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Natural History and the Nature of History

Over 500 million years ago, Pikaia, a two-inch-long worm-like creature, swam in the Cambrian seas. It was not particularly common, nor in anyway would it have appeared remarkable to a hypothetical naturalist surveying the fauna of the time. Pikaia is the first known chordate, the phylum to which Homo sapiens and all other vertebrates belong. As the late Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist, evolutionary theorist, and dialectical biologist, posited in one of his most renowned books, Wonderful Life (1989), an exceptional level of human arrogance is necessary to argue that Pikaia was superior to its many contemporaries who either went extinct or, through the vagaries of history, dwindled to obscurity. Yet, despite the absurdity of it, bourgeois thought is so deeply committed to portraying history as a march of progress leading inexorably to the present that many natural historians have long argued that evolution on earth unfolded in a predictable, progressive manner, with the emergence of humanity, or at least a conscious intelligent being, as its inevitable outcome. This view fits well with the perspective of the dominant classes of various historical ages, who typically believe the particular hierarchical social order that supports them is both natural and inevitable, the point toward which history had been striving. As Marxist scholars have long recognized, ruling-class ideology gets smuggled into the damnedest places, including interpretations of the natural world. This elite construction of nature, which often involves demarcating so-called inherent hierarchies, is often used to justify inequalities in the social world. It would be wise to call into question such depictions of the social and natural world and to seek an understanding of natural history free of this ideology | more…

Dialectical Nature

Reflections in Honor of the Twentieth Anniversary of Levins and Lewontin’s The Dialectical Biologist

Richard Levins wrote in these pages (July-August 1986) that an appreciation of history and science is necessary to understand the world, challenge bourgeois ideological monopoly, and transcend religious obscurantism. Knowledge of science and history is needed in order not only to comprehend how the world came to be, but also to understand how the world can be changed. Marx and Engels remained committed students of the natural sciences throughout their lives, filling notebooks with detailed comments, quotes, and analyses of the scientific work of their time. Marx, through his studies of Greek natural philosophy-in particular Epicurus-and the development of the natural sciences, arrived at a materialist conception of nature to which his materialist conception of history was organically and inextricably linked. Marx and Engels, however, rejected mechanical materialism and reductionism, insisting on the necessity of a dialectical analysis of the world. Engels’s Dialectics of Nature serves as an early, unfinished attempt to push this project forward. A materialist dialectic recognizes that humans and nature exist in a coevolutionary relationship. Human beings are conditioned by their historical, structural environment; yet they are also able to affect that environment and their own relationship to it through conscious human intervention | more…

Empire of Barbarism

“A new age of barbarism is upon us.” These were the opening words of an editorial in the September 20, 2004, issue of Business Week clearly designed to stoke the flames of anti-terrorist hysteria. Pointing to the murder of schoolchildren in Russia, women and children killed on buses in Israel, the beheading of American, Turkish, and Nepalese workers in Iraq, and the killing of hundreds on a Spanish commuter train and hundreds more in Bali, Business Week declared: “America, Europe, Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and governments everywhere are under attack by Islamic extremists. These terrorists have but one demand—the destruction of modern secular society.” Western civilization was portrayed as standing in opposition to the barbarians, who desire to destroy what is assumed to be the pinnacle of social evolution. | more…

Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present

Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present

Critique of Intelligent Design is a direct reply to the criticisms of intelligent design proponents and a compelling account of the long debate between materialism and religion in the West. It provides an overview of the contemporary fight concerning nature, science, history, morality, and knowledge. Separate chapters are devoted to the design debate in antiquity, the Enlightenment and natural theology, Marx, Darwin, and Freud, and to current scientific debates over evolution and design. It offers empowering tools to understand and defend critical and scientific reasoning in both the natural and social sciences and society as a whole. | more…

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