Darwin’s far-reaching application of Dialectical Materialism to Biology

Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago, on 12 February 1809. 50 years later in 1859 he published his most far reaching work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

This double anniversary has received much attention on television, radio and in the press, a surprising amount of it controversial and polemical. This is much more so than might be expected in the case of a significant scientist. The reason is that Charles Darwin’s work resulted in a very thorough substantiation of the fact of evolution, and also a well argued theory for at least part of the mechanism by which evolution comes about. This threatened the established order. It threatened religious dogma, and even more it threatened the stability of capitalism, indeed it continues to do so for modern capitalism – imperialism.

As far as religion is concerned, it has proven quite adaptable and able to accommodate to the order of the day, be it slavery, feudalism or capitalism. Many branches of Christianity, for example, have been able to reconcile, perhaps by contortions but at least to their own satisfaction, the idea of evolution with the idea of a supernatural creator. Many practising scientists completely accept evolution but at the same time believe in a god.

It is not conflict with fundamentalist religious doctrine, nor the often expressed revulsion at the thought of having ape-like ancestors, let alone fish ancestors, that causes the major opposition to Darwinism. The problem for capitalism is that evolution vividly exemplifies the dialectical nature of the world. Neither the world nor the organisms that live in it are static and unchanging. Organisms change and develop, their form and behaviour is not constant, they change in response to the environment. Types at one time plentiful and dominant become superseded by new types which in their turn become dominant, and so on. This is a very dangerous concept for capitalism as a social system which claims to be the eternal order of things – always here and here to stay for ever! It is a system that is very fearful of what materialist dialectics, applied to the history of society, has to say about its future – and lack of it.

So capitalism needs to either discredit or undermine Darwinism. But the contradiction is that capitalism also needs thoroughgoing science. It needs science for production, from which it makes its profits; indeed production for profit is capitalism’s very existence. And no thoroughgoing science can be really effective if it is not based on dialectical materialism. So capitalism has to harness science while at the same time trying to mystify those aspects which threaten its existence. Some success for this can be seen in the many scientists who are idealist in their private and social lives, yet when they go to work become materialist. They would not claim to be dialectical materialists but for thoroughgoing science that is what they have to practice. When it comes to their views on society, however, they revert to idealism and metaphysics.

So it is that in the interests of capitalism, in response to a ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’, a whole range of its apologists are arrayed. Some have more understanding of their real allegiances, some have less. Some produce subtle polemic, some propagate some very crude material.

There are the creationists, who claim that each type of organism was specially created by god just as it is (or was in the case of those that they now say have died out). Many maintain that this creation took place just as described in Genesis in the Bible.

More subtle are the scientists who wave the flag of Darwinism in order to reintroduce idealism and metaphysics. They claim to have developed Darwinism and are the proponents of neo-Darwinism. We will come back to them below.

So capitalism, and in its modern form, imperialism, well understands the significance of Darwin’s work. It is important that we also understand its significance for the proletariat and oppressed people of the world. We need to be able to deal not only with the arguments of creationists, but also with the distortions of neo-Darwinists. It is for that reason, not just out of general biological interest, that this is a topic for a Stalin Society meeting.

Darwin’s dialectical materialism

There is no indication that Darwin consciously set out to promote the dialectical method. But he did approach the world from a materialist stand point. He tried to explain what he saw of the real world, and he did so by making his observations of natural phenomena in the context of their surroundings, in the process of their development and change. He made his observations diligently over a long period of time and over a wide range of phenomena.

In other words Darwin viewed the world dialectically, and that enabled him to take a bold, informed step that most of his contemporaries failed to take, and those (both contemporaries and predecessors) who tried had been unable to call on the wide range of material facts that Darwin had accumulated, and were thus only able to postulate. One of the most compelling aspects of Darwin’s work is the sheer weight of information that he called upon to substantiate his arguments.


Up to Darwin’s time biology had been mainly a descriptive science. Biologists were engaged in studying the anatomy, the morphology, the body structure, of animals and plants. Collections of preserved specimens were being established and museums were becoming important, and living specimens in botanical and zoological gardens were also a subject of study as well as a spectacle. Biology had been mainly concerned with identifying the types, species, of living organisms and categorising them.

Geology, the study of rocks and their formation was also making progress, and with it palaeontology, the study of the fossil remains of animals and plants that had become petrified over very long periods of time and could be found in various types of rock.

The Voyage of The Beagle

Darwin was not particularly a great scholar during his education, He abandoned his intention to go into medicine and graduated in divinity at Cambridge university, having spent a lot of his time there with tutors interested in natural history. He was not very enthusiastic about ‘going into the church’ and did not have to worry too much about income as his father was a successful medical doctor. He eventually received £15,000 on his marriage, his wife got a dowry of about £5,000 and when his father died he got another £40,000 odd. That was quite enough for him never to have to work. Not only was he able to live on the investment income, but by the end of his life he left an estate of very much more, having invested quite a lot of money in the railways which did very well over that period because they were superseding the canals.

When Darwin had the good fortune of being offered a berth on the admiralty ship The Beagle as a guest of the captain and as an additional scientist, he was elated. He received no salary and had to pay his own way, but managed to persuade his father to finance him. The Beagle set out at the very end of 1831 to survey the coast and some inland parts of South America and some islands in the Pacific. In the end the voyage took five years, of which Darwin spent over three years studying ashore. He collected organisms and fossils to take or send back to Britain, and also made detailed observations of what he saw.

It is worth reading his book, Voyage of The Beagle, which is Darwin’s journal of his activities and observations. Ther e is so much detail in it. Just one example, which made a big impression on him, consisted of his famous observations of the Galapagos finches.

The remote Galapagos archipelago contained many animals and plants of great interest to Darwin. Many resembled those of the mainland, but showed significant differences from them. He particularly observed a number of different types of finch. One of them very much resembled the ground finch of mainland S America. It is a typical finch, a seed eating bird of stocky build, about the size of a British house sparrow, with a broad strong beak for crushing seeds. But what he noticed was that there were other finches on the Galapagos which were clearly finches but nothing like what he had seen on the mainland, or indeed anywhere else.

There were, in addition to the ground finch, 4 types of finch which lived up in the trees which were insect eaters, rather than seed eaters. There was one that lived in the trees that ate seeds There was another that looked very like what Darwin would have known as a warbler. It was of much more slender build and caught insects on the wing as warblers do. No other finch that he had ever seen before behaved like that. There was also a remarkable ‘woodpecker’ finch, which had the ability to run vertically up tree trunks and had a strong, long, tough bill for digging out insects. It is really an aside to our considerations here, but without the long tongue of ‘regular’ woodpeckers, this finch had developed the use of spines of cactuses or small twigs held in its beak to get insects out of crevices in bark – a rare example of a tool using bird.

But Darwin focussed on the fact that this range of finches occupied ways of life, biological niches, which exploited food, shelter and a way of life unlike any finches on the main land. He concluded that all these finches had developed from one or a few ground finches that had found their way there from the mainland, maybe on a freak air current and arriving by chance on the islands. Then they were able to take advantage of new opportunities and changed body shapes and behaviour accordingly. On the mainland, of course, any ground finch that had aspirations (to indulge in an anthropomorphism) to become a woodpecker would not get very far because they would have been ‘elbowed out’ by perfectly good existing woodpeckers that were already very well adapted to wood-pecking and getting insects out of bark.

So Darwin saw living things in the process of their development. He observed much more than the finches of the Galapagos. He documented varieties and variations of organism and their geographical distribution. It must have occurred to him to consider how the ‘real’ woodpecker on the mainland came to be there. If these finches of the Galapagos had developed to their present state, the woodpecker must also have developed to get to where it is.

And so what the voyage of The Beagle did for Darwin was to introduce to him the idea that there was development of the organisms of which he had seen so many examples. Organisms were not static, they did not stay the same all the time, they changed, they evolved.


The idea of evolution did not originate with Darwin. There were already scientists that had suggested evolution. Not least among them was Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, and another very famous scientist, Lamark. He suggested that animals evolve and do so by passing on features that they have developed during their lives. The famous example he gave is that giraffes stretch their necks to reach leaves on trees and their necks get longer. These longer necks are passed on to offspring, which also stretch, and so on resulting in very long necks. This is called the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which is ridiculed without justification by the neo-Darwinists. Lamark had put it forward as a theory for a mechanism for evolution, he did not at that time have enough evidence to substantiate it, but neither has it been disproved. Darwin did not dismiss this idea, although he did not himself develop it other than at one stage suggesting that substances carried in the blood took information to the sex cells for passing to offspring. This last suggestion was not, however, a central plank of his theory.

The fossil record

Darwin also saw evidence of evolution in fossils from his own observations and the work of others. It was quite clear that there were types of organism that had at one time inhabited the earth which were no longer here. Darwin suggested that at least some of them had developed into new forms, and so on to the present day. There was much disagreement with this notion of change. A famous palaeontologist called Cuvier put forward the idea that the form of each type of organism did not change, all were specially created and those types no longer living, but evident from the fossil record, had all died out in catastrophes like ‘the flood’.

But palaeontology, the fossil record, provides further evidence for evolution. For example there are some chalk deposits which took about 10M years to accumulate. These rocks were formed by the settling of the shells of tiny water creatures over a long period of time, and the rocks so formed are 1,500 feet in depth. Within a depth of  about 500 feet of these chalk rocks are found fossils of small animals called sea urchins. These 500 feet of rock would have take 4-5 million years to form. The sea urchin fossils lower down were of animals that lived longer ago, those higher up were more recent. There is thus evidence of a series of fossils of animals that formed a line of descent. The shape of the shell and arrangement of their spines gradually changed with progression from the most ancient, up through the rocks to what are clearly their descendants. These organisms had developed; they had evolved.

Another, famous, example from palaeontology is that of the horse. Much greater changes than in the example of the sea urchin can be seen in a series of fossils that show a development from Eohippus (now called Hydracotherium), a very primitive horse-like creature about the size of a terrier whose fossils are found in rocks formed 60 million years ago, through successive stages in more and more recent rocks, to the modern horse.

Eohippus had three digits (‘toes’) on the hind foot and four on the front foot. Among other changes, including increase in size, successive fossils show how the central digit developed while the others gradually disappeared, resulting in the single hoof and long toe bones of the modern horse. Such limbs are very well suited to fast and sustained running over relatively firm ground.

Darwin had built up quite a lot of evidence in favour of evolution (which has subsequently been added to) and when he came home from his time with the Beagle he was able to extend his studies in another direction. He studied the breeding of animals and plants. As Engels points out in Dialectics of Nature, England was a good place to do that because the breeding of animals and plants in England was much in advance of that elsewhere in Europe. Moreover, most of the major developments had been recent, having taken place in the previous 100 years.

Darwin said that the animal breeder takes those features which he most wants in an animal and tries to conserve them. This would not work if every animal was completely identical. You can look at a field of sheep and with a non-practised, non-farmers, eye the sheep look all the same. But there is quite a lot of variation within a flock of sheep, or a herd of cattle, or a field of wheat and so on.

On the basis of these variations the breeder can select animals with the ‘best’ features, breed from them, obtain future generations of animals and plants which have those favoured features and within the new and changed variation select again and gradually, and not always so gradually, quite big changes can be achieved. It is remarkable that in dog breeding for example within a single species, a species that can breed within itself, you have such widely differing forms as the Chihuahua, the Dachshund, the Great Dane and the Irish Wolf Hound. The differences between them are much bigger than with what are regarded as different species. An Irish Wolf Hound is more different in its general appearance to a Chihuahua is than say to a north American coyote, a wolf or a dingo.

From these observations Darwin developed his theory, which goes beyond the fact that evolution occurs. He went on to suggest at least part of the mechanism by which evolution happens, and he called this “natural selection”. He suggested that in a way similar to the selection of features by plant and animal breeders, the environment ‘naturally’ selected features. Those animals within a population with features best suited to living in a particular environment would be more likely to survive and breed and pass those features on to their offspring. Thus the features would become more and more plentiful in the population. They would be ‘selected’ by the environment.

Darwin backed this suggestion up with a massive amount of documentation on variations that existed within types of animal and plant. He further cited the fact that organisms produce many more seeds, eggs, young, what he called ‘germ cells’, than survive to breed. This gave plenty of scope for natural selection to operate, for those best suited to the environment to survive and pass on their features. Added to this was the very, very long time period, millions and millions of years, during which organisms have evolved. In this time period very large changes could take place allowing the wide range of living organisms now observed to evolve from one or a few very simple organisms. That is the basis of Darwin’s theory of the origin of species by the process of natural selection.

Darwin suggested that evolution resulted from the “survival of the fittest”. But together with this concept comes the concept of the “struggle for existence”. This is not the clearest part of Darwin’s explanation, and it is one which has been seized upon by the neo-Darwinists and, with distortions, pushed forward, quite incorrectly, as the main element of Darwin’s theory.

Darwin recorded that he had read Malthus on human populations and this encouraged him to think about the way in which there was selection in organisms. But Darwin never claimed to be a political economist or even a social scientist, and had very little understanding of Malthus work. Indeed Darwin did not only consider competition between individuals of the same species as constituting the essence of the struggle for existence. He considered the struggle for existence as being a struggle to survive in the whole environment, including the struggle with other species and with the physical conditions of the environment.

While having a very high opinion of Darwin’s work, Engels had little time for Darwin’s views on Malthus. But he does point out that, contrary to what others claimed, evolution and Darwin’s theory of natural election does not depend on Malthus. He says that Darwin’s work depended on the whole mass of evidence he had provided; it did not depend on Malthus. He said that if Malthus was wrong, that did not make Darwin wrong. Engels further commented that this was similar to the situation of Ricardo’s theory of wages, which was also based on Malthusianism. Ricardo’s theory was correct because it did not in fact depend on Malthusianism, and disproving Malthus did not disprove Ricardo’s theory of wages.

This minor weakness, this vulnerability, in Darwin’s pronouncements was quickly seized upon by ‘supporters’ intent on undermining him. They tried to make ‘the struggle for existence’ the main aspect of evolution; they began to ‘develop’ neo-Darwinism. Here is what Engels had to say in Dialectics of Nature:

“Until Darwin, what was stressed by his present adherents was precisely the harmonious co-operative working of organic nature, how the plant kingdom supplies animals with nourishment and oxygen, and animals supply plants with manure, ammonia, and carbonic acid. Hardly was Darwin recognised before these same people saw everywhere nothing but struggle. Both views are justified within narrow limits, but both are equally one-sided and prejudiced. The interaction of dead natural bodies includes both harmony and collisions, that of living bodies conscious and unconscious co-operation equally with conscious and unconscious struggle. Hence, even in regard to nature, it is not permissible one-sidedly to inscribe only ‘struggle’ on ones banners. But it is absolutely childish to desire to sum up the whole manifold wealth of historical evolution and complexity in the meagre and one-sided phrase ‘struggle for life.’ That says less than nothing” (Lawrence & Wishart, 1941, p.208).

Later on Weismann, who has been referred to in the Stalin Society before in the context of Lysenko’s rigorous criticism of him, ‘developed’ Darwinism further. He used the Mendel-Morganist genetic theory (which we cannot go into in any detail here) to ‘explain’ how variations in organisms occurred. His explanation was that there is a blueprint for form and functioning of the body of an organism which is contained in the egg or seed. This blueprint (the sum of particles of inheritance, genes) determines what the organism looks like and how it is going to behave. But the blueprint cannot be affected in any directional way by what happens to the organism during its life. That blueprint is passed on, as it is, to the next generation, making the body form of the next generation and passed on to the next generation, and so on, without being affected by or changed in any responsive way by what happens to each generation in the lives that they lead.

So how does change come about? Weismann said that change comes about completely arbitrarily, by random mistakes that occur in the blue print; to use the term of genetics, by mutations of the genes of an organism which go to make up the blueprint. Most of these mistakes produce a blueprint which cannot be built into a viable organism at all. But very occasionally one of these mistakes produces a beneficial variation which will produce an organism that will survive and by natural selection gradually become more and more common in the population and the organisms will thus develop and evolve to have that change. This is Weismann’s neo-Darwinist theory. It is thoroughly idealist, and replaces living organisms, which change through interaction with their environment, by a set of immutable genes which do not interact with their surroundings, which are unchangeable except by random mutations. The organisms themselves are merely vehicles to convey the genes from one generation to the next.

It is in this way that the neo-Darwinians attempt to pull the teeth of Darwin’s materialist and dialectical work. It is not difficult to see how this helps to provide the mystification that capitalism needs.

Further confusion is attempted by the contention that those who oppose the reactionary aspect of neo-Darwinism are anti-Darwin. In fact the opposite is true – they are defenders of the revolutionary, materialist and dialectical work of Darwin.

There is a current website which claims that Stalin was anti-Darwin. It further states that he sent all the Darwinian scientists to the Gulag! Some people will read that and it will confirm all their erroneous prejudices. In fact it is a combination of some almost subtle deceit and some outright lies.

Previous Stalin Society meetings and discussions have covered the high profile public debate in the Soviet Union on the question of inheritance, of heredity. Lysenko was a very strong proponent of the idea that what happens to organisms during their life can affect their heredity. He supported the theory of heredity of Michurin, and did not claim that every change was inheritable, but that key changes that resulted from interaction between organism and environment, especially during development, could be inherited. Lysenko cited supporting evidence; and this suggestion has never been disproved. It is certainly not disproved, as has been claimed, by crude experiments such as those in which the tails of mice were cut off for generations, but the young were always born with tails! The adherents of Weismann merely assert that acquired characteristics cannot be inherited because that is inconsistent with the (idealist) Mendel-Morganist theory of genetics.

The debate in the Soviet Union was encouraged by Stalin and took place over at least a decade. Eventually the argument was won by the adherents of Lysenko and Michurin. Neither they nor Stalin were anti-Darwin. On the contrary they were pro-Darwin and anti- the idealist distortions propounded by the supporters of Weismann and neo-Darwinism.

Secondly, those Soviet scientists who did adhere to the neo-Darwinism of Weismann (not Darwinian scientists as the website claimed) were certainly not sent to the Gulag. They carried on working in various universities and academies. Some of them no longer had the influence that they had before, while some who supported Lysenko became more influential. That was the reasonable outcome of the debate.

It is not surprising that capitalism has an interest in the over emphasis of ‘survival of the fittest’ being a struggle for existence between individuals of the same species. Nor is it surprising that capitalism has an interest in the further mystification that the struggle for existence takes place on the basis of random changes rather than a directional response to the conditions of the environment.

Capitalism wishes to say that the struggle between individuals in capitalist society is the natural order of things. And that furthermore there is no point studying how there might be development in response to changes in the conditions of society, to contradictions arising in the system of capitalism, because change only happens by chance! This, of course, is based on neo-Darwinism, not on Darwinism.

Darwin presented us with far, far more than just the idea of struggle for life. Here is what Engels had to say on what became the neo-Darwinian one-sided emphasis upon the struggle for existence.

“The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for life is simply the transference from society to organic nature of Hobbes’ theory of bellum omnium contra omnes [war of all against all], and of the bourgeois economic theory of competition, as well as the Malthusian theory of population. When once this feat has been accomplished (the unconditional justification for which, especially as regards the Malthusian theory, is still very questionable), it is very easy to transfer these theories back again from natural history to the history of society, and altogether too naïve to maintain that thereby these assertions have been proved as eternal natural laws of society” (ibid. p. 208).

Engels also says:

“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 the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom. Only conscious organisation of social production, in which production and distribution are carried on in a planned way, can lift mankind above the rest of the animal world as regards the  social aspect. In the same way that production in general has done this for men in their aspect as a species.

“Historical evolution makes such an organisation daily more indispensable, but also with every day more possible. From it will date a new epoch of history, in which mankind itself, and with mankind all branches of its activity, and especially natural science, will experience an advance that will put everything preceding it in the deepest shade” (ibid. p.19).

Throughout his work and especially in The Transition from Ape to Man Engels has shown that it is engaging in production which has distinguished humanity as a species. Engels is a dialectical and historical materialist. He and Marx dealt thoroughly with the development of human society.

Darwin’s materialist and dialectical approach, which resulted in his work on evolution, did not claim to extend to the study of human society. In celebrating Darwin’s work we  recognise his contribution as a thoroughgoing dialectical materialist, and the importance of evolution to our understanding of the natural world. It is revolutionary, consistent with Marxism, highly valued by Marx and Engels, and highly significant for the struggles of the proletariat and oppressed peoples of the world.

It is important that we recognise opposition to Darwinism and distortions of Darwinism for what they are, namely support for the ideology of capitalism and imperialism.

Finally, Engels brilliantly observes how the struggle for existence, the struggle for life in human society, is far from a contest between individuals. It is a contest between classes, and its outcome depends not on isolated individual action but on the co-operation of individuals within a class. He emphasises that is the co-operative action and struggle of the proletariat and oppressed peoples that will drive the development of humanity. In Engels own words:

“Finally, under the capitalist mode of production, production reaches such a height that society can no longer consume the means of life, enjoyment, and development that have been produced, because for the great mass of producers access to these means is artificially and forcibly barred; and therefore every ten years a crisis restores the equilibrium by destroying not only the means of life, enjoyment, and development that have been produced, but also a great part of the productive forces themselves. Hence the so-called struggle for existence assumes the form: to protect the products and productive forces produced by bourgeois capitalist society against the destructive, ravaging effect of this capitalist social order, by taking control of social production and distribution out of the hands of the ruling capitalist class, which has become incapable of this function, and transferring it to the producing masses – and that is the socialist revolution” (ibid. p.209).