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"We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." —Carl Sagan
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    Thoughts on Darwin and Marx
    A time of revolution and of change, of both the catastrophic collapse and the meteoric rise of empires, the 19th century bore witness to a series of profound advances in both the natural and social sciences. Among the many highly influential figures of the 19th century, however, the ideas of two thinkers stand apart for the depth and extent of their impact: those of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. In his 1848 publication of The Communist Manifesto, Marx placed the existence of class struggle into a long-term historical perspective, arguing that—by proliferating social inequality and thus class warfare—Capitalism would lead to its own disintegration. In light of these circumstances, Marx called for the unification of the global working class under the banner of Communism. While Marx sparked a revolution of perspective in human social history, Darwin sparked a revolution of perspective in biological history. In his publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin challenged once and for all the prevailing notions relating to the origin and development of life. By positing natural selection as the force behind biological change, Darwin opened up a mode of thinking about nature which did not depend on the existence of supernatural forces. This proposition opened up a new paradigm of scientific inquiry into biological history, while also introducing profound philosophical and theological implications which continue to challenge structures of thought well into the 21st century. The new avenues of inquiry into biological history which were opened by Darwin’s work helped extend the reach of scientific inquiry into areas which had previously been inaccessible to science, including the exploration of existential questions which had until then been restricted to theological and philosophical interpretations. The expanded scope of scientific questioning heralded by Darwin has also served as a catalyst for the subsequent emergence of secular forms of spirituality, which are rooted not in organized religious dogmas but in a combination of Western scientific and Eastern spiritual traditions. By pursuing lines of inquiry into both social and biological history, Marx and Darwin permanently widened the scope of human intellectual exploration.

    The publication of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848 irreversibly altered the course of Western thought in relation to the social sciences. In it, Marx argues that Capitalism as a means of organizing society will invariably result in social inequality and class struggle, and that this social inequality is inherently unsustainable. Based on these key premises, Marx concludes that Capitalism will thus invariably lead to its own collapse, only to be replaced by Socialism, which in turn will develop naturally and necessarily into Communism. The true source of Marx’s influence, however, stems from his assertion in The Communist Manifesto that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” By arguing that class struggle is not an isolated problem arising from his particular 19th-century social conditions, but rather the consequence of a long series of social structures which have perpetuated social inequality throughout the course of human history, Marx succeeded establishing an awareness of how conditions such as inequality and social strife are but symptoms caused by the workings of a broader social structure. In simpler terms: Marx catalyzed the belief that social systems—such as Capitalism—are the vehicles through which wealth is allocated and inequality is assured. One of the most significant impacts of this intellectual contribution lies in its role in inspiring a newfound-sense of unity among the 19th-century working class. Marx argued that workers the world over are united in that they occupy a position in society in which the only form of capital which they possess lies in their own labour—their capacity to produce. Marx believed that the only means of ensuring the emancipation of the working class from this position of disempowerment was through the unification of the workers themselves, a view encapsulated in the singular appeal which concludes The Communist Manifesto: “The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”


    This diagram shows the distribution of power among several key multinational financial institutions. Courtesy of TheyRule.

    Darwin’s theory of natural selection represents a milestone of singular importance in the scientific and intellectual development of the human species. Just as the discovery of Newtonian physics extended the realm of scientific inquiry into the investigation of natural laws, Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection extended scientific inquiry into the most fundamental and essential questions of biology: the formulation and development of life. This newly-expanded scope of scientific inquiry was not only of interest to scientists, however. By attributing biological change to natural environmental processes, Darwin confronted the people of the 19th century with the revelation that the human species is itself involved in this process of gradual change, and is in fact continuously evolving over time, along with all other species. From this new vantage point of biological history, inquiring individuals the world over were given a theoretical foundation on which to ponder the ongoing evolution of the human species. Through Darwin’s theory of natural selection, a precedent had been set: for a growing number of people, the human species could no longer be considered separate from the diverse natural processes which surround it. We had found our place in the community of species, our chapter in the history of life. Since its initial publication in 1859, Darwin’s theory of evolution (along with its more modernized forms) has become a widely-used framework through which to understand the universe, the human species, and the intersection of the two. In this way, one of the most significant and under-emphasized aspects of the legacy of Darwin’s work lies in its influence on the development of secular spirituality—that is, concepts of spiritual experience which lie outside the parameters of organized religion and theology. In the legacy of Darwin’s work, we see the development of a science which—through the empiricism of the scientific method—has arrived upon an understanding of the interconnectedness of all life: a notion which is entirely consistent with certain non-empirical traditions such as Taoism and Zen Buddhism. In this way, evolution serves as a scientific bridging-point between Eastern and Western philosophies and methodologies. In the post-Darwinian era, the fusion of traditionally ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ perspectives has incorporated itself into the discourse of disciplines throughout the Arts and Sciences. It is in this context of intellectual cross-fertilization that Albert Einstein, in his 1931 essay The World as I See It, held that “the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”


    The phylogenetic tree shows the evolutionary interrelationships of species and the way in which they are linked by common ancestors.

    The propagation of Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection led to a permanent expansion of mankind’s perception of itself and its place in relation to the whole of biological history. The effects of this widened influence can be seen in some form across a wide variety of disciplines. Perhaps most notably, it has contributed to the development of non-dogmatic forms of secular spirituality which incorporate elements derived from both Western and Eastern outlooks and methodologies. By extending the reach of scientific inquiry into the farthest expanses of biological history, Darwin’s theory of evolution helped expand the time-frame through which human observers approach questions relating to the origins and ongoing development of life. A similar phenomenon occurred under the influence of Marx: by analyzing the perpetuation of class struggle and inequality across a vast historical timescale, Marx introduced a new perspective of time to the social sciences. Marx’s analysis contributed to a sense of unity among the workers of the 19th century by placing the struggle of the working class into a long-term historical context. Through the lens of Marx’s historical perspective, the worker of the 19th century was not an isolated individual but rather the inheritor of a historical injustice which has been changing hands throughout history, since the earliest recorded instances of human social organization. In effect, by developing his thesis across an immense historical time-frame, Marx did to social history what Darwin did to biological history. In his writings, Marx gave the workers of the world a past, and—in so doing—ensured them of the promise of a future. While the 19th century is renowned for its high pace of intellectual innovation and social change, the contributions of Marx and Darwin stand apart for the unique role they played in expanding the parameters of human inquiry in both the natural and social sciences. Marx succeeded in introducing a belief in social systems as the catalysts for grassroots social conditions, while Darwin widened humanity’s perception of biological change by defining it as the product of complex interrelationships and interactions across all aspects of the natural world. In both cases, each pioneered a new mentality of looking at the world which have today become all but self-evident in our culture, engrained—perhaps irreversibly—in our institutions, our societies, and—most notably—in our minds.

    “Which aspects of our nature will prevail… is uncertain,
    particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part
    of the small planet Earth. But up there in the Cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space.
    Fanatic ethnic or religious or national identifications are a little difficult to support when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars.”

    - Carl Sagan, Cosmos

    Wed, Apr 20, 2011  Permanent link
    Categories: biology, Essay, history, Carl Sagan, marx, Darwin
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    j-sputnik     Wed, Apr 20, 2011  Permanent link
    Great essay. It's great to hear someone recognize the sorts of impacts that thinkers have on society.

    In both cases, each pioneered a new mentality of looking at the world which have today become all but self-evident in our culture, engrained—perhaps irreversibly—in our institutions, our societies, and—most notably—in our minds.


    In the case of Marx: it pisses me off that certain self-evident' presuppositions that most people hold these days are founded in someone else's thought - someone who misunderstood "the history of all hitherto existing society" as being "the history of class struggles." Blatantly, I think that's completely wrong. I think that after Marx, history then became this 'history of class struggles' - what history is today, or at least until recently. Still the nature of beings I do not think is what Marx says it is - class struggle. That's just silly. It saddens me to think that an 'all-encompassing' philosophy of a naïve revolutionary has grabbed succeeding societies so forcefully and had such an impact.

    In the case of Darwin, I haven't read any Darwin, so I won't say anything, but the repercussions of his thought, I've got no beef with.
     
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