JBS Haldane

Dialectical Materialism and Modern Science

IV Negation of the Negation

Published: Labour Monthly , October 1941, pp.430-432,
Transcribed: for marxists.org in May, 2011 by Ted Crawford
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2011. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 .

Engels, in his statements of dialectical principles, enunciated that of the negation of a negation separately from that of the unity of opposites. Lenin brought them into relation, by pointing out that the unity of opposites commonly leads to struggle. Where we can follow the detail of this struggle, we find that the formula of the negation of the negation often expresses the final phase, which leads to the sudden “emergence” of novelty, with remarkable accuracy, as in Marx’s description of the transition to socialism, “The expropriators are expropriated.”

We do not know enough of the detail of how unstable atoms or molecules undergo sudden change to say how, if at all, this principle applies. But it certainly applies to the familiar irreversible physical changes such as the breaking of a stick or metal bar which is overbent, or a rope or rubber band which is overstretched. Under no strains, or slight strains, the molecules of a solid are commonly arranged in a system of minimum energy (like a stone lying at the bottom of a bowl instead of being perched in a less stable position). They may be arranged in crystals, as in cast iron, or fibres as wood. Now a strain such as bending or pulling upsets this arrangement. The stable configuration of molecules is negated. In its early stages this process is reversible. The solid regains its former shape if the force on it is removed. But at a certain point the negation is abruptly negated. The solid breaks, and each part returns to a stable configuration of molecules. There may of course be intermediate stages of permanent set. This is of course a crude example. In other cases the negation of the molecular arrangement leads, after a more or less chaotic period, to a new one. Thus when ice near its melting point is compressed, it first melts, that is to say the molecules lose their orderly arrangment, but at about 6,000 atmospheres, it passes into another solid form, ice-VI, in which the molecules are more densely packed than, in ice-I, the well-known form.

A beautiful example of a negated negation is found in the modern geological theory of the formation of certain mountain ranges, such as the Alps. These occur in regions of folding where the earth’s crust, by cooling or continental movement, is under lateral pressure. The first effect of this pressure is to cause a downward folding, such as occurs, for example, off many of the coasts of the Pacific, where there are deep oceanic troughs. These are filled with sediments which form rock. As the folding progresses these sediments are brought up again above sea level. Being lighter than the granite of which the continents are largely composed, they can form stable mountain ranges of considerable height, whereas a range consisting of heavier rocks would gradually sink when the mountain-building forces no longer acted. Thus the downfold, or geosynclinal, is transformed into its opposite, a mountain range.

But the negation of the negation is most strikingly shown in the field of biology. The most primitive organisms merely grow and divide. If they break down the large molecules of their bodies into smaller molecules which are excreted, this is a negation of their life process. But in the higher animals the breakdown of relatively large molecules, such as glycogen and adenosin-triphosphoric acid, is the immediate source of the energy of muscular movement, which enables them to get food which is quite unavailable to the simplest organisms. The negation of growth thus negates itself.

The evolutionary process depends on the struggle between variation and selection. As Engels pointed out, either may be taken as positive. However, the following treatment is perhaps the most consonant with modern biological ideas. Normally like produces like, or nearly so, whether in growth, as when one potato or geranium produces many vegetatively, or in sexual reproduction. More accurately, like responds alike to a similar environment. Some variation within the progeny of a single organism or pair is merely due to the different responses of fundamentally similar organisms to different nurtures. Some, including sex differences in most species, is due to hybridity, that is to say to the fact that the original organism considered, or one of them was formed by the union of germ-cells whose nuclei were unlike. But some variation is due to mutation, a radical change which may produce entirely novel types, and which leads to hybridity in later generations, and thus furnishes the raw material for all kinds of heritable variations. Mutation is in fact the negation of heredity. The novel types produced by mutation very rarely prove fitter than the original type. So natural selection generally eliminates them, though occasionally one may spread through a species and transform it. The negation is usually negated. But this does not give us a uniform species. On the contrary, as Tsetverikov first showed, and Dubinin and others, including Gordon, Philip, Spurway and Street in my own laboratory, have proved in greater detail, it leads to a state of affairs where the species is permeated with small variations, more or less harmful one at a time, but some times beneficial in suitable combinations, or potentially useful if external conditions change. Fisher believes that the struggle between mutation and selection causes slow changes in a species which are not due to environmental pressure, and thus gives an internal cause for evolution such as has been attributed to vital urges and the like. It certainly makes species more variable and plastic than it would otherwise be.

Evolution proceeds by the same method in many details. Every major change of environment negates the former normal conditions of the organism. Thus when our fish ancestors came out of water they could not move quickly on land. They breathed with difficulty, saw badly, were subject to rapid temperature changes such as do not occur in water, and so on. It took many million years to negate these negations. They were negated by the development of such organs as legs and lungs, by large changes in the eyes, and finally by mechanisms for regulating the temperature. These when they were perfected, enabled the mammals and birds to colonize even the arctic, and rendered many other developments possible. Man has recently developed a large brain which, among other things, has cramped his teeth and bent his nasal passages. The teeth and nose are among the weakest and most readily infected parts of our bodies.

Finally the negation of negation is extremely typical of the development of scientific theory and practice. Here at least Hegel is not standing on his head. His account of the dialectic needs far less modification in connection with human history than with nature. The dialectical development of mathematics was described by Engels. At the end of the 19th century the atomic theory in chemistry was generally accepted, though Ostwald and a few other chemists stood out. But the number of atoms in a gram was uncertain within a factor of a hundred or more. Then Thomson showed that electrons could be detached from atoms in a gas, and Rutherford that atoms broke up. This negated the atom as an “eternal brick,” but made it possible to count atoms with great accuracy, since individual electrons or atomic explosions produce effects which are visible with a microscope.

We have seen how widely Marxist principles are applicable to modern science. Some scientific workers admit this, but add that Marx and Engels only formulated principles which good scientists follow instinctively. Even if this were the whole truth, their formulation would have been a very great step forward. But actually an individual scientist will often turn out to be quite dialectical in his treatment of some particular problem, say resonance energy or reflex action, but crassly mechanistic or idealistic when dealing with other questions, including his own social and economic position. For this reason every scientific worker will be aided in his work by a study of such classics as “Feuerbach,” “Anti-Dühring,” “Dialectics of Nature,” “Materialism and Empirio-criticism,” and Chap. 4 of the “History of the C.P.S.U. (B).” He must remember that they must be studied not as eternal truths, but in their historical setting, not as dogmas, but as guides to action. If he does so he will not merely improve the quality of his research and teaching; he will find himself no longer a mere individual passively involved in the torrent of contemporary history, but actively engaged in changing society and shaping the world’s future.