•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

Marx, Darwin, and the upheaval in the biological sciences

Published Feb 9, 2009 10:56 PM

This essay by the founder of Workers World Party was originally published in the Workers World of March 25, 1983, to coincide with the centennial of the death of Karl Marx.

Charles Darwin

It would be wholly inappropriate and indeed regrettable to discuss the centennial of Marx’s death without touching on the relationship between Marxism and Darwinism, and on the relation of Marx and Darwin as contemporaries who also corresponded with each other. The current upheaval in the biological sciences should indeed deepen interest in both the natural sciences as well as Marxism. Had the capitalist mode of production already been eliminated, there would have been a double commemoration in the years 1982-83 for both Darwin and Marx.

Two giants of science

Karl Marx

Kliment Timiriazev, one of the very first in old Russia to have been a great Darwinian naturalist and incidentally one of the first to acquaint himself with Marx’s’ “Capital” when it was first published in Russia, wrote on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee Year (1919) upon the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and Marx’s “Critique of Political Economy”: “When we commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of the publication of these two books, when we think of it as a joint commemoration of Marx and Darwin, we do so recognizing that the two men marched side-by-side under the banner of natural science. Both of them regarded natural science as the one solid foundation for their revolutionary views, views that were destined to shake up both the ‘consciousness’ and the existence of all mankind. Is it not plain that the way to the overthrow of the outworn culture of the bourgeoisie, the way to the building up of the proletarian culture of tomorrow, is the way of science, of natural science which has discarded the mystical and metaphysical formulas of the past?” (From “Karl Marx: Man, Thinker, and Revolutionist,” a symposium edited by David Riazanov.)

Marx and Darwin were, as the early Darwinian naturalist Timiriazev recognized, both standing on the solid ground of science. Timiriazev refers of course to Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and Marx’s “Critique of Political Economy” because the fact they were published in the same year is such a striking illustration of the nature of the epoch in which they made their great discoveries. It was still the so-called progressive epoch of the bourgeoisie. The enthusiasm with which Darwin’s book was received—almost an instant success in England—was in sharp contrast to Marx’s book. Darwin’s rather quick acceptance was due to the fact that some of the leading biologists at the time, including J. Hooker, A. Wallace, and Thomas Huxley in Great Britain, Haeckel, Muller, and Weisman in Germany, and some in the United States, accepted the Darwinian doctrine. Thus the bourgeoisie was ready, but not altogether and not until after a lot of acrimonious discussion and struggle, to accept Darwin. But it was altogether different with Marx. Under no circumstances could they accept Marx’s conclusions in his “Critique of Political Economy.” A conspiracy of silence veiled the discoveries of Marx except among the revolutionary working class elements of the time.

Marx and Engels hailed Darwin

That didn’t stop Marx and Engels from hailing Darwin’s epoch-making discoveries precisely because these discoveries confirmed the general world outlook which Marx and Engels had long held and propagated. Therefore it is no wonder that when “On the Origin of Species” was published on Nov. 24, 1859, Engels immediately got hold of the book and as early as Dec. 12 of that year wrote to Marx, “The Darwin which I am just reading is really stupendous. Teleology in one respect had still not been finished off hitherto. It is now. Moreover, there has never yet been such a magnificent attempt to demonstrate historical development in nature, or at least not so happily. Of course, you have to pass over the crude English method.”

The enthusiasm that Engels showed for Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was precisely because it confirmed his and Marx’s own views of historical development. It was an application of the materialist method, a demonstration of the dialectical and materialist view of organic nature. It is precisely what Marx and Engels were formulating as applied to the field of social development, of historical materialism, and especially their economic doctrines.

Because of Marx’s preoccupation with other work at the time, he wrote to Engels somewhat later (Dec. 19, 1860), “However grossly unfolded in the English manner, this is the book that contains the natural historical foundation of our outlook.” Later he wrote to Lassalle (Jan. 16, 1861), “Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as a natural scientific basis for the class struggle in history. One has to put up with the gross English mode of development, of course. Despite all deficiencies, not only is the death blow dealt here for the first time to ‘teleology’ in the natural sciences, but its rational meaning is empirically explained.”

It should not be thought that what was new to Marx and Engels in Darwin was the idea of evolution. The idea of evolution in the natural sciences was not new, of course. It had been previously studied and brought to public attention as a theory by Lamarck, Diderot, Holbach, Maupertuis, and Buffon, but it was really merely of the strictly speculative type without the vast empirical data to support it.

None of these natural scientists was able to synthesize general evolutionary views without the indispensable empirical data.

Lenin on evolution

It should be noted that Lenin (who was only 24 years old at the time) in his polemic entitled “What the ‘Friends of the People’ are,” summed up the relation of Marxism to Darwinism as follows: “Just as Darwin put an end to the view of animal and plant species being unconnected, fortuitous, ‘created by God’ and immutable, and was the first to put biology on an absolutely scientific basis by establishing the mutability and the succession of species, so Marx put an end to the view of society being a mechanical aggregation of individuals which allows for all sorts of modification at the will of the authorities (or, if you like, at the will of society and the government) and which emerges and changes casually, and was the first to put sociology on a scientific basis by establishing the concept of the economic formation of society as the sum-total of given production relations, by establishing the fact that the development of such formations is a process of natural history.” (From Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol. 1, page 142.)

For all of those in the scientific community who are looking for links between Marx’s view and that of Darwin, Marx stated in the preface to the second edition of “Capital” that from his standpoint, “the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history.” This clearly underlines the relationship between Marxism and Darwinism—the common methodology employed by both Marx and Engels, who have both drawn the parallel between their scientific historical method in approaching social evolution and Darwin’s in organic evolution, have sometimes been subjected to criticism for going too far. For example, see McClellan’s “Karl Marx” in which he criticizes Engels for saying in his graveside speech on Marx: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history; he discovered the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that humankind must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; and that therefore the production of the immediate material means of life and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, the art and even the religious ideas of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which these things must therefore be explained, instead of vice versa as had hitherto been the case.”

McClellan presents it as though Marx and Engels had no reservations about Darwin. Of course they did, especially where Darwin unnecessarily draws in the doctrine of Malthus.

The reactionary evolutionism of Malthus

Engels in his withering criticism of Duhring, who erroneously attacked Darwin’s theory of the struggle for existence on the ground that Darwin had adopted the Malthusian theory lock, stock, and barrel so to speak, said: “Now Darwin would not dream of saying that the origin of the idea of the struggle for existence is to be found in Malthus. He only says that his theory of the struggle for existence is the theory of Malthus applied to the animal and plant world as a whole. However great the blunder made by Darwin in accepting the Malthusian theory so naively and uncritically, nevertheless anyone can see at the first glance that no Malthusian spectacles are needed to perceive the struggle for existence in nature—the contradiction between the countless host of germs which nature so lavishly produces and the small number of those which ever reach maturity; a contradiction which in fact for the most part finds its solution in a struggle for existence—often of extreme cruelty.”

Likewise, Marx in a letter to Kugelmann dated June 1870 says, “Herr Lange, you see, has made a great discovery. The whole of history can be brought under a single great natural law. This natural law is the phrase (in this application Darwin’s expression becomes nothing but a phrase) ‘the struggle for life.’ And the content of this phrase is the Malthusian law of population, or rather over-population. So instead of analyzing the struggle for life as represented historically in varying and definite forms of society, all that has to be done is to translate every concrete struggle into the phrase ‘struggle for life’ and this phrase itself into the Malthusian population fantasy. One must admit that this is a very impressive method—for staggering sham scientific bombastic ignorance and intellectual laziness.” (Marx & Engels Selected Correspondence, pages 239-40) Nevertheless, the relationship between Marx and Darwin was one of mutual respect for each one’s discipline.

Darwin wrote to Marx on Oct. 1, 1873, “Dear sir; I thank you for the honor that you have done me by sending me your great work on Capital and I heartily wish that I was more worthy to receive it, but understanding more of the deep and important subject of political economy. Though our studies have been so different, I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge and that this in the long run is sure to add to the happiness of Mankind. I remain, Dear Sir, Yours faithfully, Charles Darwin.”

Yes indeed, the years 1982-83 should have been a double commemoration of both Marx and Darwin. However, 100 years after the death of these two giants of modern science, the bourgeoisie is less disposed than ever to commemorate Darwin, let alone to take note of Marx, whose diagnosis of the capitalist system is being confirmed by the profoundest capitalist crisis in more than half a century.

New attacks on Darwin

On April 19, 1982, the one hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s death, the London Times carried a commemorative article entitled “The descent of Darwin—100 years on” by Christopher Booker. It’s written in a sour, even surly, tone and is plainly derogatory as an accompanying cartoon demonstrates. The cartoon shows Darwin slipping on a banana peel. Booker, while grudgingly admitting that Darwin’s fame “has never stood higher,” nevertheless goes on to attack him for what really amounts to not discovering what yet remains to be accomplished by biological science.

“On the one hand,” Booker says, “particularly in the U.S., there has been a remarkable revival in old fashioned biblical fundamentalism, in the belief that evolution didn’t take place at all ... that somehow Genesis was literally right and that God created the world and every species in it pretty well simultaneously. On the other hand, a state of almost open war has broken out among the evolutionists themselves with every kind of sect urging some new modification to Darwin.” This is the usual ploy of the antievolutionists, exploiting and confusing differences within the Darwinian evolutionist camp by counter-posing them to the reactionary “creationists.”

“What does not seem to have occurred to more than a handful of people is to urge that life on earth has evolved from simple forms to complex—but that as to how and why it really happened, we have not the slightest idea, and probably never shall,” Booker writes. “It will simply remain God’s secret.”

Sneaking God in

This is a way to sneak God in through the back door, a more sophisticated version of the old teleological theory of design and purpose in nature with the Designer being the “final” answer.

Gone is the period of early progressive capitalism with its robust optimism about art, science, technology, and practically everything!

The optimism exuded then arose from the fact of the expansion of British capitalism abroad. One could say at that time, with some justification, that the sun never set on the British Empire, which then maintained a monopolistic position in world trade and capital accumulation. The Darwinian evolutionary doctrine seemed to parallel if not reflect the growth and development of the bourgeoisie. As long as the progressive developments coincided with the rise in stock market values, the evolutionary doctrine of Darwin could be tolerated if not wholly embraced. But it is a different Britain today. Now it is gloomy, wracked not only by a marauding capitalist crisis but by an ever-shrinking role in world affairs, having become a semi-satellite of U.S. imperialism. What need does the ruling class have now of the revolutionary materialist dialectical approach of a Darwin?

Darwin’s theory of the mutability of all organisms in plant and animal life does not have nearly the same appeal to them as when the capitalist system seemed to be “mutable,” developing on an ascending scale, reaping fabulous profits, and seemingly capable of warding off any challenges by its capitalist rivals.

Of course, not all the bourgeoisie accepted Darwin in the first place. But there were no formidable challenges of substantial stature or durable standing in science.

Here on the other side of the Atlantic, a hundred years ago during the gilded age of American capitalism, certain elements of the bourgeoisie became enchanted with the reactionary sociobiological views of Herbert Spencer, who somehow became the high priest in the preachment of the “survival of the fittest.” As the marauding ruling class advanced in its virtually untrammeled path of subjugation of the oppressed people, it became allured with that aspect of so-called Darwinism.

Things reached a point where even the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, could not avoid the Spencerian conception of the struggle for existence. For instance, a safety code for New York sweatshops was voided by a federal court in 1885 in an opinion extolling “the unceasing struggle for success and existence which pervades all societies of men.” The safety code was therefore unconstitutional because it ignored the “survival of the fittest”!

This transference of the laws governing life in the organic world in order to validate the class struggle of the bourgeoisie seemed quite appropriate and fitting as long as the “fittest” was expanding U.S. imperialism. We don’t hear much of this corruption of Darwinism in this late period, the twilight of U.S. imperialism. So it’s only natural that the bourgeoisie would fall back on the old “creationist” school.

Right wing has no credibility among scientists

It’s no wonder then that the field of biology has been under virtual siege by a flood tide of clerical obscurantism and political reaction. It seems that the biologists breathed a sigh of relief during the centennial of Darwin’s death when no big bombshell from the right-wing “creationist” camp was hurled at them. This year it was anthropology that came under attack with the sensational publication of Derek Freeman’s “Margaret Mead—the making and unmaking of an anthropological myth.” Freeman’s political motivation is clearly aimed to bolster the reactionary school of sociobiology.

In its struggle against Darwinian evolution, the reactionary right had hoped to capture at least one defector from the scientific community to hold up as exhibit No.1 to demolish Darwinism and fortify the fraudulent basis of “creationism.” But nothing like that occurred. Quite the contrary. The assaults of the “creationists,” well financed and well coordinated, were unable to gain a foothold in the biological scientific community. The 1983 Book of the Year of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which covers the events of 1982, remarks in its Life Sciences report, “The efforts of creationists notwithstanding, the theory of biological evolution remained alive and healthy and a powerful intellectual stimulus in 1982, a hundred years after the death of Charles Darwin.” It goes on to say, “The ongoing debate among evolutionary biologists did not at all question the fact that evolution took place, but concerned the exact details of how it operated.”

To the present time, the efforts of the creationists to intervene in the debate to try to exploit and obscure the issues have not affected the continuing struggle to find new approaches to evolutionary theory.

Scientists debate how evolution occurred, not if it occurred

The fact of the matter is that as early as October 1980, the question as to how evolution happened was discussed and debated in a four-day meeting in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, where about 150 scientists specializing in evolutionary studies attended. According to a New York Times report of Nov. 4, 1980, nearly all of the leading evolutionists in paleontology, population genetics, taxonomy (the science of organisms), and related fields attended. There was, of course, no clear resolution of the controversy nor is there one now. At issue during the Chicago meeting was macro-evolution, a term that is itself a matter of debate but which generally refers to the evolution of major differences, such as those separating species or larger classifications.

Macro-evolution is, for example, what made crustaceans different from mollusks. Darwin suggested that such major products of evolution were the result of very long periods of gradual natural selection, the mechanism that is widely accepted today as accounting for minor adaptations. These small variations are considered products of micro-evolution.

Gradualism vs. great leaps

Niles Eldridge, a paleontologist from the Museum of Natural History in New York, along with Steven J. Gould, a Harvard University paleontologist, reiterated the hypothesis that new species arise not from gradual changes but from sudden bursts of evolution. As they see it, species remain largely stable for long periods and then suddenly change dramatically. Thus transitions happen so fast, they suggest, that the chance of intermediate forms being fossilized and found is nil.

Eldridge and Gould are by now very well known for their views and represent the school of thought called “punctuated equilibrium.” Others adhere to the more traditional pattern and consider themselves gradualists and closer to the older Darwinian mold. Among the proponents of the gradualist school at the gathering were Dr. Thomas J. M. Schopf of the University of Chicago. His contention is that species may not be as static as they seem. Fossils, he noted, represent only the hard parts of the organism.

As can be seen, this is a controversy among adherents of the general theory of Darwinian evolution. It is a scientific controversy. The reactionary sociobiologists and the fundamentalist clergy try to intervene solely for purposes of confusion and disruption, which has netted them not a single prominent scientist to desert the scientific evolutionary school in favor of clerical obscurantism.

The Gould-Eldridge school, it should be noted, has been significantly bolstered with the publication by Peter Williams of Harvard University of his findings from the thick fossil beds around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. The controversy, however, continues.

The victory of either school can in no way affect, but rather would deepen, the historical materialist approach of Darwinian evolution. It would in no way be in conflict with the general laws of dialectical development, which encompass not only gradual growth but also leaps in development, breaks in continuity, the transformation into the opposite, and quantitative growth into qualitative changes. (See Lenin’s “On Dialectics,” Collected Works, Vol. 38, page 358.)

The Gould-Eldridge theory, if verified by empirical data, would include in the mechanism of evolution leaps in development, breaks in continuity.

The assault of the creationists and the current tide of reaction unloosed by the Reagan administration, important as they are, are not the main and fundamental danger to the scientific community in general and the biological scientists in particular. A far, far greater peril exists in the ever-stronger grip of the capitalist state, its military-industrial complex, and the giant multinational corporations. And it grows day by day without letup.

This is most dramatically illustrated in the case of biotechnology and the Supreme Court decision of June 1980 to allow scientists to patent genetically engineered life forms. Gene-splicing, hitherto the domain of molecular biologists working in university laboratories, was suddenly given a tremendous push into the vise-like grip of the giant multinational corporations, especially the pharmaceutical and chemical ones like DuPont, Dow, and others. Their close connection and fusion with the capitalist state seems inevitable.

Thus the upheaval in the biological sciences received an enormous push from the U.S. Supreme Court in the development of biotechnology.

A book published in 1981 claims on its jacket cover that “biotechnology will shake the very foundations of medicine, agriculture, energy production, and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.”

“Bacteria with human gene transplants can churn out vast quantities of man’s own body chemicals.... Manmade microbes will mine minerals, manufacture chemicals at half of today’s cost, transform plants into energy, and change the pollution of one industry into the feedstock of the next. Tomorrow’s genetically engineered crops will be impervious to disease and pests, make their own fertilizers, and thrive on deserts and salt marshes, all without man’s help.... By peering into our genes, scientists can now predict with uncanny accuracy which individuals are likely to be inflicted with what diseases.... The first attempts to cure human beings of hereditary defects were undertaken last year. The age of human genetics has already begun.” (“Life for Sale,” by Sharon McAuliffe and Kathleen McAuliffe)

All that needs to be added to this idyllic picture is that the genetic programming of the human race will be done in the spirit of the free enterprise system to serve the “humanitarian interests” of carnivorous, predatory monopoly capitalism.

We are told by Professor David Baltimore, a microbiologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Industry is already trying to get a genetic profile of workers in order to put those with one profile in this situation and those with a different profile in that setting. How are we going to face this challenge?” (U.S. News and World Report, March 28, 1983)

The McAuliffes’ idyllic view of genetic engineering is not shared by all in the scientific community.

Scientist warns of peril

The views, for instance, of Liebe F. Cavalieri are strikingly different and significant, but merely from an ecological and moral viewpoint. He’s a member of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research and professor of biochemistry at Cornell Medical College. He’s the author of’ “The Double-edged Helix: Science in the Real World.”

“There’s a striking similarity between nuclear science and genetic engineering,” says Cavalieri in an article published in the Washington Post of May 14, 1982. (Substantially the same thing was published in a letter to the New York Times on Aug. 1, 1982.)

“Molecular biologists,” he says, “like nuclear physicists are euphoric over their success over deciphering another of nature’s secrets. But genetic engineering is not just another scientific accomplishment. Like nuclear physics, it confers on human beings a power for which they are psychologically and morally unprepared [in a capitalist society-S.M.].

“We know that the earth behaves like an indivisible delicately tuned mechanism in which the inanimate environment is strongly conditioned by living things and vice versa. But we have only begun to decipher the influence of each part on the whole,” he says. “For example, we recognize that certain micro-organisms convert organic wastes to usable nutrients and that this recycling process is critical in maintaining the composition of the atmosphere and other conditions favorable to human life and to the web of species that sustain us. But we cannot predict the effects on these vital micro-organisms of accelerated evolution engineered by man, coupled with accelerated environmental changes now produced by human activities such as the production of carbon dioxide on a vast scale from fossil fuels, the distribution of novel chemical pollutants around the earth, the large-scale clearing of forests, displacement of biological diversity by a minuscule number of cultivated species.”

150 firms producing new life forms

He then goes on to elaborate, “Nevertheless, genetic manipulation of micro-organisms by recombinant DNA technology has proceeded rapidly and is now a widespread practice. More than 150 genetic engineering firms, mainly oriented toward the design of industrially useful micro-organisms, have been formed in the last two years. From their laboratories, microorganisms with properties taken from higher forms of life will inevitably escape into the ecosphere; other engineered forms will eventually be released intentionally into the environment.

“We are laying the groundwork for unforeseen evolutionary changes that may create an inhospitable environment for present species. The human species has evolved to fit the present ecological conditions. If there were a drastic change in the environment some forms of life would undoubtedly adapt, but humans with their many exacting biological requirements could not evolve fast enough to become compatible with the new environment. The gene pool of the Earth, which comprises all living organisms, is a precious, irreplaceable legacy of natural evolution. It is in the truest sense a onetime occurrence and it would be naive to assume that we can manipulate it without harming ourselves. We do not have the infinite wisdom that would be required. “

“This is a unique moment in history,” he continues. “With the experience of the nuclear weapons threat to draw on, we ought now to be able to act before another crisis is upon us. We ought not to be blinded by the short-term promises of genetic engineering. Unlike pollution and other forms of assault on the environment, once new genetic forms have become established, they cannot be ‘cleaned up.’ It is not possible to reconstruct an earlier evolutionary era. Forty years ago, physicists discovered that energy could be released from the atomic nucleus. At the same time biologists discovered that DNA, the material of the cell nucleus, was the genetic stuff of life. These twin scientific feats, one at the core of matter, the other at the core of life, are without doubt the most momentous discoveries of the 20th century. We have mismanaged the application of the first discovery. Now as the second is about to be exploited, we must not permit the biosphere ... to become an experimental subject. There’s only one earthly biosphere and we are part of it. There’s no margin for error.”

As can be seen, Cavalieri is taking the high road of appealing to moral postulates and basing himself on the dangers to the entire ecological system. However, the entire course of historical development demonstrates that moral appeals to a class which is gripped by an uncontrollable drive for material benefits, such as the drive in our epoch for superprofits by the ruling class, are like blowing bubbles against a windstorm.

It is this that has to be taken into account in dealing with this very, very important question. The relative quiescence of the working class and progressive movement at this particular moment in history should not be taken as a reason for falling back on prayers and admonitions to the kings and princes of high finance and industry who are concerned with exploiting the biosphere, not improving it.

Such concessions as can be wrested from them are the results of mobilizing public opinion based on the broad mass of the workers and the progressive community as a whole. They alone can appreciate the dangers best, but then they have no conflict of material interest.

Cavalieri speaks in terms of “we,” as for instance “we have mismanaged,” “we know,” “we recognize,” or “we do not have the infinite wisdom that would be required.”

When he is speaking as a scientist, it must be borne in mind that he is speaking merely about U.S. scientists, and not the scientists of the world. Least of all would he include the scientists of the socialist countries, China and the USSR in particular. He therefore is speaking from a purely national point of view.

The scientific intelligentsia in this country are so securely tied to the military-industrial complex and the multinational corporations that it is virtually impossible to get a hearing before them characterized by that aloofness from material interests required by dispassionate and objective discussion. DuPont alone boasts that it has in excess of a thousand PhD’s in its laboratories.

Science tied to big business and military

What the U.S. Supreme Court did for business and industry by granting patents for genetic engineering was to tie the individual scientist, her or his laboratory, and the university securely to big business and the capitalist state by offering them a share in the profits. There are now many hundreds of patents pending by scientists. The large corporations have the funds and other wherewithal to gobble up all these patents and at the same time tie down the scientific community in so-called profit sharing schemes. It’s the same story as when workers in industry are asked to forsake their unions and independence from the corporations in the interests of some illusory share in the business.

The idea of granting patents to scientific investigators has created a further impediment to the free inquiry so indispensable to dispassionate scientific investigation. For instance, a lawyer speaking to a group of scientists advised them that before going to any conference they should have their notes certified by a notary public so as to protect their property. This openly deepens secrecy among the scientists, who should be discussing in common the results of their investigations.

Wall Street euphoric

Wall Street was delighted with the news of the Supreme Court’s decision and its effect on the DNA industry. “You can just feel the excitement in the air,” exclaimed Nelson Schneider, an investment analyst at E.F. Hutton, the securities firm. “Here we are sitting at the edge of a technological breakthrough that could be as important as electricity, splitting the atom, or going back to the invention of the wheel or the discovery of fire.” (Quoted in “Life for Sale”)

There is a furious struggle in the biotechnology companies to gobble up patents. It has reduced itself already to three—Genentech in San Francisco, Cetus in Berkeley, Calif., and Biogen in Geneva. The capitalist crisis has, for the time being, slowed the race down to a crawl. But the grip of the pharmaceutical, biomedical and bio-agricultural multinational corporations and their increasing fusion with the capitalist state, more particularly with the military-industrial complex, is beyond question.

Notwithstanding the commendable outcry by such distinguished scientists as Cavalieri and others, the dangerous grip that the ruling class now holds over more and more high technology and weaponry, particularly space weaponry, and including weapons that can be developed from biotechnology, makes the urgency for a struggle against the whole system of monopoly capitalism more imperative than ever.

Science and the class struggle

The survival of the human race depends on the development of a consciousness to join forces by the working class, the oppressed people, and the progressive element in the scientific community and in other disciplines in other industries.

The very universality of the capitalist crisis and the terrible toll it has taken in human suffering and destruction should be an impetus to the intelligentsia in general and the scientific community in particular to join hands with the workers in a common struggle.

Such an alliance has a materialist scientific basis for solving the crisis of humanity. The signpost says this is the road to the scientific solution to the crisis. The other is the beaten path that has already led to two devastating wars, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to the building of the MX missiles, the B-1 bombers, and the most sophisticated technology for weapons in space.

Summary conclusions

With the development of genetic engineering, biology as a basic science is rapidly becoming transformed into an applied science. That puts it into a whole new category.

Even if the potential of genetic engineering does not turn out to have the enormous dangers of atomic energy, it nevertheless poses a very great peril unless the situation is in some way reversed, as Cavalieri suggests.

Professor David Baltimore, in the interview quoted above, said, “If we decided to organize our society so that we bred people for specific jobs, we could do that now. Just as we breed dogs, we could breed people.

“Hitler on a grand (sic) and very crude scale tried a first step along those lines. But we don’t do that in our society because of the type of social organization that we feel appropriate. As long as we maintain that principle, the advent of contemporary genetics doesn’t seem as frightening.”

We are not like Hitler. Very laudable.

But industry, he says in this same interview, is already trying to get a genetic profile of workers. For what purpose?

We are not like Hitler, “we don’t do that in our society because of the type of social organization that we feel appropriate.” While trying very hard to understand what Baltimore is saying here, we cannot but feel that he is embellishing the good, wonderful nature of “our society.” What’s so reassuring about this society? “The type of social organization we feel appropriate.” What is that supposed to mean?

Baltimore vs. Baltimore

It seems to us that this evaluation of “our society” in connection with genetic engineering is a considerable retreat from the position enunciated by the same Professor Baltimore on Feb. 28, 1982, in the Nova TV program (number 907) entitled “Life: Patent Pending.”

“The only way to exploit the new developments [in genetic engineering] was development through the standard commercial sector,” he said. “That means some people get the profits: the people who put in the money, the venture capitalists, corporations that are willing to fund it, and in many cases individual scientists who either were given or developed equity positions in these companies. It seems grossly unfair that a small number of people benefit enormously from the development of this new technology. Never mind whether it was funded publicly or privately. On the other hand the system is set up so that will happen.” (Page 24, official transcript)

That sounds wholly different from the view so recently enunciated by Professor Baltimore—”We don’t do that in our type of society because of the type of social organization we feel appropriate.” The social organization turns out to be venture capitalists, giant corporations, a handful of profiteers, and scientists who have equity in the multinational corporations. That is the general outline of the anatomy of capitalist society. As he says, “The system is set up so that will happen.” Indeed, it will happen.

Choice for scientists

Therefore it is not true, as he says later on, that the scientist has only two choices: either stop doing scientific work entirely or take the risk that your work might be misused.

No, there is a third choice. The choice is to fight for the complete and unconditional intellectual and political independence of the scientific community from the greed of the corporations—and from enslavement to the universities, too, for they are ever so tightly linked with the capitalist state and also with its infrastructure, the military-industrial complex.

The road ahead is very dangerous, and only organized resistance to maintain intellectual and scientific integrity can safeguard society, including the millions and millions of working people and oppressed masses.

It is necessary to invoke the struggle of scientists against control by governmental and clerical authorities in the Enlightenment period and earlier, when the church appeared omnipotent.

Should we not remember the lesson of Galileo? The verdict of the church more than 900 years after his death has not been reversed, notwithstanding the appeals of prominent Catholic scientists and lay people as well. Science cannot be neutral in a class society, riven by irreconcilable antagonisms. Efforts to escape from class society into prayer or to embellish this monopoly capitalist system by conjuring up the practices of Hitler is an evasion of public responsibility by scientists.

At the present time even the weak guidelines on genetic engineering enacted in June 1976 by the National Institutes of Health have been watered down, notwithstanding that these guidelines are not really mandatory. The marauding multinational corporations are really free to do virtually anything, especially with their hysteria against government regulation let loose by the Reaganites.

There’s no way that one can avoid taking a position in capitalist society, especially in the light of the great dangers that lie ahead.