Reconsidering the “Natural Underpinnings” of Capitalism: Natural Evolution and Social Evolution

(By Charles Imboden) 

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This paper outlines the orthodox theory of Darwinian evolution, natural selection, and selection types. The overemphasis on competition in the process of evolution, and the role of cooperation, mutualism, and (in a more general sense) symbiosis are discussed, utilizing the work of Peter Kropotkin, Lynn Margulis, and Stephen Jay Gould. The chaining of Darwinian evolution to a gradualist conception is debated through Gould’s theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” supported by Margulis’ “serial endosymbiotic theory (SET).” This transitions nicely into the theory of evolution as it manifests socially, most commonly as “social Darwinism,” based on the overemphasis of competition discussed above. The philosophical and economic antecedents that would influence Darwin’s conception in the natural sciences are discussed, with emphasis on Malthus and the historic critique of his thought by socialists. It is found that the perception of the natural and social worlds exist in dialectical tension, wherein “a warped view of ‘human nature’ and human society shapes, and is shaped by, a warped view of the natural world.” Reharmonizing the relationship between humanity and nature implies correcting these warped views. A brief outline for further investigation discusses a possible way to begin this work.

“Of course the speed of light is the same under socialism and capitalism, and the apple that was said to have fallen on the Master of the Mint in 1664 would have struck his Labor Party successor three-hundred years later with equal force. But whether the cause of tuberculosis is said to be a bacillus or the capitalist exploitation of workers, whether the death rate from cancer is best reduced by studying oncogenes or by seizing control of factories–these questions can be decided objectively only within the framework of certain sociopolitical assumptions. [Our argument] is not about the effect of science on society or the effect of society on science. Rather, it is meant to show how science and other aspects of social life interpenetrate and to show why scientists, whether they realize it or not, always choose sides” (Levins et al. 1989, p. 4-5).


Darwin and Evolution

The concept of evolution, or change over time, is not new. Such ideas were held by the ancient Greeks and others, including Anaximander, Empedocles, and Aristotle. The great contribution of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), and the reason Darwinian evolutionary theory underlies the entirety of contemporary life sciences, was his proposed mechanism for evolution: natural selection (Kardong p. 3).

As Kenneth V. Kardong explains, Darwin proposed conditions for and mechanisms of evolutionary change. For Darwin, three conditions prevailed: the intrinsic increase of the number of individuals within a species, competition occurring for limited resources, and the survival of the few. The mechanism, as mentioned above, was natural selection (p. 4).

It should be noted that both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) independently developed the concept of natural selection, with Wallace initiating a correspondence with Darwin. Underlying this exchange was the work of reverend and political economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), whose book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, would inspire the development of natural selection, while also fueling the rise of “social Darwinism.” Interestingly, both Darwin and Wallace had independently discovered and read the work prior to Wallace’s initial correspondence (Kardong, p. 9-10). While it is technically more correct to refer to the Darwin- Wallace theory of evolution, it is referred to in this text as simply Darwinian.

The evidence for evolution is compelling and overwhelming. As Kardong discusses, this includes the presence of a chronological sequence of progressive changes in the fossil record, comparative anatomy (or anatomical similarities between related species), comparative embryology (or similarities in embryo development between related species), and the presence of vestigial or atavistic structures in organisms (p. 100-113).
Natural Selection

In discussing natural selection as the mechanism of Darwinian evolution, Kardong defines the concept as a “culling process, wherein those with advantageous features survive; those without perish.” The result of this process is “change through time,” and “descent with modification” (p. 123). Additionally, it is the “weeding out of organisms by biological factors” and directly affects the phenotype (the outward appearance of traits), not the genotype (the genetic makeup) of the organism (p. 129).

Kardong notes that competition and predation between individuals was the early focus of natural selection, now constituting the biotic selection factors. He states that, “Eventually Darwin recognized that equally important for survival was the outcome of an organism’s confrontation with the physical environment,” or the abiotic selection factors (p. 123). However, as will be shown, the extent to which the former is preferenced over the latter, by Darwin as well as contemporary evolutionary science, is great. To begin, historian George Woodcock provides context:

In later years, like Wallace, [Darwin] granted that co-operation was also important, but he never developed the idea, and the concept of progression through conflict was what Darwinism came to mean in the public mind, particularly when Huxley appeared in the field with his presentation of the continual strife between groups and individuals as a law of life (Kropotkin, p. xxiv).

Within natural selection, there are four specific types: stabilizing, directional, disruptive, and sexual. Stabilizing selection favors the intermediate phenotype when viewed on a bell curve. Directional selection acts against one phenotypic extreme, moving the curve in the opposite direction. Disruptive selection selects against the intermediate phenotype, shifting change toward each extreme of the curve, resulting in polymorphism (“two conspicuous and distinctive forms of the same trait” within a species). Lastly, sexual selection is selection pressure generated by the preference of mates of an organism. Such selection may not favor environmental survival, but does improve reproductive success. Sexual selection is a special selection type (p. 132-140).

An alternative description for natural selection is “survival of the fittest,” coined by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who was also the first to apply the concept to human society and arguably one of the first proponents of a “social Darwinist” perspective (Kitcher 2012). This necessitates a definition of “fitness.” Defined by Kardong, fitness is measured by the number of offspring an individual contributes to the next generation (p. 123).
Cooperation in Addition to Competition

An early attempt to counter the overemphasis of competition within Darwinian evolutionary theory, both in the natural and social realms, is found in the work of Russian geographer Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). His best known work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, was published as early as 1890 in serialized form for the publication The Nineteenth Century. In large part a response to Thomas Henry Huxley’s (1825-1895) earlier essay, “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society,” Mutual Aid, “offered the first extensive counter argument to those who emphasized the struggle for existence as the major factor in evolution” (Kropotkin, p. xi). Like Spencer, Huxley—known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”–subscribed to the basic Malthusian position (an argument of political economy that posits population increasing geometrically, outstripping a food supply that can only grow arithmetically, therefore promoting cutthroat competition between individuals for scarce resources), itself part of a conception of the natural world dating at least to Hobbes and his “war of everyone against everyone” as the state of nature, and up through to Tennyson’s idea of “nature, red in tooth and claw.” Kropotkin regarded such extreme struggle for existence views as a distortion of Darwinism (Kropotkin, p. xix-xx). Kropotkin opens Mutual Aid by stating,

Two aspects of animal life impressed me most during the journeys which I made in my youth in Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria. One of them was the extreme severity of the struggle for existence which most species of animals have to carry on against an inclement Nature; the enormous destruction of life which periodically results from natural agencies; and the consequent paucity of life over the vast territory which fell under my observation. And the other was, that even in those few spots where animal life teemed in abundance, I failed to find—although I was eagerly looking for it—that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution” (p. xxxv).

Kropotkin rejected social Darwinism and the battle of each against all as constituting a “law of Nature,” and held up Russian zoologist Karl Fedorovich Kessler’s (1815-1881) “law of Mutual Aid,” alongside the “law of Mutual Struggle” (p. xxxvii-xxxviii).

Though titled “Mutual Aid,” when discussing the role of mutualism within the natural world, Kropotkin was primarily concerned with that between members of the same species, commonly referred to today as cooperation. Mutualism is commonly referred to as a mutually beneficial relationship between members of different species. Both are types of symbiosis.

For Kropotkin, cooperation and competition were the two main factors in the “struggle for existence,” with cooperation being as much a natural law as mutual struggle, but of far greater importance as a factor of evolution (p. 6). He noted that Russian Darwinists were much more receptive to the importance of cooperation than their Western counterparts (p. 9).

The first part of Mutual Aid is dedicated to the natural world, and Kropotkin uses the opening chapters to list specific instances of cooperation, as well as some instances of mutualism and coexistence between species. He notes that the inter-species examples, even if some are widespread—as between multiple colonies of ants—do not extend to the entire species. Indeed, outside of the colonies living together, ants of the same species are often considered enemies. Yet, some forms of cooperation can be seen as fundamental and both universal—in the sense that it exists species-wide—as well as particular—in the sense that, while species-wide, it only exists between given individuals of the species. Examples include that of parental care (p. 1-30).

Kropotkin goes on to question what constitutes “fitness?” This question is perhaps dulled by the contemporary definition of fitness as simply reproductive success. He notes two aspects of “struggle:” direct—among individuals for food and safety, and “metaphorical” (using Darwin’s terminology) against adverse environmental circumstances, which is often collective (60).

Lastly, Kropotkin contends that Darwin’s proofs for competition, which Darwin argues is a necessity due to the overstocking of animal life, is insufficiently convincing. Kropotkin notes that the paragraph “The Struggle for Life Most Severe Between Individuals…” in the Origin of Species does not give proofs of competition, but competition is taken as granted. Darwin only gives five examples of competition “between closely allied animal species,” and Kropotkin disputes two of these (p. 60). Further investigation of the validity of Kropotkin’s arguments in light of contemporary scientific understanding is needed.

In 1997 leading evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) came to Kropotkin’s defense. In “Kropotkin was No Crackpot,” Gould reminded his readers that Darwin intended the concept of the “struggle for existence” in a metaphorical sense, but that “his actual examples certainly favored bloody battle” (Gould 1997). Gould also lamented Darwin’s acceptance of the “dismal view of Malthus,” and cited Darwin’s metaphor of the wedge as demonstrating Darwin’s commitment to competition over all other factors.

Nature, Darwin writes, is like a surface with 10,000 wedges hammered tightly in and filling all available space. A new species (represented as a wedge) can only gain entry into a community by driving itself into a tiny chink and forcing another wedge out. Success, in this vision, can only be achieved by direct takeover in overt competition (1997).

However, given the critique by Kropotkin above, as well as Theodoropoulos’ defense of invasive species having caused no known extinctions, can it be argued that other species (with the exception of human beings) are never the root cause of extinction, perhaps acting at most as opportunists facilitating the speed of an extinction already set in motion by other (environmental) factors? Indeed, is there any evidence of an extinction caused by the direct competition among species in the natural world?

Gould notes that Kropotkin’s arguments in Mutual Aid were rooted in a Russian evolutionary tradition characterized by “a standard, well-developed Russian critique of Darwin, based on interesting reasons and coherent national traditions….” and “based its major premise upon a firm rejection of Malthus’s claim that competition, in the gladiatorial [a term introduced by Huxley] mode, must dominate in an ever more crowded world, where population, growing geometrically, inevitably outstrips a food supply that can only increase arithmetically” (1997).

Gould summarizes Kropotkin’s dual aspects of the struggle for existence (direct and metaphorical), and reinforces the idea that Darwin, influenced by Malthus, did indeed favor competition over other factors.

Kropotkin therefore created a dichotomy within the general notion of struggle—two forms with opposite import: (1) organism against organism of the same species for limited resources, leading to competition; and (2) organism against environment, leading to cooperation…. Darwin acknowledged that both forms existed, but his loyalty to Malthus and his vision of nature chock- full of species led him to emphasize the competitive aspect. Darwin’s less sophisticated votaries then exalted the competitive view to near exclusivity, and heaped a social and moral meaning upon it as well (1997).

While Gould faulted Kropotkin for a limited, technical misunderstanding of Darwin’s position of natural selection pertaining to individual organisms (noting that Kropotkin sometimes argued that cooperation “selected for the benefit of entire populations or species”), as well as for essentially committing a naturalistic fallacy in finding in nature the characteristics he sought for his social theories, Gould implies that Kropotkin’s work at minimum provided a counterbalance to the overemphasis of competition by Darwin and his adherents.

What can we make of Kropotkin’s argument today, and that of the entire Russian school represented by him? Were they just victims of cultural hope and intellectual conservatism? I don’t think so. In fact, I would hold that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals. If Kropotkin overemphasized mutual aid, most Darwinians in Western Europe had exaggerated competition just as strongly. If Kropotkin drew inappropriate hope for social reform from his concept of nature, other Darwinians had erred just as firmly (and for motives that most of us would now decry) in justifying imperial conquest, racism, and oppression of industrial workers as the harsh outcome of natural selection in the competitive mode (1997).

This Russian school, contemporary to Kropotkin’s time and still little known in the English speaking world, would prove to be an influence on Lynn Margulis and her development of serial endosymbiotic theory.

It has thus far been demonstrated that natural selection, conceived of as struggle for existence, has two components: that of direct struggle between two organisms of the same species over limited resources leading to competition, and that of organism against environment, leading to cooperation. Both factors deserve at least equal weight in evolutionary investigation and an understanding of the natural world. This is still not part of the orthodox Darwinian view. Are there other possible exceptions or modifications to the theory of natural selection? At least two present themselves: serial endosymbiotic theory (SET), and the theory of “punctuated equilibrium.”
The Prevalence of Symbiosis

In Symbiotic Planet: A New View of Evolution, Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) outlines what could be considered an expanded and interconnected argument to that of Kropotkin, called serial endosymbiotic theory (SET). This argument expands that of Kropotkin’s in at least two ways. First, its scope is that of the broader category of symbiosis, defined by Margulis as “the living together in physical contact of organisms of different species… literally touching each other or even inside each other, in the same place at the same time” (p. 2). The category of symbiosis includes mutualism (known as cooperation when taking place within species rather than between species), commensalism (wherein one species benefits and the other receives neither benefit or harm) and parasitism (where the parasite benefits at the expense of the host). Second, it can be seen to encompass greater temporality, seeking to explain the very origin of species and emergence of life from the inorganic. Margulis ironically points out that Darwin’s The Origin of Species had little to say about the actual emergence of life (p. 6). In explaining the origin of species, Margulis invokes the concept of symbiogenesis: “the origin of new tissues, organs, organisms—even species—by establishment of long-term permanent symbiosis. She notes that symbiosis is crucial to evolutionary novelty and that the idea of species requires symbiosis. In support of this, she notes that bacteria don’t have species (p. 6).

Interestingly, Margulis believed symbiosis helps to explain and reinforce the phenomenon of “punctuated equilibrium.”

[Niles] Eldredge and [Stephen Jay] Gould argue that the fossil record shows evolution to be static most of the time and to proceed suddenly: rapid change in fossil populations occurs over brief time spans; stasis then prevails for extended periods. From the long view of geological time, symbioses are like flashes of evolutionary lightning. To me symbiosis as a source of evolutionary novelty helps explain the observation of “punctuated equilibrium,” of discontinuities in the fossil record (p. 8).

A primary argument of Margulis’ is that symbiosis is not rare, but abundant. “We abide in a symbiotic world.” Amoeba speciation involved symbiosis and has been observed in the laboratory. This symbiogenesis constitutes a special type of Lamarkianism, wherein organisms do not inherit acquired characteristics, but entire other organisms and their gene sets (8-9). “The tendency of ‘independent’ life is to bind together and reemerge in a new wholeness at a higher, larger level of organization” (11). Margulis cites another variant of Lamarckianism in the work of Tracy Sonneborn and Jannine Beissen.

Sonneborn, longtime professor of genetics at Indiana University, with researcher Beisson reported that if Paramecium cilia are surgically removed in clumps with their bases and turned around some 180 degrees on the cell’s surface, then replaced, the cilia will appear in offsping cells, for many future generations, in this reversed position. In other words, the cilia reproduce and the change experimentally induced by the scientists was inherited, for at least two hundred generations after the operation. Here was a laboratory example of the so-called inheritance of acquired characteristics that orthodoxy dismissed as Lamarckianism (p.27).

Proof for SET comes from the study of the cytoplasm and organelles within nucleated cells. For instance, plastids and mitochondria affect heredity, in addition to the nucleus (p. 24). The central idea is that “the origin of cells with nuclei is exactly equal to the evolutionary integration of symbiotic bacterial communities” (p. 29).

My theory of the symbiogenetic origin of plant, animal, and other cells with nuclei employs four provable postulates. All four involve symbiogenesis, incorporation, and body fusion by symbiosis. The theory precisely outlines the steps that must have occurred in the past, especially in relation to the bright green cells of plants…. The idea is straightforward: four once entirely independent and physically separate ancestors merged in a specific order to become the green algal cell (p. 33, 34).

The four mergers are hypothesized to be: 1) archaebacterium merged with a swimming bacterium, becoming the nucleocytoplasm; 2) this swimming protist merged with an aerobic bacterium and became nucleated; 3) this nucleated cell merged with a photosynthetic bacterium, the latter eventually becoming cell chloroplasts (p. 34-37). This process culminated in swimming green algae, the ancestors of plants. As of 1998, Margulis had proven three of the four mergers.

Margulis’ idea that “[a]ll organisms large enough for us to see are composed of once- independent microbes, teamed up to become larger wholes,” (p. 38) is not only reminiscent of the concept of the holon (“Holon” is a term coined by Arthur Koestler to signify something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. This concept can no doubt be interpreted dialectically, and has significance to ecology.), but calls into question the conventional view of “individuality.”

In attempting to determine how life first emerged, Margulis notes the presence of cell-like systems and cell-like membranous enclosures. “[W]e think that pre-life, with a suitable source of energy inside a greasy membrane, grew chemically complex.” For this, an energy source was needed, most likely solar: “controlled energy flow led to the selfhood that became cell life” (p. 71-72).

It is also worth noting that Margulis was partly influenced by the Russian biologists that were contemporaries to Kropotkin. Stephen Jay Gould noted that the Russian evolutionists of Kropotkin’s time are to this day little understood in the Western world, having hardly been translated to English (Gould 1997).

Margulis’ work has the potential to expand evolutionary theory past the limitations of Darwin by offering an actual proposal for the transition from the inorganic to the organic, and a specific explanation for the origin of species. Her work testifies to the prevalence of mutualism and symbiosis in the natural world, possibly calling into question the extent to which competition is actually the overriding factor driving evolutionary change.
Natural Selection: Gradual Change Over Time?

The other challenge to the orthodox view of natural selection is the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” first put forward by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in 1972. Gould has noted that Darwin was a strict adherent of gradualism and tied this view to natural selection over the objection of Thomas Henry Huxley (Gould 2006, p. 261-262). Gould argues against Darwin’s gradualism, and that “the modern theory of evolution does not require gradual change. In fact, the operation of Darwinian processes should yield exactly what we see in the fossil record. It is gradualism that we must reject, not Darwinism” (p. 263). This argument revolves around the seeming lack of intermediate forms found in the fossil record. To a gradualist such as Darwin, this was a result of the record’s incompleteness. To Gould, this was because evolutionary change often happened at a much quicker rate than Darwin allowed in his theory of natural selection. Therefore, in Gould’s view, the fossil record was not incomplete, but a reflection of sudden appearance and stasis that the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” predicted (p. 264).

It is important to keep in mind that the speed referred to regarding punctuated equilibrium is over geologic time, but still occurs much more rapidly relative to Darwin’s gradualist view (Gould, p. 265). Eldridge and Gould maintain that “speciation is responsible for almost all evolutionary change….” and that this occurs primarily in peripheral isolates of larger, otherwise stable and homogenizing, populations (p. 264-265).

As demonstrated in his treatment of Kropotkin above, Gould was skeptical about importing natural facts and observations of nature to justify social attitudes or institutions. Yet, he was also aware that social values do impact the scientific endeavor. Interestingly, he compares his theory of punctuated equilibrium with the dialectical method.

If gradualism is more a product of Western thought than a fact of nature, then we should consider alternate philosophies of change to enlarge our realm of constraining prejudices. In the Soviet Union, for example, scientists are trained with a very different philosophy of change—the so- called dialectical laws, reformulated by Engels from Hegel’s philosophy. The dialectical laws are explicitly punctuational. They speak, for example, of the “transformation of quantity into quality.” This may sound like mumbo jumbo, but it suggests that change occurs in large leaps following a slow accumulation of stresses that a system resists until it reaches the breaking point. Heat water and it eventually boils. Oppress the workers more and more and bring on the revolution. Eldredge and I were fascinated to learn that many Russian paleontologists support a model similar to our punctuated equilibria” (p. 266).

Gould concludes the essay “with a simple plea for pluralism in guiding philosophies, and for the recognition that such philosophies, however hidden and unarticulated, constrain all our thought. The dialectical laws express an ideology quite openly; our Western preference for gradualism does the same thing more subtly” (p. 266).


As has been demonstrated, the adoption of Malthus by Darwin and Wallace into biology brought with it certain assumptions that resulted in a skewed, overly competitive vision of the natural world. This next section aims to show how this skewed vision of nature would be the basis for a skewed vision of human society.

Malthus and Social Darwinism

The reliance of Darwin and Wallace on Malthus is controversial. While Malthus’s work has no doubt contributed to a skewed vision of the natural world, it arguably features even more prominently in the human social realm. Therefore, a detailed discussion is presented under the impact of evolutionary theory on the social sciences.

Malthus’ work An Essay of the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, is an extension to the economic realm of a philosophical view of nature extending back at least to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1671). In his book Leviathan (1651), Hobbes theorized a “war of every man against every man” as the state of nature. Historian George Woodcock argues that, “The seventeenth century authoritarian philosopher Thomas Hobbes… had based his justification of the State and of monarchical authority on the theory that primitive man is naturally given to fratricidal struggle… and that the social virtues can be implanted only by the force of a superior authority” (Kropotkin, p. xxii).

In the 18th century, prior to Malthus, the response to the Hobbesian argument carried over into the economic realm, giving rise to some of the first expositions of philosophical anarchism, notably in William Godwin’s (1756-1836) Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Manners (1793) (Kropotkin, p. xxii-xxiii).

Malthus’s (1766-1834) Principle of Population (1798) would take the Hobbesian argument proper into the realm of political economy in response to Godwin. While there were others that also participated in the debate around this issue, it is within the scope of the current essay only to mention Godwin’s belated reply to Malthus in On Population (1820) (Kropotkin, p. xxiii-xxiv).

Malthus’ argument is summarized well by Woodock.

…Malthus contended… that there was a natural tendency for population to increase in a higher ratio to any possible increase in the supply of food. This process would result in disaster if there were not “positive checks” to growing population: natural phenomena like disease and famine, and social phenomena like war and the general struggle among individuals and classes by which the weaker goes to the wall. To preserve that well-being which now existed, Malthus argued, such processes must be left unchanged. He denounced Godwin’s doctrine of universal benevolence as a concept that would upset the natural limitation of population and defeat itself by producing a society in which population, outstripping the food supply, would bring disaster and famine to all, instead of to the minorities who are cut off in their prime by the normal process of unrestricted competition. The final result of any attempt at change would therefore be a return, through terrible trials, to the old situation. Things, in fact, were as they were bound to be, and all talk of widespread improvement in the human condition was chimerical (Kropotkin, p. xxiii).

It is easy to see in Malthus the seeds of “social Darwinism,” and its attempt to justify cutthroat competition, rugged (egoistic) individuality, and capitalism itself as “natural” and perhaps inevitable outcomes of the human condition, based on the perceived condition of nature. Indeed, Woodcock goes on to note that this was a “consoling doctrine for early nineteenth century factory owners whose child employees were stunted in the mephitic atmosphere of the cotton mills…” and that “Malthusianism gained classic status in the Victorian system of laissez- faire economics” (Kropotkin, p. xxiii, xxiv).
Malthus and Socialism

Indeed, Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) opposed Malthus as attempting to find a naturalistic justification for capitalism as early as 1844 with the publication of Engels’ essay Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy. Here, Engels’ calls Malthusian population theory, “…the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love of neighbor and world citizenship” (Marx, p. 199). This began a tradition of opposition to Malthusianism within Marxism that continues to this day, in opposition to so-called neo-Malthusianism.

Perhaps this opposition to Malthusianism within Marxism was what Kardong had in mind when he compared Marxists to “fundamentalist preachers,” stating “Marxists and other political activists—anyone with a dogma to peddle—are likely to take offense at the Darwinian revolution” (p. 5). Kardong may also be referring to the work of Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko, who infamously dismissed Mendelian genetics in favor of a variation of Lamarckism. However, Kardong’s terse dismissal illustrates a vulgar understanding of Marxism’s most vulgar forms. Indeed, the very origins of Marxism was as a “scientific socialism,” in contrast to what was then known as “utopian socialism.” Additionally, Lysenkoism has been critiqued extensively both from the inside and outside of Marxism. Lastly, it should be noted that Darwinian evolution has been, and is currently accepted by Marxists, many of whom explicitly endorsed the concept of “survival of the fittest,” arguing that the “fittest” were the proletarian class (Kropotkin, p. xxii).

It was at a time when both “capitalist apologists for unrestricted competition,” and the class struggle Marxists mentioned above were in agreement in their acceptance of “the struggle for existence,” and “survival of the fittest,” that Kropotkin presented his alternative, teasing out the importance of “mutual aid” as a factor of evolution (Kropotkin, p. xxii).

The debate over Malthusianism continues to the present. This is particularly the case in fields attempting to ascertain the root cause of the ecological crisis. Proponents of neo- Malthusianism maintain that growth of population is one (if not the) significant cause. Theorists of social ecology and ecosocialism, among others, contend that this argument is distracting. In their view, the economic system built on cutthroat competition, rugged individualism, and a growth imperative will inevitably come up against ecological limitations. In essence, it is capitalism—the very system that many defenders of Malthus hold up as “natural”–that is the root cause of the ecological crisis.

Murray Bookchin makes the point that,

[The] arithmetic mentality that disregards the social context of demographics is incredibly short- sighted. If we live in a “grow-or-die” capitalistic society in which accumulation is literally a law of economic survival and competition is the motor of “progress,” anything we have to say about population causing the ecological crisis is basically meaningless. Under such a society, the biosphere will eventually be destroyed whether five billion or fifty million people live on the planet (Bookchin, p. 34).

In The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?, Joel Kovel remarks,

I expect some criticism for not giving sufficient weight to the population question in what follows. At no point, for example, does over-population appear among the chief candidates for the mantle of prime or efficient cause of the ecological crisis. This is not because I discount the problem of population, which is most grave, but because I do see it as having a secondary dynamic—not secondary in importance, but in the sense of being determined by other features of the system. I remain a deeply committed adversary to the recurrent neo-Malthusianism which holds that if only the lower classes would stop their wanton breeding, all will be well; and I hold that human beings have ample power to regulate population so long as they, and specifically women, have power over the terms of their social existence (p. 9).

This short discussion serves to illustrate that, through the natural sciences, a one-sided conception of nature carried over into the social realm, creating the justification for social institutions such as capitalism as being “natural.” More than this, such a misconception of nature served to reinforce a conception of “human nature” as inherently greedy, competitive, and individualist.

A Dialectical Approach

Inspired by a view of the natural world originating at least with Hobbes as a “battle of everyone against everyone” as the “state of nature,” and continuing through Malthus, the emergence of the Darwinian theory of evolution led to (or fed) a “social Darwinist” theory of evolution applied to human society, emphasizing Herbert Spencer’s concept of “survival of the fittest” and characterized by a high degree of individualism and a one-sided focus on the concepts of “competition.” This emergence of social Darwinism had the two-fold effect of justifying certain social institutions, behaviors, and relationships (specifically capitalism, extreme individualism, and hierarchical relations such as boss/worker) as “natural,” while at the same time tilting the approach of the natural science of evolution toward a heavy emphasis on “competition” over other, just as prevalent (if not moreso) aspects of selection. The “naturalistic fallacy” aside, this in turn affected the social view of nature such that most attempts to justify or inspire human social institutions from the natural world end up reinforcing these overly individualist, overly competitive aspects.

In this way, a dialectical relationship, with its simultaneous emphasis on negation, opposition, and relation, comes into view. From this, it can be seen that a warped view of “human nature” and human society shapes, and is shaped by, a warped view of the natural world.

Correcting this lens involves, to begin, properly emphasizing cooperation and mutualism within nature, as well as recognizing serial endosymbiotic theory (inasfar as the science justifies) as an actual explanation for the “origin of species” (and the special variation of Lamarckianism that this implies), along with deemphasizing theories of gradualism. While much of this has already been accepted within the scientific fold, the predominate focus continues to be on competition. Gould might have argued that this is an instance of a certain society, with certain institutions and biases, permeating the scientific approach.


It is clear from this preliminary investigation that the vision of nature still held by science to this day is often inaccurate, and drenched with social biases. While biases may never be eliminated, they can be minimized to a great extent. Further, it is clear that the prevailing views of nature, as well of society shape and are shaped by one another. Given the scientific fact of ongoing ecological crisis, it is imperative that a clearer vision of the natural world, and humanity’s place within it, be obtained. Emphasizing the largely overlooked facts outlined here is a good start toward this end.


Time did not allow for a full investigation of this complex issue. The following is an outline of other important, related aspects of this approach to ecology and evolution.

1. Mutualism
A suggested approach to the reharmonization of the human-nature relationship is through the lens of mutualism. This would involve taking a systematic look at each specific instance of human interaction with the natural world and altering each in accordance to a principle of mutual benefit, as well as generally supporting the evolutionary tendencies of life toward greater diversity, differentiation, complexity, and speciation.

I. Specific Instances of Human Interaction with Nature
Specific instances might involve domestication, and the guiding of domesticated animals along an evolutionary path that is supportive of both the nature of the animal and human benefit. A specific example might be that of the cow. A descendant of the extinct auroch, cows have been bred to be fat, stupid, and completely dependent on human beings. A promising approach to rendering this relationship mutualistic (leaving aside whether to have this particular animal domesticated to begin with) could be something like the approach of Hess cattle, wherein an attempt was made to “breed back” traits from the auroch. This does not imply genetic manipulation other than what is available through selective breeding. In this way, it may be possible to return the cow to a somewhat natural state and start again along a path more beneficial to both the cattle and its human steward.

II. Another example involves the work of Paul W. Ewald and the “domestication” of pathogens. Through social arrangements, such as access to clean drinking water, it is possible to select for less virulence among pathogens, undermining the need for eradication or the complications that arise from drug-resistant strains.

2. Critique of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis
Many of the points outlined in this paper may call into question the prevailing paradigm that is Modern Evolutionary Synthesis–the compatibility of Mendelian genetics, natural selection, and gradual evolution.

3. The Naturalistic Fallacy
A discussion of the naturalistic fallacy, which is a variation of the philosophical “is-ought problem”–that one cannot derive an ethical imperative from a natural fact—must take place. An initial line of reasoning may include that, given the ecological crisis, there is indeed an imperative to live more in accordance with the natural world, and this implies deriving some sense of value from certain aspects of the natural world that can be used as models for an ecological human society.

4. The Limits of Cartesian Reductionism
This is related to the need for a more sufficiently dialectical method of scientific inquiry, the basic idea being that information gained through Cartesian reductionism, while certainly helpful in many instances, neglects the relation of the part to the whole, and fails to recognize the whole as more than simply the sum of its parts. This is especially important for fields such as ecology. A discussion of this issue is found in Levins, et al. 1985.

5. Elisee Reclus’ Concept of “Evolution and Revolution”
Reclus, a French geographer and contemporary of Peter Kropotkin, wrote of “evolution and revolution” among human societies – a seemingly parallel concept to Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium” in the natural sciences.


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One thought on “Reconsidering the “Natural Underpinnings” of Capitalism: Natural Evolution and Social Evolution

  1. Excellent presentation of the relation of evolutionary thought to social issues. Though Kropotkin is justly emphasized as a needed corrective to the likes of Malthus and Spencer I found the inclusion of little details like the Lamarkian reversal of the tails of paramecia very informative. I’m not sure I am getting this right but I always thought that Dialectics fit in well with gradual changes where new qualities emerge after incremental changes take place. Great leaps as in punctuated equilibrium seem to fit in as well.

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