Friday, August 19, 2016

Evolution (1923)

From the February 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

Now that the principle of evolution has found recognition in practically every field of scientific thought, one of the consequences is that the word "evolution” has become quite common. But although it is used more frequently, the word is in many instances used quite fallaciously. It seems to be a general rule that, with the popularisation of any given principle or set of ideas, the student needs to exercise greater care over terms. Phrases too often take the place of thoughts, and owing to a superficial acquaintance with their meaning, they are often used to convey inaccurate ideas, and thus cause a great deal of confusion.

To divert from our main theme here, we may take as an example the phrase, "the materialist conception of history," which is often used in such a way as to signify that the economic factor is the only factor in historical development. This, of course, is quite incorrect. Both Marx and Engels in their time found it necessary to reprove those who were guilty of this inaccuracy. In reply to a student who asked the meaning of historical materialism, Engels wrote: "According to the materialistic view of history the factor which is, in last instance, decisive in history is the production and reproduction of actual life. More than this neither Marx nor I ever asserted. But when anyone distorts this so as to read that the economic factor is the sole element, he converts the statement into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase." (Quoted by Austin Lewis in his introduction to Engels’ work on Feuerbach, page 25.)

In like manner, to return to our main theme, what has occurred in reference to the phrase just mentioned also occurs in reference to the term "evolution.” A theologian once described evolution as "God’s way of doing things,” and probably thought he had coined a fitting description of the term. One may see why many of the theologians endeavour to associate the principle of evolution with their antiquated creeds. When evolution was less known, its advocates were assailed by the dignitaries of the Church, as the enemies of mankind. Now that the advance of science is too strong to oppose, they pretend to see nothing contradictory between science and religion. Eminent divines, such as Dean Inge, Canon Barnes, and others, now claim to accept evolution, but explain it in such a way as to indicate that behind the evolutionary process operates "the hand of God,” as though there were some intelligent power unfolding the movements of the universe. There are others who, while nominally having given up the method of utilising the aid of the supernatural to explain natural processes, yet describe evolution in such a way as places them among the religionists. Many pseudo-Socialists are in this respect among the worst offenders; for with them the term is used to convey the meaning that evolution can be identified with an ethical and moral purpose. The truth is that evolution is apart from our ethical valuations. When we speak of biological evolution, we mean a change in the structure of organisms by a process of development from the simple to the more complex forms— from what are called the lower to what are called the higher forms of life. The biologist, it should be noted, does not use the terms "lower” and "higher” in any ethical sense, but only to indicate a particular differentiation of structure; nor does he assert that all living things are constantly developing into something we call "better.” 

The sum total of the changes in both animal and human societies are expressed in evolution, but from whatever point of view we may regard these changes, whether we choose to call them "good” or "bad,” evolution continues regardless of our ethical standards. Of course, we do not mean to convey the impression that progress has not resulted from the evolutionary process; our purpose is rather one of guarding against any anthropomorphic conceptions such as those stated above. Those who assert that evolution can be identified with conceptions of “justice," “morality,” and suchlike, either consciously or sub-consciously, imply that there is some “power” behind the cosmic process directing natural forces according to plan and with an end in view, which is, to say the least of it, absurd. To the student of the Marxian school the idea of a “conscious purpose” in natural happenings is a figment of the imagination. The constant development of the technical resources of production in modern society results for the capitalists in the ownership of a sum of wealth unequalled by any ruling class in history. Looking at things from this point of view, one can see quite clearly why the capitalists are prepared to shout about the blessings of progress, but to those who produced the wealth—and this wealth also includes the means of production—there is but poverty and insecurity of existence. So far, it appears that social evolution has not favoured the subject class in modern society. But, fortunately, there is another side to the story. With the evolution of capitalist society the capitalists have been rendered a useless parasitic class, they have long since been removed from the productive processes, the whole of the operations necessary to wealth production and distribution are carried out by the working class. This fact is slowly but surely finding its way into the minds of the workers, and will, when it obtains recognition by the majority, result in the establishment of Socialism. Marx and Engels long ago pointed out that the capitalists were their own grave-diggers, not from choice, of course, but from necessity. The evolution of society has placed within the reach of the wage-slaves the means by which they can secure their freedom from capitalist domination, and with the overthrow of capitalist society accomplished, the workers will have brought to a close the last phase in the evolution of human slavery.
Robert Reynolds

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