Darwin and Marxism: Part 1

Ed, the history teacher, has written that Marxism has nothing to do with Darwin. One indication he cites is the fact that Stalin persecuted Darwinist scientists.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia has some interesting entries on these subjects. This encyclopedia was produced in three editions, and it provides the official Soviet Communist Party position for the time it was published. I consulted the third edition, which was completed in the mid-1970s, in its official English translation.

The entry for “Darwinism” (volume 7, pp. 114-116) includes the following explicit denunciation of Lamarckianism:

Darwin explained by a materialist approach the expediency of organization in living things, in contrast to earlier attempts to create a theory of evolution on the assumption of the inherent capacity of organisms to change in response to external influences and to transmit those adaptive changes to their offspring. Thus, for the first time in the history of biology, he constructed a theory of evolution specifically guided by data obtained from economic practice.

It continues by showing the significance of Darwinism for Marxist ideology:

K. Marx and F. Engels and later V. I. Lenin fully appreciated the significance of Darwinism and considered it the natural-historical basis of dialectical materialism.

So, how was it that Stalin decided to purge Darwinists? The Encyclopedia is quite frank in describing the “erroneous, mechanistic views” of Trofim Lysenko, a politically influential geneticist. Despite Ed’s claim, the purge was not directed at “Darwinists.” Rather, it was directed against Mendelian geneticists and anyone else who disagreed with Lysenko, as part of a broader campaign by Stalin to subject every part of the Soviet government and Russian society to the direct control of the Communist Party. Stalin’s purges and totalitarian measures were part of an effort during the 1930s to modernize agriculture and reorganize it along socialist lines, in which the Encyclopedia blames Stalin for “mistakes and excesses.”

Lysenko’s scientific error was in promoting a form of Lamarckianism, and the main problem was that because of his political connections no one dared to actually judge his theories based on their practical results. Stalin and other leaders supported Lysenko on the assumption that his ideas were more in line with Marxist philosophy.

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6 thoughts on “Darwin and Marxism: Part 1

  1. The history is out there. Yeah, it was Darwinists who were purged. Darwin’s theory was prohibited. Darwinists were murdered for teaching and researching under Darwin’s ideas. Darwin was denounced as “too bourgeois.” (Well, Darwin was a rich guy who supported Marx not at all — maybe that ticked them off?)

    Lysenko’s errors were many. In science, his chief error was adopting the view he shared with creationists, that science should be dictated by politics or religion, rather than reflect what the Creator does. Creationists and Lysenko decide what they want the theory to be, then strike off in search of evidence to support it. Science works when it gathers the data available, and then discerns the theory from what nature actually manifests, rather than what one hopes.

    Was there a Soviet denunciation of Lysenko in that encyclopedia? Officially, Lysenko wasn’t denounced until the mid-1970s. In the early 1920s almost all the major geneticists in the world were Russians. They were driven out, or muzzled, and by the 1950s Soviet genetics was decades behind the rest of the world. It was a tragic and dramatic demonstration of error.

    Calling them “Mendelian geneticists” is only trying to mask Darwinian theory. Mendel’s work supported Darwin exactly, and that became clear to Russian geneticists early in the 20th century, and to the rest of the world by the 1940s. Especially with the work in the Morgan fly room at Columbia, it’s become clear that genes are the things Darwin didn’t know about, that he hypothesized had to exist (he called them “gemmules”), in order to keep some traits from being diluted in a population.

    But, go read Ashley Montagu on Lysenko. Get the American Scientist article of the 1990s. Get a series of good histories, and you’ll see the trends, the clear work against Darwin’s theory, the disastrous results, and there really is no explaining it away.

  2. Actually, Lysenko had been conclusively denounced by October 1964, when the All-Union Society of Geneticists and Breeders was organized.

    Darwin’s theory was by no means prohibited. The Mendel-Morgan modification of Darwinian theory was attacked as being too bourgeois and too German, and only the older, “orthodox” version of Darwinian theory was allowed. I will have to look up Montagu, because the other four books I looked at on Lysenko all clearly state that the nature of the conflict was over the “new” science of genetics, not Darwinian theory. There were no creationists in Soviet Russia–they were all Darwinists, because it was the official position of the Communist Party, even while Stalin was in power.

    Lysenko made this quite clear in his 1948 address, “The Science of Biology Today,” which endlessly praises Darwin and Darwinism but viciously attacks Mendel and Mendelism.

    The problem was with the question of how traits were transmitted, and 40 years of Darwinian speculation had been useless in determining a real-life description of how it worked, until Mendel’s laws were independently confirmed and his work was “rediscovered” in 1900. Even then, Mendel’s laws were not universally accepted by Darwinists for many years.

    I am not claiming that Mendel’s laws are inconsistent with Darwinism, simply that they are distinct from late-nineteenth century conceptions of Darwinian theory. Without Mendel’s laws or something like them, there would be no science of genetics, and that is why “genetics” is distinct from “Darwinism,” especially during the time period when Mendel was not known or generally accepted.

    You’ll have to clarify your reference to Montagu–are you referring to one of his books or just that one article? I can’t seem to find a book that specifically addresses Lysenko or addresses historical questions. A search on the archives at http://www.americanscientist.org yields no results for author “Montagu.” The only results for a general search for “Montagu” and “Lysenko” yield irrelevant articles.

  3. Montague’s 1959 book, Human Genetics, discusses claimed abuses of Darwin by both Hitler and Stalin. Montague pointed out that neither Hitler nor Stalin adopted anything from Darwin.

  4. Montagu and Levitan published Textbook of Human Genetics in 1971. However, I think you mean Human Heredity, which was published in 1959. I submitted an InterLibrary Loan request.

    I found via my library database a reference for “By Any Other Name,” A. Montagu, AMERICAN SCIENTIST 77 (4): 315-315 JUL-AUG 1989. Is that the article you were referring to?

  5. You’re right, I remembered wrong: Human Heredity. Appendix E covers Lysenko; see the Nazi stuff scattered throughout, but especially on pp. 65 and 66.

    The magazine article I was thinking of was a 1994 or 1995 piece, and I’ll be doggoned if I can find it. No matter. Check out Wikipedia, or other sources. Lysenko’s bizarre views are fairly well documented, now.

  6. Pingback: Darwin and Marxism: Part 5 « Brainbiter

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