Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4


Genetic Politics

David Stack
The First Darwinian Left: Socialism and Darwinism 1859–1914
New Clarion Press, Cheltenham 2003, pp. 149

Anne Kerr and Tom Shakespeare
Genetic Politics: From Eugenics To Genome
New Clarion Press, Cheltenham 2002, pp. 211

FRIEDRICH Engels, in his graveside eulogy to Karl Marx, famously compared Marx’s achievements to those of Charles Darwin, who ‘discovered the law of development of organic nature’, as ‘Marx discovered the law of development of human history …’ Given the context, one might see this as hyperbole, or at least as an attempt to confer the legitimacy on Marx’s theories that had been granted to Darwin’s. However, as David Stack’s The First Darwinian Left demonstrates, the relationship between left-wing ideology and Darwinism is more subtle than that: indeed, if Stack is correct in his arguments, Darwinism has had a profound influence on socialist thought in general, and British socialism in particular.

Though Stack’s work is historical, his motivation for producing it is contemporary – the publication in 1999 of Peter Singer’s The Darwinian Left. Evidently, Singer’s ‘Darwinism’ is too compatible with Blairite Third Way politics for Stack’s taste, and symptomatic of the further dilution of socialist principles under ‘New Labour’. As Stack shows, Darwinism is embedded in the roots of socialism, and the intervention of Singer’s ‘evolutionary psychology’ is thus nothing new. Indeed, if one accepts Stack’s thesis, Darwinism, broadly defined, was one of the things that separated socialism from earlier radicalist ideology. Though this may seem a strong claim to make, the evidence seems to back it up, with figures ranging from Annie Besant to Ramsay MacDonald ascribing their socialism to a Darwinist understanding of the world: as Stack suggests, there appear to have been ‘two permeable systems’ for such theorists, in which Darwinian science and socialist politics were intertwined, almost to the extent that they became indistinguishable.

To those familiar with modern Darwinist science, and with leftist critiques of its implicit individualism, this may seem implausible. However, it is worth remembering that the Darwinism of The Origin of Species was not the well-defined paradigm of today, and that modern understanding owes much to later discoveries, particularly in genetics. As Darwin himself acknowledged, he had little understanding of the mechanisms of inheritance, and his work was thus open to many differing interpretations. In particular, the Darwinism of The Origin and his later Descent of Man was often open to the Lamarckian explanations that later ‘Darwinists’ have vehemently rejected: explanations based around ‘use and disuse’ and other essentially environmental explanations, summed up as ‘the inheritance of acquired characteristics’, and incompatible with modern understandings of natural selection as operating on random genetic variation. In this context, Darwinism was adaptable to a wide range of political ideologies: the right could rejoice in its Malthusian culling of the unfit, while the left saw its message of the impermanence of species as a message that political systems too could be superseded.

But this perhaps is to miss the point. Stack argues that Darwinism was not just a convenient theory to be utilised in political argument, and that instead it had become part of ‘discursive space’, and a way of seeing the world. If anything, I would go further than Stack on this, and point out exactly where in ‘discursive space’ such Darwinism fitted into a location that, in any other sociocultural context, an anthropologist might expect a ‘creation myth’ to be found. Not mythical in a pejorative sense, as untrue, but in the sense of being known by all, and therefore the explanation for ‘how things began’ that is the starting point for authoritative discourse on ‘how things should be’. In any case, Darwinism in this context was more than just a metaphor, for left and right, and in the post-Darwin era, any theory of society – any political theory – had to accommodate itself to a Darwinian discourse.

This discourse essentially treated society as an organism. But not just a living organism (an old analogy: see Hobbes Leviathan), but as one which adapts and evolves through time. In such a context, ‘change’ and ‘evolution’ become one and the same, to be discussed in organic terms. Though Stack begins his exploration of Darwinist socialism with Alfred Russel Wallace (the oft-neglected co-discoverer of natural selection, a former Owenite who curiously intermingled his socialism with spiritualism), and later Edward Aveling, perhaps the first significantly influential ‘Darwinian leftist’ was that renegade Russian aristocrat-turned-anarchist, Prince Peter Kropotkin. For Kropotkin, as for Darwin, it was exploration of the natural world that led to the formulation of his concepts, and in particular to the publication of Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. Though Kropotkin’s anarchism was perhaps out of place in his adopted British homeland, his cooperative version of Darwinism was well suited as a leftist alternative to the blood-soaked version of the right, and seems to have found a willing audience in the emerging socialist movement.

One perhaps needs to question, however, as to whether this was really a Darwinist discourse at all. It is worth recalling that the Darwinist mantra ‘survival of the fittest’ was first used by Herbert Spencer. As Stack notes, it was Spencer who popularised notions of social evolution, and constructed ‘a cosmology; a unifying principle of “cosmic evolution” that was applicable to all areas of social and natural science …’ I suspect that this is where Stack’s argument is at its weakest if he is to justify his claim that Darwinism as such was central to the emergence of modern socialism from radicalism. One might indeed ask whether if Darwin had drowned on the Beagle, and Wallace had met a similar unfortunate end, the discourse might have been much the same, and still framed in terms of an evolving social organism. Though Spencer is largely neglected today, he was evidently highly influential in his time, and may have been more responsible for the popularising of such ideas than Darwin, and in applying them in a political context.

Regardless of the origin of this particular species of discourse, it seems to have found a niche in the ideology of the left, one well suited to the purpose of Ramsay MacDonald, for example, whose socialism was ‘naught but Darwinism’, and framed in the appropriate language. I hardly think it will be necessary to remind readers of this review where MacDonald’s ‘socialism’ led him, but Stack makes a convincing case that MacDonald’s fall from grace was at least in part due to his organic and evolving view of society, one that ultimately rejected any attempt to expedite evolution as doomed to failure, and also one that could not comprehend the possibility that rather than Capitalism evolving seamlessly into Socialism, it was quite capable of collapsing around his ears, and throwing millions out of work in the process.

MacDonald had probably been much influenced by earlier Darwinist discourse within the left, and particularly by the debate around Revisionism within the German SPD. Again, most readers will probably be familiar with the leading players in this debate, and the issues at hand, but again Stack shows how Bernstein’s revisionism was phrased in organic language, and how he saw society as a unified whole rather than as riven by class conflict – for how can an organism be in conflict with itself? Ultimately, of course, though Bernstein lost the debate, under Kautsky the SPD revised itself thoroughly of Marxism in all but name, and reached much the same conclusions that MacDonald would later, again phrased in organic terms, but with even more unfortunate results.

Stack gives many further examples of the Darwinist influence on socialism, ranging from the dubious Nietzschean speculations of Jack London in The Iron Heel, to the seemingly bizarre argument for female emancipation put by one Olive Schreiner, who saw her gender as forced to be parasitic on the social organism, and such parasitism as evidence for social regression. To be fair to Schreiner, however, she saw evolution in Lamarckian terms, and saw equality for women as the cure: giving women a more active role in society would rid them of their parasitism and allow them to become a useful part of the organic whole.

Although one might take issue with some of the finer points of Stack’s analysis, his central case seems well proven: that Darwinism, or what was seen as Darwinism, had a strong influence on early socialism, and that this influence was largely, if not entirely, detrimental. As a counter-argument to any new ‘Darwinian Left’, Stack’s work would be of great significance, though whether such a political tendency has any real importance in contemporary politics is another question entirely: I would be more inclined to attack Singer and company’s ‘evolutionary psychology’ as bad science (if it is science at all, which is debatable), reinforcing an ahistorical, individualistic, view of humankind, rather than worry about its immediate effect on modern political discourse.

This, however, is in a sense the broader point to be taken from this study, that there is politics in all discourse, and that scientific debate is political debate, not least because scientific concepts are imbued with an authoritativeness accorded to few others in contemporary society. We are again living in a Darwinian age, but one where new knowledge, about genetics in particular, may make such Darwinism more immediate, and more personal: I show this below in my review of Kerr and Shakespeare’s Genetic Politics. To those of a Marxist inclination (Marx, according to Stack, being the last pre-Darwinian socialist, and the only one to emerge largely unscathed), none of this should really be that surprising, but further proof of the ideological nature of class struggle, a struggle often hidden in seemingly abstract debate.

As I noted above, we are now living in an age where technological advances once again raise issues that the left needs to confront, and questions that often have no simple answers. The Human Genome Project has supposedly mapped out the essence of humanity, and the first cloned human being may soon be more than just the wild imagining of fringe science. If unconstrained, the technology will soon exist for creating ‘designer babies’ almost at will, and for the elimination of ‘undesirable genes’ from the gene pool. Meanwhile, those of us not in possession of designer genes may form the beginnings of a genetic underclass: or so the newspaper headlines tell us. If there is a spirit haunting the biotechnology laboratories of the world, it is evidently the spirit of Dr Frankenstein.

But perhaps a note of scepticism is not out of place here. Though the technology may be new, the issues raised are not. And as Kerr and Shakespeare’s work demonstrates, the real issues to be confronted are more social and political than technological, and any knee-jerk anti-technological reaction is unlikely to be productive. What instead is needed is a clear understanding of what this technology is, what it can achieve, and why it is being developed.

The route to such understanding must begin with history, with previous attempts at ‘the perfection of humanity’ and elimination of supposedly undesirable characteristics.

The first such attempt at perfection arose with the eugenics movement, as founded by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin. Though mention of eugenics today is often associated with the policies of Nazi Germany, such ideas were mainstream amongst the more educated in Europe and America, and frequently subscribed to by those on the left. Furthermore, the most active in promoting eugenic ideas were those from the medical profession: physicians, psychiatrists and the like. Beyond this, one could compose a long list of notable figures who supported eugenics, from Marie Stopes to George Bernard Shaw. Eugenics, rather than being a fringe concept, was something one could read about in Cosmopolitan or Good Housekeeping. Broadly speaking, there were two strands of eugenic policy: ‘negative eugenics’, which aimed to discourage the ‘unfit’ from breeding, and ‘positive eugenics’, which intended to encourage the ‘best’ to procreate.

Though such ideas may have been mainstream, it took Hitler’s Germany to demonstrate their consequences: the positive eugenics that supposedly encouraged his ‘master race’ to breed, and the negative eugenics of the death camps. But rather than being an ahistorical aberration of eugenics, such policies differed only in degree from those advocated elsewhere, or came about in such small steps that what was once unthinkable became reality. As Kerr and Shakespeare document, the origins of the Nazi death camps lay in the hospitals for the mentally and physically ‘unfit’, where first involuntary sterilisation and then routine murder became the norm, as the technology for genocide was developed, and SS ‘nurses’ learned their trade. The first systematic victims of Nazi eugenics were those they categorised as ‘useless eaters’ and as ‘life unworthy of life’, supposedly on medical grounds, though in practice through a bureaucratic system that accepted without question the decisions of a medical profession that considered antisocial behaviour or even bed-wetting as grounds for ‘euthanasia’. Even by the standards of Nazi ideology the process was thus arbitrary and capricious, and ultimately such killing ceased to be official policy (the victims were after all, largely relatives of ‘Aryan’ German citizens), though ‘wild euthanasia’ continued, and the SS found fresh targets for their new technology.

The policies of Nazi Germany meant that eugenics became a dirty word, but in much of Europe, as well as in the United States, eugenic practices continued. Even in the late 1970s, black women in the US were sometimes threatened with withdrawal of welfare payments unless they consented to sterilisation: evidently being poor and black were sufficient grounds for a ‘medical’ procedure. Elsewhere, the grounds for sterilisation may sometimes have been better founded in terms of medical diagnosis, but were still predicated on the premise that society should prevent the ‘unfit’ (read undesirable) from being born.

This premise, as Kerr and Shakespeare show, has become the normative ideology of the medical profession, in Britain at least. With greater understanding of genetics, and with new diagnostic tools, it is now possible to perform prenatal tests for many hereditary diseases, and such tests have become routine. But few have questioned why such testing has become the norm, and why it has seemed so uncontroversial. Instead, it has been uncritically accepted as a medical advance, for the good of all. Uncritically accepted, one should say, by the mainstream, but not by everyone. Both the ‘pro-life’ movement, and disability activists, have for different reasons attempted to question the motivations for such testing, particularly where (as in most cases) such hereditary ‘defects’ cannot be cured, and the logic of testing is the termination of pregnancy where such defects are diagnosed.

As Kerr and Shakespeare argue, it seems apparent that such prenatal testing is accepted because the birth of a handicapped child is self-evidently seen as a bad thing to most people, and that ‘being handicapped’ is supposedly the worst thing that can happen to a person. But this is largely dangerous nonsense, based more on prejudice than knowledge, and is totally at odds with the experiences of many people with disabilities. Though some hereditary diseases may cause great suffering, many others do not, and many supposed ‘defects’ have little effect on those who inherit them: instead their ‘suffering’ is largely the consequence of the ignorance and hostility of a society that treats difference as a disease.

In this context, then, prenatal testing for hereditary defects can only be understood as driven by an eugenic ideology, and for all the attempts of the medical profession towards ‘non-directive’ counselling, the very fact that such testing is carried out indicates its prime purpose. Even if one ignores the open admission by some that cost-benefit analysis is used to justify such testing, the presumption of relative worth of human life is self-evident: a presumption that can only be reflected back on those already born with the disabilities (real or imagined) that society, and the medical profession in particular, is trying to eliminate.

Writing for a leftist audience, I suspect that many readers will here be confronting the same dilemma that Kerr and Shakespeare presented to me. The left has been at the forefront of the battle for women’s rights to abortion on demand, but here we may have to question the way such rights are utilised, and even whether talk of ‘rights’ is necessarily helpful in understanding the situation. In the medicalised context of prenatal diagnosis of hereditary disease, often relatively late in pregnancy, ‘choice’ may be driven more by the expectations of professionals than by any considered analysis of the situation.

Here, however, we have to deal with a significant ethical question. Is it right even to consider termination of pregnancy solely on the grounds of the perceived future ‘worth’ or lifestyle of a prospective human being? My gut feeling is certainly to say no, except in the fortunately very rare cases that extreme suffering for the new individual would inevitably result. But can this be reconciled with a ‘right to choose’? Clearly not. Kerr and Shakespeare concur with others who argue that one should distinguish between the right to choose ‘whether or not to be pregnant’, and the right to choose ‘which foetus be pregnant with’: a nice distinction, but one perhaps unenforceable without reading the mind of the woman confronted with such a choice? I will leave it to readers to consider their own position on this. Regardless of such ethical dilemmas, there are clearly ways to improve the situation. First and foremost, we need to confront the way society marginalises and devalues people with disabilities, and push for greater understanding, and greater integration. It is also necessary at least to question the motivation for automatic prenatal testing for hereditary disease, and perhaps ask, as Kerr and Shakespeare do, as to whether such tests should be carried out at all.

Such difficulties are not the only ones raised by the new genomic technology. Genetic tests for hereditary disease can be carried out at any age, on any individual, and the results of such tests can have significant consequences not just for the individual concerned, but for relatives who may share the same genes. This is not in itself a new problem, in that tests for some diseases have been around for many years, but the logic of biotechnological advance is that more and more such tests will become available, and where tests are available the medical profession (and given the opportunity, the insurance industry) will carry them out. But is it necessarily in the interest of an individual to be tested? I suspect that many of us would rather not know if we had genes for a fatal hereditary disease for which there was no cure (Huntingdon’s disease is the classic case for this), though knowing that a test for such a disease is available then confronts an individual with the question as to whether he or she should be tested in order to perhaps avoid passing on the gene to future generations.

Though Huntingdon’s disease is fortunately rare, the rise of genomic testing, and the rise of genetic explanations for difference, mean that all of us are liable to testing for other genetic ‘defects’ (and implicit ranking) not for our own benefit, but for the supposed benefits of society and the real profits of what can only be described as a medical-biotechnological complex which has emerged from the ‘public-private partnership’ in British healthcare, and elsewhere. All of this fits in only too well, as Kerr and Shakespeare note, with the hegemonic neo-liberal individualist ideology of the Western world. So long as difference can be unthinkingly described as disease, and disease blamed on the faulty genes of the individuals concerned, any consideration of social attitudes, and of what is driving this new technology, can be ignored.

There are many other issues raised by advances in human genomics, most of which are touched on by Kerr and Shakespeare’s work, and readers seeking further understanding will certainly find this a good starting place. The book raises questions that often have no easy answers, but instead demonstrate the interpenetration of social values, scientific advances, and politico-economic power relations in ways that defy glib simplicities. That, however is the reality of human experience, and, contrary to the convenient hegemonic ideology, there is more to a human being than DNA, and rather than trying to create ‘better people’ for the world, perhaps we should instead concentrate on building a better world for the people.

Andrew West

Updated by ETOL: 28.10.2011