Monday, October 8, 2018

Evolution, to Engels--and a kind of lesson for us all?

We tend to think of Friedrich Engels as Karl Marx's pal, co-author, supporter--and financial benefactor.  That's all true.  But he was also perhaps a better synthesizer of ideas, and certainly a more approachable author.  A core aspect of their economic idea was that, through historic processes, the nature of societies evolve, from simple states of our early human forebears ultimately to come to rest as communism.  I am no expert but I think that since there would then (they thought) no longer be opposition or competition, history would, so to speak, come to an end.  At least the uninterrupted history of unfairness, conflict, strife, and governments that oppressed their people. A good discussion of Engels' life can be heard in a recent broadcast/podcast presented recently on BBC Radio.

That Beeb program went over many things about Engels that are familiar to anthropologists, among others.  But it ended by referring to a work I'd not known of, a partly unfinished book on science called The Dialectics of Nature, which is available on line or as a pdf.  The latter has an Introduction by JBS Haldane, one of the early 20th century's founding evolutionary geneticists, and a political leftist.

Image result for friedrich engels
Engels. (One of many versions on the web)

Engels discusses the various sciences as existed at the time (1883).  Haldane points out some errors that were known by his (Haldane's) time, but Engels' book is a surprisingly deep, broad review of science at his time.  I do not know how Engels knew so much science, but apparently he did.

Although Engels never completed it, the book was written only about 25 years after Darwin's Origin of Species, which to Engels was highly relevant to his views on society.  But he went much further! He viewed essentially everything, not just human society, as evolving phenomena.  While with various errors based on what was known at the time, he recognized astronomical change, geological evolution, and biological evolution as manifestations of the fundamental idea that things cosmic were not Created and thereafter remaining static, as prevailing biblically-derived views generally held, but had beginnings, and then changed.  Engels applied his ideas to inanimate physical phenomena as they were then understood, as well as to life itself. In essence, his view was that everything is about change, with human society as just another instance.

Engels was looking for what we might call universal 'laws', in this case concerning how systems change.  This would be a major challenge, by science, to the theologically based idea that once Created, worldly things were mainly constant.  Engels noted that the classic Greeks had had a more 'modern' and correct view of the dynamics of existence than western Europe had developed under the reign of the Church.

Engles' book shows how grand thinking had led to, or could be made consistent with, the social thinking by which Marx and Engels could believe that sociocultural evolution was similarly non-static.  If so, they claimed to see how societal dynamics would lead to future states in which the rather cruel, relatively primitive nature of nation states in his time would evolve to a fairer, more egalitarian kind of society.  But Dialectics of Nature shows that Engles was thinking very broadly and 'scientifically', in the sense of trying to account for things not just in terms of opinions or wishes, but of natural forces, and the resulting dynamics of change.  He wasn't the only one in his time who thought that the idea of an evolutionary process enabled one to predict its outcome--as seemed to be possible in physics and chemistry.

I am no Engels scholar, and I had no idea he was so knowledgeable about science as it stood at his time, nor that the idea of evolutionary change that he and Marx applied to society was, in a sense, based on the finding, in their view, of similar kinds of change in the physical cosmos.  This in a sense, conveniently made the extension of the theory to society seem quite logical, or perhaps even obvious, and as noted above, many were speculating in similar ways.  Marx and Engels scholars must be aware of this, but when I was exposed to these theories as an anthropology graduate student decades ago, I did not know of this connection between social and physical dynamics and evolution.

These alleged connections or similarities do not make the Marxist conclusions 'true', in the sense of scientific truth.  The idea that geology and species evolve may seem similar to the idea that societal structures evolve.  But just because two areas have some sort of similarity, or change over time and space, does not mean they have the same causes.  Human culture involves the physical aspects of a society's environment, but culture is largely or mainly about human interactions, beliefs, kinship, and so on.  There is no necessary physically causal or deep connection between that and species evolution or the growth and erosion of mountain ranges.  A planetary orbit, a hula hoop, and an orange are all more or less 'round', but that does not establish connections between them.

At the same time, Engels worked at the height, one might say, of the idea that there were universal 'laws of Nature'.  Darwin informally likened evolution to planetary motion, with law-like properties, and in some of his writing (e.g., about barnacles) he seems to have believed in a kind of selective inevitability--some species being, essentially, on the way to a terminal end found in related species (terminal, at least, as Darwin saw them in his time).  This may not be as benighted as it may seem.  Biologists still debate the question of what would happen if you could 'rewind the tape' of evolution, and start over.  Some have argued that you'd get the same result.  Others vigorously oppose this sort of belief in predictable destiny.

Given the ambience of science in the 19th century, and in the legacy of the 'Enlightenment' period in Europe only a century or two before, it is not surprising that Engels, wanting society also to be constrained by 'laws' or forces, and hence to be predictable if not leading to inevitable causal effects, would see parallels in the physical world.  Many others in that general time period in Europe had similar law-like ideas about societies. It is, at the very least, interesting that Engles tried to make his social ideas be as reflective of natural laws as are the orbits of planets.

What about us, today?
It is easy to look back and see what was 'in the air' in some past time, and how it influenced people, even across a spectrum of interest areas.  In this case, evolutionary concepts spanned the physical, biological, and social sciences.  We can see how very clever, insightful people were influenced by the ambient ideas.

So it's easy to look back and discern common themes, about which each person invoking them thought he was having specific, original insights.  But that's us looking back at them.  What about us in our own time?  How much might we, today, be affected by prevailing views--in scientific or societal affairs--that are 'in the air' but may not be as widely applicable as some argue that they are?  How many of our prevailing views, that we of course think of as modern and better than the more primitive ones of the past, are similarly just part of the ambience of our times, that will be viewed with patronizing smiles at our naiveté?  Does going with the flow, so to speak, of current tides make us see more deeply than our forebears--and how much is it just that we see things differently?

How can we know?


Steven B Kurtz said...

It seems to me that this analysis glosses over the fact that human societies, including economies, are dependent upon the biological characteristics and propensities of the species. Those change, but in geological time, very slowly. We are social mammals with highly complex brains and nervous systems.

The evolution of our group systems involves feedback loops with the physical environment as noted. Note that (biological) hierarchy has been present in our systems seemingly for the full time of our existence. Mate selection and breeding outcomes reflected this throughout history. Expression of hierarchy took different forms, of course. But cultural differences, in my view, do not make us fundamentally different than other social mammals.

Lastly, our numbers, which have quadrupled in my 94 year old mother's lifetime, are not mentioned at all. This fact has dramatically impacted the physical feedback loops between our socio-economic systems and the planet. It is likely that population growth will reverse trend as it does with other species in changing niches.

Ken Weiss said...

I don't see where or how you are drawing major differences from what I wrote. Perhaps I'm just being dense. Whether culture makes us
'fundamentally' different from other species is a matter of semantics as much as anything. I personally think that if we just let our populations grow and grow (though I'm not sure how anyone can stop them--even China's one-child policy doesn't seem to have, and it's been abandoned as I understand it) Malthusian crowding can't not have major effects. I didn't mention that because it didn't seem particularly relevant or necessary to mention, no matter how true it seems to be.

Anyway, either I miss your points of disagreement, which seem rather not of disagreement but just of difference, or we don't disagree except that you seem to think the post should have been written differently in some way. My main intended point was about the way that theoretical ideas, claims and the like seem to be part of a culture at any given time, what people at the time are able to see, and what generic modes of thinking frame _their_ thinking, rather faddishly.