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International Socialism, July 1998


Phil Gasper


Marxism and Science


From International Socialism 2:79, July 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Marxists have more than one reason to take an interest in science. From a straightforwardly practical point of view, it is hard to be a political activist in the 1990s without dealing with some of the many ways in which science and technology have an impact on modern society – from the development of computers, to global warming, to the use of biological determinist arguments to defend the status quo. So from this perspective alone, there are obviously good reasons to have at least some understanding of science and the ways in which it is used and misused. But science is not just important for Marxists – Marxism is important for science. Marxism attempts to offer a comprehensive framework for understanding human society, and whatever else it is, science is obviously a product of human society. Marxists thus reject the view that science can be adequately understood in abstraction from the social and historical circumstances in which it develops. At the same time, however, Marxists (at least those who are genuinely attempting to continue the tradition initiated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels) reject the currently fashionable view that science is merely a social construct, simply one point of view among many, lacking any special objective validity.

This means that Marxists have to be both critics and defenders of science. We are critical of the way in which capitalist priorities distort the development of science. It is not simply that many scientific discoveries are misused in capitalist society, although it is certainly true that, for example, technology which could make work easier for everyone often means instead speed-up for some and unemployment for others. More fundamentally, however, scientific theories themselves often reflect, either implicitly or explicitly, assumptions which are rooted in capitalist ideology. One central example of this phenomenon is the reductionist assumption that complex systems can always be adequately explained in terms of the interaction of their parts, an assumption which reflects the individualism of capitalist society itself, and which has proved totally inadequate as the basis for a satisfactory scientific understanding of the world.

Yet Marxists are also defenders of science and its accomplishments – indeed, sometimes even enthusiasts for scientific research and discoveries. It is a basic assumption of Marxist theory that human beings have the capacity to expand their understanding of, and control over, the world in which we live. The development of the natural sciences thus represents, albeit in a distorted form, a triumph of human reason. Marx and Engels’ admiration for science is clear from the fact that they describe their own materialist conception of history as providing a scientific understanding of the social world, and not simply the view of a single social class or historical period. Despite the distortions of science that often result from the influence of ruling class ideology, the natural sciences under capitalism have achieved a high degree of objectivity. Indeed, the relentless competition of capitalist society and the system’s constant need to expand, promote theoretical and technical innovations which are then rigorously tested in terms of their practical consequences. Thus shortcomings in our understanding of the natural world are often ruthlessly exposed, and we are forced to come up with ideas that describe the world around us more accurately. As the philosopher of science Peter Railton has put it:

In contrast to the contemplative or speculative ideal of pre-capitalist intellectual elites and the heavily restricted possibilities for competition and innovation under feudal modes of production or within such feudal institutions as the early universities, the rise of capitalism gives enormous impetus and scope to the pursuit of inquiry in ways that increase the possibility of receiving and responding to causal feedback from natural phenomena. [1]

The Marxist understanding of science thus offers a third way between the increasingly sterile opposition between ‘internalist’ rationalists (who attempt to explain the development of science internally, without reference to its social context) and ‘externalist’ relativists (who argue implicitly or explicitly that science develops as the result of external, and non-rational, social forces) that dominates mainstream history, sociology and philosophy of science. [2] Unlike the internalists who believe that science can be understood as a self contained body of ideas, with a fixed method that guarantees its rationality and objectivity, Marxists argue that science is a socially embedded practice and that its basic concepts and methods have changed significantly over time. Unlike the externalists who conclude that, because science is a social practice with no fixed canon of methodological principles, its findings have no objective validity, Marxists claim that, at its best, science is a way of discovering the world’s hidden causal structure, and that the development of science may even help to undermine assumptions which reflect the dominant ideology.

This article will briefly review what some of the major figures in the Marxist tradition have had to say about science (for those who want to examine this tradition in greater detail, Helena Sheehan’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Science can be recommended as a generally reliable one volume guide [3]) and then go on to make some suggestions about where to start reading about both the history of science and the current state of the natural sciences. I begin with Marx himself, partly for the obvious reason that he is the founder of our tradition, and partly because it is often falsely claimed that admiration for science, and the belief that Marxism throws light on the natural sciences, represent a distortion of Marx’s views begun after his death by Engels. This view, as we shall see, is mistaken.

The Marxist tradition

Marx himself wrote no systematic treatise on science, but throughout his writings there are numerous scattered passages in which he comments on the nature of science and on general questions of methodology. There are also several places in which Marx compares his own historical, economic and political studies with the kind of research carried out by natural scientists. In Capital, for instance, he likens his ‘scientific analysis of competition’, based on an account of the ‘inner nature of capital’, to the way in which astronomers explained the ‘apparent motions of the heavenly bodies’ by developing a theory of ‘their real motions ... which are not directly perceptible by the senses’. [4]

There are few discussions of Marx’s views on science, and those which do exist (such as David-Hillel Ruben’s Marxism and Materialism [5] or Patrick Murray’s Marx’s Theory of Scientific Knowledge [6]) tend to be highly academic, so there is little alternative to plunging into Marx’s writings themselves. Most of Marx’s explicit comments on methodology and science are scattered in such works as The Holy Family, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the Theses on Feuerbach, The German Ideology, the Grundrisse, Capital, and in his correspondence. [7] But two of the most extensive discussions – the Introduction to the Grundrisse and notes Marx made on a book by Adolph Wagner – are conveniently available in a single volume, Texts on Method, edited by Terrell Carver. [8]

From Marx’s direct remarks and his own practice, a relatively systematic account of science emerges. To begin with, while recognising that ‘sense-experience must be the basis of all science’ [9], Marx is well aware that sense experience cannot always be taken at face value (to take a simple example, it does not appear that the earth is moving) and he emphatically rejects the empiricist view that science is largely concerned with systematising what is directly observable rather than with discovering underlying causes. Empiricism is a restricted method of thought which views the world as a collection of dead facts. As the philosopher Allen Wood notes, Marx ‘criticises empiricists for emphasising observation too much at the expense of theory, and for treating scientific concepts and theories only as convenient mechanisms for relating isolated facts rather than as attempts to capture the structure of reality’. [10]

In the contemporary philosophical jargon, Marx is a scientific realist who holds that science aims to give us knowledge of the underlying structure of an independently existing material world. [11] He notes that ‘all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided’. [12] He takes it to be obvious that there are ‘sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects’ [13] so that ‘the priority of external nature remains unassailed’ [14], and he mocks the views of the Young Hegelian philosophers in the 1840s by likening them to what he obviously regards as the absurd view that the world is constructed by consciousness:

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This honest fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany ... [15]

This much ought to be elementary. Yet surprisingly enough, many influential commentators have argued that Marx was not a realist, and that he did not believe that the natural world exists independently of our knowledge of it. Perhaps the first to come to this conclusion was the 20th century Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács, who claimed in the 1920s that to distinguish between ‘thought and existence’ is to accept ‘a rigid duality’. [16] Lukács abandoned this view in the 1930s after reading Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which convinced him of the importance of recognising the ‘ontological objectivity of nature’ [17], but many others (including the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski [18]) have advocated similar views since then. Often, Marx’s Second Thesis on Feuerbach is taken to support this interpretation:

The question whether objective truth belongs to human thinking is not a question of theory but a practical question. It is in practice than man must prove the truth, i.e., the actuality and might, the this-sidedness of his thinking. The dispute over the actuality or non-actuality of thinking isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question. [19]

Commentators who deny that Marx was a realist claim that this passage shows that he defined truth in terms of practical success, not in terms of some kind of correspondence with independent reality, and that he rejected arguments about whether thought actually does correspond with reality as ‘scholastic’. But this is to misread Marx’s (admittedly somewhat obscure) formulation. His claim is that practical success is a guide to truth, not that truth is literally no more than practical success, and what he rejects as scholastic is not the question about whether thought corresponds to reality, but the attempt to answer that question purely theoretically, without reference to practice. In fact there are numerous passages where Marx explicitly accepts a correspondence view of truth. In the Afterword to the second German edition of Capital, for instance, Marx says that an adequate description is one in which ‘the life of the subject-matter is ideally reflected as in a mirror’, and he adds that ‘the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought’. [20]

What this all amounts to is that our beliefs and theories are correct only in so far as they copy, correspond to, or reflect some aspects of a distinct reality, just as an accurate map represents some aspects of an (obviously distinct) geographical area. However, Marx is quite clear that it does not follow from this that truth can be obtained simply by, so to speak, holding a mirror up to nature. That, he thinks, was the mistake of the empiricists who thought that the world would simply imprint knowledge on our passive minds. But knowledge can only be obtained by a combination of actively constructing theories which attempt to understand what is going on beneath surface appearances, and by actively intervening in the world to see if these ideas can survive the test of practice. A theory of what it is for a claim to be true is one thing. A theory of knowledge (which will tell us how to obtain truth) is quite another. Our ideas are correct when they correspond with independent reality, but it is generally no simple matter to establish that such a correspondence actually holds.

Most importantly, Marx is aware that there is no timeless, ahistorical set of concepts out of which scientific theories are to be constructed, and no timeless, ahistorical scientific method by which such theories can be tested. As our knowledge of the material world develops, our understanding of the appropriate methods to use to find out more about the world, and our understanding of the concepts appropriate to describe it, develop as well. Moreover, methods and concepts may well be subject matter specific – what is appropriate in one area will probably not be appropriate in another. As one commentator notes, Marx insists that there is ‘a dialectic of concept and fact’, because the categories which we use to describe experience must be carefully scrutinised and grounded in the particular subject matter under examination. [21] The various concepts in physics – such as mass, velocity and energy, for example – did not arise automatically from experience, but were developed by a long and complex process of abstraction, and the same holds true for the very different concepts employed in cell biology or in meteorology or in any of the other areas of science.

Marx thus sees science as a dialectical process in the sense that its methods and concepts, as well as its theories, develop over time in dynamic interaction with one another and with the material world, allowing progressively more accurate descriptions of reality to emerge. But science for Marx is also dialectical in two other senses. First, empirical scientific inquiry reveals a world of dynamic, interconnected processes – processes which frequently involve elements which not only interact but are in conflict with one another, and which thus give the system to which they belong an inherent tendency to develop. Over time these developments can lead to sudden radical changes in the system as a whole. The dialectic, according to Marx, ‘includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historical developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence’. [22] Marx is here speaking specifically of society, but it is clear from other comments he made – for example, his observations on Darwin’s theory of evolution discussed below, and his remark that ‘Hegel’s discovery regarding the law that merely quantitative changes turn into qualitative changes ... holds good alike in history and natural science’ [23] – that he thought the same general description applied to the natural world too. Nature, in other words, is itself dialectical, so adequate theories in the natural sciences will have a dialectical structure.

Second, because the natural world has a complex, dialectical structure, the best way to present a scientific account of some aspect of that world may be to begin with a relatively abstract model that attempts to isolate the system’s underlying tendencies, and then to show how more complex models, which capture more and more of the concrete phenomena, can be developed dialectically from the original abstraction. Marx’s own presentation of economic theory exhibits this dialectical structure. In Capital he presents ‘a hierarchy of theoretical models, ascending by successive approximation from very abstract models representing the basic social forms present in modern bourgeois society up to fuller, more detailed models of this society’. [24] If Marx is right, then essentially the same process is likely to be followed in other successful areas of science as well, as indeed it is. [25]

In addition to advocating a realist and dialectical conception of science, Marx emphasises that science can only be fully understood in its broader social context. Where, he asks in The German Ideology, ‘would natural science be without industry and commerce? Even this “pure” natural science is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry’. [26] Or as he puts it in Capital, ‘modern industry ... makes science a productive force distinct from labour and presses it into the service of capital’. [27] Thus, for example, the scientific revolution and the rise of modern physics in the 17th century can only be properly understood in the context of the development of capitalism. Bluntly put, the new science emerged because it met the material interests of the bourgeoisie.

It does not follow from this, however, that science is no more than bourgeois ideology. It is true that capitalism may set the agenda for scientific research, and that capitalist ideology may have a significant influence on the development of scientific theories. Thus for example, Marx notes that ‘Descartes, in defining animals as mere machines, saw with the eyes of the manufacturing period’. [28] But at the same time, economic competition, the expansion of production and the need to find more efficient ways of generating profits gives the bourgeoisie an interest in acquiring objective knowledge of the natural world, since without such knowledge they will fail to accomplish their goals. So while capitalist ideology may often limit scientific development, the need to construct practically successful theories allows natural science under capitalism to achieve a considerable degree of objectivity. To put the point slightly differently, Marx recognises that the objectivity of scientific results does not require impartial or value-free motivations for engaging in scientific research, but only requires that the values which drive science are ones which are likely more often than not to lead to more accurate theories of the world. [29]

Moreover, once the process of scientific inquiry is under way, it can produce results that are at odds with its initial assumptions – results which contradict bourgeois ideology and which fit more satisfactorily into a Marxist world view. Thus, for example, by the mid-19th century it was already becoming evident that purely mechanical models – which attempt to explain all natural phenomena in terms of simple forces acting on the unchanging elements of a system [30] – were inadequate in physics (let alone in biology), and much 20th century work in physics and biology has led to the questioning of reductionist assumptions, which claim that complex wholes can always be fully understood by decomposing them into their constituent parts.

All these themes in Marx’s writings are developed at much greater length in the works of Engels, particularly in his Anti-Dühring (1878), Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy (1888) and Dialectics of Nature (not published during Engels’ lifetime). These books present Engels’ attempts to formulate a sophisticated, non-reductionist and dialectical version of materialism, to develop a comprehensive, scientific world view which sees a fundamental unity between the natural and social worlds, and to articulate a dialectical account of scientific method. Unfortunately, for much of the 20th century Engels’ discussions of these questions suffered a dual fate. In the Soviet bloc, at least from the 1930s, a caricatured version of Engels’ views was treated as holy writ, and serious critical discussion was virtually non-existent. By contrast, in the West Engels’ work was either completely ignored or rejected as worthless, even by authors who are otherwise relatively sympathetic commentators on the Marxist tradition. David McLellan, for example, asserts that ‘it is difficult to believe that Engels’ views contain much of lasting value either to science or to philosophy’. [31] Such dismissive judgments are typically coupled with the claim that Engels’ views on such issues marked a sharp break with Marx’s own ideas.

I have already indicated how seriously mistaken the latter view is, and recent scholarship has confirmed that there is no evidence of any fundamental disagreement between Marx’s and Engels’ ideas about science. [32] What is true is that Engels had a much more detailed grasp of contemporary scientific developments than Marx. In fact, the 20th century biologist J.B.S. Haldane regarded Engels as ‘probably the most widely educated man of his day’ [33], and the contemporary philosopher of science Hilary Putnam describes him as ‘one of the most scientifically learned men of his century’. [34] Particularly in the Dialectics of Nature (which, it should be noted, was still a work in progress at the time of his death), Engels uses his wide ranging scientific knowledge to illustrate the claim that science reveals a world of complex, interacting processes that can only be adequately understood from a dialectical perspective. Some of Engels’ examples are not very convincing, and others depend on scientific views which have since been superseded, but in general the ideas that Engels develops – and in particular his rejection of the mechanistic view that attempts to understand wholes as no more than the sum of their passive, unchanging parts – have stood the test of time remarkably well. There is much more to be said about Engels’ views, but I shall not explore them further here, since they have already been extensively discussed in two excellent essays in this journal – John Rees’s article Engels’ Marxism and Paul McGarr’s article Engels and Natural Science (both in International Socialism 65).

Following Engels’ death in 1895, the major intellectual figures of the Second International produced little of interest on the nature of science. This may be a reflection of the general fact that thinkers such as Karl Kautsky had a profoundly undialectical grasp of Marxist theory, as well as the specific fact that none of the Marxist theorists of the next generation came close to matching the breadth of Engels’ scientific knowledge. In addition, Engels’ most detailed discussion of science, in the Dialectics of Nature, remained unpublished until the 1920s. If this work had been available at the time of Engels’ death, it might have stimulated more thought on these questions.

It was mainly among Russian Marxists that science became a central topic of discussion, following the defeat of the 1905 Revolution. [35] In this period a number of Marxist intellectuals became highly influenced by philosophical ideas about science that had emerged in western Europe in the previous two decades. From the late 19th century onwards a general mood of pessimism came to characterise influential segments of the bourgeois intelligentsia in western Europe as they became increasingly aware of the disruptive and dehumanising effects of capitalist development, and this pessimism provided the intellectual soil in which religious, idealist, irrationalist and even mystical ideas could flourish. This mood coincided with a major crisis in the natural sciences, where it was becoming increasingly evident that the basic ideas of classical physics did not provide an adequate basis to understand new phenomena such as electromagnetism and radioactivity. Against this background, various European scientists and philosophers, such as the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach, and Henri Poincaré and Pierre Duhem in France, in effect offered a compromise. They attempted to reinterpret science in such a way that its rationality was preserved and the crisis in physics resolved, while at the same time denying that science had any broader metaphysical (and in particular materialist) implications. This left the door open for those (like the Catholic Duhem) who wanted to embrace science together with the anti-materialist metaphysics of their choice.

It was in fact the extreme empiricism of Mach [36], which he called ‘empirio-criticism’, that had the biggest impact on a group of Russian Marxists that included prominent Bolshevik activists and intellectuals such as Alexander Bogdanov, Anatoly Lunacharsky and Maxim Gorky. Mach himself had no time for religion or irrationalism, but he came to view science as simply a way of systematising patterns in the sensory experience of observers. According to Mach, all we are directly aware of are our own sensations, and all that scientific laws tell us is that in some particular set of circumstances one set of sensations will be followed by another. The problems in physics are sidestepped by resolutely refusing to interpret a theory’s conceptual and mathematical machinery as referring to anything that cannot be directly observed – all that matters, on this view, is that the theory is capable of predicting observable phenomena. Since, however, Mach holds that the only directly observable phenomena are our own sense experiences, his ideas amount to little more than a sophisticated revival of the subjective idealism of Bishop Berkeley (the 18th century Irish philosopher who argued that only minds and their ideas exist). Nevertheless, Mach’s philosophy proved highly influential. Einstein, for example, claimed to be influenced by Mach when he rejected the idea of absolute simultaneity in his special theory of relativity, on the grounds that such a relation cannot be measured (see below). [37] Of course, the fact that Mach’s views helped Einstein to reach some creative conclusions does not mean that the former are correct. Whatever Einstein may have believed at the time, the theory of relativity is logically quite independent of Mach’s epistemology. [38]

Among the Russian Marxists, it was Bogdanov who most enthusiastically welcomed Mach’s ideas, and who attempted to integrate them with Marxism in his multi-volume study Empirio-Monism (1904–1906). Bogdanov attempted to bridge the chasm between idealism and materialism by arguing that neither mind nor matter is fundamental, but that both are constructs from experience, and that his version of monism which emphasised the active intervention of the subject, captured the spirit, if not the letter, of what Marx had meant by ‘materialism’. [39] Bogdanov’s views came under attack from the founder of Russian Marxism, Georgi Plekhanov (by this time a Menshevik), and Plekhanov’s protégé Lyubov Axelrod, but the definitive refutation was produced by Lenin in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909), which (despite being repetitious at times) is both a powerful argument against all versions of empiricism, and an analysis of the social circumstances which give rise to such views. Like Berkeley before them, Mach and his fellow thinkers claimed that their views are quite compatible with the common-sense belief that there is a physical world, since the common-sense belief can supposedly be translated into a claim about sensations. Lenin points out the absurdity of this proposal:

The ‘naive realism’ of any healthy person who has not been an inmate of a lunatic asylum or a pupil of the idealist philosophers consists in the view that things, the environment, the world, exist independently of our sensation, of our consciousness, of our self and of man in general. The same experience... that has produced in us the firm conviction that independently of us there exist other people, and not mere complexes of my sensations of high, short, yellow, hard, etc. – this same experience produces in us the conviction that things, the world, the environment exist independently of us. Our sensation, our consciousness is only an image of the external world ... Materialism deliberately makes the ‘naïve’ belief of mankind the foundation of its theory of knowledge.

A little later Lenin raises another uncomfortable question for the defenders of empirio-criticism: ‘Did nature exist prior to man?’ – and he then proceeds to dissect the contortions in which they engage in an effort to avoid the apparent contradictions of their view:

No man in the least educated or in the least healthy doubts that the earth existed at a time when there could not have been any life on it, any sensation ... and consequently the whole theory of Mach and Avenarius, from which it follows that the earth is a complex of sensations ... or ‘complexes of elements in which the psychical and physical are identical’ ... is philosophical obscurantism, the reduction of subjective idealism to absurdity. [40]

However, Lenin does not confine himself to the entertaining task of picking philosophical holes in his opponents’ views. In an important chapter on The Recent Revolution of Natural Science and Philosophical Idealism he takes up the crisis in physics (though not Einstein’s proposed resolution of the problems) and in particular the claim that ‘matter has disappeared’, arguing that while the new developments in areas such as electrodynamics refute mechanistic materialism, they actually support a dialectical materialism that conceives of the elements of the physical world as dynamic and interactive, rather than as passive and unchanging.

The one serious weakness of Lenin’s discussion is that, in his eagerness to refute idealism, he sometimes bends the stick too far and ends up apparently advocating a crude copy theory of knowledge, according to which knowledge of our surroundings is not the result of our active intervention in the world, but is simply imprinted directly on our passive minds in a way that immediately enables us to grasp that our ideas are correct. The claim that Lenin is committed to this untenable view was first made by Axelrod and later repeated by the Dutch council communist Anton Pannekoek, the German philosopher Karl Korsch and others. If Lenin did hold this view in 1909, he abandoned it later – certainly by the time he composed his Philosophical Notebooks (1916), which discuss Hegel’s logic. But it is also true that in some passages in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism he seems to make the mistake of confusing an account of what it means for a claim to be true (a theory of truth) with an account of how the truth of a claim can be established (a theory of knowledge), and is thus led from a perfectly sensible correspondence theory of truth to an unacceptable copy theory of knowledge. [41]

However, there are other passages in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism which make it clear that it is not Lenin’s considered view that establishing the truth of a scientific claim is a straightforward matter. Indeed he is aware that our scientific views are generally only partially, relatively or approximately true, and that scientific progress does not result in absolute knowledge, but only in closer and closer approximations to the truth:

In the theory of knowledge, as in every other branch of science, we must think dialectically, that is, we must not regard our knowledge as ready-made and unalterable, but must determine how knowledge emerges from ignorance, how incomplete, inexact knowledge becomes more complete and more exact.

Moreover, ‘for dialectical materialism there is no impassable boundary between relative and absolute truth’, even though all knowledge is historically conditioned:

From the standpoint of modern materialism, i.e. Marxism, the limits of approximation of our knowledge to the objective, absolute truth are historically conditional, but the existence of such truth is unconditional, and the fact that we are approaching nearer to it is also unconditional. [42]

Lenin treats these ideas with greater subtlety and sophistication in the Philosophical Notebooks, but if we read Materialism and Empirio-Criticism charitably, there is no fundamental incompatibility between these works. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism defends the existence of an independently existing material world. The Notebooks explore the complex ways in which knowledge of such a world can be obtained. For further reflections on Lenin’s views, see Sebastiano Timpanaro’s On Materialism [43], which also contains interesting discussions of several other issues surveyed in this article.

Despite Lenin’s polemics, Bogdanov, Lunarcharsky and others did not renounce Mach’s philosophy and continued to play a prominent role in the Bolshevik Party. Indeed, after the 1917 revolution, as intellectual life flourished, many of them were given prominent political and academic positions. Lunarcharsky became Commissar of Education. Bogdanov was appointed to the Communist Academy where he quickly became an advocate of ‘proletarian culture’ and helped launch the ‘Proletkult’ movement, which sought to replace bourgeois science, art and culture with new proletarian ideas. This movement soon came under attack from both Lenin and Trotsky, who criticised both its philosophical presuppositions and its political programme. In an essay on Proletarian Culture and Art in Literature and Revolution (1923), Trotsky argues that despite its one-sidedness science under capitalism has produced genuine knowledge which it would be folly to reject:

All science, in greater or lesser degree, unquestionably reflects the tendencies of the ruling class. The more closely science attaches itself to the practical tasks of conquering nature (physics, chemistry, natural science in general), the greater is its non-class and human contribution. The more deeply science is connected with the social mechanism of exploitation (political economy), or the more abstractly it generalises the entire experience of mankind (psychology, not in its experimental, physiological sense but in its so-called ‘philosophic sense’), the more does it obey the class egotism of the bourgeoisie and the less significant is its contribution to the general sum of human knowledge. In the domain of the experimental sciences, there exist different degrees of scientific integrity and objectivity, depending upon the scope of the generalisations made. As a general rule, the bourgeois tendencies have found a much freer place for themselves in the higher spheres of methodological philosophy ... But it would be naive to think that the proletariat must revamp critically all science inherited from the bourgeoisie, before applying it to socialist reconstruction. This is just the same as saying with the Utopian moralists: before building a new society, the proletariat must rise to the heights of communist ethics. As a matter of fact, the proletariat will reconstruct ethics as well as science radically, but he will do so after he will have reconstructed a new society, even though in the rough.

The supporters of Proletkult believed that the new society could not be built by using the tools inherited from the old. Trotsky argues in response that what such critics ignore is the dialectical nature of the envisaged social transformation:

The proletariat rejects what is clearly unnecessary, false and reactionary, and in the various fields of this reconstruction makes use of the methods and conclusions of present-day science, taking them necessarily with the percentage of reactionary class-alloy which is contained in them. The practical result will justify itself generally and on the whole, because such a use when controlled by a socialist goal will gradually manage and select the methods and conclusions of the theory. And by that time there will have grown up scientists who are educated under the new conditions. At any rate the proletariat will have to carry its socialist reconstruction to quite a high degree, that is, provide for real material security and for the satisfaction of society culturally before it will be able to carry out a general purification of science from top to bottom. [44]

In the mid-1920s Trotsky gave a number of speeches and wrote several short articles elaborating these themes, emphasising both the overall unity of the sciences and the specificity of methods and theories within particular domains. Scientific problems cannot be solved simply by mastering the general principles of Marxist theory. On the other hand, mastering a particular field of science is not a substitute for Marxist theory. ‘Communism’, he wrote, ‘is not a substitute for chemistry. But the converse theorem is also true’. [45] Some of Trotsky’s articles on science can be found in Problems of Everyday Life. [46] Despite his other preoccupations, Trotsky found time to write more on these and related scientific issues while in exile in the 1930s. The later writings are available as Trotsky’s Notebooks 1933–35: Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism. [47] There is a helpful review of these notebooks in Chapter 5 of The Algebra of Revolution by John Rees. [48]

For much of the 1920s there was lively debate in the Soviet Union between various schools of thought on scientific questions, but this slowly came to an end as Stalin rose to power and consolidated his counter-revolution. Nevertheless, some of the path-breaking work done during this period was given a wider audience in 1931 when Stalin decided at the last minute to send a Soviet delegation headed by Bukharin to the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London. The various members of the delegation disagreed with one another about many issues, but the group as a whole had an electrifying – and polarising – effect on the conference. An extra session was added so that all of their papers could be discussed, and they were published as soon as the congress was over, in a volume entitled Science at the Crossroads [49], which contains some of the most important Marxist discussions of science since Engels’ Dialectics of Nature.

The most famous of the contributions to Science at the Crossroads is Boris Hessen’s paper The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia, which provides a detailed and brilliant analysis of the way in which classical physics was rooted in the economic and technological developments of the 17th century, decisively refuting the ‘individual genius’ view of the history of science. Hessen focuses on the period of the English Revolution of the 1640s, and examines the impact on theoretical physics of factors such as communications, water transport, mining, armaments and ballistics:

We have compared the main technical and physical problems of the period with the scheme of investigations governing physics during the period we are investigating, and we come to the conclusion that the scheme of physics was mainly determined by the economic and technical tasks which the rising bourgeoisie raised to the forefront.

But Hessen does not offer a crudely reductionist view. While economic and technical factors play a crucial role in shaping the development of science, they are not the whole story, and Hessen also discusses the influence of philosophical and political ideas, arguing that it is necessary to ‘analyse more fully Newton’s epoch, the class struggles during the English Revolution, and the political, philosophic and religious theories ... reflected in the minds of the contemporaries of these struggles.’

Hessen’s outstanding essay remains to this day the high watermark of 20th century Marxist analyses of science, expertly tracing the way in which a major scientific theory emerged from the interplay of material and ideological factors. Tragically, however, the period of intellectual vitality and debate which had begun with the 1917 revolution, and which eventually produced Science at the Crossroads, was almost at an end. Two years later, on the 50th anniversary of Marx’s death, Bukharin was still able to edit another important collection, Marxism and Modern Thought [50], which contains important discussions of Marxism and Natural Science (Y.M. Uranovsky), The Old and the New Physics (S.I. Vavilov) and Marx and Engels on Biology (V.L. Komarov). But soon many of the contributors to the two volumes (including Bukharin and Hessen) were to become victims of Stalin’s purges. The Stalinist destruction of critical scientific thought (indeed critical thought of all kinds) laid the groundwork for the great debacle of ‘Lysenkoism’, the movement named after the agronomist Trofim Lysenko who rose to a position of ascendancy in Soviet biology by denouncing modern genetics as inconsistent with dialectical materialism. Lysenko’s views were not only a travesty of Marxist thought (since Marx and Engels utterly rejected the idea that one could refute or establish any scientific view on the basis of abstract philosophical categories), they were also eventually to result in major damage to Soviet agriculture.

While in the Soviet Union serious Marxist analysis of science came to an end in the 1930s, the work of Bukharin, Hessen and others had a major impact elsewhere, particularly in Britain, where a generation of radical scientists – including the physicist J.D. Bernal and the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane became members or fellow travellers of the Communist Party and often brilliant popularisers of modern science. [51] Haldane wrote a regular column for the Daily Worker in the 1930s, some of which can be found in On Being the Right Size [52], a contemporary collection of his essays edited by the evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith. The prolific Bernal wrote numerous books offering a Marxist perspective on science. Before the war the most important was The Social Function of Science [53], a long work which contains many interesting discussions, but which is also, unfortunately, thoroughly imbued with the spirit of ‘socialism from above’.

History of science

After the Second World War a number of British Marxists continued the kind of detailed materialist analyses of the history of science pioneered by Hessen. Joseph Needham laboured for many years on his multi-volume Science and Civilisation in Ancient China. [54] Bernal wrote a comprehensive four volume study called Science in History [55] (originally published in 1954 and still in print). Stephen Mason covered the same territory more briefly in Main Currents of Scientific Thought [56] (also published under the title A History of the Sciences). However, the Cold War climate made it difficult to pursue such work. For example, according to the historian of science Robert M. Young, Mason ‘had to return to chemistry because he could not find work as a historian of science’. [57] As a result, there is disappointingly little history of science available from a Marxist point of view, apart from what are now the ‘classics’ of the 1940s and 1950s.

The books by Bernal and Mason mentioned above are still the best overall surveys. Bernal also wrote a history of physics before the 20th century called The Extension of Man. [58] The origins of science are briefly discussed in V. Gordon Childe’s What Happened in History. [59] On science in the ancient world see Greek Science [60] by Benjamin Farrington and The Origins of Materialism [61] by the American Trotskyist George Novack. Much of Greek science was lost after the collapse of the Roman Empire, but important ideas were preserved and developed in the Arab world and eventually passed on to western Europe. A brief survey of developments from the 12th century on can be found in Edward Grant, Physical Science in the Middle Ages. [62]

Standard works on the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries include Thomas Kuhn’s book on The Copernican Revolution [63] and The Birth of A New Physics [64] by I. Bernard Cohen, but the latter in particular should be supplemented by Hessen’s classic essay. Another short, readable account, which covers chemistry and biology as well as physics, is Richard Westfall, The Construction of Modern Science. [65] Moving on to the 1800s there is Science and Industry in the Nineteenth Century by (once again) Bernal. [66] Most of the books mentioned here deal mainly with physics. For a history of chemistry see Mason’s Chemical Evolution [67], and for a short history of geology read Stephen Jay Gould’s excellent Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle. [68] Some books on the history of biology are mentioned below.

The physical sciences

Physics in the 20th century has undergone two major intellectual revolutions which Marx and Engels could obviously not have anticipated, but which nevertheless accord well with their general views about the dynamic of scientific development. The first revolution was the overthrow of Newton’s classical mechanics by Einstein’s special, and later general, theories of relativity. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, relativity theory does not say that ‘everything is relative’. What Einstein did argue is that various physical properties and relations that Newtonian mechanics supposes to be independent of any particular frame of reference, and hence ‘absolute’, are in fact relative to particular frames of reference (just as whether one object is to the left or to the right of another, to use a rough analogy, depends on the frame of reference). These properties and relations include, contrary to ‘common sense’, spatial distances, time intervals and mass. Thus, for example, according to Einstein, whether or not two events take place simultaneously varies from one frame of reference (or, more precisely, inertial system) to another. From my frame of reference, two events may be measured as occurring at the same time, but if you are moving with respect to me, you may measure them as occurring at different times. If Einstein is right, neither measurement is incorrect. The events are simultaneous relative to the first frame of reference, but non-simultaneous relative to the second.

Einstein was led to this remarkable conclusion from his commitment to the principle of relativity, which holds that the fundamental laws of physics hold in every frame of reference and that no possible measurement can be performed that would distinguish one uniformly moving reference system from another. Thus a passenger in a sealed train moving at uniform velocity with respect to its surroundings would experience the same laws of physics as if the train were stationary. The principle of relativity had been accepted by many physicists since the 17th century, but Einstein recognised that, if it is true, then it is impossible to reconcile Newtonian mechanics with the theory of electromagnetism developed by Faraday, Maxwell and others in the 19th century.

According to Newton, a body accelerated long enough can reach any velocity, including the speed of light. But if this were possible, then Maxwell’s equations would not correctly describe the behaviour of electromagnetic phenomena (which, of course, includes light waves) in every frame of reference. To take one of Einstein’s own examples, imagine an observer illuminated by a light source and holding a mirror in front of himself. If the observer and the mirror moved at the speed of light, the observer would not see his own reflection, since light from the source would never reach the mirror. Einstein concluded that the speed of light must be constant in every frame of reference (so that the speed of light is independent of the speed of its source), and that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. If time is simply a system of relations between physical events and objects, then the relativity of simultaneity follows from this. More generally, Einstein preserved the principle of relativity by saying that the measurements of space, time and mass are dependent on the relative motion of the measurer, thus modifying our notions of all three.

Various amazing consequences follow from Einstein’s theory. One is the claim that the rate of moving clocks is slower than that of clocks at rest. Another is the claim that as a body accelerates its mass increases, making it impossible for it to exceed the speed of light. Yet another is Einstein’s most famous equation, E = mc², which asserts the equivalence of energy and matter and is the theoretical basis for nuclear fission. The mass of an object is, as it were, concentrated energy, so that what were once two separate concepts turn out to be inextricably linked. The theory of relativity also leads to the unification of space and time into the single notion of space-time, an idea first proposed by Hermann Minkowski in 1908. ‘Henceforth’, wrote Minkowski, ‘space by itself and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve independent reality’. [69] The special theory of relativity, initially put forward by Einstein in a series of papers published in 1905, develops these ideas in the context of frames of reference moving uniformly relative to one another. The general theory, which took a further decade to develop, considers accelerating frames of reference and brings in gravitational phenomena.

Einstein’s initial conviction that his theories were correct was based as much on ‘intuition’ (in other words, a hunch) as empirical data, but experimental and observational evidence soon demonstrated that his ideas were right. Several things concerning his success are interesting from a Marxist perspective, including how Newtonian physics, a set of ideas that had dominated science for over two centuries, and which appeared to be invincible – eventually ran into insuperable contradictions, and came crashing down. At the same time, however, the new Einsteinian synthesis preserves the elements of truth in classical mechanics, showing how Newton’s laws are approximations to the truth for systems in which velocities are low compared to the speed of light. Moreover, Einstein’s theory showed that the basic concepts of classical physics – not just the laws it had formulated using them – needed to be modified, and that apparently distinct features of the world are in fact deeply interrelated.

My exposition of these ideas has been of necessity highly compressed, but hopefully it will whet your appetite to read more about them. Einstein wrote a number of popular introductions to his own views, including one simply titled Relativity. [70] My favourite, however, is The Evolution of Physics [71], which he co-authored with his student Leopold Infeld in the 1930s, and which also gives a historical account of physics from Galileo to the mid-20th century. Einstein’s Legacy [72], by the Nobel laureate Julian Schwinger, is a clear and up to date presentation. On the general theory in particular, see Clifford Will, Was Einstein Right? [73], a systematic account of the evidence for Einstein’s theory and the way in which subsequent thinkers have built on his ideas. For discussion of the evolution of Einstein’s views, the essays in Gerald Holton’s Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought [74] are helpful. The most comprehensive biography is Einstein: The Life and Times [75] by Ronald Clark, which, in addition to Einstein’s early scientific work, also discusses his pacifist-socialist politics, his soft Zionism and his role in the development of the atomic bomb.

The second major revolution in 20th century physics came with the rise of quantum mechanics in the 1920s. Relativity theory proposes radically new conceptions of space and time. Quantum physics breaks with the idea of a deterministic universe in which every event has some prior cause, and proposes instead that at the subatomic level some events are matters of pure chance or, more precisely, take place in accordance with probabilistic rather than deterministic laws. Ironically, although quantum mechanics developed out of work done by Einstein and another German physicist, Max Planck, in the early 20th century, Einstein himself refused to reconcile himself to this idea, arguing to his death that ‘God does not play dice with the universe’ and thus that there must be something wrong with the theory. Yet quantum theory is enormously successful. It allows physicists to describe with great accuracy the behaviour of subatomic phenomena, the properties of the atomic nucleus and the structure and properties of molecules and solids. Quantum mechanics also provides the basis for technological innovations ranging from lasers to silicon chips.

At the same time, however, there is no clear understanding of why the theory works so well, or any agreed solutions to the conceptual and philosophical problems which it raises. For example, quantum physics does not simply tell us that there is radical indeterminacy in the world, it also seems to require that subatomic phenomena behave both as particles and as waves, which common sense tells us is impossible, and that in some circumstances physical particles can influence each other even though physical interaction between them is impossible. The physicists David Bohm and B.J. Hiley interpret ‘the quantum interconnectedness of distant systems’ in terms that Marx and Engels would have relished:

A quantum many-body system cannot properly be analysed into independently existent parts, with fixed and determinate dynamical relationships between each of the ‘parts’. Rather, the parts are seen to be in an immediate connection, in which their dynamical relationships depend, in an irreducible way, on the state of the whole system (and indeed on that of broader systems in which they are contained, extending ultimately and in principle to the entire universe). Thus one is led to a new notion of unbroken wholeness which denies the classical idea of analysability of the world into separately and independently existing parts. [76]

The views of Bohm and Hiley, however, are accepted only by a minority. On the standard view of quantum theory (known as the Copenhagen interpretation), subatomic particles do not have determinate properties prior to an act of measurement. Instead the various possible states the system can be in are defined by a probability wave which only ‘collapses’ when an observation is made. This gives rise to the by now well-known paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. We are asked to imagine the animal locked in a box with a vial of poison gas that will only be released if a radioactive atom decays within a certain time. But if the atom has no determinate state until a measurement is taken, does this mean that the cat is also poised in an indeterminate state, neither dead nor alive, until the apparatus is observed? Puzzles like this have led some physicists to embrace bizarre idealist views, in which human consciousness determines the nature of the physical world (despite the fact that human consciousness only evolved comparatively recently). Others have suggested that each time an indeterministic quantum event takes place the universe ‘splits’ so that for each possible outcome there is a separate reality in which it takes place.

The genuine problems associated with quantum physics give plenty of opportunities for mystics and cranks to claim that the theory supports their own views, so care is needed in navigating between the large numbers of popularisations that have been published. One of the better guides is Nick Herbert’s Quantum Reality [77], which gives a clear exposition of the basic theory, and carefully explains the various interpretations of the theory that have been proposed and why none of them is fully satisfactory. In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat [78] by the prolific science writer John Gribbin is also a good introduction. Gribbin has recently published a sequel called Schrödinger’s Kittens and the Search For Quantum Reality. [79] A more advanced discussion is provided by David Albert in Quantum Mechanics and Experience. [80] In the early 1980s the BBC broadcast a series of radio interviews with leading quantum physicists which are now available as The Ghost In the Atom [81] edited by P.C.W. Davies and J.R. Brown. The first chapter of this book is another good brief introduction to quantum mechanics.

A slightly more advanced introduction, but still reasonably accessible, is Alastair Rae’s short book Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality? [82] Rae concludes with a sympathetic discussion of how the anti-reductionist ideas of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Ilya Prigogine may offer a solution to the problems of quantum theory. Prigogine, whose main work has been in the field of thermodynamics, rejects the idea that we can understand the changes that take place in, say, a gas, in terms of its micro-constituents, and argues that we must instead explain the micro-world in terms of changes at the macro level. In terms that Engels would have approved, Prigogine describes this as a shift from ‘being’ to ‘becoming’. Exactly how this relates to the problems of quantum mechanics is too complicated to explain here, but if you are intrigued read Rae’s book or Prigogine’s own popular introduction to these ideas, Order Out of Chaos [83] (co-authored with Isabelle Stengers).

The development of relativity theory and quantum physics, together with technological developments, have enabled cosmologists to develop detailed models of the history and structure of the universe. The most well known introduction to this field is Stephen Hawking’s bestselling A Brief History of Time. [84] Duncan Blackie’s review article Revolution in Science (in International Socialism 42) discusses Hawking’s book from a Marxist perspective and points out some of its weaknesses. Perfect Symmetry [85] by Heinz Pagels covers the same territory as Hawking’s book but in greater detail. Steven Weinberg’s discussion of the ‘big bang’ theory, The First Three Minutes [86], is now a little dated but still worth reading. Gribbin’s In Search of the Big Bang [87] is a slightly more recent discussion.

Today Weinberg is one of a number of physicists who believe that a ‘theory of everything’, which unifies relativity theory and quantum mechanics, may soon be within our grasp. He makes his case in Dreams of a Final Theory. [88] Another introduction to these controversial ideas can be found in Davies and Brown (eds.), Superstrings: A Theory of Everything? [89] which, like their book on quantum physics, is a collection of interviews originally broadcast on the BBC. It is worth remembering, however, that in the late 19th century physicists had similar hopes that their discipline was nearly complete. Given the serious difficulties that continue to exist with quantum theory, and the fact that current models of the structure of the universe all face problems, the 20th century scientists who dream of the end of physics are likely to prove as far off the mark as their forerunners 100 years ago.

One other area of physics (or more accurately, applied mathematics) – chaos theory – deserves at least brief mention here, if only because it has been so frequently misrepresented by postmodernists and others who want to claim that the world is essentially beyond rational understanding. In fact, chaos theory does not claim that the world is essentially unintelligible, but rather attempts to use sophisticated mathematical techniques to show that even apparently random behaviour in dynamic systems can be analysed and understood. The best book length introduction to the field is still James Gleick’s Chaos. [90] A more advanced account is Does God Play Dice? [91] by Ian Stewart. Stewart also has a very short introduction to chaos theory (called Do Dice Play God?) in his more recent book Nature’s Numbers [92], which is a good non-mathematical introduction to some basic ideas in mathematics. There is also an excellent brief overview in Paul McGarr’s article Order Out of Chaos in International Socialism 48.

The biological sciences

The Russian biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (one of the founders of the modern ‘synthesis’ of evolutionary biology and genetics in the 1930s) once remarked, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’. [93] The development of the theory of evolution marks the beginning of modern biology, and for anyone who has the time, the best starting point is the work of Charles Darwin himself. The Origin of Species [94], originally published in 1859, is perhaps the last great work of science written for, and still accessible to, a general audience. The main difficulty that faces the contemporary reader is not so much Darwin’s prose, but grasping the overall structure of his most famous book. Darwin tells us in the final chapter that ‘this whole volume is one long argument’, but the Origin is so densely packed with discussions of specific cases that it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Nevertheless, as the book proceeds, Darwin painstakingly builds an overwhelming case for evolution by natural selection, carefully presenting the detailed evidence which he had spent over 20 years accumulating.

Darwin begins the Origin by drawing our attention to the ability of plant and animal breeders to drastically alter the characteristics of a group of organisms over a series of generations by permitting only individuals with desired traits to reproduce. He then argues (in chapters 2 and 3) that an analogous process takes place in nature without conscious human intervention. [95] The organisms in a given population typically differ in various ways from one another, and some of these differences can be passed on to their progeny. If there are too many organisms for a given environment to sustain, then those that by chance are slightly better suited to survive and reproduce will tend to have more offspring, so that the favourable traits will tend to proliferate from one generation to the next. Evolutionary change is thus the result of a ‘struggle for existence’ which:

… inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of the geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. [96]

Over time a population of organisms can become better and better adapted to its environment, and the characteristics of its members at the end of the process may be very different from those of their ancestors. Darwin later claimed that the basic idea of natural selection was suggested to him by Thomas Malthus’s reactionary Essay On Population, which argues (on the basis of no evidence) that human populations will always outgrow the available food supply. Recent scholarship has shown that Darwin’s claim is something of an oversimplification [97], but Malthus was an influence, as was the economic thought of Adam Smith. As the contemporary evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould notes, however, ‘the source of an idea is one thing, its truth or fruitfulness is another.’ He goes on:

In this case, it is ironic that Adam Smith’s system of laissez faire does not work in his own domain of economics, for it leads to oligopoly and revolution, rather than to order and harmony. Struggle among individuals does, however, seem to be the law of nature. [98]

Having established the reality of natural selection, Darwin goes on to argue (in chapters 4 and 5) that this process is capable of giving rise not simply to new varieties but, if it continues long enough, to new species. In the next few chapters (6 to 8), he deals with objections to the idea that natural selection – or ‘descent with modification’ – can account for the characteristics of all existing species (even ‘organs of extreme perfection’ like the human eye, and the sterility of certain kinds of insect).

The first two thirds of the Origin have thus shown that natural selection is a genuine phenomenon and that it is capable of explaining where existing species came from and why they are typically so well adapted to their environments. Now at last Darwin presents the evidence that natural selection is not only a possible explanation of the origin of species, but that it is the only reasonable one available (chapters 9 to 13). The evidence ranges from the pattern of development revealed in the fossil record, to facts about the geographical distribution of organisms, to structural and developmental similarities between otherwise very different living things. Darwin demonstrates that his view can provide satisfying explanations of such matters, while from the point of view of those who believe in divine creation (far and away the majority view among naturalists before the publication of the Origin) they remain inexplicable conundrums. In his final chapter Darwin recapitulates his central argument and looks forward to the ‘revolution in natural history’ that he rightly believed his theories would bring about.

But Darwin’s views did not, of course, only have revolutionary implications for the study of biology. The theory of evolution by natural selection suggests a thoroughly materialist picture of the world which banishes vital forces and pre-ordained purposes from nature, and which implies that mental phenomena emerge when matter is arranged in complex ways. [99] Such views undermine not only traditional religious views of divine creation but also more ‘sophisticated’ versions of theism which claim that God works through evolution, and they were a direct challenge to the dominant ideology of Victorian England. One early reviewer of Darwin’s book, the great geologist Adam Sedgwick, spoke for many: ‘I cannot conclude without expressing my detestation of the theory, because of its unflinching materialism’. [100] Darwin was well aware of the materialistic consequences of his views, and as a respectable bourgeois gentleman, he was made extremely nervous by them (and was never prepared to embrace atheism). This probably explains why he took so long to publish his ideas, finally doing so only when he became aware that the young Welsh naturalist Alfred Wallace had reached similar conclusions which he was about to make public. [101]

It also explains why Marx and Engels were so enthusiastic about Darwin’s theory. Less than a month after the Origin was published, Engels remarked in a letter to Marx that ‘Darwin, whom I am just now reading, is splendid.’ Marx himself read the Origin the following year and commented to Engels that, ‘although it is developed in the crude English style, this is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our own view’. [102] Marx’s point was not that evolution by natural selection automatically implies the truth of historical materialism – there is no contradiction in accepting Darwin and rejecting Marx. But Darwin’s views, by supporting a general materialist perspective and by demonstrating the centrality of historical change in the biological world, certainly enhance the general plausibility of a materialist approach to human society as well.

If you want to read more of Darwin’s work, I would recommend first his short Autobiography, second The Voyage of the Beagle, his account of his five year voyage around the world during which he gathered much of the evidence which he later presented in the Origin and first came to doubt the biblical account of creation, and third The Descent of Man, his most important work after the Origin, which discusses human evolution. [103] All that Darwin had to say about this topic in the Origin itself was that, when the theory of natural selection gained general acceptance, ‘light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history’, but it took him more than a decade before he was prepared to put his views on these matters into print. Darwin’s Descent also contains one important theoretical advance over the Origin – the recognition of sexual selection as a special category of natural selection. In cases of sexual selection, certain characteristics (such as the peacock’s flamboyant tail) develop in one sex, not because they make the individuals who possess them better adapted to their environment, but because they enable them to attract mates more effectively. Finally, Darwin’s early notebooks on evolution have been republished under the title Metaphysics, Materialism, and the Evolution of Mind, and make fascinating reading. [104]

Mark Ridley’s The Problems of Evolution [105] is a short contemporary introduction to evolutionary theory. The best biography of Darwin, which firmly places his ideas in the social and political context in which they arose, is Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin. [106] Also well worth reading are Desmond’s earlier study The Politics of Evolution [107], which examines the development of evolutionary ideas in the generation before Darwin, and his two volume biography of Thomas Huxley (Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple and Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest [108]), who quickly became the most vocal public defender of evolutionary theory after the Origin’s publication and earned himself the nickname ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. Ronald Clark’s biography The Survival of Charles Darwin [109] is also worth a look, primarily because the second half of the book is a useful survey of the development of biology from Darwin’s death in 1882 to the present day. A more sweeping and detailed history of biology can be found in The Growth of Biological Thought [110] by Ernst Mayr, perhaps the most distinguished living evolutionary biologist. Although Mayr takes some potshots at vulgar Marxist approaches to history in his introduction, he also admits ‘that I share some of Engels’ anti-reductionist views, as stated in his Anti-Dühring, and that I am greatly attracted by Hegel’s scheme of thesis-antithesis-synthesis ... This view has dominated my presentation.’

As I mentioned above, Darwin’s argument in the Origin provides a detailed and devastating critique of creationism. As a result, particularly in the United States, evolutionary theory has come under concerted attack over the past 20 years by the religious right, who demand equal time for ‘scientific creationism’ in the schools. While they have been unsuccessful in this demand, they have effectively been able to exclude evolutionary biology from the curriculum in many high schools. Today opinion polls in the US show that only about 10 percent of the population accepts the truth of Darwinian evolution, while nearly 50 percent believe that humans were created by God in the last 10,000 years. [111] There are several good books which both demolish the arguments of the ‘scientific’ creationists and provide useful summaries of the evidence in favour of evolution. Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism [112] by the philosopher of science Philip Kitcher is one of the best, except for its final chapter which attempts to reconcile evolution with liberal theology. A good discussion by a biologist is contained in Tim Berra’s Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. [113] The sociologist of science Dorothy Nelkin gives a social history of the dispute in The Creation Controversy. [114]

Here is probably a good place to mention the writings of Stephen Jay Gould (quoted above), whose books are no doubt already familiar to many readers of this journal. Gould, who is an evolutionary biologist and paleontologist at Harvard, is perhaps the best contemporary populariser of scientific ideas. I particularly recommend his first two collections of essays, Ever Since Darwin [115] and The Panda’s Thumb [116], both of which contain chapters setting Darwin’s ideas in their historical context, discussions of contemporary issues in evolutionary theory, critiques of biological determinism, and much else. More recently, in books like Wonderful Life [117] and Life’s Grandeur [118] (published in the US as Full House), Gould has argued against the common misconception that life must evolve along a single path and that human beings have somehow emerged as the inevitable outcome of this process. But while this is right, Gould sometimes seems to throw the baby out with the bathwater, apparently denying that there are any discernible evolutionary patterns, and implying that evolutionary history is nothing more than a series of accidents. This is an important mistake because – just as in human history – determinism and randomness do not exhaust the possibilities. There can be recognisable trends in a historical process even if no particular outcome is inevitable. [119] Still, even when Gould is mistaken he remains well worth reading.

The Dialectical Biologist [120], a collection of essays by two of Gould’s Harvard colleagues, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, is the best examination of evolutionary ideas from an explicitly Marxist perspective. Levins and Lewontin dedicate their book to Engels, ‘who got it wrong a lot of the time but who got it right where it counted’. [121] The volume includes discussion of the historical and social background to Darwinism, arguments against the ‘anti-ideological technocratic ideology’ [122] that dominates capitalist society, reflections on the nature of dialectics, and specific examples of how a dialectical approach can lead to new insights in evolutionary biology (particularly in a chapter on The Organism as the Subject and Object of Evolution). This is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in Marxism and science.

Perhaps the biggest weakness in Darwin’s work on evolution was the fact that he lacked a satisfactory theory of the mechanisms of heredity. How are characteristics passed on from parents to offspring, and why aren’t favourable traits diluted by less favourable ones over successive generations? The work of the Czech monk Gregor Mendel in the 1860s marked the beginning of a satisfactory theory of heredity, but Mendel’s work on the distribution of traits among successive generations of pea plants was unknown to Darwin, and was not rediscovered until the turn of the century when a new generation of biologists independently rediscovered his results. Mendel noticed that some traits appear to be dominant and others recessive, and he speculated that there were causal ‘factors’ in the plants that somehow governed such features as height and seed colour. In the early 20th century biologists gave these factors the name ‘genes’.

Mayr’s book mentioned above includes an excellent history of Variation and Its Inheritance from the earliest ideas, through the emergence of Mendelian genetics, to the work of T.H. Morgan on fruit flies at Columbia University in the early 20th century which led to the first maps of the ‘genome’, and the development of modern molecular biology. Clark’s biography of Darwin covers much of the same ground, including the development of the mathematical theory of population genetics in the 1930s by R.A. Fisher, Haldane and Sewall Wright, and the subsequent construction of the ‘modern synthesis’ of genetics and Darwinian evolution. The French geneticist and Nobel Prize winner François Jacob has also written a readable history of ideas about heredity called The Logic of Life. [123] Be warned, though, that Jacob writes from a reductionist standpoint that can get irritating.

The major breakthrough in understanding why variation exists and how inheritance takes place came in 1953 with Francis Crick and James Watson’s discovery of the double helical structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the substance in the nuclei of cells which carries genetic information from parent to offspring. The story of the discovery and the subsequent history of molecular biology is told in Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation [124], a book which could have done with a good editor. Watson’s own account of the discovery can be found in his infamous memoir The Double Helix [125], which demonstrates that his reputation as an obnoxious sexist egomaniac is well earned. On the other hand, Watson’s book does effectively demolish the myth of the impartial scientist whose only concern is discovering the truth. Another molecular biologist, Gunther Stent, has edited a critical edition of Watson’s book which includes reviews and other interesting commentary, as well as the original texts of many of the key scientific papers. [126] The person most slighted in Watson’s account is Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant researcher at the University of London whose X-ray diffraction photographs of DNA were crucial to determining its structure. Franklin died of cancer in 1958 and was thus deprived of sharing in the Nobel Prize awarded to Crick, Watson and her colleague Maurice Wilkins in 1962. Her role in the discovery is told in Ann Sayre’s book Rosalind Franklin and DNA [127] which, as one reviewer put it, ‘should be required reading for all aspiring scientists – especially women’. [128]

In Search of the Double Helix [129] by John Gribbin is much more than an account of how the structure of DNA was uncovered. Gribbin starts with Darwin, Mendel and the development of genetics, links molecular biology to quantum theory, and traces the history of molecular biology since Crick and Watson’s discovery. Another generally reliable overview of the state of modern genetics is provided by The Language of the Genes [130] by Steve Jones. But perhaps most useful for busy socialists, facing the growing onslaught of arguments which claim that virtually every aspect of human behaviour can be explained genetically, are a number of recent books which mount powerful critiques of genetic determinism. The shortest and most accessible is The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology [131] by Lewontin. More wide ranging is Exploding the Gene Myth [132] by Ruth Hubbard (another Harvard biologist) and Elijah Wald. The most sophisticated response is in Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism, the latest book by the Marxist biologist Steven Rose. [133]

Genetic determinism (the idea that our behaviour is determined by our genes) and the closely related doctrine of genetic reductionism (the claim that all biological explanations can ultimately be replaced by explanations at the level of the gene), are just two examples of how biological ideas have been twisted to buttress ruling class ideology. Darwin’s ideas were initially seen as posing a threat to the status quo, but were soon being used by the ‘social Darwinists’ as the basis for fallacious arguments supporting laissez-faire capitalism, social hierarchy, racism and women’s oppression. Similar arguments were used in the early 20th century by the ‘eugenics’ movement which aimed to solve social problems by preventing those deemed biologically ‘defective’ from reproducing, and which eventually helped pave the way for the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite the fact that such claims have been repeatedly shown to lack scientific justification, they have reappeared whenever it has been necessary to deflect criticism from the capitalist system itself. Thus it is no surprise that biological determinism has re-emerged in various forms during the past 25 years as capitalist economies have staggered from one crisis to the next. Sociobiologists (like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins) have argued that human beings are naturally selfish, aggressive and xenophobic, and that social inequality is ultimately a consequence of our biology – claims that have recently been revived by many working in the new field of evolutionary psychology. [134] Genetic reductionists have claimed that there are specific genes for everything from alcoholism to criminality. Racists, like Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their odious book The Bell Curve [135], have taken up these claims to resurrect the argument that intelligence is genetically based and that white people tend to be smarter than black ones.

Several books already mentioned, particularly those by Gould, Lewontin and Rose, take up and demolish many of these arguments. Lewontin, Rose and Leon Kamin’s Not In Our Genes [136] is a comprehensive critique in one volume. Another good overview of many of these arguments is From Genesis to Genocide [137] by Stephan Chorover. A third is Martin Barker’s The New Racism. [138] All of these books provide excellent discussion of the social and political background to the resurgence of biological determinism in the course of exploding its scientific pretensions. Probably the most comprehensive refutation of the sociobiologists’ scientific arguments is in Philip Kitcher’s Vaulting Ambition. [139] The long and sordid history of scientific racism from the early 19th century to the 1970s is told in Allan Chase’s masterful study, The Legacy of Malthus. [140] Stephen Jay Gould covers some of the same ground in The Mismeasure of Man [141], which is a first rate study of science in its social context. In its new revised edition, Gould’s book includes a response to The Bell Curve. In the Name of Eugenics [142] by Daniel Kelves tells the history of the eugenics movement, while Troy Duster’s Backdoor to Eugenics [143] shows how the misuse of new genetic technologies is bringing these old ideas back.


There is a fine tradition of Marxist thought about science, from the writings of Marx and Engels themselves, to the contributions of Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and Hessen, to the work of contemporary writers such as Richard Lewontin and Steven Rose. Marxism provides essential insights into the nature of modern science unavailable from any other perspective, and it provides the basis for both admiring its successes and critically analysing its weaknesses. But this by itself is not enough. Marxism is not simply a theory for contemplating the world. It is a revolutionary weapon which aims at the overthrow of the capitalist system. The Marxist critique of science as it currently exists is simultaneously a call for its transformation – a call to free it from the material and ideological constraints of a society based on profits for the few. ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’. [144]


My thanks to Anthony Arnove, Judy Cox, Rob Hoveman, Kim Rabuck, John Rees, Eric Ruder and David Whitehouse for comments on an earlier version of this article.

1. Marx and the Objectivity of Science, in R. Boyd et al. (eds.), The Philosophy of Science (London 1991), p. 769.

2. The terms internalism and externalism sometimes have other meanings. I am using them strictly as defined in the text. In 20th century philosophy of science, the archetypal internalists were the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 1930s, who offered highly abstract accounts of the nature of scientific theories, confirmation and explanation. By the late 1950s the positivists’ attempt to explain actual scientific practice had effectively self destructed, but the decisive death blow is often seen as Thomas Kuhn’s highly influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago 1962; 2nd edn., 1970). Kuhn shows how scientific practice and methodology have undergone radical historical changes with the adoption of new ‘paradigms’ (roughly, major scientific theories which settle fundamental issues and provide working scientists with a steady stream of research puzzles to solve), and implies that shifts from one paradigm to another (the scientific revolutions of his book’s title) are heavily influenced – perhaps even decided – by extra-scientific considerations. Kuhn’s important contribution was to place science back in its historical context, and there is much to learn from his book. But the historical context in which he places science is defined so narrowly (and certainly without reference to the influence and interests of the ruling class) that he is almost inevitably led to relativist and idealist conclusions. On Kuhn’s view, rival paradigms are incommensurable, which means that their adherents cannot fully understand each other and thus cannot rationally resolve their disagreements, so that science cannot be said to be approaching closer to the truth when one paradigm replaces another. Indeed, Kuhn sometimes says that supporters of different paradigms effectively inhabit different worlds, because theory constructs reality. Kuhn was reluctant to explicitly endorse the more radical consequences of his views, but many historians and sociologists of science influenced by him have not been so coy. There are several accessible surveys of these ideas, including A. Chalmers, What Is This Thing Called Science? (Milton Keynes 1982), W. Newton-Smith, The Rationality of Science (London 1981) and R. Klee, Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Oxford 1997).

3. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey 1985. Sheehan’s study begins with the writings of Marx and Engels, and ends with the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943. The author is a former member of the Communist Party who has remained sympathetic to much of what is best in the Marxist tradition, but who is not ‘a Marxist in any unambiguous sense’ (p. xi), and who writes from the perspective of someone who wants to preserve the tradition’s insights before moving on, not from the perspective of someone who is engaging with a living set of ideas. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from Sheehan’s book.

4. Capital, vol. 1 (New York 1967), ch. XII, p. 316.

5. 2nd edn., Brighton, 1979. Ruben discusses how Marx’s views about knowledge and reality emerged from, and help solve, problems left by his philosophical predecessors, and he attempts to articulate a Marxist theory of knowledge in greater detail. By calling his account a ‘reflection theory’, however, Ruben encourages a confusion between a theory of truth and a theory of knowledge which, as we shall see, it is important to avoid. The book’s final chapter is a sympathetic discussion of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Ruben is also the co-editor (with John Mepham) of the multi-volume series Issues in Marxist Philosophy (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey 1979) which contains a number of essays on dialectics, materialism and science.

6. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey 1988. Murray shows how Marx’s own scientific method emerged from an internal critique of Hegel, and examines Marx’s critique of political economy in the light of this. I have discussed Murray’s interpretation in a review of his book in the Radical Philosophy Review of Books, no. 2 (1990).

7. The Holy Family and The German Ideology are, of course, joint works written with Engels, but precisely because they are joint works they reflect Marx’s views at the time as well.

8. Oxford 1975.

9. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, in D. McLellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford 1977), p. 94.

10. Karl Marx (London 1981), p. 162. Wood’s book is a very clear discussion of various aspects of Marx’s philosophical thought. The sections on Philosophical Materialism and The Dialectical Method are particularly relevant to the topic of this article.

11. It is no coincidence that many recent defenders of scientific realism have been influenced by Marx. In the US these have included Hilary Putnam (in the late 1960s and early 1970s), Richard Boyd, Richard W. Miller, Peter Railton and Michael Devitt. In Britain the best known figure is Roy Bhaskar. Essays by Putnam, Boyd, Miller and Railton can be found in R. Boyd et al. (eds.), The Philosophy of Science, op. cit..

12. Capital, vol. 3 (New York 1967), ch. XLVIII, p. 817.

13. Theses on Feuerbach, in D. McLellan (ed.), op. cit., p. 156.

14. The German Ideology, in D. McLellan (ed.), op. cit., p. 175.

15. Ibid., p160.

16. History and Class Consciousness (London 1971), p. 204. Lukács is led to this claim because he rejects the view that human consciousness passively reflects existing reality. He is right to reject the latter view, but wrong to think that it is implied by realism or a correspondence theory of truth.

17. Ibid., pxvii.

18. Toward a Marxist Humanism (New York 1968).

19. D. McLellan (ed.), op. cit., p156.

20. Capital, vol. 1, p. 19.

21. P. Murray, op. cit., pxiv.

22. Capital, vol. 1, p. 20.

23. Letter to Engels, June 22 1867, Selected Correspondence (Moscow 1975), p177.

24. A. Wood, op. cit., p219.

25. For a nice historical illustration, see the discussion of the 17th-century revolution in physics in A. Einstein and L. Infeld, The Evolution of Physics (New York 1966), ch. 1.

26. D. McLellan (ed.), op. cit., p175.

27. Vol. 1, ch. XIV, section 5, p361.

28. Ibid., ch. XV, section 2, p390n.

29. This argument is laid out in greater detail in P. Railton, Marx and the Objectivity of Science, op. cit..

30. The mechanical outlook was spelled out clearly by the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz in the mid-19th century: ‘Finally, therefore, we discover the problem of physical material science to be to refer natural phenomena back to unchangeable attractive and repulsive forces whose intensity depends wholly upon distance. The solubility of this problem is the condition of the complete comprehensibility of nature. Helmholtz argued that science will be ended as soon as the reduction of natural phenomena to simple forces is complete and the proof given that this is the only reduction of which the phenomena are capable.’ Quoted in A. Einstein and L. Infeld, op. cit., p. 54.

31. Friedrich Engels (New York 1977), p. 91.

32. See, for instance, J.D. Hunley, The Life and Thought of Friedrich Engels (London 1991).

33. Preface to Dialectics of Nature (New York 1940), p. xiv.

34. The Philosophy of Science, in B. Magee (ed.), Men of Ideas (Oxford 1982), p. 206. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Putnam developed a version of scientific realism strongly influenced by Marxist ideas, but by the time of this interview he had abandoned both realism and Marxism. Putnam goes on to claim that, while Engels’ views on science are largely sensible, they are not original, but then immediately undermines this judgment by noting that Marxism ‘might have made a contribution [to mainstream philosophy of science] if people had been less ideologically divided, because I think non-Marxists could have learned something from it.’

35. For the political background to these debates see P. LeBlanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey 1990), ch. 8.

36. See in particular The Analysis of Sensations (Chicago 1914), originally published in 1886. Mach’s views are critically examined in R.S. Cohen and R.J. Seeger (eds.), Ernst Mach: Physicist and Philosopher (Dordrecht 1970).

37. For discussion, see G. Holton, Mach, Einstein and the Search for Reality, in Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought (London 1988).

38. Dubious social, political and philosophical ideas have led to important scientific insights on more than one occasion. Darwin claimed to have hit upon the theory of natural selection after reading the reactionary views of Thomas Malthus. For more on Darwin’s case, see below.

39. Monism is the view that reality is composed of one fundamental kind of substance. Idealism (which claims that the world is composed of mental phenomena) and materialism are both varieties of monism. Some versions of the doctrine claim that the fundamental substance is neither mind nor matter, and that mind and matter are themselves composed of some underlying ‘neutral’ substance. Bogdanov may have believed that he was advocating some kind of neutral monism, but since he claims that the world is ultimately constructed from experience, and since experience is a mental phenomenon, his position collapses into a variety of idealism.

40. V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (New York 1927), pp. 63–64, 72.

41. This is the same mistake that Lukács was later to make – but whereas Lukács assimilates truth to knowledge, Lenin seems to assimilate knowledge to truth.

42. V.I. Lenin, op. cit., p. 99.

43. London 1975.

44. L. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (London 1991), pp. 226–228.

45. Cited in Sheehan, op. cit., p172.

46. New York 1973.

47. Guildford 1986.

48. New Jersey 1998.

49. London 1971.

50. New York 1935. The one weak point in this collection is A.M. Deborin’s essay on Karl Marx and the Present, which is a defence of the Stalinist theory of fascism and social-fascism.

51. See G. Werskey, The Visible College (London 1978). In this context, the writings of another Communist Party member at the time, Christopher Caudwell, should also be mentioned. Caudwell was not a professional scientist but a self taught and independently minded Marxist intellectual of broad interests, who produced original work on everything from poetry to physics, and who died at the tragically young age of 29, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. See in particular The Crisis in Physics (London 1939). H. Sheehan, op. cit., contains a helpful exposition of Caudwell’s views, and further references.

52. Oxford 1985.

53. London 1939.

54. Cambridge 1954–84.

55. Cambridge, Massachusetts 1971.

56. London 1956.

57. Marxism and the History of Science, in R.C. Olby et al. (eds.), Companion to the History of Modern Science (London 1990), p. 82.

58. J.D. Bernal, The Extension of Man (London 1972).

59. Harmondsworth 1964. (Originally published in 1942.)

60. Harmondsworth 1961. (Originally published in 1944.)

61. New York 1965.

62. Cambridge 1977.

63. London 1957.

64. Revised edn. (London 1985).

65. Cambridge 1977.

66. London 1953.

67. Oxford 1991.

68. London 1987.

69. New York 1952. (Originally published 1908), p. 75.

70. New York 1961. (Originally published 1916.)

71. New York 1966. (Originally published 1938.)

72. Oxford 1986.

73. Second edn. (New York 1993).

74. London 1988.

75. New York 1984.

76. On the Intuitive Understanding of Non-locality as Implied by Quantum Theory, Foundations of Physics 5 (1975), pp. 95–96.

77. New York 1987.

78. London 1984.

79. London 1995. Gribbin has also recently published Companion to the Cosmos (London 1996), a useful dictionary-style guide to modern physics.

80. D. Albert, Quantum Mechanics and Experience (London 1992).

81. Cambridge 1986.

82. Cambridge 1986.

83. London 1984.

84. London 1988.

85. London 1986.

86. London 1977.

87. London 1986.

88. New York 1994.

89. Cambridge 1988.

90. Harmondsworth 1987.

91. Oxford 1989.

92. New York 1995.

93. This is actually the title of a short article by Dobzhansky published in the American Biology Teacher 35 (1973).

94. C. Darwin, The Origin of Species (London 1964). This is a facsimile of the first edition.

95. David Whitehouse has pointed out to me that Darwin never offers any examples of actual natural selection at work in the world. Instead he relies on imaginary examples and indirect evidence. At least one example of real natural selection was observed during Darwin’s lifetime, the well known phenomenon of industrial melanism in moths, in which changes in the environment due to pollution led light coloured moths to be replaced by dark coloured ones. Since Darwin’s time, of course, numerous real cases have been observed.

96. See Origin, op. cit., p. 63. Darwin’s theory is often portrayed as being based on the idea of direct competition between individuals, but as the final sentence of this quotation shows, this is at best an oversimplification. On the previous page Darwin notes that ‘I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense’ which permits us to say, for example, that ‘a plant on the edge of a desert ... struggle [s] for life against the drought’ (p. 62).

97. See S.J. Gould, Darwin’s Middle Road, in The Panda’s Thumb (London 1980), pp. 65–66, for discussion and references.

98. Ibid., p68.

99. In light of the fact that evolutionary theories of mind are often portrayed as essentially reductionist, it is perhaps worth emphasising here that this is not so.

100. Objections to Mr Darwin’s Theory of the Origin of Species, in P. Appleman (ed.), Darwin, 2nd edn (London 1979), p. 222. Sedgwick’s review originally appeared anonymously in The Spectator, March 24 1860.

101. See S.J. Gould, Darwin’s Delay, in Ever Since Darwin (London 1977).

102. Both letters cited in Marxism and Modern Thought, p. 193.

103. All of these books are available in numerous editions.

104. Chicago 1980.

105. Oxford 1983.

106. Harmondsworth 1992.

107. (Chicago 1990).

108. (London 1994 and 1997).

109. New York 1984.

110. London 1982.

111. Los Angeles Times, 2 May 1992.

112. London 1982.

113. Stanford, California 1990.

114. Boston 1982.

115. London 1977.

116. London 1980.

117. London 1989.

118. London 1996.

119. The philosopher of biology Elliott Sober provides a sophisticated recent discussion of this issue in Progress and Direction in Evolution, in J. Campbell and J. Schopf (eds.), Creative Evolution (London 1994). Sober concludes that ‘evolution is not, of necessity, a directional process. In this respect it fails to resemble thermodynamic processes, which seem to have an intrinsic directionality. Yet, in contingent circumstances, evolution can give rise to directional trends. The challenge to current biology is to document these trends and to explain them.’

120. London 1985.

121. Levin & Lewontin, p. v.

122. Ibid., p. 165.

123. New York 1982.

124. New York 1979.

125. (London 1968). A thirtieth anniversary edition of Watson’s book is due to be published this year.

126. London 1980.

127. New York 1975.

128. Quoted on the book’s back cover.

129. London 1985.

130. London 1994.

131. R. Lewontin, The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology (London 1993).

132. Boston 1993.

133. Oxford 1997. See John Parrington’s review in International Socialism 78.

134. See, for example, S. Pinker, How the Mind Works (London 1997).

135. New York 1994.

136. New York 1984.

137. London 1979.

138. London 1981.

139. London 1985.

140. New York 1980.

141. Revised edn. (London 1996).

142. Berkeley, California 1985.

143. London 1990.

144. K. Marx, Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, in D. McLellan (ed.), op. cit., p. 158.

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