George Walford: Ideology Beyond Evolution

In IC5 there was an article by John Woodcock, entitled Evolution and Ideology. It posited an “evolutionary series” extending from the inorganic through the organic to the social and ideological. The purpose of the present short piece is to suggest that this concept is valid only if “evolutionary” be taken in that broad sense in which it is more or less synonymous with “developmental,” carrying no suggestion of any specific type of development. If “evolutionary” is being used more precisely, if it is intended to refer to the type of change particularly associated with the development of organic life, then the existence of one “evolutionary series” extending from the inorganic through the organic to the social and ideological is at least very doubtful.

This is shown in the first place by the fact that in order to study developmental changes in any one of these classes of phenomena we have to adopt a particular time-scale, one which prohibits study of such changes in the others. If we are studying the development of the organic world then we operate on a time-scale by which the stars and planets, the solar systems and galaxies, are stable, non-developing entities. We know that they are in fact developing, but if we use units of time large enough for this to become apparent we shall lose sight of organic evolution, it will occupy too small a part of one of our time-units for us to be able to study it. If we want to study organic evolution we must adopt the appropriate time-scale.

Similarly if we wish to study the development of social and ideological phenomena. Here we need a time-scale shorter than that required for studying the development of organic life. If we are studying society then the development from the war chariot to the atomic bomb is a great change, but the time in which it occurred was too short for homo sapiens to have been affected by organic evolution. There is no reason to think that the men who made the earliest written records were biologically distinct from those who operate our most sophisticated society.

The article mentions the evolution of the neo cortex; it says this took between two and three million years and describes this as “very rapid.” By this time-scale the development from city-state to post-industrial society, with all the ideological changes involved, has been practically instantaneous; certainly much too fast to be effectively studies. As we need one time-scale for study of development in the inorganic world and another for organic evolution, so we need a third for the study of social and ideological changes. It is not merely that development in one field is faster than in another. The difference is such as to amount to a qualitative distinction.

Nor is this qualitative distinction a matter only of speed; as different type of development is involved. One of the principles of biological evolutionary theory is that acquired characteristics are not transmitted. But the transmission of acquired characteristics, the intentional transmission of accumulated knowledge, is central to social and ideological development.

It may well be true, as the article suggests, that it was the development of the neo cortex: that made organised society possible. But this factor applies to all organised societies, to the most primitive as to the most sophisticated. It does nothing to explain the development of different forms of society, or of distinct ideologies either.

from Ideological Commentary 6, March 1980.