The Historical Method of Karl Marx: Paul Lafargue..continued

Reprinted from the “International Socialist Review,” Oct., 1907.

IV. The Natural Environment and the Artificial or Social Environment—Continued.

A simple change in the habits, by subjecting one or more organs to an unaccustomed use, sometimes results in radical modifications in the whole organism. Darwin says that the mere fact of constantly browsing on steep slopes has occasioned variations in the skeletons of certain breeds of Scottish cows. Naturalists agree in regarding the cetacean – whales, cachalots and dolphins – as former terrestrial mammals which, finding in the sea food more abundant and easier to procure, became swimmers and divers: this new sort of life transformed their organs, reducing to a rudimentary state those no longer used, developing the others and adapting them to the needs of the aquatic environment. The plants of the Sahara Desert, to adapt themselves to the arid environment, have been obliged to dwarf themselves, to reduce the number of their leaves to two or four, to take on a layer of wax to prevent evaporation, and to prolong their roots enormously in search of moisture: their periodic changes come counter to the ordinary seasons; they are dormant in summer during the hot season and vegetate in the winter, in the season relatively cold and moist. Plants in other deserts present analogous characteristics: a given environment implies the existence of beings showing a combination of definite characteristics.

The cosmic or natural environments, to which vegetables and animals must adapt themselves under pain of death, constitute, like the organised being of which Cuvier speaks, combinations, complex systems without precise limits in space, the parts of which are: the geologic formation and composition of the soil, nearness to the equator, elevation above the sea level, courses of rivers which irrigate it, quantity of rain which it receives and the solar heat which it stores up, etc., and plants and animals which live in it. These parts correspond to each other in such a way that one of them cannot change without involving change in the other parts: the changes in the natural environment, although less rapid than those produced in organised beings, are nevertheless appreciable. The forests, for example, have an influence on the temperature and the rains, consequently on the humidity and the physical composition of the soil. Darwin has shown that animals apparently insignificant, like the worm, have played a considerable part in the formation of vegetable mould; Berthelot and the agricultural experts Hellriegal and Willfarth have proved that the bacteria which swarm in the protuberances of the roots of the leguminosae are active in fertilising the soil. Man by tillage and cultivation exercises a marked influence over the natural environment; forest clearings begun by the Romans have transformed fertile countries in Asia and Africa into uninhabitable deserts.

Vegetables, animals and man in a state of nature, all of which are subject to the action of the natural environment, without other means of resistance than the faculty of adaptation of their organs, must end by differentiating themselves, even though they might have a common origin, if, during hundreds and thousands of generations they live in different natural environments. The unlike natural environments thus tend to diversify men as well as plants and animals. It is, in fact, during the savage period that the different human races were formed.

Man does not merely modify by his industry the environment in which he lives, but he creates out of whole cloth an artificial or social environment, which permits him, if not to remove his organism from the natural environment, at least to reduce this action considerably. But this artificial environment in its turn operates upon man as he comes to it from his natural environment. Man, like the domesticated plant and animal, thus undergoes the action of two environments.

The artificial or social environments which men have successively created differ among themselves in their degree of elaboration and complexity, but environments of the same degree of elaboration and complexity offer great resemblances among themselves, whatever may be the human races which have created them, and whatever may be their geographical habitats: so that if men continue to undergo the diversifying action of unlike natural environments, they are equally subject to the action of similar artificial environments which operate to diminish the differences of races and to develop in them the same needs, the same interests, the same passions and the same mentality. Moreover, the same natural environments, as for example, those situated at the same latitude and altitude, exercise an equal unifying action on the vegetables and animals which live in them; they have an analogous flora and fauna. Like artificial environments thus tend to unify the human species, which unlike natural environments, have diversified into races and sub-races.

The natural environment evolves with such extreme slowness that the vegetable and animal species which adapt themselves to it seem immutable. The artificial environment, on the contrary, evolves with an increasing rapidity, thus the history of man and of his societies compared with that of animals and vegetables is extraordinarily mobile.

The artificial environments, like organised being and the natural environment, form combinations, complex systems without precise limits in space and time, the parts of which correspond to each other and are so closely bound together that one alone cannot be modified without all the others being shaken and being compelled to undergo retouchings in their turn. The artificial or social environment, of an extreme simplicity and consisting of a small number of parts in savage peoples, becomes complicated in proportion as man progresses by the addition of new parts and by the development of those already existing. It has been formed, since the historic period by economic, social, political and legal institutions, by traditions, customs, manners and morals, by common sense and public opinion, by religious literatures, arts, philosophies, sciences, modes of production and exchange, etc., and by the men who live in it. These parts, by transforming themselves and by reacting on each other, have given birth to a series of social environments more and more complex and extended, which, in proportion to the extension, have modified men; for, like the natural environment, a given social environment implies the existence of men presenting a certain combination of analogous characteristics, physical and moral. If all these corresponding parts were stable or varied only with excessive slowness, like those of the natural environment, the artificial environment would remain in equilibrium and there would be no history; its equilibrium, on the contrary, is extremely and increasingly unstable, constantly put out of balance by the changes working in one or another of the parts, which then reacts on all the others.

The parts of an organised being, like those of a natural environment, react upon each other directly, mechanically, so to speak: when in the course of animal evolution the upright posture was definitely acquired by man, it became the point of departure for transformation of all the organs: when the head, instead of being carried by the powerful muscles at the back of the neck, as in the other animals, was supported by the spinal column, these muscles and the bones to which they are attached became modified, and with their modifications modified the skull, the brain, etc. When the layer of vegetable soil in a locality increases through any cause whatever, instead of bearing stunted plants it nourishes a forest, which increases the rainfall, which again increases the volume of the water courses, etc. But the parts of an artificial environment can react on each other only through the intermediary of man. The part modified must begin by transforming physically and mentally the men whom it causes to function, and must suggest to them the modifications which they must bring to the other parts to put them on the level of the progress realised in it, in order that they may not hinder it in its development, and in order that they may again correspond to it. The parts not modified manifest their inconvenience precisely by the useful qualities which formerly constituted their “good side”, which by becoming superannuated are hurtful and then constitute so many “bad sides”. They are the more insupportable according as the modifications which they should have undergone are more important. The re-establishment of the equilibrium in the parts of the artificial environment is often accomplished only after struggles between the men particularly interested in the part in course of transformation and the men concerned in the other parts.


(Translated by Chas. H. Kerr.)

(To Be Continued)

(Socialist Standard, July 1920)