Next year will mark the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Jarama.
In February 1937, eleven thousand Republicans—Internationalists for the most part—fought and died defending Madrid against Francisco Franco’s fascist incursion. At this point in Spain’s Civil War, the country was split evenly between west and east by rebel Nationalist and Republican forces.1 An earlier direct assault on Madrid had been repulsed. Republican troops subsequently consolidated their defenses along the Manzanares River. An assault through Madrid’s southern barrios would have cost Franco’s forces dearly. General Emilio Mola’s men north of the city in the meantime were held in check by Popular Front forces in the Sierra de Guadarrama.
The Nationalists turned to cutting off Madrid from the Republic’s provisional capital. They planned to march south before swinging north and capturing the road to Valencia. In early February, Franco ordered 40,000 of his battle-hardened Moroccan troops and an Italian unit provided by Mussolini to attack. The forces crossed the Jarama River on February 11. Republican General José Miaja countered the thrust with three battalions of the XV International Brigade, including the Dimitrov Battalion and the British Battalion.
On the morning of February 12, the British Battalion advanced as four companies from the town of Chichon. As the companies made their way up a small valley onto the Jarama plateau, east of enemy positions, soldiers jettisoned a variety of personal effects, including hefty Marxist and Spanish language textbooks, copies of Nietzsche and Spinoza, Rhy David on Buddhism, and myriad volumes of poetry. “Most of them,” recalled Jason Gurney, who fought at Jarama, “had evidently decided that the campaign would be over in a few hours…and left their belongings neatly stowed to be collected later in the day.”2 Upon crossing the plateau, the British companies took positions on and along Casa Blanca Hill, on the center ridge of which a small farmhouse offered both limited cover for the Republicans and a target for German artillery units. A British machine gun company dug into the rear, giving cover to more advanced positions.
Then as now, the valley was dominated by olive trees, scrubland, and rocky gorges, providing both armies only dubious cover. The British maintained positional advantage up on the hill. The Nationalists, however, were much more experienced and better equipped. Only a single British unit, No. 1 Company, commanded by former IRA volunteer Kit Conway, had combat experience in Spain.3 And the machine gun company would be aghast to discover that their Russian Maxims had been supplied with the wrong ammunition. This dearth of experience and functional equipage proved disastrous for the Republicans, however passionate or well-positioned they were. The British sustained heavy losses. Of the 600 who took up positions on the twelfth, only 225 escaped death and injury.
British commander Tom Wintringham sent Gurney, a sculptor when home in Britain, to reconnoiter the battle:
Casa Blanca Hill from then on would be known as Suicide Hill. The surviving volunteers pulled back to battalion headquarters. The Nationalists rushed for the now unoccupied positions, but were held back by the machine-gun company, which had finally managed to load the right ammunition. The next day the Brits suffered another collapse. Wintringham in his account quotes the “Yank” Bert Levy:
About 3 p.m. the enemy drops 2 shells on the plateau on our right, looking that way I was amazed to see 4 company running hell bent for leather to the rear with O. [Bert Overton, commander of No. 4 Company] leading by about 25 yards; Harry (Fry) [of No. 2 Company] and I then hold a conference and send the centre machine-gun to our right about 50 yards, and later when we noticed heavy concentrations of the enemy forces in blobs of 25 and 50 working their way up through the defiles and around hills towards us Harry ordered the gun back to its original position…
O. sends words to us to retire, but Fry paid no attention to it knowing how yellow he showed the day before, Fry then goes to the rear and returning tells us we are to hold our position at all costs, and to pay no attention to anything O. may say…
Enemy rifle bullets are now increasing in volume. I then slip out to our right about fifty yards to look across that dead territory in front of us, and see the heavy concentrations of the Fascists.
Wintringham continued: “Levy and Fry had never breathed a word to me about O. being ‘yellow.’ If I had known about his leaving his men on the 12th I might not have [later] entrusted to him the defense of Fry’s flank on the 13th.”
Its flank unprotected, the unit was squeezed from nearly all sides, and “the Fascists who came along the stone wall were walking where O. should have had his men. The Fascists who took Levy from the right rear were walking only a hundred yards ahead of O.’s rifles, he had run back to the road at a point where the olive-trees in front of him, and the slope of the ground, made it impossible to do the job I had entrusted to him. And he had retired because of a few shells and two casualties.”5
Clearly the fiasco wasn’t merely a matter of a cowardly commander, but the culmination of poor preparation, shoddy armory, and flawed strategic leadership in Madrid against a superior force. The two days totaled two hundred British dead, and only 140 remained unscathed enough to bear arms. Incredibly, the British position held out another night, but the following day a Nationalist charge backed by artillery and tanks broke the Republican line. Despite their losses, and their physical and emotional exhaustion, the 140 survivors bravely recaptured the position, surprising the Fascists, who mistook the Internationalists for their own reinforcements. The Republican line was reestablished along the edge of the plateau overlooking Suicide Hill, both sides dug fortifications, and a stalemate at Jarama dragged on for the rest of the war.
The Blacksmith Biker
At the end of the first day of the Battle of Jarama, February 12, two men of No. 3 Company took command of a Charcot light machine gun, covering the British retreat off Suicide Hill. Clem Beckett was trained as a blacksmith and joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).6 In the late 1920s he raced on the burgeoning motorcycle circuit, becoming famous riding the Dome of Death at fairgrounds before turning to speedway racing. As the latter sport grew in popularity—massively so among working-class men—Beckett and his comrades sunk their savings into building a new stadium, where “Daredevil” Beckett, whom Graham Stevenson has called the David Beckham of his day, would win a championship in front of 15,000 people: “The 1930s racing star felt exhilarated by the feeling of speed, only vaguely aware of the roar of the crowd, lost in the bubble that sportsmen know as ‘the zone.'”7
But the early days of the circuit were cruel. Stadium owners engaged young kids regardless of their experience, leading to many grisly injuries and deaths. Beckett helped organize a trades union, the Dirt-track Riders Association, in an effort to stop such exploitation: “Beneath his leather jacket beat a heart of gold. It was a heart that throbbed in rhythm with the struggle of the working people.”8 In the early 1930s Beckett became active in campaigns to open up natural spaces for public use. He partook in the Kinder Trespass, organized by the Manchester branch of the British Workers Sports Federation, in which four hundred trespassers battled police and landowners for access to what would eventually become Peak District National Park.
When war broke out in Spain, Beckett joined the International Brigade with other members of the Manchester branch of the CPGB. As Beckett wrote to his wife from the front: “I’m sure you’ll realise that I should never have been satisfied had I not assisted. Only my hatred of Fascism brought me here.”9
The Sub-Editing Polymath
The other man at the Charcot gun, Christopher St John Sprigg, better known by his pen name Christopher Caudwell, had left school at fifteen and worked as a cub reporter before launching an aeronautical and applied science publishing house with his brother. He also clandestinely wrote detective novels and poetry. His politics were conventional, however. Indeed,
But by a personal path winding out of the Labour Party’s impotence, the economic crisis, the rise of the British Union of Fascists, the malaise of bourgeois culture, his scientific materialism, and readings in Marx, Caudwell joined the CPGB in 1934. “The [First World] War at last survived, there came new horrors. The eating disintegration of the slump,” Caudwell wrote in the didactic tone of his time,
At a dazzling pace—5,000 words a day—Caudwell wrote a series of tracts under his mother’s maiden name, many little more than first drafts, exploring various applications of dialectical materialism: biology, physics, mathematics, psychology, poetics, and politics.12 He continued to write fiction and poetry.
In 1936 Caudwell participated in what turned into a violent counter-demonstration at a fascist rally in Victoria Park.13 He visited Paris, where the Popular Front had won a general election and instituted a 40-hour week and two weeks’ paid holiday. Back home, he attended Marxist lectures and wrote a long pamphlet in response to Aldous Huxley’s pacifism.
In December 1936 he volunteered to drive ambulances to Spain for the Popular Front, backing the Republican government. Once there, he joined the International Brigade. “I am no. 1 on a machine gun, or strictly speaking a ‘fusil mitrailleuse’; quite a handy little weapon but out-of-date and none too reliable,” he wrote to his friend Ella Larmour, whose partner John Larmour served in Caudwell’s company. “I thought when I came out here that I should throw off the responsibility of Party member and writer too but, as usual, the Party never sleeps. I’m a group political delegate—strictly speaking, a non-party job—instructor to the Labour Party faction and joint-editor of the Wall newspaper.”14
No one in command, not even the national office of the Communist Party of Great Britain, knew anything about this Sprigg/Caudwell character. At that point only one of his theoretical works had been published, and it was only later that he would prove to be, as John Bellamy Foster puts it, “unquestionably” the finest British Marxist mind of his generation.15 “What…is communicated,” the historian E. P. Thompson wrote of Caudwell’s work, developed largely in isolation, “is not just a new ‘idea’ (or an old idea freshly communicated) but a new way of seeing”:
Darwinism’s Class War
For these reasons and more, “Heredity and Development,” one of Caudwell’s unpublished essays, made widely available only in 1986, is as perspicacious a meditation on biology as I have read.17 Less for its technical expertise—Caudwell was no biologist—than for what Ludwig Wittgenstein describes as the will to understand what other people cannot see because they do not dare.
Caudwell is not without his critics, across so wide a spectrum as Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, and J. D. Bernal, as much, to merge many of the depreciations, for his vulgar Stalinism as for what Stalinists, in turn, viewed as his bourgeois tendencies.18 Caudwell’s biology, more specifically, is given short shrift even by his posthumous editors, Jean Duprac and David Margolies:
True enough for the most part, but the caveats miss the point, losing the forest for the trees. Caudwell sketches out many of the core themes and precepts of modern dialectical biology. It is quite a shock to see so boldly analyzed, eighty years ago, such staples as the idea of the gene as a Platonic abstraction, the alienation of gene and environment, causal interpenetration, the preformationist trap, norms of reaction, genetic canalization, niche construction, a refutation of Lysenko from the left, and, as Thompson noted, the myopia of the bourgeois scientist. All of this a full fifty years before Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin’s The Dialectical Biologist, which developed many of the same ideas.20
Caudwell was no evolutionary biologist, but he begins “Heredity and Development” where most biologists would—with Darwin, but in less hagiographic terms.21 Writing seventy-five years after The Origin of Species, Caudwell starts with what is now the commonplace distinction between acknowledging evolution—species change—and embracing Darwin’s natural selection. Caudwell undercuts the latter as “repeatedly challenged” and “formally incoherent,” at first glance apparently missing the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. Through mathematical formalism, R. A. Fisher, Sewall Wright, and J. B. S. Haldane by then had completed a conceptual unity of natural selection and Mendelian genetics, the latter of which, when rediscovered at the turn of the twentieth century, was initially counterposed to selection.22 Certainly, up until the Synthesis, Caudwell is correct: Darwin’s theory had fallen on hard times. As population geneticist Warren Ewens paints it:
Caudwell makes a number of scattershot attempts to chip away at natural selection’s underlying logic and credibility. He points out the tautology in defining evolutionary success by fitness, a trap evolutionary biologists have since circumvented by focusing on phenotypic attributes—adaptations—as the means by which organisms survive and reproduce. He also makes a clumsy stab at undercutting Darwin’s theory by trying to unify the materialism shared by living and non-living forms. Natural selection needn’t explain non-living objects (although physicist Lee Smolin hypothesized a cosmological equivalent that accounts for multiverses).24
In discussing mutation, Caudwell struggles to pin an essentialism about the nature of organismal variation onto natural selection. He is, however, correct in cataloging a complex variety of sources of organismal variation, including cultural and ecological inheritance. And he scores a hit on the difficulties, which continue today, in explaining the actual origins of species and the transition from microevolution to macroevolution.
Overall, however, Caudwell aims less to refute Darwinism outright than to show that such scientific theories, and their crises, always emerge from a distinct social context, an observation he had previously made of physics:
The importance of the theory to Darwin’s contemporaries, its hold on their imagination, the violence with which they defended it against the violent attacks of the “older generation,” suggest that the theory had a special attraction to the vanguard of that age.
When in fact we examine the theory of Natural Selection, we find that this machine for producing new species had a strange likeness to the capitalist economy of that era, as the capitalist saw it.25
Others, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels included, had already argued that Darwinism recapitulates its own Victorian Mitwelt.26 But the tenacity with which Caudwell tracks the theory to its ideological burrow is worth the price of admission:
The political economy of Darwin’s era, which produced Manchester liberalism and Free Trade was based on the following belief: If every man is left to himself to produce and exchange freely the commodities of society, the result will be for the maximum benefit of all, including himself. His private profit will be society’s good. All exchange-value will then represent value to society, and just as much, and no more, will be produced than society needs, while every man will get a fair return for his labours….
The struggles of the free wills for the sum of property appearing in the world markets, subject to the “laws” of supply and demand, seem to secure the progress of society. For “property,” put “food supply,” for “market,” “environment,” for “individual free will,” “individual struggle for existence,” and for “laws of supply and demand” “physical laws,” and there is a complete picture of the world of nature as seen by Darwin and his contemporaries.27
Caudwell historicizes this class pronoia as a constituent of a time- and place-specific accumulative advantage:
Machinery aggregates capital at the expense of smaller operations, fixed capital spreads, rates of profit subsequently fall, structural crises emerge to be temporarily alleviated by export economics and colonization abroad, producing—contra the peaceable pastoral of “free trade”—intrinsic war, injustice, and monopoly:
One might counter that nature itself is red in tooth and claw, any mechanisms of mutual aid notwithstanding, and that we too are part of nature. Yet evolution by natural selection—like the market—is not free in the sense of “an absence of social organization,” as Caudwell put it, but emerges exactly by such organization. Even competition—ecological or economic—depends on a context embodied by the outcomes of mutually dependent histories.
Caudwell drives this theme home. As Adrian Desmond and James Moore would decades later,30 Caudwell, writing in the midst of the Great Depression, places Darwin, as life does all people, on a societal train that had already left the station:
Darwin came on the process half-way. The battle was already bitter, cruel and selfish, but capitalism was still on the upgrade, and this warfare of man against man was still increasing the productive forces of civilization instead of (as to-day) throttling them. This bloody bourgeois struggle for existence was a progressive force, seen from the viewpoint of contemporary bourgeois man. A struggle for existence produces progress—this appeared to the lesson of the time.
Darwin’s youth was coloured by the incessant demand of the rising industrial bourgeoisie for always greater intensification of the struggle. The Corn Laws, which increased the cost of labour-power, were fetters on industrial production. They favoured a few—away with them therefore! The abrogation of “protection” was repeated in all spheres. For this revolutionary class to which Darwin belonged, progress depended on the intensification of the individual struggle for existence, of course within the framework of bourgeois property rights. Natural selection then was a class theory.31
Indeed, Caudwell continues, the fight against the Church of England wasn’t merely for evolution, but for a particular kind of evolution, one that naturalized that era’s bourgeois ethos. Caudwell identifies Newton’s theories—as Antonio Negri would Descartes’s and Bertolt Brecht Galileo’s—as serving similar functions in earlier ideological struggles between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy and the church.32 Philosopher and historian of science Helena Sheehan situates Caudwell’s constructivism in this broader trajectory:
The very concept of matter had been evolving with the evolution of the bourgeoisie. To Galileo and Bacon, matter was still full of quality and sensuousness. However, to realise matter as owned by the bourgeoisie, to cut the umbilical cord of mutual dependence between man and nature, to free the individual from all relations except those of the free market, that is, the one way relation of private property, it was necessary to eliminate the observer….
At the apogee of the first stage of capitalism, its materialism turned into its opposite, mentalism, as the bourgeoisie passed from its extroverted, dominating, exploring period into its introverted, analytical period. Its philosophy turned away from the object toward the subject, for the object was beginning to slip from its grasp. Hence, Berkeley, Hume and Kant—and finally Hegel. The same dualism of subject and object was reproduced, only now calling the opposite parody into existence, without realising its source….
Whereas mechanism had sacrificed the subject to the object and idealism had sacrificed the object to the subject, positivism sacrificed both.33
Nature was treated as if isolated from its human observers—in whichever direction sociopolitical expediency rewarded.
Endless Forms Most Interpenetrated
The mere presence of these underlying social constructions hardly disproves natural selection, however. All useful ideas—and their refutations—start someplace else. We have already noted a number of historically contingent false starts—tautological fitness, essentialist variation—in Caudwell’s own hunt for the capitalist ghost in the Darwinian machine.
A few pages into “Heredity and Development,” however, Caudwell delivers. In a tour de force, Caudwell unpacks the classist expectations found in the alienation of organism from environment. He begins by noting that Darwinian natural selection fails not because it explains too little, but because it tries to explain too much. Stephen Jay Gould made a career out of the same contention.34 Gould described a rainbow of alternate mechanisms for organismal evolution operating alongside selection: neo-orthogenesis, Baupläne, ontogenetic drive, Galton’s polyhedron, hierarchical selection, punctuated equilibrium, and historical constraints and deep homology.
This is not what Caudwell is getting at here, however. Prefiguring developmental systems theory, Caudwell warns: “It is not possible to separate organism from environment as mutually distinct opposites. Life is the relation between opposed poles which have separated themselves out of reality, but remain in relation throughout the web of becoming. This relation is mutually determining.”35 As such, nature’s outcomes can’t be atomized into additive sources of variation and instead err on the side of idiosyncratic emergence:
Echoing Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire,37 Caudwell rejects preformationist determinism in favor of a dialectical if also path-dependent contingency: “The development of life is determined by the tendencies of life, just as history and capitalist economy is determined by the wills of individuals. But history does not realize the will of individuals: it is only determined by them, and in turn determines them. In the same way, the development of life determines and is determined by tendencies but does not concretely and absolutely realize them.”38
The effects are second-order, in some organisms leading to sentience and even consciousness: “The development itself produces an increasing synthesis between environment and life, which we call the consciousness of the necessity of environmental relations. Not only does this development secure the transformation of tendencies, the alteration and elaboration of goals, but also secures the congruence of change to goal. Life is increasingly able to carry out its goals.”39
Caudwell, in effect, proposes what is now characterized as niche construction, one he extends, apropos V. C. Wynne-Edwards’s recent revival,40 to the food supply, which
That is, the interpenetration of causes produces the rich and recursive ecology on which evolution depends. The tensions that produce organic discontinuities—living and non-living, life and environment, man and nature—”interpenetrate and, by their interpenetration, develop the increasing complexity of the world of nature, full of new discontinuous qualities.” As a result, “it is useless to look for mechanisms like natural selection to ‘produce’ evolution in time, for time is not a container or stream, it is not ‘the matrix of becoming,’ it is one aspect of the evolution of matter, of which the other aspect is space. A material becoming of what reality is.” Decades later, others would converge on the same point. Dialectical biologist Richard Lewontin, writing in 2002, argued that
But also, of all people, Slavoj Žižek:
Darwin and Lamarck Are No Contradiction
Such interpenetration breaks other false dichotomies around which biological controversies have been organized. The opposition of chance variation on the one hand and selection’s design filter on the other, with the latter rewarding best environmental “fits,” ignores the statistical structure of mutations, linkage disequilibrium, and reassortment across a genome and, more broadly, the simultaneously contingent and path-dependent nature of all adaptations.
Adaptations, in addition, are neither merely inherited optimization, nor, in the Lamarckian view, acquired by experience alone. Sheehan characterizes the latter objection on Caudwell’s part as “an implicit but clear repudiation of Lysenkoism,” and reason enough for the CPGB’s suppression of “Heredity and Development.”44 For the distinction here separates Caudwell from bourgeois and Stalinist alike. Both positions—Darwinian and Lamarckian—see the problem in the object rather than the field or among objects, and presume that the organism is always in opposition to its environment. In reality, organism and environment can emerge only within each other’s idiosyncrasies, producing, in biological terms, nonlinear norms of reaction:
The tendency of the Darwinian and the Lamarckian to squabble over the nature of such characters arises out of a historically specific metaphysics, with both schools based in the kind of epistemic opacity described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.46 As Caudwell continues:
The unclarity would never have arisen except as a result of the historic bourgeois ignorance of what freedom means, and of what is the relation between free-will and determinism. Is free-will, as the bourgeois supposes, the unconsciousness of necessity? Then the “chance” variation can be distinguished from the acquired variation, for one is spontaneous and free and the other determined. But in fact the chance variation is simply a variation of whose causes we are ignorant, and so is the spontaneous variation…
There is therefore no difference between the Lamarckian theory of the transmission of acquired characters and the Weismann germ plasm theory. When both are properly defined in terms of organism and environment, they are seen to be not opposites but the same thing…47
By this criterion, even progressive updates fail to go far enough. For instance, by Conrad Waddington’s genetic assimilation, an organism’s behavioral response to the environment is “canalized,” or incorporated, into the genome over a number of generations.48 The new genotype is thereafter expressed even if the environment changes. However iconoclastic, in Caudwell’s framework, Waddington’s “evo-devo” view is no special case.
Why Biology Must Be Contentious
Caudwell then returns to his constructivism, anticipating Maurice Godelier’s thesis.49 He describes the way the bourgeoisie projects its market needs onto its concept of nature (and back again): “It sees life as insurgent against the dead environment. The environment or market poses of its unalterable nature certain problems, these life or the producer has to solve…. Such a conception is of course the reflex of the bourgeois attitude towards his social role: freedom consists in the unrestricted property right of the bourgeois over inanimate things which he manages for his profit by learning their laws.”50
But integrated realities force the bourgeoisie’s hand into manipulating—whether it means to or not—what it pretends by first principle doesn’t exist:
It is for these reasons the two sciences are so contentious, for they both show the bourgeois themselves emerge out of what they believe they need only manipulate:
Although advocates of the recent Hegelian revival would object to this last damnation, it can be at least partially justified, on the one hand, by the notion of disciplinarity itself, and on the other by so-called physics envy—the attempt by scholars in other disciplines to impose the perceived mathematical certainty of reductionist physics onto their work—even as physics itself has largely abandoned such first-order models.53
Broken Bourgeois Science
The bourgeoisie’s problem with historicity accords with its animosity toward the notion that property “rights” are only era-specific social arrangements. “For Caudwell, it was the lie at the heart of bourgeois culture,” as Sheehan puts it,
Under the bourgeois paradigm, nature—property rights writ universal—is wired up as a nexus of eternal laws. Dynamics are mere expressions of said laws. “As a result,” writes Caudwell, bourgeois science “is faced in these spheres primarily with the task of explaining change by means of categories drawn from a changeless world.”55
From this perspective, change in individuals can be accommodated, indeed celebrated. Ontogeny can be cast to recapitulate the bourgeois concept of society, wherein “the individual was in fact the source of change and progress, as the ‘free’ will acting on the law-obeying environment of property.” Change at the species level—the origin of species—was shoehorned in, emerging out of the struggle of individuals. Modern debates around levels of selection arose from this struggle for science’s ideological standing, and less so from their specific biological mechanics, however much these also deserve attention.56
Historicity and mutual causality, however, are critical to any science of a mesoscale and path-dependent system: “Change…involves the determined unity of the changing phenomenon. If the new quality does not arise from the mutual determinism of previous qualities, it is impossible to say meaningfully that it qualifies the previous group of qualities.” Otherwise we are left with the triviality that “there is something common to all qualities, and prior to them [which] is simply to say: ‘The world is a material world.'”57
And here Caudwell again hits stride, unpacking the necessary self-deception. When confronted by change in biology, the bourgeois scientist seeks a general “reason” for it—the law of change, the unchanging nature of change—which Caudwell sees propelled by capitalist ideological objectives: “The bourgeois biologist is so preoccupied with finding a reason for change as change, that he neglects to examine the structure of change. Science’s task is not finding an explanation of change, any more than of finding an explanation for the existence of existents.”58
Today many biologists emphasize the changing conditions in time and space that undergird specific outcomes, but still in tension with their own metaphysical instincts, a conundrum Caudwell describes with great sympathy: “[S]ince all such transformations are made within the circle of bourgeois categories, they produce, not the unification of the science but its integration into special studies, each of which represents a compromise between bourgeois metaphysics and a specific group of discoveries.”59
The solution, Caudwell continues, lies in more than merely synthesizing results across biology, a false lead repeated in cruder approximations by One Health approaches to infectious disease, “for it is just the posing of biology as a closed world separate from physics and sociology that is the root of the trouble. It can only be healed by return to science of a common world view.”60 Whether or not to do so—and if so, how much—remain open questions. As Kojin Karatani and Žižek’s discussion of the “parallax view” suggests, such a return comes at a cost, namely losing the unique vantage between the object of study and the epistemological background against which each field of study looks upon the object.61
There is also the ill-advised attempt by evolutionists to impose just such a common worldview, subsuming all fields—psychology, sociology, aesthetics, economics, even urban health—within the Darwinian worldview. But their efforts have proven false in word and deed, ironically making Caudwell’s point. Evolutionary psychology, as it is currently proposed and practiced, is all about discounting all human experience and development after the prehistoric era. As Rodrick Wallace and I put it elsewhere:
If Napoleon Chagnon and the evolutionary psychologists who defend him are any indication, their program is explicitly invested in removing all history, and frankly all historical possibilities, save the one true one, which, mirabile dictu, culminates in the colonial—and now neoliberal—paradigm.63 Make no mistake, theirs is very much a political project.
So Caudwell sees in Darwinism a fall from grace, increasingly entrapped by the contradictions “of the circle of bourgeois categories.” The Darwinism of Darwin himself, however, and here Caudwell takes a generous turn more along the lines of Engels,
For evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayer, Darwin’s genius is centered in a population thinking: by his discovery, reality is to be found in a population’s variation rather than in essentialist constructs such as the population mean or an archetypical phenotype.65 For Caudwell, writes Foster, the value of Darwin’s work, lies at the same time, in its “pointing toward a coevolutionary perspective. For the first time Darwinism had taught people to view nature historically.”66
Caudwell sets Gregor Mendel as a metaphysical counterpoise to this Darwin. He sees in Mendel’s clerical conservatism an uneasy counterrevolutionary reaction to German capitalism. Mendel “approached the study of variations therefore in a spirit opposed to change, resting on the eternal verities of logic and revelation; but he also was a scientist…. And just as Darwin’s bourgeois genius, as a result of his capitalist revolutionary ideology, looked for change and its causes, so Mendel’s clerical genius looked for what must necessarily exist in change—the changeless, that which changes.”67
Mendel finds it in the genetic factors of heredity underlying the phenotype. Variation, then, is not spontaneous but predetermined. Even if proposed only in the context of resolving the field’s internal conflicts, Hugo DeVries’s chance “mutation” sanitized Mendel for a Darwinism embedded in free will, a ghost in the machine that Caudwell caustically characterizes as “the arrival of mysticism in biology…preserving the spontaneity of the bourgeois at any price.” In other words, the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis that Caudwell, on an initial reading, seems to miss, actually settles little of the underlying structural problem that he uncovers.
In introducing their text on developmental systems theory, which updates many of Caudwell’s ideas, Susan Oyama and her fellow editors claim that such efforts
Nature repeatedly refuses to cooperate, however. The data that biologists produce intermittently inspire panicked sprints for the bourgeoisie’s metaphysical refuge. Thomas Hunt Morgan’s Drosophila experiments, for one, would undercut the dichotomy of organism and environment. For Caudwell, phenotypic change emerged now from more than merely shuffling genes:
- Phenotypes are multilocus—and nonlinear—in their development.
- Genes are abstractions. Their actual effects are context-dependent, including the passing convergence of other loci and the environment.
- Genes are digital in their transmission, but distributed and analogue in their effect. So their impact in the world can be found only in their interpenetration with other genes and the many other sources of inheritance found in “the environment.”
Genetics, as embodied by the organism, now turns into a historical phenomenon embedded in the vagaries of an era-specific convergence of meiosis, recombination, reassortment, transcription, pleiotropy, epigenetics, and ontogeny, all playing out against ancestral backgrounds of phenotype and environment. As a result: “The organism becomes a Chinese nest of boxes of qualities, and there is now seen to be no necessity for explaining change as change…. Biology can then proceed to its real task, that of discovering the determined, material sequence of qualities, in each step of which organism and environment are involved as warp and woof.”69
In practical terms, in the lab or in the field, the dialectical–which, contra Karl Popper, extends back in the West to Socrates, Spinoza, Rousseau and the Bible–can be embodied by complex parameter spaces, in which variables can be parallel in effect in one area and suddenly in opposition in another. There are second-order manifestations, too. The very space describing such relationships—here among gene, organism, and environment—can itself be subjected to punctuated shifts.
Or a single variate can take on a dual character, depending on its framework. For instance, an object (or organism, or ecosystem) in physical or evolutionary motion is both found at a particular spot and by definition no longer there. For Engels, life itself is defined by this ostensible contradiction—this composite process of being and becoming.70 Our being is found in its repeated eclipse (and novel reemergence). But returning to Caudwell, a stumbling block frustrates even the most honest efforts to track such relationships, for it
The epistemological costs are a drag: “The assumptions are continually contradicted by practice, and thus every geneticist when explaining his discoveries, has to waste his efforts on a preliminary wrestle with unreal metaphysics he has inherited.”
Caudwell identifies similar missteps in embryology, including within the core clash between the epigenetic and preformationist schools. That these schools repeatedly manifest and conflict across different eras speaks to, again, an unaddressed contradiction. It is a Janus, however, that Caudwell portrays as two features of the same bourgeois face. For one, mechanistic models that “reject” preformationist predeterminism are themselves caught within a teleology: “How can any particular gene, or combination of genes, determine out of the given material a hand or the shape of a hand or an eye any more than one complete nucleus determines one complete man?”
The underlying syllogisms mutually reinforce each other, to their detriment. For instance, a preformationist might characterize a black eye as acquired, impressed upon the organism by the environment, as if a normal eye does not also emerge out of an ostensibly “normal” environment. As if, on the other hand, contra epigenetics, a black eye is not also dependent upon inherent, if evolutionarily contingent, tendencies toward bruisability.
Causality now moves away from segregating sources and, as Engels describes, toward finding explanations in the composite process of being and becoming. “The organism is never for an instant the same,” Caudwell writes: “it is always changing, either coming into being or passing away—not in itself but in complete relation to the rest of becoming.” In contrast, the reductionist stumbles in confounding his or her methodology—murdering to dissect—with how the world works:
Looking for general laws in biology—instead of rules of thumb—produces false periodicities, which in their first-order regularity, obscure more than they reveal: “The material determinants might account for a succession of generations of organisms all identical—a periodicity like that of the beat of a pendulum. But this ideal periodicity is an abstraction. Each beat of a pendulum is different, and the pendulum first speeds up and then slows, precisely because it is not separate from the environment.”73
Relations Are Reality
The problem here need not be, as Lewontin suggests, that biologists have applied a machine metaphor to organisms, producing Cartesian Ducks of Vaucanson, feathery vacuum cleaners off Fordist assembly lines. By way of Caudwell’s deep understanding of aviation design—he published five books on flying and took out a patent—we learn that scientists botch the metaphor, for machines are not as we typically imagine them: “No machine ever exactly fulfills a human goal or plan. Every machine is a compromise between wish and necessity. Moreover the compromise goal it finally attains influences the mind of the maker, so that his future goals and newer machines will be determined by what he has learned about the working of machinery. The machine is not therefore a mere slave of his mind, it educates him even as he compels it.”74
Machines, which continually evolve across designs, also experience individual histories: “no machine is changeless—it wears, grows old and goes wrong. These ‘faults’ or changes are not part of the ‘plan’ or goal of the maker.… Yet they are not ‘magic’. These faults all have causes, and when the axle fractures or the plug oils up, we look for the causes…from determinants outside the plan.” Organisms—like machines—aren’t “a congested desire of the bourgeois”: “Such illusions…are always found in the ideology of a ruling class, which believes freedom is found in the forcible imposition of one’s will on others, regardless of the nature of reality. This particular illusion is due to the specific nature of the bourgeois class society, in which domination is seconded by rights over matter, which involves the creation of the machine.”75
If a bourgeois scientist were to grasp the class limits of such metaphors, he or she “would realise that he [or she] is not merely a scientist in the abstract, but a bourgeois scientist in the concrete.”76
Such scientific self-consciousness spurs one on to new discoveries, as opposed to the more easily funded trivialities that make the academic market tick. Even reductionism might then act as the means to such ends. The many ways of seeing can help converge on a broader objective, one at the heart of every sincere scientific investigation, avoiding both atomism and holism: “A thing is always more than the sum of its parts, because our recognition of it as a thing depends on its having a new relation to the rest of reality—a new quality. Such ‘nodes’ of qualities vary in their newness and complexity. Some are more critical than others in the difference between their standing in ‘together’ and in ‘apart’ relations confronting the rest of the universe.”77
Could any other understanding be more central to pursuing solutions to climate change, emergent disease, and food production? Dialectical thinking is not necessarily a party platform or political program—if only that were so—but it is a critical mode by which to take on some of the deepest problems humanity faces. And we need not abandon representative sampling and statistical inference along the way.
So Caudwell went for broke. Biologists and Marxists alike may not understand—despite its wrong turns—the transformative nature of Caudwell’s perspective, which assimilated scientific data (as drawn from the literature of his day) and the nature of knowledge itself. As Thompson concludes:
It is spooky indeed, this futuristic constructivist empiricism, especially where in his little essay Caudwell so sharply diagnoses the troubles with twenty-first-century biology.
A Fateful Hypothesis
It was, then, on that first day of the Battle of Jarama, that chums Beckett and Caudwell covered the British retreat. “Clem Beckett and Christopher Saint John Sprigg decided to buy their comrades some time,” writes Ben Hughes:
With their immeasurable gifts—how much biology and culture missed without Caudwell, and sports without Beckett—the deaths of these two men at ages twenty-nine and thirty respectively (and poet Charles Donnelly at twenty-two that same day) seem little but tragedy and waste. The pages of all those books left abandoned on that plateau were flapping markers of many an incandescent mind.
Yet Spain’s defenders—the survivors tellingly barred from serving in WWII as “premature anti-fascists”—teach us a great and terrible lesson: When the monstrous marches on decency, even the greatest of gifts face the dearest sacrifice. We don’t debate armed fascists. We don’t wag our fingers at them. Or draw up equations showing them another way. We fight them.
- ↩Ben Hughes, They Shall Not Pass! The British Battalion at Jarama—The Spanish Civil War (Oxford: Osprey, 2011).
- ↩Jason Gurney, Crusade in Spain (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), 112–13.
- ↩Franc Myles, “Jarama: Remembering a Battlefield,” IPMAG Newsletter 7 (2009): 11–15, http://ipmag.ie.
- ↩Gurney, Crusade in Spain, 113–14.
- ↩Tom Wintringham, English Captain (London: Faber and Faber, 1939).
- ↩John Simkin, “Clem Beckett,” Spanish Civil War Encyclopaedia, 2012, http://spartacus-educational.com.
- ↩Graham Stevenson, “Clem Beckett,” Compendium of Communist Biography, http://grahamstevenson.me.uk.
- ↩Stevenson, “Clem Beckett.”
- ↩Simkin, “Clem Beckett.”
- ↩Jean Duparc and David Margolies, “Introduction,” in Christopher Caudwell, Scenes and Actions: Unpublished Manuscripts, ed. Duparc and Margolies (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), 3.
- ↩Christopher Caudwell, Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 72.
- ↩Duparc and Margolies, “Introduction,” 1–28; E. P. Thompson, “Caudwell,” Socialist Register 1977 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976), 228–76.
- ↩Duparc and Margolies, “Introduction,” 12.
- ↩Duparc and Margolies, “Introduction,” 15.
- ↩John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 11.
- ↩Thompson, “Caudwell,” 234.
- ↩Christopher Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” in Duparc and Margolies, eds., Scenes and Actions.
- ↩Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: 1780–1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 272; Terry Eagleton, “Raymond Williams—An Appraisal,” New Left Review 95 (1976): 3–23; J. D. Bernal, “The ‘Caudwell Discussion,'” Modern Quarterly 6, no. 4 (1951): 346–50; Thompson, “Caudwell”; Helena Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1993), 350–83.
- ↩Duparc and Margolies, “Introduction,” 27–28.
- ↩Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 163.
- ↩W. B. Provine, The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
- ↩W. J. Ewens, Mathematical Population Genetics, second ed. (New York: Springer, 2004), 3.
- ↩Lee Smolin, The Life of the Cosmos (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 164–65.
- ↩Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring (New York: International Publishers, 1970); Rob Wallace, “Darwin’s Simulacrum,” Farming Pathogens blog, August 10, 2009, http://farmingpathogens.wordpress.com.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 165, 170.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 165.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 166.
- ↩Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (New York: Norton, 1994).
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 166.
- ↩Antonio Negri, Political Descartes (London: Verso, 2007); Bertolt Brecht, Life of Galileo (London: Penguin, 2008).
- ↩Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, 357–60.
- ↩Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2002).
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 171.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 171.
- ↩Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1994), 15.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 171.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 172.
- ↩Mark E. Borello, Evolutionary Restraints (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 172.
- ↩Richard Lewontin, The Triple Helix (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 47.
- ↩Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 157.
- ↩Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, 366; Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 249.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 180.
- ↩Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan (New Yok: Random House, 2007).
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 182.
- ↩C. H. Waddington, “Genetic Assimilation,” Advances in Genetics 10 (1961): 257–90.
- ↩Maurice Godelier, The Mental and the Material (London: Verso, 1986).
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 174–75.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 177–78.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 178.
- ↩Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing (London: Verso, 2012).
- ↩Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, 355–56.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 184.
- ↩Rob Wallace, “Eat Prey Love,” Farming Pathogens blog, May 7, 2012, http://farmingpathogens.wordpress.com.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 185–86.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 186.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 187.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 187; Robert G. Wallace et al., “The Dawn of Structural One Health: A New Science Tracking Disease Emergence along Circuits of Capital,” Social Science and Medicine 129 (2015): 68–77.
- ↩Žižek, The Parallax View; Kojin Karatani, Transcritique (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).
- ↩Robert G. Wallace and Rodrick Wallace, “Evolutionary Radiation and the Spectrum of Consciousness,” Consciousness and Cognition 18 (2009):160–67.
- ↩Elizabeth Povinelli, “Tribal Warfare,” New York Times, February 15, 2013.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 187–88.
- ↩Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1982), 45–47.
- ↩Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 248.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 188.
- ↩Susan Oyama, Russell D. Gray, and Paul E. Griffiths, eds., Cycles of Contingency (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 1.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 191.
- ↩Engels, Anti-Dühring, 91, 132.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 191.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 196.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 196.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 197.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 198.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 199.
- ↩Caudwell, “Heredity and Development,” 201.
- ↩Thompson, “Caudwell,” 239–40.
- ↩Hughes, They Shall Not Pass!, 106.