Cheating At Life?, pt. II: Genealogy of Modern Life

If you haven’t already, click here to read Part I of this series, introducing the problem of life at the margins of political economy in the modern era of biopolitics.

Recently I wrote about a species of parasitic wasp, the course of whose evolutionary history has effectively performed a genome modification on certain species of Lepidoptera –butterflies and moths – taking place over about the past 100 million years.  What is fascinating about the wasps, who transfer part of their own genome into the lineage of Lepidoptera through the injection of an archaeal virus into the host, seem to incur in a mutually advantageous relationship of reciprocity; this, because the bracovirus transmitted by the wasps has been adapted by the host species, so as to provide a natural resistance against the similarly structured baculovirus: a common environmental pathogen that they face.

What makes cases of mutualistic species interactions such as these so interesting is that they challenge the dominant research paradigm in evolutionary biology and related disciplines, like evolutionary ecology, molecular genetics, zoology and population science.  The Neo-Darwinist worldview still implicit in the popular research of many such disciplines essentially provides an explanatory structure or set of epistemic aims, which conducts standards of the justified acceptance of particular hypotheses as true or truth-baring, is a result of the initial research success of a tendency that gave rise to Huxley’s “Modern Synthesis” of the mid-20th century, between the laws of classical genetics and evolutionary laws operating at the level of populations.[1]  On the Neo-Darwinist view, species interactions are still largely envisioned in terms of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the only trace of mutualism is taken to be ‘mutual exploitation’ (here I am quoting evolutionary ecologist Emily Jones, lead on a recent study of evolutionary cheating which confounds the Neo-Darwinian worldview and to which we shall return; Jones is quoting her old graduate studies advisor, apparently an adherent of the orthodox view).  Perhaps the most familiar, if discredited view, at the furthest logical extension of the Neo-Darwinist paradigm, is the story of the selfish gene, and of the genetic transfer of cultural “memes”, advanced by Richard Dawkins.  Dawkinsian levels of biological reduction are not typically considered to be a ‘hot topic’ at the forefront of biological research anymore, but the related debate between mutualistic and competitive interactionism is.

Jones’ study notes that, from the early development of Darwinism in the mid-19th century “[t]hrough the 1980s, interpretations of the causes and consequences of cheating in mutualisms developed largely in the absence of any theoretical framework”[2] on cheating as such.  The study takes the form of a literature review, revisiting empirical data on several of the best studied cases of what had hitherto been considered prime examples of evolutionary cheating.  Despite the ‘absence of any theoretical framework’, the metaphor of competition was suffused throughout early modern research on species interactions: mere occupants referred to as ‘parasites’, orchids luring pollinators labeled as ‘deceptive’, and so forth.  The noted absence of a unifying theoretical framework is interesting.  It can be taken to suggest the presence of structural factors, primordial to the epistemic activity of theorizing, by virtue of which diverse programs of research were able to converge upon the veridicality of what was and is ultimately a social metaphor.

I suggest that an adequate explanation of the sway that the metaphor of competition had on early modern evolutionary biology, which today is challenged by studies like Jones’, must be understood with respect to two key factors: i., the conceptual revolution ushered in by the early history of evolutionary theory, whose champion was to be Charles Darwin, which transformed Western rationality in such a way that the social and political being of humankind was seen as capable of explanation by and subjection to biological controls; and ii., the rise of the capitalist class in the bourgeois revolution of mid-19th century Europe, whose own self-justification and ideals of class freedom were a problem for it.  The aristocracy and old feudal monarchies were associated with the Church, whose overthrow as the cornerstone of social and cultural knowledge was already aided and abetted by the earlier Copernican Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.  Through this overthrow, a mechanistic world brought into view by the Newtonian and Cartesian cliques was brought under the control of man’s industrial and technical mastery, decentered from the designing hand of an increasingly distant divine creator.

We may tentatively advance the thesis that the success of a political revolution is partially contingent upon an accompanying revolution in the understanding that legitimates the new regime.

The breaking down of the last vestiges of feudal society, in which peasant and lord alike were tied to the land; the ascendancy of merchants, financiers, and manufacturers; the growing power in France of the noblesse de la robe in parallel to the old noblesse the l’épée – all were in contradiction with a world view that saw changes in state as only occasional and unusual, the result of irregular reallocations of grace.  Reciprocally, a world view that made change an essential feature of natural systems was inconceivable in a social world of fixed hereditary relations.  Human beings see the natural world as a reflection of the social organization that is the dominant reality of their lives.[3]

We can see that early Darwinism furnished Europe with just the right ideological conditions to justify the rise of the bourgeoisie as the new ruling class.  In this sense, the early development of Darwinian Theory is best understood as an event which effects a reciprocity between the material reality and ideological conditions of bourgeois class rule.  This reciprocity is made even clearer when we consider that the idea of evolutionary adaptation was, for Darwin, a post hoc explanatory mechanism of natural selection, inspired by his reading of Malthus’ (1798) Essay on the Principle of Population.  It is from Malthus’ essay that Darwin developed the idea of the ‘struggle for existence’, which assures the evolutionary successes of individuals whose hereditary traits would allow them to appropriate resources from the environment with maximal efficiency in direct competition with others.  The efficient appropriation of labour power became attached to the narrative of the particular class freedom of the bourgeoisie as a nascent form of Social Darwinism, with the newly revolutionized means of production and unequal resource distribution that embodied and structured class relations under early industrial capitalism.

The new problematic for the rule of the capitalist class in the period of the consolidation of the bourgeois revolution, towards the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, became the taming of change and the further possibility of social mobility for the underclasses.

The result has been an emphasis in modern evolutionary theories on dynamic stability.  Although individual elements in the system are changing place, the system as a whole remains in a steady state; in the same way individuals may rise and fall in the social scale, but the hierarchy of social relations is thought to be unchanging.[4]

Thus the dynamics of social change which drove the bourgeois revolution are ideologically enclosed within a homeostatic system that vindicates the values of the capitalist class without threatening their new position in society.  We should recall that early Darwinism gained in popularity in part due to the prevalence of a mechanistic and materialistic worldview, which was widespread throughout European thought in the 18th century, particularly in Britain, and which was able to oppose the natural theological approach of conservative science through the focus on natural mechanisms of explanation brought about by Darwin.  Materialism and the explanatory order of natural mechanisms signifies an earlier shift in widely held beliefs about rationality enjoined in the rise of the European bourgeoisie to the center of class rule in society; materialistic thought made possible the continuity and possibility of progress, replacing theologically oriented views regarding the ordering of fixed and essential kinds.  As early as Descartes, philosophers began to consider the organism as a kind of machine, and this was inspired by the impressive technological innovations taking place in the early period of Western industrial capitalism.  With materialism, the productive forces of nature came to be seen as something which could be harnessed by the supreme technical proficiency of humankind.  Early Darwinism was able to sate this new demand for control by extending its domain to the organism.

In the following section, we shall see how this genealogy of the Neo-Darwinian worldview and the dominant ideology of evolutionary biology equally discloses a genealogy of the modern era of biopolitics.

[1] Julian Huxley, Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (London: Allen & Unwin, 1942).

[2] Jones et al., “Cheaters must prosper: reconciling theoretical and empirical perspectives on cheating in mutualism” Ecology Letters (2015) 18: 1270-1284.

[3] Levins & Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 11-12.

[4] Ibid., 22.


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