Butterflies and Political Economy


     After completing several books and papers on hereditary, genetics and eugenics (for it was all the rage) and two enduring ones on butterflies and moths E B Ford, (a.k.a. Henry) conscious of his growing reputation, would ostentatiously carry with him into the senior commons rooms in Oxford a thick binder labelled genetics. Everyone was anxious to see the great man's scribbles and on his death the binder was eagerly opened and to every ones astonishment it contained---nothing.

   However stuffed inside the blank pages under the title 'A Memorable Fancy' were the following notes. Perhaps they were for a book he intended to write but like every other naturalist never dared even contemplate doing. Had he done so it would have been dismissed as philosophy and not natural science. And this bare outline does sound like a lot of hot air but we feel the florid language has a basis in fact if turned right side up and made more concrete.

    'Hegel's chapter on the Absolute Idea gives us a final comprehensive demonstration of dialectical method. Here it is presented as the objective process of being, which preserves itself only through different modes of the 'negation of the negation'. It is this dynamic that eventually moves the absolute idea and makes the transition from the Logic to the Philosophy of Nature and of Mind.

   However it is dialectical thought  and thus contains its negation; it is not a harmonious and stable form but a process of unification of opposites. It is not complete except in its otherness, as object.

   The absolute idea is the subject in its final form, thought. Its otherness and negation is the object, being. The absolute ides now has to be interpreted as objective being. However being is a different being from what began Hegel's Logic. For being now is a concrete totality wherein all particular forms subsist as the essential distinctions and relations of one comprehensive principle. Thus comprehended, being is nature and dialectical thought passes on to the 'Philosophy of Nature'. Hegel says that 'the idea freely releases itself' into nature' or freely 'determines itself' as nature. It is this statement putting the transition forward as an actual process in reality that offers great difficulties in the understanding of Hegel's system. (I had the greatest difficulty getting J B S Haldane to understand this but what could be expected from a Stalinist with a bourgeois conception of nature as something completely external and other. It must be remembered he was a firm friend of that notable crystallographer, Bernal who, as a faithful Stalinist and follower of Lysenko, denied the existence of genes in his 'Science in History' when it was first published in 1954. In the Penguin reprints in 1965/69 these embarrassing passages were nowhere to be seen. In this work science and the appliances of science are treated as an unequivocal good, especially once stripped of their capitalist wrapping as in the Soviet Union! It is an erudite, though very banal, interpretation of science in history and one that completely disregards essential concepts as alienation, praxis, the total human being, abolition of the state, money etc and is therefore little different from western fanfares to science. The two continued to remain good friends but the brilliance of both was much diminished by their appalling social conceptions. Bernal, using his knowledge of crystals, ventured into biophysics determining the structure and composition of biological molecules by X ray diffraction, a line of research that was not only closely followed by Haldane but which eventually led to the discovery of the double helix model of DNA. However let's continue...)

   Nature achieves its truth when it enters the domain of history. The subjects development frees being from its blind necessity, and nature becomes part of human history and is increasingly shaped by human history and reflects therefore historical stages and social relationships.



Hegel and Political Economy

Hegel's Philosophy of Nature in regard to evolution (Griffin)

Evolution in the direction of greater plasticity and autonomy. The unprecedented digging up of the earth's crust with mines and canals and the insights it brings into rock strata and the fossilised remains peculiar to each strata is not specifically mentioned. Earth's "history" (a term which has to be used advisedly in this instance - but only in this instance - in Hegel's work) is chiefly concerned with establishing the point the inorganic becomes the organic and rejecting in so doing an evolutionary perspective (however he calls Lamarck "a gifted Frenchman") "Argillaceous earth and coal formations become transformed unmistakably into peat, where mineral and vegetable are no longer distinguishable; for peat has a vegetable origin and yet all the same still belongs to the mineral kingdom." In fact it is the other way on: coal is derived from peat which is soil mingled with half decayed vegetable matter which then becomes lignite or "brown coal" and, continued further, becomes coal. "Argillaceous earth" must mean clay which can be transformed into shale consisting of thin layers and then, under great pressure, into slate.

Hegel then goes on: "it is the limestone formations which, in their ultimate formations, tend towards the osseous nature of the animal (passing over) into forms of which it cannot be said whether they are mineral or animal (molluscs)". They are not yet shells which could be regarded as the remains of an extinct animal world; although that is one explanation of the petrified animal forms - "(This is the key bifurcation: Hegel, the supreme historicist denies evolution in plants and animals - even the best biologist will subsequently deny it in human terms: "the struggle for existence" is also that of the war of one against all (Darwin): a bees nest is also a piece of real estate (Gould)". "Rudimentary organic forms in the geological organism, are also found in the coal measures in which the tree form is very often distinctly recognisable." Hegel also maintains fossilised remains are to be found in the boundaries of rock strata which would be logically consistent with his view of the organic proceeding from the inorganic and which he calls "playful essays in organic formations"). But, crucially - "these organic forms - are not to be thought of as having once actually lived and then died: on the contrary they are still born". He likens the process to that of a sculptor or painter who produces "forms which represent life but are not themselves living: Nature, however, does this directly, without needing such mediation". Hegel's conclusion here is similar to that advanced in the "Philosophy of the Fine Arts" that nature is superior to the arts even, it may be said as petrified nature. Actually, a few pages previously, Hegel, unaware of the inconsistency, was less tendentious in the situating of fossil remains when probably precising a standard works on geology. Of fossil remains in mountainous regions (he cites the Pyrenees, the Andes and the Alps) he says they "are not scattered throughout the whole mass of the mountain but occur only in individual strata, often in the greatest order, as if in families etc." Though he accepts geological time running into "millions" of years (a huge underestimation but daring for then) it is essentially of little interest because "the interest is confined to what is there before us". Earth history comes to a standstill in the bourgeois epoch with Europe and especially Germany as its epicentre: "the earth spirit- awakes (from) the movement and dreaming of one sleep, and receives its consciousness in Man, and so confronts itself as a stabilised formation". Henceforth nature everlasting becomes a given, like wage labour and the commodity. The shorelines of continents and the human species are here for all eternity. The present transcends geology and biology and the battle with nature is won. Global catastrophe can only be a retrograde fantasy because natural (i.e. unconscious) history is at an end. Catastrophe then tends to become the province of representation, something one views or reads about and not experienced directly until engulfed oneself.

Hegel's standpoint precludes any further empirical investigation into geological epochs because it is wanting precisely on that account. "To explain the geological organism usually means to make the order in which these different formations succeeded one another the chief business; but this kind of explanation is only external. This mere happening, which involves only a difference of time, this temporal succession of the strata, does not explain anything at all; or rather it completely ignores the necessity of the process, the comprehension of it" We soon learn that this necessity is a preformationism: "Nature's formations are determinate, bounded, and enter as such into existence. "The Mosaic story of creation is still the best in its quite naive statement - Man has not developed himself out of the animal, nor the animal out of the plant; each is at a single stroke what it is". Hegel is very insistent on his anti-evolutionist stance and his need to combat these theories which stemmed in particular from Lamarck. (As mentioned Lamarck is acknowledged in his "Philosophy of Nature" more, surprisingly, as a systematist than as a proto-evolutionist. The anti-evolutionist Cuvier is also cited but not the quarrel between the later and Lamarck) Hegel describes the monkey as "a satire on man". One could almost claim the same for his funny anti-evolutionism, which is more of a satire on creationism because of his obvious awareness of opposed arguments, which are more in keeping with Hegel. That he felt extremely threatened on this account is food for thought. Perhaps he feared he could not arrest nature with the ease he could immobilise dialectical thought in the Prussian State and in that sense his fears are also ours.



And now for Findlay's comments:

"Hegel's view of nature ' is to be understood as throughout working towards an end which will ultimately carry it beyond itself. It is arguable that this immanent teleology is a better and less prejudiced foundation for empirical investigations than the half-formulated absolutisms current in natural science."


And "Hegel: a re-examination"

"But though Hegel remains within the world of common sense and science, and does not underestimate its reality, his approach to it is neither commonsensical nor scientific; he sees the facts of that world in a revolutionary manner, which is not that of any other philosopher. Hegel, as we made plain, sees things in terms of a "principle of Idealism", which is not the principle of Berkeley, nor that of Plato, nor Kant, nor any previous thinker. It is quasi-teleological or quasi-teleological principle, according to which things must be seen as if existing on account of, or as if tending towards, certain consummating experiences, experiences where there will cease to be a barrier between the self and other persons or between the thinking mind and the world confronting it. This principle ' may have certain remote, long term empirical consequences, which we cannot precisely locate or pin down".  (P. 351)

For a philosopher Hegel's knowledge of nature was exceptionally detailed. Essentially a work of synthesis he was only surpassed by Aristotle who did make original contributions of his own particularly in the field of systematics which could be said to have its origin in him. Yet in spite of the empirical detail one cannot help but be irked by the philosophising which comes as an unwelcome imposition on the text, though not because of Hegel's unease with natural science as insufficiently explanatory and begging of further questions. It is just that the questions we want to put to science cannot be addressed within a philosophical framework we suspect is fantastical rather than "deep". But as regards the detail, there is so much Hegel has to be right now and again. Even blindingly so when, for example, with fortuitous prescience he judges fungi to be closer to animals than plants however erroneous his process of reasoning is: "inorganic-organic forms like lichens and fungi which one does not rightly know how to classify ' peculiar, tough substances coming near to animal life." (P298) DNA studies have shown that fungi are closer to humans than to trees though a need for a separate phyla has long been recognised from the days when Linnaeus bracketed them alongside plants.

Fungi appear almost as an aside in the concluding section of "geological nature" ' a bridge between the inorganic/organic and "plant nature" which is the subject of the next 45 pages. (Geological nature occupies only half of that and which is also grouped specifically under "organics"). Goethe's theories on plant life are much in evidence. Indeed Goethe's name crops up constantly in the "Philosophy of Nature" not only as regards plants but also in his treatment of colour (in which he sides with Goethe as against Newton) and animal morphology. Obviously Goethe esteemed him deeply as a scientist because Goethe's obviously satisfied Hegel's quest for wholeness. As he remarks "Goethe's Metamorphose der Pflanzen marks the beginning of a rational conception of the nature of plant-life, in that it has forced attention away from a concern with mere details to a recognition of the unity of life", adding "Goethe with his great insight into nature has defined the growth of plants as a metamorphosis of one and the same formation "noting that his has major botanical treatise published in 1790" has been "treated with indifference by botanists who did not know what to make of it just because it contained the exposition of the whole".

                                                Stuart Wise (1998)