn't give a fuck for glory or criticism from the establishment, while Darwin, because of his background and “position” in society was greatly concerned with what they were about to unleash – and the last thing that Darwin wanted was “glory” (though he was also “joyful” about his work, particularly “Descent...”). Both of them, from their particular circumstances, were warriors for scientific truth and fought with great vigour against enormous pressures – particularly Darwin. To reduce this to a question of who's going to get the glory is an insult to these great men. More, Knight makes the clear implication that Darwin was a coward: according to him Darwin did not publish “Origin..” because it would add to the current revolutionary ferment and only plucked up courage and published it in 1858 because this was a period “without immediate danger of revolution”. This line of reasoning doesn't make any sense at all when one considers that – again under Wallace's dynamic – Darwin published his much more explosive “Descent of Man...” in …. 1871 of all years. But Knight completely ignores – and with good reason from his point of view – this second great work of Charles Darwin
Darwin and Wallace were not revolutionaries but their works were not only a body blow to religion but completely undermined bourgeois ideology and were a very significant contribution to the workers' movement and the material basis for communism. Chris Knight, along with many of the perverters of his work past and present, sees Darwin's work as capitalist ideology. His implied competition between the two men is a further insult. Their joint work and the way that they sparked off each other can be clearly seen in their almost daily correspondence. Darwin wrote to Wallace on May 1st 1857, “... I can plainly see that we have thought much alike and come to similar conclusions. I agree with almost every word of your paper” (see “Alfred Russel Wallace and his inestimable contribution to the workers' movement” on the ICC's website). The paper of Wallace that Darwin refers to is his text “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart from the Original Type” which was almost identical to his own 1842 analysis that hardly anyone knew of. Darwin presented Wallace's paper to the Linnaean Society in 1858 along with his own text which was to become “Origin..”. On Wallace's 1864 paper, “The Origins of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of Natural Selection”, Darwin wrote to him in May of that year: “It is really admirable, but you ought not … to speak of the theory as mine – it is as much yours as mine” and later, from Darwin to Wallace “I hope it is a satisfaction to reflect – and very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me – that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in some sense rivals I believe I can say this of myself with truth, and I am absolutely sure that it is true of you”. From Wallace to Darwin: “To have thus inspired and retained this friendly feeling, notwithstanding many differences of opinion, I feel to be one of the greatest honours of my life”. In one letter of March 1869 to Wallace, Darwin refers to “Descent...” as “our baby”. So much for the “threat” of Wallace to Darwin and so much for 'glory-hunting'. But Knight moves on from insults to slander with his assimilation of Darwin to all the worst aspects of the writings of the Reverend Thomas Malthus.
According to Knight, Darwin 'celebrates the cruelty of nature, the elimination of the weak, let the poor die, famine and death and his analysis was “Malthusian”'. Both Darwin and Wallace had hit on the work of Malthus in order to make a point about the mechanisms for the organic evolution of species. Marx used the analyses of Malthus to further his own analysis. He said that, along with Sismondi, Malthus discovered the “beautiful trinity of capitalist production, overproduction, overpopulation, overconsumption”. He used Malthus's analyses in relation to production and demand, quoting him favourably in “Grundrisse” on the inadequate demand from workers and he develops on it from there. Though obscured by his out and out bourgeois position, Malthus could glimpse the limits of capitalism as well as its inner insoluble contradictions. That doesn't make Marx “Malthusian”, that doesn't mean that because Marx used some aspects of his analyses that one can ascribe to him all or any of the capitalist filth that Malthus came out with. At the economic level Marx overturned the ideas of Malthus with the latter's own words and ideas. Wallace and Darwin did the same on the level of the development of humanity. And even here, Malthus was puzzled by the fact that the poor, even in their misery, could show solidarity and care to their offsprings. Reading “Descent...” I only saw the phrase “survival of the fittest” once and here Darwin criticises the idea. But in his text, Knight is determined to regurgitate and repeat uncritically all the old lies of the ruling class that ascribe social Darwinism, the elimination of the weakest to Darwin and his works, and Knight parrots the right-wing ideologists who say that Darwin supported unbridled individualism, a world without morals, cut-throat capitalist competition, dog eat dog and so on.
As the ICC says about “Descent...”in the “On Patrick Tort's...” text: “Darwin is actually categorically opposed to any mechanical and schematic application of elimination by natural selection to the human species...”. And, “... 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)”. In the 1864 text mentioned above, Wallace, to some extent, predates the analysis of Tort on the overturning of natural selection: “Man has not only escaped 'natural selection' himself, but he is actually able to take away some of that power from nature which, before his appearance, she universally exercised”. And, “By his superior sympathies and moral feelings, he becomes fitted for the social state; he ceases to plunder the weak and helpless of his tribe; he shares the game which he has caught with less active or less fortunate hunters, or exchanges it for weapons which even the sick of the deformed can fashion; he saves the sick and the wounded from death; and thus the power which leads to the rigid destruction of all animals who cannot in every respect help themselves, is preventing from acting on him...”.
Following on from Wallace I think that Patrick Tort's analysis of the “reverse effect” of evolution is summed up well by RI in his short sentence “through the social instincts, natural selection selects culture, which is opposed to natural selection”, ie, it's no longer biological but social. This is the essence of Charles Darwin (and Wallace's) work and thought that went into “Descent...”. The text on Patrick Tort by Sofiane in RI continues: “In Darwin's thought, there is thus material continuity in the link between social instincts, cognitive and rational advances, and morality and civilisation. The 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.”.
Chris Knight has invented a “new darwinianism”, a “genuine revolution” he says, in science at the same time as kicking open doors against “utopian”, “middle class” socialism. It's similar with his idea that heroism would be counter-productive for mankind's development because the 'hero' would more likely be killed and the genes of such would not pass on. Wallace and Darwin had already posed and solved this question on May 29 1868, when the former wrote to the latter that those with physical and heroic qualities would be “selected” as “... very imperfect, and subject to so many exceptions and irregularities that it could prove no definite result. For instance, the strongest and bravest men would lead and expose themselves most, and would be subject to wounds and death...” It was much more than this question of the individual. The full title of Darwin's book is “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” and, again you don't need Knight's “new darwinianism” - just look at the work without the social Darwinian blindfold on – it's all there in the original. The female makes the choice for reproduction, the female is the first to hold the altruistic instincts, the female has the special role – and Darwin is clear about all this – and just as she will expose herself to predators to protect her young, she will choose the male most likely to be able to look after her and her offspring. Wallace, in 1864, was also clear (clearer than Darwin in some respects) on this question of the “strongest and most heroic” being the weakest from the point of view of the development of humanity. The maternal instincts would be looking for solidarity, “intelligent foresight” and “self-restraint”. This is not the “new darwinianism” of the selfish gene as Knight says, but the materialist analysis of Charles Darwin in his book “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” that he wrote in collaboration with Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin insisted on the special role of womanhood in the development of humanity from the earliest social instincts that came from the animal kingdom. However long the relationship from the choice of woman from the social instincts, short or longer term, it “suffices for the work of sexual selection” the latter being “more powerful at a remote period than the present day, though probably not yet wholly lost” (“Descent...”).
There's a further insinuation made by Knight about the “racism” of Darwin's work. There's no doubt that in “Descent...” he makes some very racist comments and unsavoury observations here and there. But these are as nothing compared to his overall analyses. These are not what Knight is talking about anyway, he refers rather to the idea of group, tribal or race selection. Regarding solidarity and race, Darwin talks of the “indefinite extension of moral feelings and altruist sympathy”. And further in “Descent...”: “As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united in larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all 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”. Wallace's approach was also internationalist and forward looking when he talks about “races” which he uses to refer to mankind and the “common origins of all mankind” and man as “being apart, since he is not influenced by the great laws which irresistibly modify all other organic beings”. And finally on this a future perspective for humanity from Wallace's “The Origins of Human Races...”: “... for each man will be guided by the best of laws, a thorough appreciation of the rights and a perfect sympathy with the feelings of all about him; compulsory government will have died away as unnecessary (for every man will know how to govern himself), and will be replaced by voluntary associations for all beneficial public purposes, the passions and animal propensities will be restrained within those limits which most conduce to happiness; and mankind will at length discovered that it was only required of them to develop the capacities of their higher nature, in order to covert this earth, which has so long been the theatre of their unbridled passions, and the scene of unimaginable misery, into as bright a paradise as ever haunted the dreams of seer or poet”. The last part particularly could have been written by Marx himself – in fact he wrote something very similar in a letter that I remember reading in the “Communism” series, but can't find now.
So I think that Chris Knight's discovery of the “new darwinianism” has been made on the basis of ignoring or misunderstanding the essence of the “origins” of Charles Darwin's great works. I think it a pity that in making this discovery Knight dredges up and throws around all the anti-Darwinian and Social Darwinian claptrap of the ruling class. There's no excuse for such ignorance.
In his introduction to “The Dialectics of Nature”, Engels writes: “Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind and especially on his countrymen, when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence which economist celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom”. In a letter to Engels of June 18 1862, Marx wrote similar in a letter to Engels “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'”. A couple of years earlier, December 11 1859, Engels wrote to Marx saying: “Darwin, by the way, whom I'm reading just now, is absolutely splendid... Never before has so grandiose attempt been made to demonstrate historical evolution in Nature”. And Marx to Engels, a year later after reading “Origins...”: “here is a book which contains the basis, in natural history, for our ideas”. Why the change over a couple of years when both instinctively recognised the contribution of Darwin? For a start the social Darwinian, dog eat dog apology for capitalism was becoming extant from Spencer and other elements of the bourgeoisie. Secondly both Marx and Engels were completely unaware of Wallace's ground breaking revolutionary 1864 text (most on the left at this time were unaware of it – still seem to be in fact - and the Anthropological Society that Wallace presented it to didn't understand a word of it).
And finally, both Marx and Engels did not read “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex”. It came out in 1871 when they were far too busy elsewhere and, as the text on Patrick Tort from RI says, this was a “missed rendez-vous”.