Darwin and Marxism: Part 4

How did Lysenko’s ideas compare to Darwin’s? Here are some of Lysenko’s ideas about biology, taken from the pamphlet printing of his 1948 address.

This is his summary of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, of which he implicitly approves:

Selection of variations favorable to the organism has produced the purposefulness which we observe in living nature: in the structure of organisms and their adaptation to their conditions of life. [p. 9]

Here he approvingly summarizes the view of Friedrich Engels, the friend and collaborator of Marx. It is based on Engels’ book Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy:

In Engels’ opinion, three great discoveries enabled man’s knowledge of the interconnection of natural processes to advance by leaps and bounds: first, the discovery of the cell; second, the discovery of transformation of energy; third, the proof which Darwin first developed in connected form that the stock of organic products of nature surrounding us today, including mankind, is the result of a long process of evolution from a few original unicellular germs, and that these again have arisen from protoplasm or albumen which came into existence by chemical means. [p. 10]

Here Lysenko departs from Darwin:

Darwin’s theory, though unquestionably materialist in its main features, is not free from some serious errors. A major fault, for example, is the fact that, along with the materialist principle, Darwin introduced into his theory of evolution reactionary Malthusian ideas. [p. 10]

Malthusianism is pretty basic to evolutionary theory, but it was sometimes used as a justification for withholding social welfare from the poor, on the grounds that it would only encourage them to keep breeding and eventually use up all their resources anyway. Most progressive liberals don’t like this aspect of Malthusianism either.

Lysenko also didn’t like the concept of “intraspecies struggle”:

Today there is absolutely no justification for accepting the erroneous aspects of the Darwinian theory, those based on Malthus’s theory of overpopulation with the inference of a struggle presumably going on within species. And it is all the more inadmissible to represent these erroneous aspects as the cornerstone of Darwinism (as I. I. Schmalhausen, B. M. Zavadovsky, and P. M. Zhukovsky do). [p.12]

Here Lysenko is not rejecting “Darwinism” as such; he is rejecting those who say that Malthusian ideas are essential to Darwinism. He wants to purify Darwinism, and rejecting intraspecies struggle was a part of that, because when applied to social struggle it implied that the proletariat could not be unified.

Then Lysenko makes his central ideological argument:

The materialist theory of the evolution of living nature involves recognition of the necessity of hereditary transmission of individual characteristics acquired by the organism under the conditions of its life; it is unthinkable without recognition of the inheritance of acquired characters. [p. 13]

Some Marxists saw this as necessary because they thought the organism had to be formed by both internal and external material conditions of its life, and that included the formation of the characteristics that would be passed on to its offspring. (This is usually denoted as Neo-Lamarckianism, because it is not strictly in agreement with Lamarck’s original ideas.)

David Joravsky, in The Lysenko Affair (1970), argues that Lysenkoism had only incidental similarities to Lamarckianism, due to Lysenko’s basic arrogance toward his political enemies and his reliance on the practical, non-scientific experience of breeders (pp. 208-209).

Interestingly, Ernst Mayr makes a similar observation in his introduction to the Harvard University Press 1964 edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, citing page numbers from the original printing of Darwin’s first edition:

It is well known that Darwin did not understand the causation of variability: no one did until this particular problem was elucidated by genetics after 1900. Perhaps largely owing to the influence of his friends among animal and plant breeders, Darwin was convinced of the important effect of the environment on variability, as is indicated on pp. 7, 43, 82, and 467; for instance, “a change in the conditions of life, by specially acting on the reproductive system, causes or increases variability” (p. 82). [p. xxv]

Furthermore, Mayr notes that “Darwin admits use and disuse as an important evolutionary mechanism” [p. xxv]:

The importance he gives to use or disuse is indicated by the frequency with which he invokes this agent of evolution in the Origin. I find references on pp. 11, 43, 134, 135, 136, 137, 447, 454 455, 472, 473, 479, and 480.

True to his principles, Darwin was not satisfied merely to accept the observational evidence of the effect of disuse. He insisted on causal explanation, and this is what led him to his unfortunate genetic theory of pangenesis. [p. xxvi]

However, Mayr explicitly denies the claim that Darwin only accepted Lamarckian principles in the later editions of Origin of Species, due to an unfavorable 1867 review by Fleeming Jenkin:

It seems that Darwin always allowed for some directive influence on variation and if Jenkin’s review had any impact on him, it was merely to strengthen these beliefs. [p. xxvi]

This helps to explain why Mendelism was so contentious in the first part of the twentieth century, and why Julian Huxley had to announce the combination of Darwinism and Mendelism as a “new synthesis” in 1942.

The disputes over genetics within Darwinian theory don’t excuse Lysenko’s superficial and tendentious approach to science, however, and it is obvious that Lysenko thought that Darwinism needed to be interpreted in the light of Marxist philosophy. But given that in most respects Marxists consider Marxism to be a self-contained and all-embracing philosophy, why did Lysenko even bother to use Darwinism in his rhetorical appeals?


One thought on “Darwin and Marxism: Part 4

  1. Pingback: Neo-Lamarckism « Brainbiter

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