>B. Zavadovsky

The "Physical" and "Biological" in the Process of Organic Evolution

Written: 1931;
Source: Science at the Crossroads: Papers Presented to the International Congress of the History of Science and technology Held in London from June 29th to July 3rd, 1931 by the delegates of the U.S.S.R, Frank Cass and Co., 1931;
Online Version: For marxists.org May, 2002.


The question of the relationship of the physical and biological sciences, included in the programme of the present Congress, is part of the general problem of the relationship of different systems of world outlook in the solution of the present tasks of natural science. The solution of this problem has repeatedly changed its forms, according to the particular conditions of the working experience of mankind, the condition of its material forces of production, and its socioeconomic productive relations, which have been constantly changing In the course of human history. For this reason the extent of my subject does not permit me to reply to the question propounded in all its quantitative volume, and suggests the decision to deal with a few points of principle which' lead to the solution of the problem as a whole, examining the question of the relationship of the physical and biological sciences in the solution of some single theoretical problem of biology. As such a problem, I will take the theory of organic evolution--the more because in analysing this problem it will be possible to make some observations on other questions in the Congress programme: the relationship of theory and practice in scientific work, and the role of the historical method in the solution of problems of natural science.

With all the variety of existing opinion in bourgeois science on the question of the relationship of the physical and biological sciences, it is possible to distinguish among them two basic and mutually exclusive tendencies: either (1) attempts to identify the two, reducing biological phenomena to laws of a physical character, or (2) a sharp contrasting of the biological to the physical, as two opposite entities. In the latter case, by "physical" is understood the material forces of inorganic nature, or "mechano-physiological" factors at work inside the organism and reducible in the final analysis to the same mechanical laws of molecular motion while by "biological" is understood some vital forces of a non-material and non-spatial character, which "are neither the result nor the combination of physical and chemical--i.e., in the final analysis of mechanical phenomena."

In spite of the multiformity and variety of contradictory forces and interests functioning in capitalist conditions of production, it is nevertheless not difficult to establish the predominance of the views of mechanical materialism in the period when capitalism was in its prime as an economic system, and when material culture was rapidly growing as a result of the successes of science and technique--at the end of the xviii. and during the xix. century: and the rebirth of idealistic, vitalistic and even mystical moods, in the measure of the growth of economic contradictions and the sharpening of the class struggle in bourgeois society.

These tendencies acquire special force in the present period of general decline and decay of capitalism, which find their expression also in those contradictions which are delaying the further successful development of natural science and technique under bourgeoisie methods of production: and when, on the other hand, the growth of scientific knowledge reveals the impossibility of reducing all the complex phenomena of nature to a single formula of physical or mechanical laws. These tendencies characterise the general disillusionment of bourgeois society in the possibilities of material culture, and the recognition of the hopelessness of solving the scientific problems which have matured while remaining within the framework of the capitalist system (cf. the report of the Prussian Minister, Dr. Becker, "Educational questions in the period of the crisis of material culture").

This struggle of two systems of world-outlook finds its natural reflection in the existing currents of evolutionist doctrine, which strive to solve the same problem of the relationship of the "physical" and "biological" as factors of organic evolution. In this case the "physical" is frequently identified with the surrounding "external" conditions, and the biological with the "internal" autonomous vital forces, "entelechies" or "dominants," immanent and inherent in life as such, in contrast to the material, "physical" laws of nature.

The principal characteristic of this struggle, and of the ensuing fluctuation in the relationship of the physical and biological sciences throughout the whole history of natural science, is the uncritical use of the conceptions of "physical" and "biological," of "external" and "internal," and the absence of any form of principles of philosophic method, which distinguish the overwhelming majority of the representatives of empirical science.

Thus, within the framework of the conception "biological" itself, there is not always a sufficiently sharp distinction drawn between the idea of "biophysiological," as a factor which determines chiefly the processes of individual development, of metabolism and the regulation of the activity of organisms (although this "biophysiological" also inevitably includes the historical element also), and the idea of "biohistorical," as a factor in the formation of species and phylogenesis.

There are also not infrequent tendencies to include in the "biological" also phenomena in the social history of mankind, since human society is regarded as a simple mechanical sum of human biological species.

On the other hand, there are frequent identifications of the "external" in the process of organic evolution with the physical, and of the internal with the "biological"--forgetting that the biological includes physical, chemical and physicochemical factors as the moment and necessary condition for its realisation, while the "external" in regard to a particular organism in its turn is composed not only of the physical conditions of inorganic nature, but also of the biological surroundings of other organisms, in the midst of and in interaction with which the life of the species proceeds. As for man, the "external" consists first of all of socio-economic productive relations and the condition of material productive forces, by which the socio-historical process is determined.

It is extremely characteristic of the endless contradiction in which modern empirical natural science has become involved that none of the theories of evolution existing in bourgeois science is able to maintain itself in the positions it selects for itself, but slides into the very positions which it was called upon to refute.

Thus neo-Lamarckianism, originally basing its objections to Darwinism on the alleged "unscientific" character of the idea of chance upon which Darwin based his theory of selection, and his attempts to provide a materialist justification for the facts of variability of organisms and their adaptations (and consequently for the whole process of formation of species) in the "direct equilibration" of the organism in relation to the influences of the outside physical surroundings, transfers the problem of adaptation, from the sphere of the rational study of the complex relationships arising between the organism and Qhe external milieu of its existence, into the organism itself. Thus it arrives at the vitalistic and teleological conceptions of immanent vital forces which determine the course and direction of the process of evolution.

Thus, again, the "mechanico-physiological" theory of Nageli, or Berg's theory of Nomogenesis, in spite of all the of the efforts of the authors to prove the strictly scientific and materialist content of their constructions, arrive at essentially vitalistic ideas of the "principle of perfection," or to the idea of adaptation as the "primary physico-chemical quality of the living matter"--ideas which cannot deceive anyone by their outwardly materialist phraseology.

Thus, again, frankly vitalistic theories, which raised the banner of struggle against the vulgar materialist conceptions of mechanism, strive to find a road to the knowledge of the nature of biological phenomena through non-cognisable and non-material forces, contrasted to the physical world. On the other hand, they are obliged to advocate "practical vitalism"--i.e., the advantage of those same mechanistic methods of research in the practical activity of the research worker. Thereby they pass to the positions of vulgar mechanism in all spheres of direct cognitive action, condemning thereby their vital forces and entelechies to the barren r61e of a bashful screen for our ignorance.

And thus the geneticist, uncritically developing neo-Darwinist ideas of the independence of the germ-plasm of all the "physical" influences of the external surroundings, objectively arrives at the position of the autonomy of the "biological" from the "physical." Thus he descends to those very ideas of autogenesis maintained by his Lamarckian opponents, or to the conception of evolution as the result of the combinations of eternally existing genes--i.e., in fact to the negation of the very idea of evolution, as a process of the continuous unfolding of new formations in nature.

Finally, the Lamarckian, considering evolution as the result of hereditarily accumulated somatic changes, enters the past of the same mechanistic identification of the "biophysiological" and the "biohistorical," forgetting the qualitative peculiarity which distinguishes the ovum, only containing within itself the potential possibilities of further development into a complex organism, and the developing organism in its realisation. In the last analysis this point of view is once again the negation of the very fact of development as an independent historical process of new formations, representing as it does the ovum as the miniature model, so to speak, of the future form, and reducing the process of development in reality to the functions of growth.

The same insoluble internal contradictions mar the numerous attempts to solve the problem of organic evolution by means of an eclectic reconciliation of the Darwinist position with Lamarckian ideas (Haeckel, Plate, Darwin himself, who accepted--albeit with a grimace--the Lamarckian idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics, and many others), since the logical conclusion from the Lamarckian idea of the direct adaptive group variation of the organism, in reply to one and the same influence of external surroundings, is the uselessness and impotence of selection, as a factor in the formation of species--i.e., the negation of Darwinism.

A striking example of the helplessness with which the most outstanding representatives of bourgeois science hesitate between the mechanistic "reduction" of biological processes to physical, on the one hand, and recognition of the absolute autonomy of the biological, on the other, is the position of Professor Muller ("The Method of Evolution"). Having first proved with irreproachable lucidity the fact of dependence of germ plasm on the action of the Rontgen ray--i.e., on physical influences of the external surroundings--so strongly denied until recently by the majority of geneticists --and taking his stand in general upon correct Darwinist positions, Muller nevertheless returns, albeit with many reservations, to the at bottom mechanistic proposition to consider the process of variation as the direct result of the influence: of Rontgen rays upon the germ plasm. Thus he reduces the problem of the modification of the gene, as a biological factor of heredity, to the physical moment of the expulsion of an electron from the biological molecule, forgetting thereby the profound qualitative peculiarity of the biological process compared with physical phenomena.

The final outcome of this crisis through which the theory of evolution is passing in the countries of capitalism is the attempt completely to deny the very fact of evolution, or to consider the theory as one of the possible "hypotheses," circulating side by side with the Biblical legend of the creation of the world in six days' labour, or finally the position of frank agnosticism and disillusionment as to the possibility of solving the problem of evolution at the present level of scientific knowledge (Johansen, Batson, and, in the U.S.S.R., Filipchenko).

From the socio-historical standpoint, these schools of thought are the result and reflection in the consciousness of the bourgeois scientist of the internal social-economic contradictions which have gripped the countries of capitalism, and express the impossibility of the further normal development of natural science, as of all sciences, in the framework of the capitalist system.

From the methodological standpoint, these positions are the result of the contempt displayed up to the present by naturalists, carried away by the empirical successes of their sciences and the growth of their technical application, for the tasks of the philosophic methodological review and mastery of the facts and conclusions studied in their branch of science. To the extent that individual scientists make attempts at such philosophical generalisations, the positions set forth above reflect their inability, in virtue of the class limitations upon their general train of thought, to adopt the only correct philosophic positions of dialectical materialism.

"Naturalists imagine that they are emancipating themselves from philosophy when they ignore or abuse it. But as they cannot stir a step without thought, while for thought logical definitions are necessary; and these definitions they incautiously borrow either from the current theoretical property of so-called educated people, who are dominated by the remnants of long-passed-away philosophic systems, or else from their uncritical and unsystematic reading of all kinds of philosophical works: in the long run they prove after all to be prisoners to philosophy, but, unfortunately, for the most part philosophy of the very worst quality. And so people who are particularly vehement in abusing philosophy become the slaves of the worst vulgarised relies of the worst philosophical systems." (F. Engels: "Dialectics of Nature," p. 25.)

There exists also the firm but incorrect impression that the task of science in general is at all costs to reduce the more complex phenomena to the more simple, and that consequently the successes of the biological sciences are possible only in the shape of the reduction of the phenomena of life to more simple physical rules, while the social sciences can build their laws only by relying upon the achievements of biology. In reality we see that, for example, the facts of heredity, which seemed relatively simple in the days of Darwin--when they were treated of in the Lamarckian, man-in-the-street sense of the transmission by heredity of acquired characteristics, an interpretation very attractive by its apparent simplicity--have received their true explanation today only in the very complicated formulae of Mendelism and Morganism. Many remarkable physical phenomena were first discovered by biologists, and many laws of their effect upon the living organism were established before their physical nature became known (X-rays, phenomena of animal electricity, etc.). The fundamental laws of development of human society, which make it possible in our time for the population of one-sixth of the globe successfully to surmount difficulties of what would seem an unequal struggle, were discovered by Marx and Engels 20 years before Darwin formulated the fundamental laws of organic evolution.

All this shows that the true task of scientific research is not the violent identification of the biological and the physical, but the ability to discover the qualitatively specific controlling principles which characterise the principal features of every given phenomenon, and to find methods of research appropriate to the phenomenon studied. This is why if, within the framework of the same physical sciences, we learned to understand that water by no means represents a simple mechanical mixture of oxygen and hydrogen, but constitutes a new quality in the physical and chemical properties of water, all the more do the phenomena of life represent a complex material system, requiring for its study special methods of bio-physiological and bio-historical research. These laws, as for example, the law of natural selection, or the physiological laws operating within an organism, are in some sense no more and no less simple or complex than the physical laws conditioning the movement of the planetary system, or the movement of electrons around the atomic nucleus.

The fundamental consideration to be borne in mind in this problem is the impossibility of a simple, crude identification of these two categories of phenomena, and the futility of attempts to reduce biological laws tb physical, just like the attempts of the vitalists to comprehend the phenomena of the world from the standpoint of the universal animation of matter.

Asserting the reality of the world existing objectively outside ourselves, dialectical materialism starts from the conviction, justified by all the practice of human activity, that our consciousness reflects not only the objective reality of the facts directly perceived by our organs of sensation, but also the constant order of the relations connecting these facts one with another: the fact and its ordered relations with the other surrounding facts are considered by dialectics in their indissoluble unity and entirety. This obliges us to accept not only the facts of similarity and unity of structure of organisms, but also that sole possible and rational explanation of these facts which lies in the recognition of the unity of their origin and in the historical law of development, which interconnects all phenomena in nature with one another. Hence for us evolution is just as unquestionable a fact as the facts directly perceived by us, of the existence of the ape and man separately from each other.

Establishing the fact of development, variation, motion as the basic qualities of matter, and the unity of the fundamental laws of dialectics, binding on all forms of motion of matter (the law of the unity of opposites, the law of negation of the negation, and the law of the passing of quantity into quality and vice versa), materialist dialectics at the same time emphasizes with all its force the extreme multiformity and the specific qualitative distinctions of the various forms of motion of matter, and the laws characteristic of the different stages of development of matter: and consequently the necessity of the existence of special independent sciences studying these different forms of motion.

In this respect the dialectical conception of universal development--proved by Hegel and materialistically refashioned by Marx, Engels, and Lenin--covers the Darwinian theory of organic evolution, which is the concrete expression of the dialectical process applied to the biological form of motion of matter, and at the same time makes it possible to overcome a number of methodological errors and contradictions on these questions accumulated within the limits of bourgeois natural science.

Precisely from this point of view, biological phenomena, historically connected with physical phenomena in inorganic nature, are none the less not only not reducible to physico-chemical or mechanical laws, but within their own limits as biological processes display varied and qualitatively distinct laws. Thereby biological laws do not in the least lose their material quality and cognisability, requiring only in each case methods of research appropriate to the phenomena studied.

The necessary consequence of the above is a conclusion as to the dialectical development of matter by leaps, bound up with qualitative revolutionary changes as a result of the accumulation of quantitative changes, and the idea of the relative autonomy of the biological process, advancing not only in circumstances of interaction with the physical conditions of its surroundings, but also as a result of the development of the internal contradictions latent in the biological system itself. By this means are overcome the over-simplified mechanistic attempts to conceive of the biological process of development as the result of only the physical influences of external surroundings, or of similar physical and physico-chemical processes inside the organism itself or its genes, by which means, it is alleged, it is possible to explain the most complex and qualitatively peculiar phenomena of mutatory variation, and thereby the whole process of formation of species. At the same time this standpoint also overcomes the metaphysical opposition of the biological to the physical, as an absolutely autonomous and independent principle, to the extent that this biological is considered in its indissoluble historical connection with physical phenomena (as a higher form of motion, originating out of lower inorganic forms of motion of matter), and also its dynamic connection (metabolism).

At the same time dialectical methodology by no means eliminates the role of the external and physical in the process of organic evolution, requiring only a sharp definition of these conceptions in each case, and the recognition of the multiformity of all those forms of connection which exist between organisms and their external surroundings, between the "biological" and the "physical." Thus the physical constitutes the necessary condition in the framework of which the biological process takes place, but at the same time it enters as a necessary aspect into the biological process as such. Furthermore, it may be the direct stimulus of mutatory variations in the germ plasm, thus simultaneously being both external and internal in relation to the "biological." Finally, it may serve as the controlling factor which, in the process of natural selection, determines the very course of the evolutionary process, and therefore acts as the creator of biological forms. In this way the "external" is composed not only of the physical conditions of the external surroundings, but also of the biological encirclement by a milieu of other organisms, and also--in the case of the evolution of man--the social-economic relations prevailing within human society.

Differentiating the conception of the biological as an expression of ontogenetic development, on the one hand, and phylogenetic development on the other, materialist dialectics considers as a particular, most complex form of considers phylogenesis as a interaction of the "biological" and "physical" (the organism and its surroundings) and of the biological with itself (the biological relationship of organisms). In this conception there are "eliminated," as it were, or retire into the background, both the purely physical laws of the external surroundings, and the "biophysiological" laws of individual development, qualitatively submitting to the new specific laws of historical biology.

Only in virtue of these new relations, regulated by the Darwinian law of the struggle for life and natural selection, do individual inherited variations acquire the force of a factor in the formation of species, and can the most complex phenomena of biological. adaptation (such as protective colouring, mimicry, care for the progeny and the other instincts, parasitism, symbiosis, etc.), receive their rational materialist explanation.

At the same time there finally collapse the equally barren attempts to embrace all the complexity and multiformity of the world through a single mathematical formula of the mechanical movement of molecules, or through the vitalistic idea of a single "principle of perfection," in effect representing an attempt to know and explain the world through the inexplicable and the unknowable.

One of the forms of consciously or unconsciously accepted mechanistic views on the nature of things is the attempts mechanistically to transfer biological laws to the sphere of social and historical relations, in which once again is forgotten the fundamental dialectical law of the qualitative peculiarity of the laws appropriate to every form of motion of matter. These attempts, in the shape of so-called "social Darwinism," strive to find in the biological law of the struggle for existence a justification for capitalist competition, racial and class inequality, and war as a factor of "selection." While they reveal with peculiar vividness the class limitations of scientific theory, and the role of the bourgeois scientist as the ideologue reflecting the interests of his class, at the same time these theories suffer from the basic methodological defect of failing to understand all the specific conditions, in the shape of social-economic productive relations, which condition the laws of the social-historic process, allotting to biological factors a remotely subordinate importance.

At the same time, even remaining within the framework of biological factors and laws, we cannot but remark the patently arbitrary interpretation of biological facts on the part of bourgeois eugenists, who attempt to consider the social inequality of men as the direct result of biological inequality in their inherited characters. Since, apart from the relativity and class content of the very conception of a "better" and "worse" genetic fund, it is precisely the biologically established facts of the persistence and resisting capacity of hereditary characteristics, in relation to the influences of external surroundings, and not the Lamarckian point of view, which necessarily explain the fact, confirmed by the objective course of history, that, notwithstanding unfavourable external conditions--agelong underfeeding, unemployment and other privations connected with poverty--in the ranks of the working class there grow up ever new fighters for a better future for humanity, while the country building Socialism has at once found its own military leaders, its builders of national economy, science and technique, who have been able to provide the best examples of planned work and organisation of national life.

It is quite normal that the industrial bourgeois class, progressive in its day, saw in the consciously formulated positions of materialist radicalism a theoretical support for its struggle against the influence of the Church and the religious-idealistic ideology which served as a support for the conservative forces of feudalism. That is why the materialist nucleus of the Darwinian theory was at first received with approval by the ideologues of the bourgeoisie, as a scientific proof and justification of the principles of free capitalist competition. And it is just as normal that, in the measure of the growth of economic contradictions, we observe in present-day scientific literature of the bourgeois West more and more frequent attempts to revise Darwinism, and to return to patently idealistic and mystical conceptions--up to and including the open persecution of evolution (the monkey trial in America), and the quest in the embraces of the Church and the Bible for the reply to problems of the universe and for the revival of waning faith m the stability of the capitalist system.

All these facts prove the socio-historical and class determinateness of scientific theories.

Reflecting the state of the material forces of production and the socio-economic relations of the particular historical epoch, scientific theories express not only the actual state and level of knowledge attained by science, but also the ideological justification of the economic interests of warring groups and classes. At the same time they represent a guide to action in the hands of the social groups sharing the theory concerned. That is why the proletariat, fighting for the social reconstruction of the whole world and laying the foundations of a new society and a new culture, is faced with the task of critically reviewing the whole of the heritage received by us from bourgeois science, and of overcoming the theoretical structures which, while not following from the true correlation of things, at the same time expose the class features and purposefulness of the social formations which created that science in the past. The necessity of this is dictated not only by the common interest in cognition of the truth of the world surrounding us, but also by the immediate interests of the struggle of the working class for its emancipation from the economic yoke and ideological influence of hostile classes, in the countries of capitalism, and by the practical problems of Socialist construction in all spheres of national economy in the U.S.S.R., organised by the proletariat on the foundations of the scientific study of the laws of development of nature and human society. Herein lies the cause of the profound interest in and attention to scientific theory, to scientific theoretical research, and to history of sciences, which are displayed in the Soviet Union.

The correct definition of the relationship of the biological and physical sciences, and in particular the relationship of the "physical" and "biological" in the biological process--on the one hand of individual development, and on the other of the formation of species and production of new breeds of domestic animals and cultivated plants--becomes of vast significance in the planned solution of the problems of large-scale Socialist agriculture and cattle breeding. These necessitate the overcoming both of the mechanistic and Lamarckian conceptions, widely held among the majority of practical cattle breeders, which seek a solution of the whole problem in artificial physical influence on the organism: and of the autogenetic enthusiasm of the geneticists, who think that the tasks of the Socialist Five Year Plan are covered by the application of the methods of modern genetics and selection, ignoring the role and importance of the rest of man's system of social measures based on the influence of the external physical surroundings on the development of the phenotype and the possible emergence of new inherited variations.

Finally, these theoretical conclusions are of no less importance in solving the practical problems arising out of the reorganisation of the whole system of pedagogy, and of the scientific reconstruction of physical culture, sanitation and hygiene of the human body, which also require for their adequate solution on each occasion theory tested by fact and methodically thought out, and relying inter alia also upon a correct definition of the relationship of the physical, biological and socio-historical sciences.

Affirming the unity of the universe and the qualitative multiformity of its expression in different forms of motion of matter, it is necessary to renounce both simplified identification and reduction of some sciences to others, as the supporters of the mechanistic and positivist currents in the sphere of natural science strive to do, and sharp demarcation and drawing of absolute watersheds between the physical, biological and socio-historical sciences--which frequently take the form of admitting the existence of the causal determinateness of phenomena only in the sphere of physical science, while proposing to seek in biological science for teleological solutions, and in the sphere of socio-historical phenomena completely abandoning the search for any order and explanation of the course of historical processes at all.

Since the concrete reality of the phenomena we study is in unity and complex interaction with the whole totality of surrounding phenomena, every exhaustive and worth-while piece of research requires the consideration and drawing in of all contiguous branches of science and the particular methods of research which they represent, and at the same time the subordination of all the sciences to the single gnoseology and methodology of dialectical materialism.

The numerous attempts to revise the conceptions of mechanical materialism--unsatisfactory to the modern naturalist, but the sole conceptions with which he was familiar--without falling into the embraces of vitalism, are condemned beforehand to failure so long as the naturalist remains within the bounds of a methodology based on formal logic and of metaphysical searches for the essence of things, as isolated absolutes, irrespective of their connection and interaction with surrounding phenomena, and without taking into account those variations, that motion, which characterises the dialectical development of the whole world.

At the same time these searches bear witness to the fact that modern natural science is undergoing a profound crisis, hindering its further normal development, and that the general level of knowledge attained is ripe for the conscious application of the dialectical method.

All the more is it a matter for regret that the modern naturalist, when studying problems of philosophy and the history of natural science, remains unaware that these problems of overcoming, on the one hand, the most reactionary idealistic and vitalistic currents of thoughts, and on the other the oversimplified mechanistic positions of vulgar materialism, were not only formulated but solved in their basic and characteristic principles more than seventy years ago, in the classic works of the founders of the philosophy of dialectical materialism, Marx and Engels, and in our own times in the profound works of Lenin.