Dialectical biology: A response to Camilla Royle

Issue: 145

Terry Sullivan

The concept of dialectics is central to Marxism and the fight for a socialist transformation of society. Given this, we should welcome Camilla Royle’s recent article in this journal on the dialectics of nature and in particular biology.1

There is much to agree with in Royle’s article, such as her insistence that it is the internal contradictions of a system that drive the changes that it undergoes and that we must not only identify these contradictions but also seek to understand the mechanisms involved within them. Further, her reference to the work of biologist Richard Lewontin on “niche construction” (see below) demonstrates that there is at least one example of a dialectical pattern of change in biology.

However, there are a number of points where her analysis could be strengthened. For example, her account of contradiction—which lies at the heart of dialectics—could be bolstered by drawing upon the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels themselves. Moreover, there are other areas where I think she is mistaken. I will also take the opportunity to argue that how dialectics helps us to understand the world is best conceived of as a heuristic device, that is, roughly, a process or method for solving problems but one that does not guarantee a correct solution.

Dialectics: change, totality and contradiction

Royle claims: “For many theorists the most important aspects of dialectics are change and contradiction”.2 This may be true; however, I would argue that there is in fact a third equally important aspect or element of dialectics—namely, totality. This is true not only of Marx and Engels but also of more recent Marxists such as George Novack and John Rees.3

Further, Royle herself seems to agree. For example, she favourably writes of David Harvey’s rejection of what she calls Cartesian reductionism, which is: “based on the assumption that we can study the world by dividing it up into separate ‘things’. Cartesians argue that the parts have their own properties that exist independently of the whole. We can analyse each in isolation and then look at how they relate”.4

Even where dialectics is applied to the study of society it is not universally agreed what dialectics is nor what it is to be used for. Given this, it will be useful to consider how Marx and Engels understood and used dialectics before proceeding to consider dialectical biology. Unfortunately things are not quite as straightforward as one would have wished. In a letter to Engels in January 1858 Marx wrote: “If there should ever be time for such work again, I should greatly like to make accessible to the ordinary human intelligence, in two or three printer’s sheets, what is rational in the method which Hegel discovered but at the same time enveloped in mysticism”.5 However, Marx never did have the time to realise this desire. Nonetheless there are significant statements of his dialectical method in various places, including in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the Preface to the first edition of Capital, the Afterword to the second volume of Capital and in the first part of The German Ideology written with Engels. First I consider change and then totality before turning to the notion of contradiction.

The dialectic of Marx and Engels held that existing phenomena are considered as stages in a continuing process. Engels wrote that the “great merit” of Hegel’s philosophy was that:

For the first time the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process, ie, as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement and development.6

Likewise in the Afterword to the second German edition of Capital Marx quotes with approval an account of his method by a Russian reviewer, who observed that “it will be said, the general laws of economic life are one and the same, no matter whether they are applied to the present or the past. This Marx directly denies. According to him, such abstract laws do not exist. On the contrary, in his opinion every historical period has laws of its own”.7 Thus for Marx it seems that not only is society in a constant state of flux, but the very laws that govern societies are themselves subject to change. In addition to regarding existing phenomena as stages in a continuing process it is no less important to consider every part as a component of a whole. By totality Marx means, roughly, that when considering any phenomenon it must be recognised that each seemingly separate element is in fact related to a whole. In volume 2 of Capital Marx repeatedly outlines the global aspect of his method of inquiry. According to Marx no economic act, however trivial, such as the buying or selling that occurs billions of times a day, is intelligible except in the context of the entire capitalist system. He wrote:

Every individual capital forms, however, but an individualised fraction, a fraction endowed with individual life, as it were, of the aggregate social capital, just as every individual capitalist is but an individual element of the capitalist class. The movement of the social capital consists of the totality of the movements of its individualised fractional parts, the turnovers of the individual capitals. Just as the metamorphosis of the individual commodity is a link in the series of metamorphoses of the commodity-world—the circulation of commodities—so the metamorphosis of the individual capital, its turnover, is a link in the circuit described by social capital.8

In other words, if we are to understand the movement of individual chunks of capital we must understand that their movements are in fact part of a single process and can only be understood as such.

The third vital aspect of dialectics is contradiction, and once this is placed within a totality Royle is correct to argue that “internal contradictions drive change forward and lead to the dynamism that we observe”.9 She goes on to illustrate the notion of contradiction through an example of David Harvey’s: the British Labour Party, arguing that it is a bourgeois organisation with a mainly working class membership. To understand its contradictory nature she stresses that Harvey’s approach “recognises the real presence of contradictions but looks for the concrete mechanisms by which they develop”.10 Thus to understand the contradictory nature of the Labour Party we must acknowledge that it came into existence at the time when workers were looking towards reformist ideas and parties, and the emerging welfare state was becoming increasingly important for sections of capital.

Royle is right to stress that it is not enough to look for and recognise contradictions but that we must also seek to understand the mechanisms involved in them. However, it is important to note that this is exactly the approach, as I will show below, of Marx and Engels themselves. Further, I wish to argue that Marx and Engels had an even richer account of the notion of contradiction.

In The German Ideology Marx and Engels wrote that “society has hitherto always developed within the framework of a contradiction—in antiquity the contradiction between freemen and slaves, in the Middle Ages that between nobility and serfs, in modern times that between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat”.11 Marx’s and Engels’s notion of contradiction has three key facets. The first is that the contradiction is composed of “opposites”. They are opposites in the sense that they are of a contrary kind, diametrically different from one another. However, they are also opposites in a stronger sense, that the concepts or poles of the contradiction existentially presuppose each other. That is, the poles of the contradiction require each other and are inconceivable in isolation from one another. To conceive of, for example, near is also, at least implicitly, to conceive of far. Likewise to conceive of the bourgeoisie or capitalist class is to conceive of a proletariat or working class. Capitalists own and control the means of economic production but they do not own the labour power necessary to put them to work; rather they require another class, namely the proletariat, a class that has to sell its labour power in order to survive. In short, for there to be capitalists there must be workers and for there to be workers there must be capitalists.

The second key facet of the notion of contradiction is that there is a means by which the two poles of the contradiction can affect one another, that is, there is a feedback mechanism between them. This is an important point that Royle, following Harvey, makes. While near and far can be thought of as two poles of a contradiction there is no feedback mechanism; there is no mechanism by which one affects the other. However, according to Marx there is such a mechanism between the poles of many contradictions. For example, the feedback mechanism between workers and capitalists is class struggle. It is important to note that the feedback mechanism allows each pole of the contradiction to affect the other. Further, the feedback mechanism does not simply allow one-off effects; rather it makes possible an ongoing pattern of interaction.

The third key facet of Marx’s notion of contradiction is that there is conflict or tension between the two poles of the contradiction; and that it is this conflict, via the feedback mechanism, that animates the interactions of those poles. That is, the third aspect of the notion of contradiction identifies the changes that the system under consideration experiences as the result of a conflict within the very system itself. For example, capitalist firms are forced to compete against one another to sell the goods. One way to increase sales is to reduce costs and, since wages are a major component of the overall costs, capitalists will strive to reduce wages. Conversely, as workers’ only income is from the wages they receive in exchange for their labour power they will tend to resist the capitalist attempts to cut their wages. Here we can see how one pole of the contradiction conflicts with the other and this makes clear that what animates capitalism is the conflict within capitalism itself.

In short, we have seen that Marx’s and Engels’s notion of contradiction consists of opposites which existentially presuppose one another and a feedback mechanism between them that allows the one to affect the other and vice versa. Thus not only is it the case that one can only conceive of workers if one has the notion of capitalist (and vice versa) but there is also a means by which the actions of workers affect capitalists (and vice versa). Finally, the source of this change is a conflict between the poles of the contradiction or system.

I would like to point out here that Royle is correct to note that the dialectic is both a method for coming to understand the world, that is, an epistemological concept, and, for Marx as well as Engels, the dialectic is a claim about the nature of the world itself, that is, an ontological claim. As Engels writes in AntiDühring: “to me there could be no question of building laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it”.12

To summarise, there are three elements to the dialectic of Marx and Engels. The first is that the world must be viewed as whole. The second is that this whole is undergoing a constant process of change. The third is that change is the result of opposition between the poles of contradiction. Thus, according to Marx and Engels, if we are to understand the world around us, for example, capitalism, we must begin with the totality of social relations—economic, political, ideological and cultural—recognising that this totality is undergoing constant change. Further, this process of “total change” is a result of opposition between the poles of a contradiction.

Now that we are clear what dialectics is, we can ask whether this same pattern and account of change holds in biology as well.

Niche construction: an example of dialectical biology

Royle outlines a fascinating example of dialectics in the work of the self-proclaimed dialectical biologist Richard Lewontin. This example shows that there are biological phenomena which the three key aspects of dialectics accurately characterise. Further, though this will not be clear until I turn to discuss the issue later, how dialectics helps us to come to know the world is best thought of as a heuristic device.

The typical description of evolution by natural selection is framed in terms of the process of adaptation and the niches or ecological roles that species play in an ecosystem. A species’ environment exists and changes as a consequence of some autonomous forces outside the species itself. This outside world poses problems for the species, problems of acquiring space, consumables, light and access to individuals of the opposite sex for reproduction. Those most successful in solving the problems because, by chance, their physical and behavioural characteristics make them the best suited to do so, leave the most offspring and thus the species changes and adapts. This view of adaptation and niches appears to divide up the world along the lines suggested by Cartesian reductionism: into causes and effects, the external and the internal, the environments and the organisms that they “contain”.

While this structure may be fine for locks, since keys move cylinders and not vice versa, it appears to raise a serious problem when it is taken as a model of biological change. One problem that Lewontin13 has identified is that the world external to the organism can be partitioned in an infinite number of ways. However, in the absence of the organism how can we tell which of these ways are niches, that is, ecological roles that it could fill? Further, unless we can do so it is no longer clear just what use this concept of niches retains. Rather it seems that we can only recognise an “environment” when we see the organism whose environment it is. As Lewontin argues, “it is impossible to describe an environment except by reference to organisms that interact with it and define it. Organism and environment are dialectically related. There is no organism without environment, but there is no environment without an organism”.14

Instead of niches being pre-established templates, Lewontin has argued that organisms construct their niches. Herbivores, for example, can transform their environment by their feeding patterns. Charles Darwin15 described how earthworms, through their burrowing activities, their dragging organic material into the soil, their mixing it with inorganic material and their casting, which serves as a basis for microbial activity, change both the structure and chemistry of soils.16

The dialectical nature of the relationship between organisms and their environments appears fairly clear. One must not just consider environments or organisms but rather both of them, as a totality. Further, niches are not fixed templates waiting to be filled by organisms; rather they are constantly being constructed in an ever-changing manner. Finally, the reciprocal influence of organism and environment seems to be an example of the pattern of causation that dialectical biology contends is present in biology.

Perhaps an even clearer example of dialectical biology is the relationship between predator and prey. Predator and prey are opposites first in the sense that they are of a contrary kind, diametrically different from one another. However, they are also opposites in a stronger sense that the poles of the contradiction require each other and are inconceivable in isolation from one another. There is no predator without prey but likewise there is no prey without predator. The conflict between predator and prey is abundantly clear and the feedback mechanism is their ongoing struggle for survival.

It might be argued that the relationship between predator and prey is only dialectical in a trivial sense that the concept of predator implies that of prey. But this would be a mistake, just as it would be to argue that the relationship between workers and capitalists is only dialectical in the trivial sense that the concept of worker implies that of boss or capitalist. Both cases are examples of where poles of a contradiction do presuppose each another but they also reveal dynamics that help explain complex and ongoing patterns of interaction. Further, to be clear, I am not arguing that there must be a feedback mechanism that ensures the species being preyed upon must somehow reproduce itself—as if to provide a never ending supply of food for predators. Clearly this would be mistaken as species can and regularly do become extinct. Just as it would be mistaken to argue that the feedback mechanism(s) within capitalism ensures that more workers will always be reproduced. This cannot be true; otherwise there could never be a socialist revolution, a revolution that would do away with the very notion of workers (and capitalists).

No dialectical method in biology after all?

We have seen very clearly via the examples of adaptation and predator-prey relationships that there is, at least at times, a dialectic at work in biology. Furthermore, I suggest here that it surely was not a coincidence that a self-proclaimed “dialectical biologist” had developed a dialectical theory of adaptation. Further, Royle herself claims that Lewontin along with his fellow author of The Dialectical Biologist, Richard Levins, “had adopted [dialectics] as a method and incorporated it into their practice as biologists”.17 However, Royle then goes on to claim that not only Levins and Lewontin but also Stephen Jay Gould and Steven Rose “state that what they do when they go into a lab is the same science using the same methods as anyone else. Dialectics is for them a way to interpret the results of their experiments rather than an excuse not to do those experiments. Knowing the laws of dialectics is no substitute for a scientific understanding based on knowledge of specific material phenomena”.18

It is unfortunate that Royle does not refer to where these biologists state what she claims that they do. Further, the above quotation is in clear contradiction with her claim that at least Levins and Lewontin have adopted dialectics into their practice and not merely as a way to interpret their results.

Further, how she frames the question creates a false dichotomy. It is not a question of either a dialectical method or experimentation but always both. Similarly there is no question of substituting a dialectical method for knowledge of specific phenomena because again both are always needed. Thus J B S Haldane wrote over 60 years ago that dialectical biology “can only be accepted if it proves a guide not merely to an understanding of the development of science, but also to actual scientific research”.19 This has always been the genuine Marxist method. Marx having developed a materialist dialectic to study society did not then give up on the painstaking empirical work. On the contrary such work not only informed the creation of his method in the first place but also helped illustrate it.

The three “laws” of dialectics

Engels claims that the patterns of changes in nature can be captured, in the main, by three “laws” of dialectics: the law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa; the law of the interpenetration of opposites; and the law of the negation of the negation.20

I have argued that there is much agreement about what constitutes a dialectic as it has been applied to society, ie, the world must be viewed as a whole that is undergoing a constant process of change as a result of opposition between the poles of contradiction. However, there has been significant disagreement as to whether not only dialectal processes are at work in nature but also whether a dialectical method can be applied to its study. As Royle notes, “part of the confusion is due to Engels’s formulation of the three laws of dialectics”.21 In the light of this it is important to note three caveats about the laws.

First, I have been arguing that dialectics holds that the world must be understood as a constantly changing whole driven by internal contradictions. And it is within this broader concept that the three laws should be understood. To be clear it would be a mistake to examine the worth or otherwise of the three laws separately from the notions of totality, change and contradiction.22

Second, although Engels writes that the laws are the most general laws of historical development this claim is too strong. Not even Hegel held that the laws were the only forms of dialectical development; rather the three laws should serve as useful reminders of the forms in which dialectical contradictions can sometimes work themselves out.

Third, we need to be careful how we understand the notion of “laws”. In the 19th century there was much talk about scientific “laws” in nature and society. For example, Marx declared his ultimate aim in Capital to be “to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society”.23 However, if laws are held to be exceptionless universal generalisations that hold necessarily (although admittedly in a sense that no one has succeeded in making properly clear), then it seems that there are no such laws of biology.24 It is sometimes thought, see for example Alexander Rosenberg, that biology contrasts with physics and chemistry in this respect.25 However, the picture of these scientific domains as being ones in which a myriad of particular facts are organised by exceptionalness laws may be mistaken. For example, Nancy Cartwright has argued that this picture depends on an oversimplified view of these domains.26 My suggestion here is that we should put to one side the question of whether or not the three “laws” of the dialectic are indeed “laws” and take them to be claimed generalisations about nature.

Royle writes that: “The dialectical biologists…could all be accused of following a soft version of dialectics. They don’t explicitly take into account the infamous three laws of dialectics”.27 The first point to make here is that I think it is mistaken to hold that if someone doesn’t explicitly take into account the three “laws” of the dialectics they are somehow “dialectical softies”. To label people as such is to take a mistaken approach to dialectics. As I have been arguing, the three “laws” should serve as useful reminders of the forms in which dialectical contradictions can sometimes work themselves out but they must be applied within the framework of seeing the world as a constantly changing whole driven by internal contradictions. As Royle herself notes, the three “laws” are “infamous”, and the decision not to mention them may be a means of trying to circumvent unnecessary controversy. Finally, while it is true that Levins and Lewontin, for example, do not explicitly refer to the three laws, this however misses the point, namely, whether or not their practice and theories did. Given the infamous nature of the laws, I think it is important to consider them in more detail.

The transformation of quantity into quality, and vice versa, refers to the claim that the accumulation of quantitative changes may, although not necessarily, at some point bring about qualitative changes. Levins and Lewontin outline a similar pattern of change. They note that dialectics holds that systems are in a constant state of flux and that the stability or persistence of a system depends on a particular balance of positive and negative feedbacks and on parameters governing the rates of processes falling within certain limits. However, they argue:

Eventually some of these parameters will cross the threshold beyond which the original system can no longer persist as it was. The equilibrium is broken. The system may go into wider and wider fluctuations and break down, or the parts themselves, which have meaning only within a particular whole, may lose their identity as parts and give rise to a qualitatively new system.28

For example, Levins and Lewontin consider predator-prey “systems” mentioned earlier. Such systems may be in equilibrium, but small-scale changes in, say, predator avoidance may at some point bring about large-scale changes, such as the inability of predators to catch prey, which would have dramatic effects on the predator’s chances of survival. Alternatively, the predator’s efficiency at hunting may evolve beyond the threshold compatible with the survival of the prey, and so both prey and predator become extinct. In short, “The quantitative changes that take place within the apparent stability cross thresholds beyond which the qualitative behaviour is transformed”.29 Here it seems is an example from biology where something akin to Engels’s first “law” holds true: that after a certain point quantitative changes can become qualitative ones.

Royle uses a common example to illustrate the negation of the negation. She writes that: “When a chick hatches from an egg it destroys that egg—negates it—but when it grows into a hen that negates the chick so this is the negation of the negation”.30 However, she goes on to agree with Ian Birchall that “making a revolution is…rather more complex than…breeding chickens”.31 Subsequently Royle considers a rather more complex biological example offered by Christof Niehrs32 to illustrate the negation of the negation: embryonic induction.

Embryonic induction is a central mechanism of development. Roughly, it can be thought of as the influence of one cell group (inducer) over a neighbouring cell group (induced) during embryogenesis, the process by which the embryo forms and develops. Royle writes of Niehrs’s example of embryonic induction:

Chemicals called morphogens are released by cells at one side of the embryo. This side starts developing into what, in vertebrates, will become the side where the spinal cord is (the dorsal side). These then trigger the release of different chemicals at the opposite end that act against the production of the first group of morphogens (negate it). These are in turn negated at the dorsal side. This is one of the most important stages in animal development. It kicks off the process that will eventually lead to the formation of an animal with a head end and a tail end rather than a homogenous mass of cells. And it could hardly be more similar to the negation of the negation.33

In response, I wish to make three points. The first is that despite Niehrs’s claim that embryonic induction exhibits the interpenetration of opposites I see no opposites akin to the ones identified above in the exemplars of dialectical biology: niche construction and predator-prey relationships. We do not see anything that closely resembles the relationships between organisms and their ecological niches or of predators and prey.

Second, I am not convinced with Niehrs’s argument that embryonic induction is an example of dialectical change. While it is clear that embryonic induction is concerned with change, not all developmental change is so reliant on its immediate environment—on the whole. Even in the example he cites the dorsal blastopore lip was unaffected by its transplantation which is why the embryo developed “two sides”. More generally, while some cells remain totipotent—able to differentiate into any cell—as with stem cells, other cells display a much more limited cell potency all the way down to cells that are unipotent, only able to differentiate into one type of cell.

Third, Niehrs seems confused about the place of the three “laws” in dialectics. As I have argued above the three laws should serve as useful reminders of the forms in which dialectical contradictions can sometimes work themselves out. Put another way, we should see the three laws as examples of patterns of dialectical change that may take place in wholes (or totalities) undergoing change as a result of internal contradictions. Niehrs concentrates far too much on the three “laws” and not the wider dialectical theory of totality, change and contradiction.

In short, contrary to Royle I do not think that embryonic induction is a biological example of the negation of the negation. Further, I know of no example from biology in which the negation of the negation plays out.

Finally, I want to argue that the negation of the negation is actually about systems and not individual events or processes such as breeding chickens or embryonic induction. It should be thought of as the claim that every system has a tendency to produce out of itself another system that is different from itself; this “negation” is negated in turn so as to produce a system that is in important respects a repetition of the first, but also contains significant differences. The following example from Capital will help to illustrate the point. If workers are victorious over capitalists in a revolutionary conflict we should not expect a simple reversion to pre-capitalist forms of society. Rather we should expect a new form of society, socialism, which differs from both the society that preceded it and the two classes that currently compose the bulk of it. Nonetheless, the new form of social organisation will also be constituted by the productive forces developed under capitalism and a political consciousness shaped by a successful revolution.

Although the transformation of quantity into quality and the negation of the negation can be thought of as patterns of change that the dialectic might take, this is not the case for the interpenetration of opposites. The interpenetration of opposites is not in fact a pattern of change produced by the dialectic but rather it is part of the dialectic itself. More precisely, as noted above, the interpenetration of opposites is the first of the three elements of the contradiction, namely, that contradictions are composed of opposites. Moreover, it is an element of the dialectic that I have already shown that Levins and Lewontin think holds.

Dialectics as a heuristic

I have claimed that dialectical biology should be thought of as not only making claims about the way the biological world is but also claims about the methods that should be employed for coming to understand it. One way in which to understand this second claim is to hold that dialectical biology should be thought of as a method of scientific discovery, as a process of successful scientific inquiry. For much of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, the view that scientific discovery crucially involved some non-analysable creative act was widespread. However, as the 20th century progressed an alternative conception of discovery arose, one that emphasised that discovery is a process that includes reasoning and in which new insights are articulated and further developed. Moreover, it was held that there was some systematic or formal aspect to that reasoning that amounted to a “logic” of discovery.

While many agreed that there were likely to be rules about scientific discovery it did not seem to be the case that such rules amounted to a process of applying inductive or deductive logic to a set of propositions. Rather the rules of scientific discovery should instead be thought of as heuristic principles, where such principles are not understood to show the path to guaranteed knowledge: they are suggestive rather than demonstrative. It is my claim that dialectical biology should be thought of as a heuristic device

If we think of problem-solving as a search through the space of possibilities, then an algorithm searches through the entire space of possibilities, that is, it is exhaustive. While algorithms will guarantee a correct solution, often when we make choices between alternatives we do so relying on incomplete information and limited resources. As a consequence, problem-solving cannot be exhaustive and the search we conduct must be constrained in ways that permit it to be an efficient one, even at the expense of the effectiveness of the search. Rather we must rely on heuristic methods for pruning the tree of possibilities. Heuristic procedures have a number of features. First, they reduce the complexity of the computation or approach, that is, they reduce the demands on resources such as time, memory and attention. Second, the reliability of heuristics will vary substantially between domains. Third, heuristic procedures will sometimes fail to reach solutions or will generate incorrect solutions.

An example of a heuristic of discovery is provided by the article Albert Einstein published in 1905 entitled “On a Heuristic Point of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light”.34 He suggested that it might be useful for some purposes to consider light not as a continuous wave but rather as consisting of “a finite number of energy quanta that are localised in points in space, move without dividing, and can be absorbed or generated only as a whole”.35 In particular he thought that these light quanta might provide clues to understanding such phenomena as photoionisation and the photoelectric effect. As he himself argued, this hypothesis was not advanced as a theory but, rather, as a “heuristic viewpoint”, in the hope that the point of view “may prove of use to some researchers in their investigations”.36

My contention here is that a dialectical viewpoint consisting of totality, change and contradiction suggests new theoretical metaphors and concepts once they are entrenched in scientists’ practice. Thus I suggest that Lewontin’s adoption of a dialectical viewpoint played an important role in the discovery of niche construction. It seems plausible that his rejection of the metaphor of adaptation, with its contention that niches are fixed templates to which organisms must become fitted, and his adoption of the metaphor of construction, where organisms construct the niches that they fill, stems in part from a dialectical viewpoint that stresses the ever-changing nature of the world and reciprocal nature of causation. As noted above, Lewontin himself holds that: “Organism and environment are dialectically related.”

The interpretation of dialectics I have offered draws very heavily upon the work of Marx and Engels, arguing as it does that the world must be viewed as a whole that is undergoing a constant process of change where this change is the result of opposition between the poles of a contradiction. Further, the notion of contradiction consists of opposites which existentially presuppose one another and a feedback mechanism between them which allows the one to affect the other and vice versa. However, I also argued that some of Engels’s claims concerning the so-called three “laws” of the dialectic were too strong. I went on to argue that there is a dialectic at work in biology, at least some of the time, and that niche construction and prey/predator interactions are clear examples of the reciprocal pattern of causation that dialectics contends is present in the world. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of my account is the contention that dialectical biology and dialectics more generally should in part be understood as a heuristic device—a device that allows us to understand the world, not as a guarantee of knowledge but rather as a useful guide to understanding.

1: Royle, 2014.

2: Royle, 2014, p99. Unfortunately Royle does not give us examples of such theorists. She does, however, immediately mention the writings of John Molyneux, 2012, and Bertell Ollman, 2003; both of whom argue that there are the three elements of the dialectic that I identify.

3: Novack, 1978, and Rees, 1998.

4: Royle, 2014, p100.

5: Marx and Engels, 1965, p100.

6: Engels, 1970, p130.

7: Marx, 1887b.

8: Marx, 1893.

9: Royle, 2014, p101.

10: Royle, 2014, p101.

11: Marx and Engels, 1976, pp431-432.

12: Engels, 1954, p19.

13: Lewontin, 1978, 1982 and 1983.

14: Lewontin, 1982, p160, my emphasis.

15: Darwin, 1881.

16: This suggests that perhaps paradoxically Darwin did not hold a “classic” view of niches as Royle, 2014, suggests.

17: Royle, 2014, p116.

18: Royle, 2014, p116.

19: Haldane, 1941, p1. As Helena Sheehan, 1993, notes, Haldane was a Marxist for much of his life. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1942 and quickly became a member of its executive committee. However, he left in the 1960s following the USSR’s invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

20: Engels, 1954, p62.

21: Royle, 2014, p104.

22: I will return to this topic below as I think that this is what Royle following Christof Niehrs does with embryonic induction.

23: Marx, 1887a, my italics.

24: See, for example, Sober, 1993.

25: Rosenberg, 1994.

26: See Cartwright, 1983, and 1989.

27: Royle, 2014, p115.

28: Levins and Lewontin, 1985, p282.

29: Levins and Lewontin, 1985, pp282-283.

30: Royle, 2014, pp104-105.

31: Birchall, 1983.

32: Niehrs, 2011, p115.

33: Royle, 2014, p115.

34: Einstein, 1905.

35: Einstein, 1905, p87.

36: Einstein, 1905, p87. This was not the only instance of Einstein putting forward a heuristic. As Martin Klein notes, Einstein also applied the term “to the principle of relativity…to the equivalence principle, and to Boltzmann’s principle” (Klein, 1982, p373).


Birchall, Ian, 1983, “Dialectics: The Whole Truth”, Socialist Review (January), www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1982/12/dialectics.htm

Cartwright, Nancy, 1983, How the Laws of Physics Lie (Oxford University Press).

Cartwright, Nancy, 1989, Nature’s Capacities and Their Measurement (Oxford University Press).

Darwin, Charles, 1881, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms: With Observations on their Habits (J Murray).

Einstein, Albert, 1905, “On a Heuristic Point of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light”, in Beck, Anna (ed), The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 2: The Swiss Years: Writings, 19001909 (Princeton University Press), originally published as “Über einen die Erzeugung and Verwandlung des Lichtes betreffenden heuristischen Gesichtspunkt”, Annalen der Physik, volume 17.

Engels, Frederick, 1954 [1878], AntiDühring (Foreign Languages Publishing House),

Engels, Frederick, 1970 [1880], Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/ch02.htm

Haldane, J B S, 1941, “Dialectical Materialism and Modern Science” Labour Monthly (June), www.marxists.org/archive/haldane/works/1940s/dialectics01.htm

Klein, Martin, 1982, “Some Turns of Phrase in Einstein’s Early Papers”, in Abner Shimony and Herman Feshbach (eds), Physics as Natural Philosophy (MIT Press).

Levins, Richard, and Richard Lewontin, 1985, The Dialectical Biologist (Harvard University Press).

Lewontin, Richard, 1978, “Adaptation”, Scientific American, volume 239, issue 3 (September).

Lewontin, Richard, 1982, “Organism and Development”, in H C Plotkin (ed), Learning, Development, and Culture (John Wiley and Sons).

Lewontin, Richard, 1983, “Gene, Organism, and Environment”, in D S Bendall (ed), Evolution: From Molecules to Men (Cambridge University Press).

Marx, Karl, 1887a [1867], “Preface to the First German Edition”, Capital Volume 1 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p1.htm

Marx, Karl, 1887b [1873], “Afterword to the Second German Edition”, Capital Volume 1 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p3.htm

Marx, Karl, 1893 [1885], Capital, Volume 3 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1885-c2/ch18.htm

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, 1965, Selected Correspondence (Progress).

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, 1976, “The German Ideology”, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, volume 5 (Progress).

Molyneux, John, 2012, The Point is to Change it: An Introduction to Marxist Philosophy (Bookmarks).

Niehrs, Christof, 2011, “Dialectics, Systems Biology and Embryonic Induction”, Differentiation, volume 81, issue 4.

Novack, George, 1978, Polemics in Marxist Philosophy (Pathfinder).

Ollman, Bertell, 2003, Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method (University of Illinois Press), www.nyu.edu/projects/ollman/docs/dd_ch01.php

Rees, John, 1998, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition (Routledge).

Rosenberg, Alexander, 1994, Instrumental Biology, or the Disunity of Science (University of Chicago Press).

Royle, Camilla, 2014, “Dialectics, Nature and the Dialectics of Nature”, International Socialism 141 (winter), www.isj.org.uk/?id=939

Sheehan, Helena, 1993, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (2nd edition) (Humanities Press International).

Sober, Elliott, 1993, Philosophy of Biology (Westview).