Karl Marx, father of biology
May 24, 2018 2:27 PM   Subscribe

In this bicentenary of Marx’s birth, one aspect of his thought and work that requires attention is his attitude toward nature and mankind’s place within it. There are in fact several recent works that examine Marx’s views on the biosphere: Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis by Chris Williams (Excerpt), “Karl Marx, radical environmentalist” by Phil Gasper, and “Twenty-First Century Species-Being” by Nick Dyer-Witheford.

That this was a vital subject for Marx is evident in his writing:
From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.--Capital
Dyer-Witheford bases his arguments on Marx’s use of the term Gattungswesen, which is commonly translated as species being. This translation is, however, completely inadequate for conveying the meaning of the term. Gattung means genus, as distinguished from species; and Wesen is more cogently translated as essence. Thus we have generic essence. This fits with the usage of the term in Feuerbach and Hegel, whose thought Marx developed. See “Marx via Feuerbach: Species-Being Revisited,” by Jacob Held.

The notion of the Gattungswesen is alien to contemporary biology, which generally rejects all essentialism. Marx was initially delighted with Darwin’s work, but quickly became quite critical. For those seeking a naturalistic alternative to Darwin and evolutionary biology, Marx and his doctrine of Gattungswesen may be the place to start. And for those who don't like Darwin's theory on religious grounds, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that there is a naturalistic alternative to Darwin. The bad news is that it is Marx.
posted by No Robots (2 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
None of the linked items appear to present Marx's ideas as an alternative to Darwin or the Modern Synthesis. Which, good for them, because it's not clear to me how that idea would be defensible.

Despite my best efforts, I can't say I really grasp what is meant by Gattungswesen -- it seems to me to function as an equivocation. However, learning the importance of ecological thinking to the development of Marx's political ideas was certainly interesting.
posted by biogeo at 6:39 PM on May 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

Thanks for this. I've always found any expressions (scientific, artistic, industrial design, work-clothing...) under the Soviets fascinating, the way entrenched (enforced) ideologies (and tightly-controlled information) shape the world. I read a while back about Lysenko who set Soviet agriculture back decades with various levels of crazy. What a waste when people are not allowed to think and express even remotely freely.

Reading around I've just found Lysenko's Ghost partly about attempts to reprise Lysenko's ideas in the form of epigenetic inheritance. That'll be a can of worms to read I suspect.
posted by unearthed at 2:53 AM on May 25, 2018

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