Potential Social Implications of Recent Developments in Evolutionary Theory

The last meeting of the 17 Group and the breakup for 2012 will take place on Wednesday the 5th of December at 7 pm in unit 6 at 20 Drury St West End. It will be addressed by David Biggins on the topic “ Potential Social Implications of Recent Developments in Evolutionary Theory”.

Here is a summary of David’s talk:

Ever since it was published a hundred and fifty years ago, Darwin’s theory of evolution by ‘natural selection’ has had a huge influence on our thinking about the nature of human beings and the possibilities for human society. A central inference of Darwinian theory seems to be that humans are innately competitive, because of the struggle for “survival of the fittest”, and therefore we have little alternative to the sort of scenarios put forward by ‘Social Darwinists’ and eugenicists of the 19th century, or free marketeers and neo-liberals of the 20th century.

Today’s ‘neo-Darwinism’ ( in which 19th century Darwinism is combined with 20th century genetics, DNA theory, the ‘selfish gene’, the human genome project, blah, blah, blah….. ) is a thorough-going genetic determinism, the implications of which are unrelenting conflict and gross social inequality, plus a heavy dose of fatalism and nihilism.

However, some developments in biology in the second half of the 20th century challenge this version of Darwinism, and their social implications are almost exactly the opposite of the bleak scenario promoted above.

Three developments stand out: co-evolution, symbiogenesis, and niche theory. In my talk I shall attempt to explain each of these simply and briefly. Co-evolution shifts the focus of evolution from individual competition to co-evolution of communities of organisms and their environment (ecology and ecosystems). Symbiogenesis has established that in the actual record of evolution of life on Earth, symbiotic (ie co-operative, not competitive) relationships have been responsible for some of the most important advances in evolution. Niche theory recognises that organisms can change the selection pressures to which they and their offspring are subject, thereby throwing a spanner into the works of natural selection, the central causal mechanism of Darwinian theory.

Taken together, these three developments challenge virtually all the fundamental tenets of Darwinism. They suggest that success in life comes not so much from superior individuals who ruthlessly out-compete all rivals, but from complex communities working and learning together over long periods, and that cooperation is an absolutely vital key to success.

To sum up:

The old view provides a model of humans and society focused on the individual, who is isolated, always at risk of attack, fighting against nature, motivated by self-interest, alienated and alone. A central concept is genetic determinism, which re-inforces individualism and conflict with nature, and adds fatalism.

In the new view, the focus is on the community and its natural and social context, and the important concerns are relationships, diversity of relationships, networks and their complexity, connectivity and reciprocity, and co-determination. Applied to the human social context, these concerns support the individual in social mode, promote social cohesion and the well-being of all.

Here is a short biographical account of the speaker:


I trained in science (agriculture, microbiology, biochemistry) but was always humanities-oriented. I retrained in history and philosophy of science and was a founding faculty member of the “Science, Technology and Society” programme at Griffith University where I taught for over a decade. A favourite memory of this time is a Saturday evening spent with about 200 other men (women were held separately) in the main cell of the Brisbane Watchhouse, following an anti-uranium rally, an evening that a beaming Dan O’Neill described as “just like a party, with all the people you would want to invite”.

As a colleague once said, “the trouble with philosophy is that it’s all so attenuated”, so after about ten years I felt the need to do something more concrete. I became involved in the Queensland Workers Health Centre, retrained in occupational health and safety, moved to Perth (where I grew up), and established the Occupational Health and Safety programme at Edith Cowan University, Perth, from where I later retired. I continue to live in Perth, blessedly “the most isolated capital city in the world”.

As is more or less necessary in academia, I wrote papers – over a wide range: science and science education, politics of science, philosophy of science and social philosophy, research ethics, and occupational health and safety (workplace hazards, workers participation, industrial democracy, politics and policy making). I tried, not always successfully, to make all this accessible to a wide audience, publishing in Social Alternatives, Arena, New Doctor (Doctors Reform Society), Australian Science Teachers Journal, blah, blah, blah…

I took early retirement (my best career decision) in 1999. Since then I have done many enjoyable things (singing in two choirs, listening to Sibelius, Bach and the Beach Boys, spending time with friends, talking to the chooks, travelling, swimming, gardening…. and eventually returning to some issues spanning science and philosophy which have troubled me for a long time. Some of these are the subject of tonight’s talk. I very much look forward to your responses and discussion.

And Leon, I hear you ask, what does he say? He has sent this, from an old publication of his:

Darwin destroyed the last of my ideological prejudices. … The idea of evolution and determinism … took possession of me completely. … Darwin stood for me like a mighty doorkeeper at the entrance to the temple of the universe. … I was the more astonished when I read in one of the books of Darwin, his autobiography, I think, that he had preserved his belief in God. I absolutely declined to understand how a theory of the origin of species by way of natural and sexual selection, and a belief in God, could find room in one and the same head.

However it has been commented on by a comrade, to this effect:

Dear Comrade,

Our Comrade Trotsky writing in the “Review” (November, Page 326), states that Darwin “did not lose his belief in God, etc.” This, I believe, is incorrect, and offer some proofs:—

“I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation . . . this disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.”
(Autobiography of Charles Darwin—from Life and Letters, Vol. 1, pages 308-9).

“I never gave up Christianity until I was forty years of age”—and again—“I am with you in thought, but I should prefer, the wordAgnosticto the wordAtheist.’”

From the “Religious Views of Charles Darwin”—a pamphlet written by Dr. Aveling recording an interview between Darwin, Aevling and Buchner—of which Francis Darwin writes, “Dr. Aveling gives quite fairly his impressions of my father’s views.”
(Life and Letters, Vol. I, page 317).

Aveling’s “impressions” have nothing to do with it. A fact is a fact. So then, Darwin was not only not a Christian, but an unbeliever in Deity, though, like Huxley, he preferred the word Agnostic—but as regards the two militant atheists he was “with them in thought.”

Francis Darwin was very unwilling to admit his father’s position, and Darwin himself was very reticent. They buried him in Westminster Abbey—but he had no part in that—and the roof all but collapsed a few years afterwards—poetic justice, but no moral to be drawn.


The editor said at the time: We hoped to have had Comrade Trotsky’s observations on the above letter in time for this issue, but we expect it will be forthcoming in due course.—Editor.

Well, Leon eventually came back with this quote from an article he wrote in December 1922:

Taken in a broadly materialist and dialectic sense, Marxism is the application of Darwinism to human society. Manchester Liberalism has attempted to fit Darwinism mechanically into sociology. Such attempts have only led to childish analogies veiling a malicious bourgeois apologia: Marx’s competition was explained as the “eternal” law of the struggle for existence. These are absurdities. It is only the inner connection between Darwinism and Marxism which makes it possible to grasp the living flow of being in its primeval connection with inorganic nature; in its further particularisation and evolution; in its dynamics; in the differentiation of the necessities of life among the first elementary varieties of the vegetable and animal kingdoms; in its struggles; in the appearance of the “first” man or manlike creature, making use of the first tool; in the development of primitive co-operation, employing associative organs; in the further stratification of society consequent on the development of the means of production, that is, of the means of subjugating nature; in class warfare; and, finally, in the struggle for the uplift of the classes.

“Off the subject !” rejoined Comrade Lyte. But at least it shows some sympathy, thought our representative who happened to be there, with the argument to be presented on the 5th. Will the comrades actually turn up though ? Who knows ? Just do so yourself

2 thoughts on “Potential Social Implications of Recent Developments in Evolutionary Theory

  1. References to the talk says:

    They are both on the science, and rather solid going, I’m afraid. But worth it.

    They include extra things that we didn’t have time to cover.

    Reputable journals and institutions.

    Trends Genet. 2009 November, 25 (11):473-475.

    Published online 2009 October 14

    The Origin at 150: is a new evolutionary synthesis in sight?

    Eugene V. Koonin

    National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda,MD, USA.

    Ann N Y Acad Sci 2009Jun 1168:218-28

    An extended synthesis for evolutionary biology.

    Piguliucci M

    Dept of Ecology and Evolution, Stony Brook University, New York, 11794, YSA>

    Both can be found online.

    Please circulate to anyone interested.

    Best wishes,

  2. This is not a “new view”. On the one hand, the intellectual traditions of most of the planet have for millennia proposed a co-operative ecological view of the workings of nature, it is just the recent European bourgeoisie who embraced such culturally elitist notions as social Darwinism.

    However even within the limited intellectual gene pool of the European academies, the notion is not at all new. Peter Kropotkin, the anarchist zoologist, published is book “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution” over a hundred years ago.

    I am glad that Comrade Leon has acknowledged the centrality of Darwinism to so-called scientific socialism. Marxism has boldly embraced the worst traits of self proclaimed cultural superiority that manifested in Europe and proposed them as an inevitable dialectic. fuck that!

    Cooperative ecology is not a new view, it is just not the view of the dominant culture over centuries of imperialism and colonisation. Cooperative ecology was dismissed by Leon and Vladimir as as an anachronistic bourgeois notion of peasants to be buried in history with the emergence of the industrial epoch. Joseph Banks had the same idea in this country.

    see also – “Australian socialism and Aboriginal struggle — a critique.”

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