In defence of Charles Darwin from an attack by Chris Knight

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In defence of Charles Darwin from an attack by Chris Knight
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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”: . 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”.



baboon, 1.8.12

I've tried a direct link here
Wow Baboon, you've written

Wow Baboon, you've written quite a response here. I think this controversy serves to illustrate some of the points I have been trying to make in the broader discussion of Marxism and Science. Whatever position we take on a particular issue--in this case Darwinism--it seems that there is always a way of "getting to the left" of that position. This raises stimulating, if possibly troubling, questions about the relationship between scientific "truth" and critique. Baboon sees Darwin as a "warrior for scientific truth," whereas Knight views elements of his thought as supporting bourgeois ideology. It would be easy to say the truth is somewhere in between, but that doesn't seem like a satisfactory resolution to the impasse. 

It is interesting RI published Knight's piece without much critical comment. It appears though that RI--and perhaps Knight himself--see the text as a critique not so much of Darwin and Darwinism itself, but the neo-Darwinist trend towards a crude reductionism exhibited by Dawkins and company. Is Dawkins a bourgeois ideologue? Has RI misread the import of Knight's polemic?

Chris Knight supports the 'selfish gene'

JK, Chris Knight supports the 'selfish gene' theory, which he sees as key to his anthropological views about the strategy of female solidarity in the development of humanity. The development of solidarity improved their reproductive success (or, in the language of 'selfish gene', meant more of their genes were passed on).

Having been reading around the Gould-Dawkins debate, I am fascinated by just how long and difficult the effort to understand evolution has been and how important later discoveries and debates have been in allowing the theory of natural selection to win out. For instance - obviously going way before the time of either Gould or Dawkins - in 1909 at the centenary of Darwin's birth praise for the man as founder of evolutionary biology was matched only by the undermining of the theory of natural selection - Lamarkianism seemed to have won out with "Virtually all evolutionary scientists... in agreement" (to borrow Chris Knight's words). Even Mendelian inheritance was seen as in contradiction with Darwin's theory precisely because where we can see it in operation it involves distinct changes, jumps rather than gradual changes. The decades that followed were necessary synthesise natural selection and Mendelian inheritance - something that seems so obvious to us today - as the genetic mechanism proves once and for all that it is genetic, inherited, characteristics that are passed on, not Lamarkian aquired characteristics based on the effort carried out by the organism concerned.

Group selectionism, the idea that animals do something against their interests for the good of the group or the species, is also an - unintended - attack on Darwin's theory. As Baboon shows, the problem had already been posed in Darwin and Wallace's time. In the Descent of Man Darwin raises the problem of the advantages of developing altruism for the group, but that if the altruistic individual had to sacrifice itself it could not pass on its inheritance. The question of maternal instinct is certainly a key element. But overall this has given rise to a lot of thought and discussion including the notion of kin selection (I will lay down my life - if calculating according to how many genes can be passed on - for 2 siblings or 4 cousins or whatever the calculation is) or the notions of various tit for tat strategies the Dawkins looks at (I won't cheat as this will lead to retaliation and make me less successful reproductively).

I don't think science has exhausted this subject yet - or any time soon. For instance, from the above you may think that if you "regard this restriction to organismic selection as an important and positive reform", ie the rejection of the group selectionism that Chris Knight is attacking, then you must support Dawkins' view. But I've just quoted Gould who was a bitter critic of sociobiology and of Dawkins view that it is better to look at the gene as the subject of natural selection than the organism. And this was a famously bitter polemic although they both clearly took each other seriously and recognised it as a debate among those who recognise organism level selection. On both sides of the debate they have to deal with the question of what happens beyond the level of the individual organism. Dawkins takes the example of a beaver dam and lodge as the extended phenotype of the genes of the family group that built it, as well looking at the different strategies of individuals within a group, and how an individual's fitness is effected by others in it. Gould recognises selection operating at various hierarchical levels that emerge from the operation of natural selection at individual level.

No way am I trying to give a proper account of the disagreements in evolutionary biology, I am no way able to do that, but to show that there is a real effort to understand going on in the science. Also to warn against calling Dawkins "crude". Gould calls his view reductionist for favouring selection at the smallest possible level.

One last point. Chris Knight's article sees the group selectionist theory as one particularly suited and used to support racist and eugenic theories, and that the 'selfish gene' theory will protect evolutionary theory from this misuse in future. I am not convinced by this - evolutionary biology has been dogged by this misuse all along, and not just among those who develop wrong or group selectionist theories. Gould does not think anyone's racism or eugenics should ever be passed over in silence however great their contibution to science, and gives many examples showing it has never been restricted to group selectionists. And the crimes were not restricted to Germany and the USA - you can still meet very elderly ladies in London who appear to have suffered forced and unacknowledged sterilisation. The twisting of evolution to favour racism and eugenics was greatest when the working class was defeated and it seems to have stopped more or less with the appearance of an undefeated generation of workers.

May, does Knight actually say

May, does Knight actually say he supports the "selfish gene" theory? For me, its hard to see a theory that places the gene as the subject of evolution (and thus history?) as anything other than "crude." But perhaps that is not a scientific characterization, but a normative one?

Yes, Chris Knight definitely

Yes, Chris Knight definitely supports the 'selfish gene' theory.  It gives an explanation of how the solidarity and altruism could arise out of the struggle to reproduce, as in the maternal instinct to protect the young no matter what - the animal that does this will successfully reproduce, passing on her genes to offspring that also have that instinct.

Should this be dismissed as a crude theory? I have heard it expressed crudely in loads of TV natural history edutainment. But Dawkins is anything but crude. He reckons that the Extended Phenotype is a much better book than the Selfish Gene, for good reason. In it he argues for the advantages of looking at genes rather than organisms as the main unit of selection - but ends with a chapter explaining the importance of the organism extremely clearly. You could say that he explains the importance of the organism so carefully in spite of the fact he does not think it should be regarded as the prime unit of selection, but I think his explanation is all the more interesting for having put it in question.

And Dawkins certainly doesn't think genes have to determine human history, not that this is at all clear, he just says we can escape the domination of our genes, can teach our children differently, which sort of denies the problem. The tendency to reduce everything in human history to our genes certainly exists, but it didn't start with the 'selfish gene' theory, although the theory - like all evolutionary theory - has been used in this way.

Thanks May,   Is there a

Thanks May,


Is there a translation of the RI article in the works?

which article?

Which article? There is a very short intro and a couple of footnotes by RI. The article itself is by Knight, and baboon has posted its web address at Knight's own site. We are still aiming to publish the article, but we would now refer to the points raised on this thread in any introduction we wrote.

Sorry Alf, I was confused. I

Sorry Alf,

I was confused. I read Knight's piece and the RI intro and footnotes. I have to say that Knight's critique of the construction of classical Darwinism is convincing, althought it is not clear to me if he is actually offering a critique of Darwin himself or various constructions of Darwinism. In the sense that Marx once famously said that he was not a Marxist--perhaps Darwin could say he was no Darwinist? The extent to which Darwin actually believed the ideas Knight attributes to him questionable, but it seems pretty clear that the characterization of Darwin's ideas Knight lays out did come to represent something like "actually existing Darwinism" in the late 19th --early 20th centuries.

On the question of the  "selfish gene"--well, I still don't like it. It has been a long time since I actually read Dawkins' book, but I just think that it is the wrong metaphor. This approach seems to want to impart some kind of intelligent agency to our genes, to give them some kind of subjectivity. I do find this to be "crude" and simply put not a very helpful way to conceptualize the matter. What makes our genes such an essential unit? Why don't our carbon atoms have this kind of subjectivity? I didn't find RI's attempts to wish away this problem very convincing. The whole thing seems to border on a kind of "genetic essentialism" that I find to be highly problematic. It leaves the back door open to some kind of "intelligence" operating in nature. It also doesn't seem to escape the spectre of biological reductionism. It strikes me as very odd to see Knight defend this theory and for it to pass without any critical commentary by RI--in fact, they seemed to excuse it.

Alf, which points were you referring to?


Chris Knight certainly

Chris Knight certainly doesn't defend Charles Darwin and his general tone is an attack aimed at Darwin personally - the allusion to cowardice and his explicit defence of the bourgeoisie. Contrast this to the clear defence of Darwin's analysis, particularly "Descent", by previous RI pieces, in the face of Social Darwinian ideas.

Baboon, you know this

Baboon, you know this material better than I do. How is it that a scholar of such reknown as Knight, who spoke at an ICC Congress, could misread the historical literature so dramatically? How is that that RI did not feel much of a need to comment on his personal attack against Darwin?

It is important to get the historical facts right, but the more important issue here seems to be the idea of the "selfish gene." I do think Knight hits on something when he talks about the parallel between the central problems in both Darwinism and Marxism. For Darwinism, the problem is to explain how societies based on cooperation and solidarity can emerge form an amoral, individualistic nature dominated by the "struggle for the fittest," whilst for Marxism it is to explain how the solidarity necessary to construct communism can emerge from within a capitalist society dominated by indivdualism, personal greed, alienation and atomization. Knight thinks that the idea of the "selfish gene" accomplishs this for Darwinism (or evolutionary science), but I am not convinced.

I've just re-read Chris

I've just re-read Chris Knight's article. Baboon makes some lucid and valid criticisms regarding some of the article's  implications about Darwin's attitude. He reminds us of Darwin's real relationship with Wallace and demonstrates that the decision to publish Origin of Species cannot be reduced to 'glory hunting' on Darwin's part. He also points out that there is a glaring absence in Knight's article - the failure to include any reference to the Descent of Man and Darwin's theory of the selection of social instincts. This does give the impression that Darwin's appropriation of Malthusianism for biology led Darwin directly to 'Social Darwinism'. And indeed Patrick Tort and previous articles in the ICC press have shown that Darwin was not at all a 'Social Darwinist'. In this sense I agree that the introduction to the article in RI is not at all adequate.

However, there is a problem in Baboon's approach as well. The title leaps straight away into the idea that Knight is motivated by a desire to attack Darwin.  One can strongly criticise the way he approaches Darwin but to me it makes no sense to describe this as an 'attack'. The ICC has engaged with Chris Knight and other anthropologists who share his theories because we are convinced that they have something to contribute to a debate about the origins of human solidarity and morality. And although we have also insisted on the need for marxists to engage with scientists who are not marxists and don't claim to be, the discussion with Chris Knight (for example at two congresses of our organisation) has proved to be particularly fruitful because it starts from the  shared general framework of marxism. A debate necessarily implies confrontation of ideas, the airing of disagreements, but it also implies that there is a common starting point. Baboon seems to doubt this.

Moreover, just as there are some serious lacunae in Knight's article, there is also one in Baboon's. Knight is attempting to show that (contrary to various simplisitic first impressions) selfish gene theory does not contradict the notion of social instincts, and indeed he insists that it is the only sound basis for understanding such a notion. As May has pointed out in her posts, this is by no means an easy discussion. But whether or not we are convinced by selfish gene theory, the fact remains that it has indeed acquired an enormous weight in scientific circles and no serious approach to the question of evolution today can afford to ignore it. But this is more or less what Baboon does in his post, which only mentions it once. He seems to argue that the problem of the place of altruism in the competitive struggle for survival had already been solved by Darwin - and yet Darwin himself made no secret of the fact that everything he wrote on this subject was put forward in a very tentative manner. And since at the time he wrote little was understood about genetics, this was necessarily so.    

If we are to take this discussion forward, we first have to accept that there is indeed a discussion here. 



two feet

I accept your points Alf - I did jump in a bit with two feet and should have waited a bit longer. Of course the analyses of both Wallace and Darwin were not the "last word" - both of them would have been equally horrified at that. But my maybe too immediate concern was first of all to defend their ground-breaking "Origins" and then, a few short years later, their revolutionary "Descent" from the abuse of social darwinism. This is something that RI had previously done great work in.

There is a discussion to be had and I will apply myself to it. I have read some good stuff from Knight and defended him from attacks elsewhere. I read "The Selfish Gene" years ago and thought it quite good for the development of altruism and solidarity from what I remember. Dawkins himself said it could have been called "The Unselfish Gene". This is the aspect that we should concentrate on and I look forward to any ICC discussion on this.

I support Knight's general conclusion to his piece as short as it is. Though I do think that there are certain contradictions between this position and that of "Blood Relations" but that's for the future.