What Darwin did [was RE: correction...]

David McDonald dbmcdonald at comcast.net
Tue Jul 29 08:49:41 MDT 2003

First, Darwin was talking about REPRODUCTIVE success. I believe toward the
end of his life he may have acquiesced in the use of the term survival of
the fittest by others, including Wallace, but only with great misgivings and
because he thought he had bigger fish to fry.

Few have pondered how deep it was for Darwin to be able to grasp natural
selection in the absence of any clear idea of HOW inheritance worked, and
Stephen Jay Gould is foremost among them.

Gould's last book, which I am slowly making my way through, is a very
extended study of evolutionary theory written in Gould's often maddeningly
discursive style that goes on forever on seemingly side points before honing
in on the meat. In it, he takes on the basic assumption of most evolutionary
biologists working today, that natural selection works on individuals only.
His most worthy opponent is Richard Dawkins, a diehard
selection-at-the-level-of-the-individual proponent. Gould's tack is to go
back and show that all previous evolutionary theories, including Darwin's,
fail to make that case and that selection at the species level is
theoretically required to satisfy the facts. More on this when I have
finished and hopefully digested this 1300-page tome.

The actual mechanism of inheritance was undiscovered until Watson and Crick
published their findings about DNA in 1952. What Mendel did was show that
inheritance works in chunks, rather than by blending--your eyes, resulting
from a green-eyed mom and blue-eyed pop, are not blue-green, but blue or
green. He therefore demonstrated the existence of units of inheritance.
Further, he showed that the units of inheritance, whatever they might be,
can remain submerged for generations and reappear, and, by discovering
certain ratios in succeeding generations, he was able to infer dominance and
recessiveness in the putative essential units of inheritance, which he or
someone else called genes. (I am mixing up alleles and genes here, but that
does not matter in this post.)

Being unable to state the mechanism of inheritance, and thus unable to state
WHY variation might exist let alone how it is passed along once it exists,
Darwin gave a bow in the direction of Lamarck, as noted in the sub-head to
chapter V of The Origin of Species, titled "Use and disuse, combined with
natural selection."

While Marx excoriated Malthus, very amusingly, for instance in Malthus'
assumption that food supplies can only expand arithmetically, whereas
populations tend to expand exponentially, Darwin, as Gould points out,
cleaved to the Malthusian insight that many more individuals are born than
reproduce, and that therefore some of them must be SELECTED by NATURE. This
may have nothing whatsoever to do with any idea of fitness; it may be mostly
being in the right place at the right time, or not being in the wrong place,
such as the planet earth shortly after it had been struck by a mile-wide
asteroid, an event which has extinguished the majority of all species more
than once in the earth's history.

The bit of ideology that really needed to be overthrown in order for
Darwin's insights to reach full fruition (or at least the fruition it has
thus far achieved) was something much deeper and ingrained in (at least)
Western human thought than the mentality of laissez-faire capitalism: the
idea of normative types, which goes back at least to Plato. This ideology
assumes that real, material things are actually unreal reflections of ideal
types or models that exist in an insensible realm, and that the variety
apparent in nature represents variations from an ideal, a norm.

This whole approach has yielded to a different understanding now called
population thinking, most clearly propounded and popularized by Ernst Mayr,
a stone dialectician if ever there was one. (If you read only one book on
biology in your life, let it be "The Growth of Biological Thought".)
Population thinking denies the existence of any norm of a species, from
which variants differ, and argues instead that all species are collections
of populations in which there is no norm, only constantly changing ratios of
genes in which individual genes come into existence and go out of existence
all the time. "The Beak of the Finch" is a real-time chronicle of such
changing ratios.

Now, if you begin with the normative species concept, it is very difficult
to explain change. A big part of Darwin's success, IMHO, is that he started
in the right place, with varieties, and thus the first chapter of The Origin
of Species is Variation under Domestication and the second is Variation in
Nature. He nailed, if you will, that the basic unit of evolution (and of
organic beings on earth) is the variety, just as Marx nailed that the basic
unit of capitalism is the commodity.

When I started reading Darwin a few years ago I was immediately struck by
how similar the experience is to reading Marx. Part of that is just being in
the hands of a master. Part is perhaps that both tried to write for
non-specialists and did so well, although neither shied away from the
ten-line sentence when the complexity of a thought required it. But beyond
this I sense a sameness of method that I am not able to articulate more
clearly at this time. I note that both begin their exegeses with the basic
unit of the phenomenon they are attempting to explain, and very patiently
introduce higher categories based only on mining these actual building
blocks. Perhaps others on the list have pondered this question and can take
it a little further.

David McDonald

-----Original Message-----
From: owner-marxism at lists.panix.com
[mailto:owner-marxism at lists.panix.com]On Behalf Of David Quarter
Sent: Monday, July 28, 2003 11:24 PM
To: marxism at lists.panix.com
Subject: re: correction...

  The statistician and eugenics advocate, Francis Galton  was
Darwin's cousin.

> From:           	"Shane Hopkinson" <s.hopkinson at cqu.edu.au>
> >
> > For example Darwinism may be a more or less accurate
> > rendering of the available evidence but it bears the hallmarks
> > of the survival of the fittest mentality of laissez faire captialism.
> > It doesn't mean its wrong but its ideological in that sense.
> > Many social commentators use findings like Darwins to try
> > and justify social inequalities and when they do its
> > ideological - just like its ideological for us Marxists to say
> > that this is invalid. Knowledge production and use are all
> > part of the struggle.
>  Many of the ideas attributed to Darwin are in fact not Darwin's.
> For example, 'survivor of the fittest' (I was told by a student of
> Darwin and from literature I've read on him) was used reluctantly by
> Darwin and in fact wasn't even a term he coined. It was Spencer --
> Darwin's cousin -- who came up with the idea of hierarchy in the
> animal and human kingdom and hence the notion that only the
> fittest will survive.  Darwin, by contrast, saw evolutionary change as
> resulting by fortuitous factors, quite indepdent of human will.
> >
> >

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