Dialectics of Nature


Dialectics of Nature

Dialectics of Nature, by Friedrich Engels (1883), is an unfinished work which applies Marxist ideas, and in particular the principles of Dialectical Materialism, to science.

In his 1939 preface, J.B.S. Haldane states "most of the manuscript seems to have been written between 1872 and 1882, that is to say it refers to the science" of that era. "Hence it is often hard to follow if one does not know the history of the scientific practice of that time. The idea of what is now called the conservation of energy was beginning to permeate physics, chemistry and biology. But it was still very incompletely realised, and still more incompletely applied. Words such as 'force', 'motion', and 'vis viva' were used where we should now speak of energy". Some then controversial topics of Engels' day, pertaining to incomplete or faulty theories, are now settled, making some of Engels' essays dated. "Their interest lies not so much in their detailed criticism of theories, but in showing how Engels grappled with intellectual problems".

One 'law' proposed in the Dialectics of Nature, is: 'The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa'. Probably the most commonly cited example of this is the change of water from a liquid to a gas, by increasing its temperature (although Engels also describes other examples from chemistry). In contemporary science, this process is known as a phase transition. There has also been an effort to apply this mechanism to social phenomena, whereby population increases result in changes in social structure [1].

Dialectics and its study was derived from Hegel who had studied the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Heraclitus taught that everything was constantly changing and that all things consisted of two opposite elements which changed into each other as night changes into day, light into darkness, life into death etc.

Engels's work follows on from what Engels had said about science in Anti-Dühring. It includes the famous The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, which has also been published separately as a pamphlet. Engels argues that the hand and brain grew together - an idea supported by later fossil discoveries, though it seems the foot came first. (See Australopithecus afarensis: Bipedalism.)

Most of the work is fragmentary, but it has points of interest. In biology, he says:

Vertebrates. Their essential character: the grouping of the whole body about the nervous system. Thereby the development of self-consciousness, etc. becomes possible. In all other animals the nervous system is a secondary affair, here it is the basis of the whole organisation.

p 309, Progress Publishers edition of 1972)

Notes and references

  1. ^ Carneiro, R.L. (2000). The transition from quantity to quality: A neglected causal mechanism in accounting for social evolution. Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences. Vol 97, No.23, pp.12926 - 12931. http://www.pnas.org/content/97/23/12926.full

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