Engels. Dialectics of Nature. Notes and Fragments

Notes for Anti-Dühring

... Even the correct reflection of nature is extremely difficult, the product of a long history of experience. To primitive man the forces of nature were something alien, mysterious, superior. At a certain stage, through which all civilized peoples passed, he assimilates them by means of personification. It was this urge to personify that created gods everywhere, and the consensus gentium, as regards proof of the existence of God, proves after all only the universality of this urge to personify as a necessary transition stage, and consequently the universality of religion too. Only real knowledge of the forces of nature ejects the gods or God from one position after another (Secchi and his solar system). This process has now advanced so far that theoretically it may be considered concluded.

In the sphere of society reflection is still more difficult. Society is determined by economic relations, production and exchange, and besides by the historically prerequisite conditions....


Modern natural science — the only one which can come into consideration qua science as against the brilliant intuitions of the Greeks and the sporadic unconnected investigations of the Arabs — begins with that mighty epoch when feudalism was smashed by the burghers. In the background of the struggle between the burghers of the towns and the feudal nobility this epoch showed the peasant in revolt, and behind the peasant the revolutionary beginnings of the modern proletariat, already red flag in hand and with communism on its lips. It was the epoch which brought into being the great monarchies in Europe, broke the spiritual dictatorship of the Pope, evoked the revival of Greek antiquity and with it the highest artistic development of the new age, broke through the boundaries of the old world, and for the first time really discovered the world.

It was the greatest revolution that the world had so far experienced. Natural science also flourished in this revolution, was revolutionary through and through, advanced hand in hand with the awakening modern philosophy of the great Italians, and provided its martyrs for the stake and the prisons. It is characteristic that Protestants and Catholics vied with one another in persecuting it. The former burned Servetus, the latter Giordano Bruno. It was a time that called for giants and produced giants, giants in learning, intellect, and character, a time that the French correctly called the Renaissance and Protestant Europe with one-sided prejudice called the Reformation.

At that time natural science also had its declaration of independence, though it is true it did not come right at the beginning, any more than that Luther was the first Protestant. What Luther’s burning of the Papal Bull was in the religious field, in the field of natural science was the great work of Copernicus, in which he, although timidly, after thirty-six years’ hesitation and so to say on his deathbed, threw down a challenge to ecclesiastical superstition. From then on natural science was in essence emancipated from religion, although the complete settlement of accounts in all details has gone on to the present day and in many minds is still far from being complete. But from then on the development of science went forward with giant strides, increasing, so to speak, proportionately to the square of the distance in time from its point of departure, as if it wanted to show the world that for the motion of the highest product of organic matter, the human mind, the law that holds good is the reverse of that for the motion of inorganic matter.

The first period of modern natural science ends — in the inorganic sphere — with Newton. It is the period in which the available subject-matter was mastered; it performed a great work in the fields of mathematics, mechanics and astronomy, statics and dynamics, especially owing to Kepler and Galileo, from whose work Newton drew the conclusions. In the organic sphere, however, there was no progress beyond the first beginnings. The investigation of the forms of life historically succeeding one another and replacing one another, as well as the changing conditions of life corresponding to them — palaeontology and geology — did not yet exist. Nature was not at all regarded as something that developed historically, that had a history in time; only extension in space was taken into’ account; the various forms were grouped not one after the other, but only one beside the other; natural history was valid for all periods, like the elliptical orbits of the planets. For any closer analysis of organic structure both the immediate bases were lacking, viz., chemistry and knowledge of the essential organic structure, the cell. Natural science, at the outset revolutionary, was confronted by an out-and-out conservative nature, in which everything remained today as it was at the beginning of the world, and in which right to the end of the world everything would remain as it had been in the beginning.

It is characteristic that this conservative outlook on nature both in the inorganic and in the organic sphere

Mathematics Mineralogy
Plant physiologyTherapeutics
Animal physiologyDiagnostics

The first breach: Kant and Laplace. The second: geology and palaeontology (Lyell, slow development). The third: organic chemistry, which prepares organic bodies and shows the validity of chemical laws for living bodies. The fourth: 1842, mechanical (theory of) heat, Grove. The fifth: Darwin, Lamarck, the cell, etc. (struggle, Cuvier and Agassiz). The sixth : the comparative element in anatomy, climatology (isotherms), animal and plant geography (scientific travel expeditions since the middle of the eighteenth century), physical geography in general (Humboldt), the assembling of the material in its interconnection. Morphology (embryology, Baer).

The old teleology has gone to the devil, but it is now firmly established that matter in its eternal cycle moves according to laws which at a definite stage — now here, now there — necessarily give rise to the thinking mind in organic beings.

The normal existence of animals is given by the contemporary conditions in which they live and to which they adapt themselves — those of man, as soon as he differentiates himself from the animal in the narrower sense, have as yet never been present, and are only to be elaborated by the ensuing historical development. Man is the sole animal capable of working his way out of the merely animal state — his normal state is one appropriate to his consciousness, one that has to be created by himself.

... God is nowhere treated worse than by the natural scientists who believe in him. Materialists simply explain the facts, without making use of such phrases, they do this first when importunate pious believers try to force God upon them, and then they answer curtly, either like Laplace: Sire, je n'avais pus, etc., or more rudely in the manner of the Dutch merchants who, when German commercial travellers press their shoddy goods on them, are accustomed to turn them away with the words: Ik kan die zaken niet gebruiken,[I have no use for the things] and that is the end of the matter. But what God has had to suffer at the hands of his defenders! In the history of modern natural science, God is treated by his defenders as Frederick-William III was treated by his generals and officials in the Jena campaign. One division of the army after another lays down its arms, one fortress after another capitulates before the march of science, until at last the whole infinite realm of nature is conquered by science, and there is no place left in it for the Creator. Newton still allowed Him the “first impulse” but forbade Him any further interference in his solar system. Father Secchi bows Him out of the solar system altogether, with all canonical honours it is true, but none the less categorically for all that, and he only allows Him a creative act as regards the primordial nebula. And so in all spheres. In biology, his last great Don Quixote, Agassiz, even ascribes positive nonsense to Him; He is supposed to have created not only the actual animals but also abstract animals, the fish as such! And finally Tyndall totally forbids Him any entry into nature and relegates Him to the world of emotional processes, only admitting Him because, after all, there must be somebody who knows more about all these things (nature) than John Tyndall! What a distance from the old God — the Creator of heaven and earth, the maintainer of all things — without whom not a hair can fall from the head!

Tyndall’s emotional need proves nothing. The Chevalier des Grieux also had an emotional need to love and possess Manon Lescaut, who sold herself and him over and over again; for her sake he became a cardsharper and pimp, and if Tyndall wants to reproach him, he would reply with his “emotional need!”

God = nescio; but ignorantia non est argumentum (Spinoza).