Workers’ States and the Selfish Gene

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22/08/2015 by socialistfight


This post is in reply to two sessions of the Communist University 2015, one which claimed that the USSR under Stalin was never a workers’ state and the other that the selfish gene theory popularised by Richard Dawkins was absolutely correct and ‘Marxism’. I think not!

Workers’ States and the Selfish Gene

The main issue that runs through my differences with the political line of the CPGB as developed at this 2015 Communist University is philosophical idealism vs. dialectical materialism.

On the class nature of the former USSR I attempted to explain that what defined the class nature of the state was not the degree of the domination of the free market or degree of nationalisations nor indeed the political preferences of the ruling cast but the dialectical relationship between the two. You had to have a class-based if corrupt and degenerate bureaucracy to retain any form of a workers’ state. And that state is in essence the Communist because they appointed all the officers of the state; there was no separation of powers between an Executive, a Legislature and a Judiciary as in a bourgeois democracy.

A state that defends nationalised property relations via a planned economy, no matter how distorted, as the source of its privileges, despite its degeneration and corruption, was a degenerated workers’ state as was the USSR until 1991. But a state that promotes the free market, has stock exchanges, has no monopoly of foreign trade and whose main source of privileges for themselves and their close relations, the Chinese ‘princes’ is capitalist enterprises is obviously a capitalist state since 1992, despite the domination of the Chinese Communist party. That is dialectical.

Similarly with the selfish gene theory. We must reject both reductionism and biological determinism in describing the path of evolution. It cannot be explained by the properties of complex molecules, atoms and even more fundamental particles or their supposed innate will to survive. If our fate is reliant on that we are powerless in the hands of our destiny. This is just a pseudo-scientific theory of an unchanging human nature;

“The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.”

Similarly we reject the theories of Lamarck or in the Stalinist version, by Lysenko, who thought that individuals are modified by interaction with their environment and pass these on to their children. We all know that is nonsense now. But this has been revived in a new form by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. The celebrated geneticist Theodore Dobzhansky claims:

“Most contemporary evolutionists are of the opinion that adaptation of a living species to its environment is the chief agency impelling and directing biological evolution.”

And again:

“Culture is, however, an instrument of adaptation which is vastly more efficient than the biological processes which led to its inception and advancement. It is more efficient among other things because it is more rapid—changed genes are transmitted only to the direct descendants of the individuals in whom they first appear; to replace the old genes, the carriers of the new ones must gradually outbreed and supplant the former. Changed culture may be transmitted to anybody regardless of biological parentage, or borrowed ready-made from other peoples.” [1]

The article The Selfish Gene? explains the dialectical relationship between the genotype and the phenotype thus:

“Biologists divide the organism into two parts, the genetic make-up, known as the genotype, and the apparent qualities, the phenotype. It is a common error to regard the relation between the two as a simple relation of cause and effect. The genotype, so the argument goes, comes before the phenotype, and is therefore the decisive element in the equation. We are born with a given set of genes, which cannot be altered, and this decides our fate, as surely as the position of the planets in astrology. This kind of genetic mechanistic determinism is the mirror-image of the quack theories of Lysenko. It is Lamarckism turned inside out. In reality, the genotype, or genes found in the nucleus of every cell, is more or less fixed—give or take the occasional mutation. The phenotype, or the total morphological, physiological and behaviour properties of the individual, is not fixed. On the contrary, it changes constantly throughout the life of the organism by interaction between the genotype and the environment and between the phenotype and the environment. In other words, it is a product of dialectic inter-action of organism and environment. If Albert Einstein had been born in a New York slum, or a village in India, it does not take much intelligence to see that his genetic potential would have counted for very little.

The study of genetics provides the conclusive answer to idealism. No organism can exist without a genotype. And no genotype can exist outside a spaciotemporal continuum—an environment. The genes interact with the environment to give rise to the process of human development. As a matter of fact, if hereditary were perfect, there could be no evolution, since heredity is a conservative force. It is essentially a mechanism for self-copying. But there is a built-in contradiction in the genes, whereby occasionally an imperfect copy is produced—a mutation. There is an infinite number of such accidents, most of which are not only useless, but positively harmful to the organism.

A single mutation cannot transform one species into another. The information contained in the gene does not remain there in splendid isolation. It enters into contact with the physical world, where it is tested, processed, articulated and modified. If a particular variant provides a better protein than another in a given environment, it will prosper, while the others are eliminated. At a certain point, small variations reach a qualitative stage, and a new species is formed.

This is the meaning of natural selection. For some four billion years, the genes of every living thing—plants and animals, including humans—have been formed in this way. It is not a one-way process. The idea of the genetic determinists, that the genes are preeminent, has been described by Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of the DNA code, as the “central dogma” of molecular biology. It is no more valid than the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. In the dialectical relationship between the organism and the environment, information about the phenotype flows back into the genotype. The genes are “selected” by the environment, which determines which will survive, and which perish.

The role of the genetic code plays a vital role in establishing the “framework” of human beings, whereas the environment works to fill out and develop behaviour and personality. They are not isolated factors, but dialectically fuse together to produce the individual and his or her unique characteristics. No two persons are identical. However, although it is not possible to alter a person’s hereditary make-up, it is entirely possible to alter the environment. The way to improve an individual’s potential is to improve their environment. This idea has provoked a heated argument over many years: is it possible to over-ride or change genetic “deficiencies” through an improved environment? The leading early geneticist Francis Galton tried to demonstrate that genius was hereditary, and favoured a policy of selective breeding to maintain the intellectual stock. The idea that middle class and upper class whites were genetically superior to other races and classes permeated Victorian society. It became the ideology of the eugenics movement which advocated forced sterilisation to prevent the biologically unfit from propagation. Unsound scientific data using IQ (intelligence quota) testing was used to support biological determinism and social inequalities based on race, sex or class that cannot be altered as they reflect innate inferior genes.” [2]


With Richard Dawkins it was no accident that The God Delusion was so bad and so was The Selfish Gene. Because it is obvious the God Delusion was written by a philosophical idealist with no understanding of the material basis for the continuing belief in God of the mass of the population. Capitalist property relations of domination and subordination are the material basis for human alienation and make revolution a necessity and a gradual educational progress to the magic 51% to get rid of capitalism a fool’s illusion.

The reactionary theories of Malthus may have had some influence on Darwin but he never used the phrase, “the survival of the fittest” in his original work and he was no philosopher; after all he was a country parson who did excellently well to get as far as he did with that great handicap. Marx dedicated a volume to Darwin but furiously denounced the population theory of Malthus several times, inspired by the materialist in Darwin and repelled by the reactionary idealist in Malthus.

We really do not have to accept the elitist, Nazi interpretation of evolution. Mendel’s gene theory did supply the mechanism for evolution, Crick and Watson elaborated the mechanism of the genes in our DNA; neither lead to the mechanical reductionalist and un-dialectical theory propounded in The Selfish Gene.

Dawkins cannot understand the material basis of human and all natural evolution so despite his apparent rejection of God he inevitably reverts back to Him, even if some use terms like ‘teleology ’ to imply a blind impulse in inanimate things as our Phils (Sharp and Walden) do to hide their idealism.

To understand the motivation of serial killers, wife beaters and all anti-social behaviour we can say “it’s all in their genes” and not in the social values consequent on the property relations of capitalist society. Hence its popularity in the epoch of Thatcherism and on into the epoch of neo-Thatcherism under Tony Blair. Time to reassert the primacy of the dialect and the essential dialectical materialist correctness of Engels in both Dialects of Nature and in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.


[1]  T. Dobzhansky, Mankind Evolving, p. 21

[2] International Marxist Tendency, The Selfish Gene?

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