Readers Write In #236: A quick guide to Darwin and Marx

Posted on August 1, 2020

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(by G Waugh)

The focus of the essay will be on how new species of life are created through Darwinian concepts of evolution and how the same concepts were applied to concepts of socio-economic theory by Karl Marx.

Every generation of a species tends to produce the same kind of offspring with characteristics identical or similar to those of the parental generation. This concept is often called Heredity. But the faithful reproduction of parental characteristics in the offspring is not of much importance to the creation of new species at this juncture. Therefore what is crucial to the development of new species and the whole process of evolution is a concept called Variation.

A slight variation in the offspring of a particular species, say the acquisition of a different skin color in a snake or the appearance of an additional digit in the hands of a squirrel is called variation. The probability of an offspring acquiring varied characteristics from that of parents is very, very small.

A natural environment in which a species resides is more often constant if one considers a time interval of say, 100 years. The streams or lakes members of the species frequent for water, the naturally occurring prey for the members of the species, the availability of the female gender of the same species for mating, the availability of sunlight and oxygen to breathe do not change drastically within short intervals such as generations or decades. So as long as the environment remains immune to external changes in climate, chemical composition of air and water, the acquisition of varied characteristics among members of a particular species do not offer anything fruitful for their survival.

However, even after discounting the possibilities of natural disasters such as volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides, floods or forest fires, a natural environment when observed between time lapses such as say three or four centuries or a millenniumtends to display at least some amount of concrete changes with respect to its physical, chemical or climatic conditions. These changes may or may not be favourable to the sustenance of a particular species inhabiting the environment in question.

When the changes end up damaging the survival prospects of the species, all those members that resembled their parents in their characteristics may be pushed towards finding newer methods for survival. Those members which had displayed variation by acquiring newer characteristics different from those of their parents might obtain a slightly higher chance of survival. And those members which indeed were endowed with favourable variations, i.e variations that come in handy in the context of changed environmental factors, manage to survive the threat of environmental change, live for a longer span of time than their siblings who simply photocopied their parents and successfully produce a higher number of offspring.

These offspring that have on account of heredity, acquired the characteristics of their parents which are nothing but varied characteristics that gave their parents the opportunity to survive unfavourable environmental change, now run a higher chance of competing with and replacing the members of the older version of their species.

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 A snake which hitherto had a black skin color suddenly has given birth to an offspring that has a skin color of green. A changed environment where say, eagles and hawks have appeared in abundance has altered the balance of the war against the survival of snakes. In such a scenario, the eagles and hawks go on a rampage devouring snakes with abandon. Black-colored snakes are more in danger because they are too conspicuous on account of their distinctive skin color in the uniform background of forest greenery. As a result, black-colored snakes suffer a terrible loss in their numbers but those snakes that possess green skin have successfully merged with the green background of their habitats and have managed to escape the sight of hungry raptors.

The green-skinned snakes, as a result of their camouflage are able to survive for longer periods in time and produce more offspring while their black-skinned siblings on the other hand, are fast racing towards a terminal decline. After an interval of say ten or more generations, the green-skinned snakes would have emerged the dominant type in the snake species while their black-skinned ancestors would have had a terrible time trying to keep their heads above water.

The example of black vs green snakes has been chosen by me only to simplify the concept of variation and their role in creating new variants of species. I would like to remind the reader that changes of the above kind do not occur in real-time at such an astonishing pace described above. I have skipped a lot of intermediary phases in the black-to-green transition solely with a view to simplifying the process.

Variations in species might take centuries together to become favourable for the member and no single variation in isolation, as described above can in any way tilt the balance in favour of its possessor. Variations need to be cumulative or in other words built layer upon layer for generations together to become useful for the possessor in his struggle for survival. That is precisely why the theory of evolution of species is premised on the most critical phenomenon of ‘accumulated variations of a favourable nature’.

To return to our story, it must be remembered that snakes are not competing with their enemies such as hawks or eagles alone to stay alive in their fight for survival. Most of the time the competition is with members of their own species such as those between green and black-skinned ones, since all members of the species are dependent upon the same sources of nutrition. Competition is not confined to food or oxygen alone as males of the same species compete with one another to attract sexual partners as well. As a result, there is an intense, multi-layered struggle for survival among members of a species and all of these factors play a significant role in propagation and preservation of varied characteristics across generations.

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The accumulation of favoured variations at one distant point in time might result in the emergence of a member of a species that can no longer interbreed with the survivors of its older version and produce fertile offspring. The green-skinned snake thousands of years after its emergence from the womb of a black-skinned ancestor will reach a point where it fails to create healthy offspring after mating with a member of the black-skinned kind. The failure to produce fertile offspring between variants of the same species marks the beginning of the emergence of a completely new species in evolution. In other words, it can be said that green-skinned snakes have succeeded in becoming a species on their own and in the next few generations they will cease to have absolutely no sexual contact with their ancestral survivors.

This is how mankind too emerged, as Harari writes in his book Sapienswhere there was an intense struggle for survival among many different species of the genus Homo. Home erectus, the ancestral species gave rise to other species such as Heidelbergensis, Neanderthal, Denisovans and floresiensis. All of these fraternal species were in constant struggle with one another while a new advanced species that had a slightly better-engineered brain emerged dominant at some point in time from one of the species mentioned above. That species too must have had a long history of struggle with its ancestorsbut it emerged on top at the end, pushing all its competitors to the margins of evolutionary history calling itself Homo Sapiens or the human beings.

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Karl Marx tried to split the phases of progress of human civilization into the following- Primitive Communism, Slavery, Serfdom, Feudalism, Capitalism, Socialism and finally Communism. He strongly believed that each form of political economy mentioned above is birthed by its ancestor. Primitive communism, the earliest ancestral species would have given rise to some other less dominant form of political economy at some point in time akin to a genetic variation occurring in the history of evolution. That form of socio-economic structure might not have made sense on a large scale at that point in time, but in the course of a few centuries, on account of growing population or other factors such as scientific advancement akin to environmental changes occurring in evolutionary time, might have slowly grown in stature. That form of political economy would have been favoured by the winds of time and would have started becoming dominant. The dominant form would have co-existed for sometime with its primitive ancestor, with the former pushing the society in the forward direction while the latter trying desperately to stay relevant under increasingly alien conditions. Mankind within a few generations, would have found itself under a new form of political economy called slavery which, in spite of having a lot of common foundational traits with its ancestral primitive communism, would have differed substantially and immutably in a set of crucial operating parameters.

The advancements achieved by mankind in the process of food production that went by the name of agriculture played a key role in achieving the transition from primitive communism to slavery. Hundreds of years later, new scientific advancements or new emergent ideas in the domain of human thought would have given rise to new forms of exchange and trading among human societies. As a result, slavery would have been done away with and other forms of socio-economic structures such as serfdom and feudalism would have followed suit. The invention of the steam-engine gave rise to the ideas of industrial machinery which soon radically transformed the relations of commodity production. The advancements achieved in sea-faring gave rise to a new class of powerful men who played a great role in manipulating the forces of production at work. These mercantile classes made use of industrial advancement and improvements in long-distance trading to a great extent while snatching the levers of economic power and hegemony from the hands of feudal landlords and local nobility.

The new species that emerged from the womb of its feudal ancestors, called industrial capitalism made quick and optimal use of emergent trends and pushed feudalism to the margins. The intense competition for survival among these socio-political structures dominated the history of human civilization during the final centuries of the last millennium.

Marx hoped that newer strands of thought that emerged from the ‘Enlightenment’ values of democracy, free speech and equality birthed by capitalism would soon give rise to a new variant called social-democracy. His belief in Darwinian ideas and their application to the ideas of sociology and political economy influenced thinkers and politicians of the last century to a large extent. Marx sincerely believed that the favourable variations found among the descendant models of industrial capitalism would soon accumulate and give rise to a more robust and sustainable model for human survival – socialism. Socialism, he believed will soon trump its ancestor by demonstrating its efficacy in the face of social and scientific change and create an altogether new and equitable form of human society.

Marxist historiographers equate the new, dominant socio-political structure at any instant in time with a new form of latest species that have emerged superior on account of accumulated variation over time. They call these structures ‘progressive’ for their role in pushing the level of human thought and behavior to the next level while the societal equivalent of ancestral species that suffer on account of their inherent primitiveness are termed as ‘reactionary/fascist’ structures. It is the pull and push between these two conflicting forces that come to define the history of mankind that are summarized as Dialectical/Historical Materialism by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their numerous epoch-making works on history and sociology.