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Conway Zirkle and the Persistence of "Marxian Biology" in the Western Social Sciences


Institute for the Study of Man

In 1948 the Soviet Union stunned the world with its denunciation of the science of genetics and its searing criticism of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. To those who were familiar with the ideology of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, this was not entirely unexpected - the repudiation of genetics could be directly attributed to the incompatibility of its doctrines with those of Marx and Engels.

This twisting of science 'although subsequently discredited even in the Soviet Union with the disgrace of the Soviet pseudoscientist Trofim D. Lysenko, has nevertheless had a disastrous influence on sociological thought in the Western world. Western sociologists of the Lester Ward mold, who were already ideologically prejudiced against concepts of biological inequality among men - both as individuals and as groups - willingly allowed "Marxian biology" to permeate their thinking, and in consequence the erroneous concepts of Lysenko, while long since abandoned by geneticists throughout the world (including even those in the U.S.S.R.), still distort the context of many of the social science textbooks used in our contemporary universities.

The first Western schools to clearly identify the extent of Marxist pseudo-genetic infiltration into the social sciences was Conway Zirkle, a distinguished biologist who was a member of a number of university faculties in the course of his career, notably Virginia, Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Pennsylvania. A member of the editorial boards of Isis, Botanical Review and The American Naturalist, Conway Zirkle authored several books, but particularly pinpointed the nature of Marxian pseudo-genetics in his Death of a Science in Russia. (1) In this he showed how the Marxist dedication to the concept of equality had caused pseudo-scientific theories, rooted only in political dogma, to dominate the field of genetics in the Soviet Union, with the intention of downplaying the inherent genetic differences (i.e., inequalities) that distinguished all complex living organism from each other, by claiming to show that the genetic heritage of the individual organism could be modified by environmental forces.

But it was Zirkle's Evolution, Marxian Biology and the Social Scene(2) which first revealed the extent to which this pernicious biological cult had influenced Western social scientists. Marxian biology dates from the 1860s when Marx and Angels first read Darwin's Origin of Species. Although the founders of communism were Willing to accept the concept of evolution, they categorically rejected all parts of the theory which conflicted with the ideals of a socialistic society and extended their party line right through the science of biology.

As Conway Zirkle points out in this Study, it was the recrudescence of this line that enabled Lysenko to annihilate all traces of the science of genetics in the Communist world. But what is of even greater importance to us today is the influence of this "Marxian biology" on a number of the attitudes and beliefs of American scholars who are unaware of its permeating forces because of our modern intellectual specialization and consequent fragmentary knowledge.

In order to alleviate the heretofore unchallenged status of "Marxian biology" as present in the American culture, Dr. Zirkle cited examples of its pervasive influence on American literature and sociology. He showed how a "quackery has penetrated into our scholarly world," limiting our information and affecting our thinking. So that the reader who is not a professional biologist may make an informed judgment, the author also included a brief history of the theory of evolution - which has been distorted by the Marxians - from the time of Darwin to the present.

There can be no doubt that the influence of those who oppose the application of the findings of biological and genetic research to the understanding of human social behavior was greatly enhanced by the temporary fashion for "Social Darwinism" at the turn of the century, with its erroneous emphasis upon individual competition in evolution to the exclusion of group competition. Social Darwinists did not see that cooperation within the group enhanced the competitiveness of the group in its struggle for survival against other groups - and that altruism and loyalty were powerful forces for the survival of the group, race or lineage. The fact that altruism has survival value, when practiced in favor of members of the altruist's own gene pool, was not apparent to the Social Darwinists, who did not fully realize that from the evolutionary point of view it is the gene pool, the race or lineage which is important, not the individual per se. This defect in primitive Social Darwinists thinking made it easier for Marxian social philosophers to downplay the significance of biological forces to the human social system and to promote instead their own distorted concepts of direct genetic subordination to environmental forces. Darwin himself, of course was not a "Social Darwinist" in that he never meant anyone to assume that all competition took place strictly at the level of individuals. Indeed, the influence of marxian biologists has been such that we almost always hear his major work referred to simply as "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection." Even Karl Marx looked with approval on Darwin's thought in so far as this short title is an imperfect representation of Darwin's own conception of the evolutionary process. Darwin's true comprehension of the evolutionary process, as involving group even more than individual competition at the higher levels of mammalian development, is revealed by the full title of his renowned book which is: "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. " Commenting on the impact of Marxian biology on Western thought, Conway Zirkle noted that:

Those who tried to advance Marxian biology consciously were not numerous, but their influence in shaping the ideals of our intelligentsia was tremendous. They actually set the fashion not only in letters but also in the popular up-to-date attitudes in morals and ethics. It is even possible that they furnished the dominant directives to the social sciences. This statement is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first, for practically all social scientists are familiar with the works of the more progressive writers, but almost none of them is technically equipped to evaluate the new discoveries in biology.

Marxian biology has always had allies, and this has been one of the sources of its strength. On the other hand, scientific biology has had few friends. The moment it grew to the point where it applied to Homo sapiens, it acquired enemies. Indeed, for the last hundred and fifty years, the history of biology (outside of the history of its technical developments and discoveries) has been a history of conflict, and the conflict shows no signs of abating. For example, in 1925, a high school teacher in Tennessee was arrested for teaching evolution; and as late as 1948, five geneticists in Moscow were forced by the Communists to recant and forswear their knowledge of biology.

The proponents of Marxian biology appear in unexpected places. In the early disputes over evolution, the most effective aid to the Marxian line came from the humanitarian but conservative Christians, who not only rejected evolution on theological grounds, but who also looked with horror on the amoral viciousness of what they took to be natural selection. Marx himself had also objected to the competitive aspects of natural selection, so both his followers and the more conservative religious groups found themselves on the same side. In fact, the Marxian biologists of the last seventy-five years had their pathways made smooth by the Victorian fundamentalists. (3)

Penetration of Sociological Thought

Concerning sociology, Zirkle was even more critical: "The coexistence of our rapidly expanding sciences with stupid quack substitutes for science should surprise no one .. Marxian biology ... exists also in non-Communistic countries - in countries where it is not protected by Marxian dictators. Moreover, it exists not merely as an intellectual lag among the unlearned, but as a carefully protected faith in disciplines whose members are equal in education - quantitatively at least - to the biologists themselves. "(4)

Zirkle did not complain that contemporary Western sociologists ignored biology, but rather that they had become so deeply permeated by the propaganda of Marxian pseudobiology that: "The usual course is to treat the human species as if it were composed- of an amorphous, uniform and plastic raw material, as if it were a species which could be molded (conditioned is the usual word) to suit the heart's desire."(5) Most sociologists, he declares, are dedicated to the idea of "reform" along equalitarian lines, and find it easier to disapprove of biological variables and to accept Marxian pseudo-biology than to face the reality of biological complexity.

Admitting that there are some sociologists who have not fallen in this trap, Zirkle warns that "It is necessary, however, that we distinguish between sociology as it is understood by the cream of the professional sociologists and sociology as it is taught from elementary textbooks. Some sociologists recognize the complexities of their subject and are fully aware of the tremendous difficulties which they will have to surmount before they can make the contributions which society needs. The more popular textbooks, however, give a very different picture of the field and this, of course, is very serious - even dangerous. If he knows anything at all, it is apt to be only what he learned in a single undergraduate course which was taught from an elementary textbook. It is textbook sociology which penetrates to our professional educators and which is included in the curricula of our teachers' colleges. It is textbook sociology which conditions the thinking of those who teach in the primary and secondary schools and thus, it is textbook sociology which influences, and which will continue to influence, the climate of opinion. It is textbook sociology which indoctrinates the run-of-the-mill college graduate and it is textbook sociology which orients our intelligentsia on social questions." (6)

Characteristics of Marxian Biology

The identifying characteristics of Marxist biology are numerous. Salient among these is the rejection of Malthusian doctrine. As Margaret Sanger admitted, "A remarkable feature of Marxian propaganda has been the almost complete unanimity with which the implications of the Malthusian doctrines have been derided, denounced, and repudiated. Any defense of the so-called 'Law of Population' was enough to stamp one, in the eyes of the orthodox Marxians, as a 'tool of the capitalistic class,' seeking to dampen the ardor of those who expressed the belief that men might create a better world for themselves. Malthus, they claimed, was actuated by selfish motives. He was not merely a hidebound aristocrat, but a pessimist who was trying to kill all hope of human progress. By Marx, Engels, Bebel, Kautsky and the celebrated leaders and interpreters of Marx's great 'Bible of the Working Class' ... birth control has been looked upon as a subtle Machiavelian sophistry created for the purpose of placing the blame for human misery elsewhere than at the door of the capitalistic class. Upon this point the orthodox Marxian mind has been universally and sternly uncompromising."(7)

Other key indicators of Marxist influence in the social science's attitude towards biological reality centers upon: 1) the refusal to recognize the role of population pressure in natural selection among contemporary human societies, 2) the insistence upon reintroducing Lysenkovian doctrines of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, 3) the insistence that evolution has ceased to play a significant role in human affairs 4) of the idea that all peoples are in any case made equal by culture.

Perhaps an equally important indicator of Marxian bias is the commitment of many Western sociologists to unwavering opposition to eugenics, "Negative eugenics, and indeed all kinds of eugenics, are anathema to Marxists of all types. In fact, eugenics impinges upon so many religious, political, and economic convictions that a great many individuals are unable to evaluate the subject honestly. Yet the questions involved are essentially simple. The program of negative eugenics is sound and based on valid research. Our knowledge of the machinery of heredity is now sufficient to enable us to foretell the outcome of the program and the outcome, we know, would be beneficial ..."

"Negative eugenics, however, should not be scorned on the grounds that its benefits are biological rather than social. If the eugenics program is followed, the number of defectives will be decreased, fewer institutions would be needed for their care, and those institutions now in use would be less crowded. Uninstitutionalized defectives, those who now wander at large, would also be fewer and could be given better care with the present overall expenditure of energy, and the burden on society would be greatly lessened. Thus, the prescriptions of negative eugenics, if followed, should result in some real social gain. Opposition to all eugenics seems rather silly. The program prescribed is simple; all that is needed is for recognizable genetic defectives not to reproduce."(8)

Finally Marxist influence in the contemporary social sciences is perhaps most evident in the persistent attempts of many contemporary social "scientists" to keep alive the meaningless "nature versus nurture" controversy, debating the relative importance of heredity and environment. Zirkle summed up this last noted issue succinctly when he wrote, "The biology embedded in the social sciences approaches closest to the biology of Marx and Engels when it attempts to evaluate the relative roles of heredity and environment as these two variables interact to produce the human differences which we see in those about us. Here, the sociologists postulate biological principles which have long been disproven and which are so far removed from the ignored recent discoveries that at present sociological biology" has almost nothing in common with the biology of the biologists. In fact, the two disciplines are so far apart that the pertinent biological theories should be restated if we are to compare the two conflicting systems. ... Any contrast of heredity with environment which presents one as more important than the other is completely meaningless. What we are depends 100 per cent on our heredity and also 100 per cent on our environment; change either and we are changed. Any attempt to make one more important than the other is as silly as trying to determine which is the more important in deriving a product, the multiplicand or the multiplier."(9)

1. Conway Zirkle, Death of a Science in R@ Philadelphia, 1949.

2. Conway Zirkle, Evolution, Marxian Biology, and the Social Scene, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959.

3. Ibid., p. 298.

4. Ibid., p. 418.

5. Ibid., P. 420.

6. [bid., p. 429. Also Margaret Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization. New York.

7. Ibid., p. 272.

8. Ibid., p. 444.

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