Exactly 150 years ago, on 1st July 1858, the most revolutionary theory ever concieved by the human mind was revealed to the world. A combined reading of the writings of Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin was arranged at the Linnean Society in Piccadilly before an audience of amateur scientists. Both men had arrived, independently, at the same idea: natural selection. The following year Darwin would popularise his theory (I prefer to say “discovery”) by publishing On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, a book that has made an even greater contribution to human understanding and self-knowledge than Marx’s Capital . Wallace (for reasons too involved and contentious to go into here) never achieved Darwin’s fame and influence and is now largely forgotten.
But in any case it’s the cold, beautiful and incredibly simple idea itself that matters. As Richard Dawkins writes in The Selfish Gene (Oxford, 1976):
“Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’ Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin. To be fair, others had had inklings of the truth, but it was Darwin who first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist.”
Darwin’s big idea was, of course, attacked by most religions until its scientific credentials became so unassailable in the course of the Twentieth Century that mainstream religious authorities (in the West, anyway) had to find ways to reconcile themselves with evolution, leaving opposition to a minority of fundamentalist nutters and to non-Western religions (noteably of late, Islam).
I’m also not forgetting that the Twentieth Century also brought the hideous aberration of “social Darwinism”, used to justify all manner of brutality and barbarism, up to and including Nazism.
Why should any of this matter to socialists? Well, it’s been a recurring and unifying theme of this blog that rational, scientific thought is an essential prerequisite for any sort of socialism worthy of the name. Marx referred to Darwinism as the eqivalent in natural history to his and Engels’ approach to history (see letter to Engels, 19 December 1860) and even presented a copy of Capital to Darwin, inscribed from “his sincere admirer”. Perhaps more importantly, it is impossible to concieve of an effective socialist movement (as opposed to individuals) that has not based itself upon rational, enlightenment values and embraced basic scientific truths like evolution and atheism. That’s why I for one get so impatient with the relativists and their supposedly “Marxist” apologists (one or two of whom comment here from time to time), who downgrade rationalism and enlightenment values, apparently in the cause of appeasing religious fundamentalists and other ignorant people. We cannot assume that the battle has been won and lapse into complacency, especially now that the forces of ignorance have been augmented by the relativists and some would-be “Marxists”.
Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London recently told the Observer : “Today I get dozens of students who ask to be excused lectures on evolution because of their religious beliefs. They even accuse me of telling lies when I say natural selection is backed by the facts. So I ask if they believe in Mendel’s laws of genetics? They say yes, of course. And the existence of DNA? Again, yes. And genetic mutations? Yes. The spread of insecticide resistance? Yes. The divergence of isolated populations on Islands? Yes. And do you accept that 98 per cent of DNA is shared by humans and chimps? Again yes. So what’s wrong with natural selection? It’s all lies, they say. It beats me…(but) it’s a passing phase. In 20 years , this nonsense will have gone.”
Let’s hope he’s right.