frontline 8


The recent death of scientist Stephen Jay Gould has brought his ideas back into the public eye, particularily the debate around evolution. Stevie Arnott examines this essential and fascinating debate.

Strife is the father of all things? (with apologies to Heraclitus)

Any Marxist who has read a bit, and thought a bit, will be aware that polemic has a dual nature; that it has both potentially enormous creative and destructive power.

Marx and Engels necessarily waged a merciless struggle for the clarity of their theories against all sorts of utopian, social reformist and anarchist ideas.

Too often, however, as Francis Wheen points out in his must-read biography of Marx, they also eviscerated their opponents, often personally, arguably turning potential allies in the project of building the First International into lifelong enemies.

Lenin and Trotsky's contribution to theoretical clarity through written polemic is awesome. Yet they also went through a period of knocking seven bells out of one another, leaving acres of printed material.

This would later be distorted and used out of context, both by the Stalinists in their struggle against Trotsky and the genuine ideas of socialism, and by right wing academics to link the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union with the 'original sin' of Bolshevism.

And how many Marxist/Trotskyist groupings since the Second World War have been riven asunder as socialists with differences have gone to the theoretical mattresses? Some of these battles were no doubt necessary, but from the long view of history and the penetrating eye of the working class many of these 'vanguardist' disputes seem to be about a theological purity that was ultimately and practically disabling to the movement.

However, theoretical polemic does not belong to Marxism alone. Nor does Marxism as a body of thought stand aloof, untouched and timeless while intellectual debate and discovery in other disciplines rages on around it. One of the most vicious, most important, and perhaps most intriguing polemics of the late 20th century has taken place not in the field of politics but in the field of biology.

Two of the greatest thinkers on - and populisers of - Darwinist theory have clashed in battle over the most important questions imaginable - why are we here? what is our nature? what processes gave rise to the diversity, physicality, instinctual and mental life of all biological organisms on Earth?

'I ain't gonna hit ya. The hell I ain't'

The biggest bar room brawl in science, one that has made the pages of numerous broadsheets, produced cover articles in countless magazines internationally, and has continued with generally increasing heat in the pages of dozens of popular science books, has been the debate over the modern interpretation of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection conducted between Stephen Jay Gould, New York palaeontologist, and developer of the theory of punctuated equilibrium, and English zoologist, Richard Dawkins, author and champion of 'The Selfish Gene'.

Gould passed away recently, but no doubt the debate will continue as both sides have gathered to themselves notable and pugnacious adherents. Not in Our Genes author Steven Rose, and collaborators like Richard Lewontin and Niles Eldredge, regularly go into print to defend the Gouldist view of natural history, while philosopher Daniel Dennett and evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker tending towards the Dawkinist view. Some commentators have tended to see the battle between these two giants of modern Darwinism as a psychologically fuelled spat, driven by personal ambition to be seen as Darwin's true modern heir.

While I would be the first to argue that personal psychology almost always plays a part in human affairs, I think that is unfair to both protagonists. Their differences are real and important and worthy of study (though perhaps, as we shall see, there is no fundamentally unbridgeable gulf). Before we examine these differences, however, it's worth noting just how much these two do agree on.

Taken as red

Both men agree that life on Earth has evolved over the last 4 billion years from one or a handful of proto-bacterial ancestors. They agree that these very fundamental forms of life were themselves probably the results of natural selection processes amongst pre-organic replicators.

They agree that life in all its manifest variety, including intelligent life, can be explained as a result of material processes, naturally occurring and universal in nature, and that therefore we need invoke neither divine Creators nor mysterious spacemen to explain our existence.

Consequently both would hold that any teaching of children that eschews science for creationist views or supernatural explanations of the world amounts to the systematic intellectual and mental abuse of children. Similarly both would reject that most negative aspect of post-modern thinking; that the scientific view of the world is just one amongst many that are equally legitimate. For both, the scientific method is the best way to develop our understanding of the world and our place in it.

They would both hold that the Darwinian concept of natural selection is the keystone of any complete theory of the development of life, and that natural selection is as unquestionably true as the fact that that the Earth revolves around the sun. Both would probably define selection as a natural property of the heritable variance within any replicating/reproducing population in a given environment.

Points of agreement are often crucial in understanding paths of divergence. So what exactly does this mean?

Within any given population there will be variations in fitness or adaptability to the host environment. Even if these variations across the population are initially small, those members of the population better adapted will on average be more likely to survive and have offspring. If some of those variations are heritable, then, over a number of generations, those adaptations will become dominant within the population. New species develop when the cumulative adaptive changes within a given group become sufficiently divergent from the ancestor biological form that the new can no longer breed with the old.

Quantitative changes ultimately lead to a qualitative transformation. A species of poisonous frog in the Amazon becomes so lethally toxic precisely because of natural selection.

The equation is so devastatingly simple and obvious that one famous contemporary of Darwin was moved to say: "Now why didn't I think of that?"

Variation in toxicity across frog population X + Environment favouring higher reproduction rates in more toxic frogs = Very poisonous frogs

These same material processes would underlie any coherent explanation of life anywhere in the universe, and both men would probably be surprised if it turned out that the universe was not teeming with life.

Finally, and importantly, both evolutionists would agree, albeit perhaps with a different emphasis, that simplistic right wing models of evolution - 'survival of the fittest' - as undiluted cut-throat competition, an unceasing biological Will to Power, can no longer be seen as in any way scientifically tenable.

Co-operation; between cells and groups of cells, between individual organisms, and groups and species of organism, are a vital part of the modern Darwinian story. (See my article Nasty Nick and Natural Selection in Frontline Issue 2).

All of this is non-controversial, and should be accepted and celebrated by Marxists as a necessary part of any coherent materialist view of the world. It was not for nothing that Marx and Engels held the work of Darwin in very high regard.

And an understanding of basic evolutionary theory is, I would argue, essential for Marxists and socialists in the ideological battles we have to conduct with right wing ideologues on issues such as nature and nurture, personal freedom, human nature, greed and selfishness.

Over the last 30 years right wing economic neo-liberalism and reaction has often come accompanied with the sauce of crude biological determinism. At an even deeper level, the points of interest for Marxists about the debate between the Gouldists and the Dawkinists are two fold.

Firstly, how can conjectures, rival emphases and theories - which are ultimately all open to academic scrutiny and the golden test of scientific falsification - lead to such a vicious and intemperate ongoing clash, that normally careful thinkers end up effectively slandering and misrepresenting the views of their opponents?

Secondly, as we shall see, the real differences between the two are about something fundamental to Marxist theory- the real nature of the process of change.

We'll return to the first point later, but first let's make an overview of the theoretical differences that circumscribe this battle royale of 21st century evolutionary thinking.

The Big Idea vs The Big Picture

The first key difference is about the fundamental level of selection. Dawkins famously and persuasively promotes the idea that the fundamental unit of natural selection is the gene.

To say that a certain adaptive feature is selected and has evolved within a species is to say that a certain gene or gene sequence that codes for those characteristics has been selected.

Further, though this process is a wholly blind and unconscious one, Dawkins argues that all organisms – coral, fish, birds, bats, elephants, you and I – are vehicles, albeit superbly adapted vehicles, for their genes.

Their only 'purpose' in evolutionary terms, is to survive and to replicate and to pass on that replication to the next generation of organisms. In making this point, Dawkins is neither being as crude a reductionist or dehumaniser as some of his opponents have made him out to be.

His work is redolent with images and examples of the profundity and complexity of evolution. His argument is precisely that a very simple algorithmic process drives the enormous fecundity and diversity of life we see all around us.

Dawkins' contribution is that he has broken the process of evolution down to its most basic building blocks and laid bare its mechanics.

Gould, however, eschews this view of evolution as at best one-sided and quite often just plain wrong. Gould and his co-thinkers across the world, often from a clearly left perspective, have waged an ongoing struggle against what they see as determinism in biology.

They reject the idea that genes are 'for' certain characteristics in any straightforward causative sense.

Virtually every second week now some broadsheet will carry a story that this or that research team has found the gene 'for' homosexuality, 'for' baldness, 'for' vandalism, 'for' this disease or that.

Gould argues that this is scientific reductionism at its misinformative and simplistic worst – and surely he has a point.

For Gould, life's grandeur cannot be explained alone by a story that places the gene as its central character. To do so is to allow the big idea to drown out the big picture.

And Gould's picture of the development of living things is one where natural selection takes place at the level of the organism itself – it is toxic frogs that are selected for deep in the Amazon jungle, not toxic frog genes. And contingency, accident, and chance have their role to play in the development of life's web.

Natural selection can only work with the raw materials it has to hand. If an asteroid collision had not wiped out the dinosaurs, you would not even be here, reading this article, though a member of a wholly different intelligent species might be reading something like it.

Gould even argues that species themselves, through the process of speciation, are subject to the laws of natural selection.

Above all, Dawkins and his supporters emphasise the steady gradualist and accumulative march of small, incremental changes in a species over long chains of generations.

For Gould, this is less important than the sharp changes in evolutionary history, the mass extinctions and environmental crises that produce rapid and explosive revolutionary change.

Part Two of this article will appear in the next issue of Frontline.