But what you may not know is that more recent theories of genetic determinism have also played a part in the struggle over China's post-Mao future.
In the mid-ninteenth-century, following China's defeat in the Opium Wars, the country's ports were awash with Western diplomats who - although the label itself didn't stick until a hundred years later - were steeped in the tenets of Social Darwinism.
They included men such as Rutherford Alcock.
In 1855, after ten years as British Consul in Shanghai, Alcock wrote:
|Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)|
This passage perfectly embodies the central thrust of Social Darwinism - the application of Darwin's model of evolution by natural selection to the apparent "struggle" for existence between human societies, and between individual human beings within those societies - as it was conceived by thinkers such as Herbert Spencer.
Here is a definition of Social Darwinism taken from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy:
When Darwinian theory arrived in China, it was intermingled with Social Darwinist theories. They had a lasting impact because they seemed to provide an explanation for China's humiliating decline in the world, even though Darwin's description of permanent revolution in nature clashed with the cyclical Confucian conception of history.
As James Reeve Pusey describes it in China and Charles Darwin:
The man who supplied the earliest Chinese translations of Darwinian theories was a scholar named Yan Fu.
Yan is an extraordinary figure in the history of modern China. After having studied at a Naval Academy in England, he returned to China and translated many seminal works of Western science, history and philosophy, including works by Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Montesquieu. Every time he translated such works, he published commentaries alongside them that try to relate these writers' works to precedents in Chinese thought.
In the book, Yan reconciles the Confucian idea that man attains peace by taming and subjugating nature with the Darwinian view of continuous change in nature by essentially conflating evolution and "progress." In other words, he ascribed to nature a restless dynamic for improvement and in so doing, he created a Social Darwinism with Chinese characteristics (Pusey describes it as an activist brand of "Darwinian Taoism").
Here is an extract from Yan's essay, Learning from the West:
This was not quite how the next generation of Chinese Darwinists saw things.
Pusey writes that:
|Liang Qichao (1873-1927)|
One of Kang's most brilliant and influential students was Liang Qichao. Liang was directed in his thinking by Kang's epic brand of Social Darwinism, but he also read Yan Fu, and the original texts by Darwin and Spencer, firsthand.
Whereas Kang had been instrumental in the "Self-Strengthening" reform movement of the 1860s, Liang was the intellectual spearhead for the "Hundred Days" reform effort - a last forceful attempt to persuade the Qing to adopt a program of modernisation. He helped found the Society for the Study of Strength in order to draw up plans for change and, through the rapid spread of journals, he became one of the most famous journalists and public intellectuals of his time.
Liang was opposed to bringing about change through violent revolution. Under the influence of Social Darwinism, he, like Yan, tended to see all aspects of human behaviour as being jointly determined by the same factor: a 'rational' and progressive outlook (or the absence thereof) and the impetus this gave to efforts to unify society. Thus he saw all facets of human behaviour as being interconnected.
Here is how he described it in his 'Observations on a Trip to America':
1. Our character is that of clansmen rather than citizens...
2. We have a village mentality and not a national mentality...
If we were to adopt a democratic system of government now, it would be nothing less than committing national suicide... To put it in a word, the Chinese people of today can only be governed autocratically."
He drew substantive conclusions from observing the habits of Chinese abroad because, "Though these are small matters, they reflect bigger things." In so doing, he acutely foreshadowed the Kuomintang's (KMT) rationale for governing throughout the late 1920s and '30s. As Chiang Kai-Shek himself said, by way of explaining the logic behind his fascistic 'New Life Movement':
In this sense, it also reflected the form in which Social Darwinist ideas had first arrived and percolated through Chinese society: the idea that, as long as some societies were stronger than others, by virtue of their knowledge of science and their attitude towards continuous change, there would inevitably be conflict between nations, and that societies were only as strong as their members believed they could be.
In the first half of the twentieth-century, the focus of the Republican revolutionaries who were the heirs to this ideological legacy was on achieving national solidarity. As regards the Communists, a social group that represented a direct challenge to that goal, the Kuomintang's approach varied; Sun Yat-Sen tended towards conciliation, Chiang towards elimination. But both of these men were against the laissez-faire doctrines of Herbert Spencer and his followers, and favoured using the state to mould a shared culture of self-sacrifice.
Despite Dr. Sun's optimism, as Jonathan D. Spence argues in The Search for Modern China, the KMT were attacked throughout the 1920s by the Left, who feared that China was slipping into a state of lethargy; that all of the policies encouraging people to be self-conscious only fostered the rise of consumerism, and did nothing to combat the power of the provincial warlords who kept the nation divided.
In 1917, Mao read Kang's Da Tongshu and he later described it as a seminal moment in the formulation of his own ideas about how to organise society (particularly his strong ethos of voluntarism). However, the difference between the lessons he drew from it and those drawn by the Republican revolutionaries can be best illustrated by a quotation from Yan Fu:
In the above passage, one finds the germ of a fundamental tenet of 'Mao Zedong Thought': that the most effective way in which the state can effect genuine social unity is by periodically 'purging' society of its corrupting (i.e. divisive) elements through mass campaigns that turn individual members of the society against one another (cf. the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Cultural Revolution, etc.); only in this manner, by keeping every citizen on their toes, can that self-consciousness be instilled and maintained.
Meanwhile, evolutionary theories were helping to shape political battles in the Western world.
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines 'sociobiology' as:
It is a simple enough idea to grasp, but, for its critics, therein lies the rub: many regard it as a reductionist way of explaining human behaviour and the functioning of society, which ignores the importance of "levels" of explanation in making sense of social phenomena, and erodes individual freedom or moral responsibility through the application of genetic determinism.
'The Cultural Politics of the Sociobiology Debate', Neil Jumonville argues that:
The identity politics of the 'New Left' in the 1960s appears to have born out of the ideas of theorists of such as Herbert Marcuse that the mass consumer culture and 'post-industrial' society had enabled capitalism to politically neutralise the old industrial working-class; in that sense, it almost seems like a tactical manoeuvre that became a strategy.
In other words, they were aware that the pressures of commercial society could lead to increasing homogeneity, and that this did not necessarily represent a kind of social consensus about the best way to live - whether encoded in our genetic makeup or otherwise - but might merely reflect the temporary "hegemony" of particular social elites, brought about by historically specific power struggles and legitimating ideas.
"[Wilson's] supposedly objective, scientific approach in reality conceals political assumptions. Thus, we are presented with yet another defense of the status quo as an inevitable consequence of "human nature." [...] We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange."
And another renowned geneticist, Richard Dawkins, has repeatedly refuted any implication that the theory of gene-level natural selection lends support to the individualistic philosophy of the 'New Right.'
To a sociobiologist, the observable diversity - across place and time - in human behaviour and social practices does not lend support to postmodernism or multiculturalism, because, properly understood, it actually strengthens the idea of a "common human nature", and of a universal causal relationship between this and the workings of any given society:
Since different environmental factors can cause identical genotypes to express themselves differently as phenotypes, a certain amount of cultural, political and economic variation is only to be expected. But the crucial point here is that, for a sociobiologist, the amount of behavioural variation is always determined by the underlying genes, and the seemingly complex process of interaction between human beings and their environment can be explained entirely through the science of genetics:
Put slightly differently, on this account, we are neither strictly determined in all of our important behaviours by our genes, nor are we completely free (in the above sense of "freedom from nature") in any of the important areas of behaviour that we might think of as expressing our individual autonomy (in culture, in the arts, in politics, and so on); instead, we are constrained in all of these areas of life by the genetic probabilities we have each been allocated by natural selection:
Returning to China, we find a familiar story of the costly politicisation of science under Mao. In their article, 'Science as Ideology: The Rejection and Reception of Sociobiology in China', Li Jianhui and Hong Fan write that sociology and anthropology courses were effectively scrapped across all Chinese campuses after 1952 and replaced with courses on orthodox Marxism.
Although the manipulation of genetics for propaganda purposes by the CPC was not quite as heavy-handed as it had been in Stalinist Rusia, 'Lysenkoism' - the theory that the personal traits one acquires over a lifetime can be passed on to offspring via one's genes - was imported and generally regarded as the paradigm of "socialist" science.
When sociobiology appeared in China in the late 1970s, it was initially condemned by various Party organs and journals as "a new variety of Social Darwinism." The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) declared, through the Journal of Nature, that:
Although stated with more hyperbole, presumably because Chinese scientists were still anxious to toe the Party line in the early post-Mao period, these criticisms echoed the views being propounded by enemies of sociobiology in the West.
Appearing at the outset of China's "reform era", sociobiology became a weapon in the struggle by Chinese scientists to liberate themselves from political micro-management. But it has always been much more than that - it was seen as evidence for the new model of political economy China had to build in order to succeed in the world, and for the uniquely important role that scientists must play in planning and managing that model (see here for an example of how this logic played out in another scientific field).
In the autumn of 1979, the CAS held an important meeting on "the future of biology", which cleared the way for sociobiology to enter the mainstream of scientific research. According to Li and Hong, the scientists' intention was to replace the "dogmatic" voluntarism and idealism of 'Marxism-Mao-Zedong-Thought' with "a cogent, self-consistent methodological principle" which embodied the "strong power" of Western science:
Boshu Zhang has been one of the most articulate defenders of sociobiology's claims to speak with authority on political and economic issues. Boshu is a political philosopher who was steeped in Marxist theory throughout his early academic career. He was traumatised by the state's brutal response to the student protests in 1989, and the lessons he drew from that event then shaped his whole way of thinking about human nature.
In 1995 he wrote a book called Marxism and Human Sociobiology: The Perspective of Economic Reforms in China.
In his review of Marxism and Human Sociobiology, Arif Dirlik neatly summarises Boshu's counter-arguments to the Marxist view of human nature:
Boshu argues that Marxism is fundamentally flawed because humans labour is motivated by two forces: the biological drive to secure the necessities for life, and to secure the approval and cooperation of other human beings (a genetically-coded sociability also inherited as an evolutionary advantage). But the same social formation - capitalism - that has best enabled man to respond to the first motive by marshalling man's selfishness, has also weakened the second motive by undermining our "communal bonds."
|The Shanghai Stock Exchange|
This touches on a consistent theme in his writing: the argument that China's future prospects are overshadowed by its inability to reflect rationally on its past.
Here is a brief appearance in which he discusses his advocacy of gradual constitutional reform:
In 2010 he was expelled from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).
Shortly before this, he wrote an essay on why China cannot have "soft power" until it undertakes the reforms he outlined back in 1995. What I find so interesting about it is the way in which it echoes many of the principles of China's early Social Darwinists, who had also fought for reform of their state.
He criticises China's leaders for hiding behind a global form of multiculturalism, which he argues conceals the reality of a universal human nature that can provide the basis for a universal form of governance. Moreover, cultural relativism is holding back China from developing a high-tech economy underpinned by innovation, because it prevents scholars from studying China's past objectively and giving a thorough diagnosis of which traditional practices are retarding development (e.g. an overly specialised Higher Education sector, and earlier forms of learning):
The fundamental problem, Boshu says, is that "those holding office lack self-confidence". What they need is a new progressive mood of optimism that large-scale social challenges can be overcome - and the key to that is recognising that "true" soft power lies with the masses. He is echoing Yan Fu, who, according to Pusey, "wanted to destroy forever the idea that progress had been spoon-fed to mankind by near-supermen, for he wanted to prove that progress comes out of the people."
|Karl Polanyi (1886-1964)|
And once more, we find the clarion-call that a particular reform plan is essential for "enjoying with the citizens of other nations the latest achievements of human civilisation." When I read this, I am reminded of two things: one is Karl Polanyi's masterwork, The Great Transformation, with its criticisms of the reductionist "tradition of the classical economists, who attempted to base the law of the market on the alleged propensities of man in the state of nature".
The other is the entry for sociobiology provided by The Oxford Companion to Philosophy: "Sociobiology is often criticised on the grounds that its explanatory hypotheses are not easily verified, or that they reflect conventional, unexamined, or impossible assumptions, especially about natural patterns of behaviour for human beings."
In the twenty-first century, this debate has moved on. As Peter Augustine Lawler observes in The New Atlantis, the old argument between "social constructionism" (e.g. certain schools of Marxism) and sociobiology centred on the extent to which man's behaviour was determined by his natural history and its genetic legacy. As our knowledge of human biology has increased, we now have the prospect of radical applications of biotechnology:
The terms of the debate have shifted from whether man shapes nature more than nature shapes man, to what either of these perspectives implies for a future in which man will be able to shape his own nature in the most radical way possible. Sociobiologists like Wilson regard biotechnology as not only an unknown frontier, but an unknowable one, and one that represents historically unprecedented risks for the future of our species.
However, if sociobiology is wrong to claim that much of our complex social behaviour can be entirely explained by reference to our genetics, throughout human history and up to the present, then biotechnology need not be regarded as such a qualitatively new frontier that necessarily poses unknowable risks to the way we live.
Once again, it seems that the attitude we choose to adopt towards the future depends heavily on how we view the past...and whether we think such attitudes in and of themselves can make a real difference.