The Dialectics of Nature

by C. Desmond Greaves

Marxism Today, August, 1977

The question “Is nature dialectical” is imprecise. Anybody asked it would have to reply, “Do you mean as actually existing material nature that would be there whether we were in a position to ask questions about it or not, or do you mean as you order it and classify it in your mind?” Richard Gunn would not have got into a muddle with words if he had asked the second question at the start, and decided what he was discussing.

John Hoffman’s question could on the other hand probably be reformulated like this:

“Are scientists justified in attributing to Nature development in time, universal history, and within this are there discernible universal forms of motion and change, in particular those which Engels believed he had deduced from observations?”

I hope I will not be called upon to prove the first proposition. It is accepted in cosmology, astrophysics, astronomy, geology, climatology, biology, palaeontology and anthropology. Those who dispute it must think the earth is flat.

Universal Forms of Motion

But what of the universal forms of motion ? It is true that Engels used the language of Hegel, which in his hands is largely metaphorical. But it is not necessary to use metaphors, as we shall see, and we are quite entitled to present matters of substance in language suited to the present day.

Among the universal forms of motion and development the three following are regarded as preeminent.

1. The inter-penetration of opposites. The words ‘conflict’, ‘struggle’, ‘contradiction’ and ‘dialectic’ are metaphorical expressions, the first two relating to one aspect of the inter-penetration of opposites, that of separation, the others to the whole process of what Engels called ‘motion through opposites’.

2. The transformation of qualities. This is always accompanied by quantitative change, and usually preceded by it. In its simplest manifestation it expresses the polar relation of continuity and discontinuity.

3. The succession of transformations. Here qualities (special forms of motion) are replaced by others, the replacing qualities, to use the old language, ‘negating’ the originals are being ‘negated’ in their turn. This form of motion exists in examples ranging from simple reciprocation to the phases of stellar evolution.

Of the above the first is the fundamental. It should now be a matter of ascertaining what scientists have discovered. 

Examples in Nature

Let us first take a simple example which illustrates all three forms of motion and typifies their interconnection. There is nothing more familiar than the sun. It is a huge seething sphere of intensely hot hydrogen, a certain amount of which is daily condensed into helium, the loss of mass corresponding to the energy produced. Why does it not ‘go out’ or burn up in an instantaneous explosion ? Because of countervailing tendencies. Putting matters simply any increase in the rate of nuclear fusion leads to rising temperature which causes expansion, increased radiation and consequent fall in the rate. This is motion by opposites. A steady state is maintained by constant reversals. The way the periodic motion effects the release of the energy produced reminds one of the way the fluctuations of price above and below value act as means by which value is expressed.

But though this system is broadly speaking ‘selfregulating’ it is not cyclic. After each change the ratio of helium to hydrogen has risen. When the quantity of hydrogen falls to a critical figure, the sun will no longer shine as it has for four thousand million years. It will begin to cool. But then it will contract under the influence of gravitation. The temperature will rise again reaching higher and higher levels until it reaches another critical figure, that at which the fusion of helium into heavier elements becomes possible. This prognosis has been derived from the examination of other stars which are in various stages of development. 

Now what is the precondition of these complex processes? It is the polarity of matter and energy. These are interpenetrating opposites, inseparable, interconvertible at least to a degree, yet always distinct. And that each always preserves an element of the other is shown by the gravitational deflection of radiation, and the increase of mass with velocity.

Apparently self-regulating systems illustrate Engels’ dictum that rest is a special case of motion. Similar phenomena are visible in the orbits of celestial objects, the constant composition of the atmosphere, the carbon and nitrogen cycles within the biosphere and in the balance of natural populations. More generally the interpenetration of opposites is seen in the two-fold nature of light (a form of the polarity between matter and energy), in the behaviour of electrically charged particles; in magnetism; in a hundred and one examples drawn from chemistry (ions, dipoles, the phenomena of dissimilation and disproportionation); in genetics non-protein ribonucleic acids ensure the reproductive stability of proteins; development and differentiation arise from the activation and de-activation of genes; in brain physiology regular complex behaviour is derived from the excitation and inhibition of conditioned reflexes. Throughout the entire range of science the principle holds, most particularly in problems which appeared intractable to the scientists of the nineteenth century. 

Transformation of Qualities

That Engels was right in thinking the transformation of qualities the foundation of scientific measurement can be seen from a glance at the Handbook of Physics and Chemistry, with its thousands of pages devoted to critical values, melting points, boiling points, solubilities, critical temperatures above which gases cannot be liquefied, elastic constants and many others, all answering the question every cook asks, “What quantity is required to obtain this quality?” Another example is radioactivity. Heavy elements are transmuted into lead by discontinuous emissions. In the periodic table the lanthanum and actinium contractions, each introducing a series of elements with ill-defined but similar chemical properties, illustrate the relation between number and geometry and show periodicity within periodicity. In quantum mechanics even energy is rendered atomic, an illustration of the discontinuous within the continuous.

There can be spectacular consequences. It has been calculated that the mass of the planet Jupiter is not far off that necessary to initiate nuclear fusion. It is thus what might term a quantitative accident that the sun is not a double star and life impossible on an inner planet. In the laboratory, lines of research often involve seeking the crucial discontinuity. Quite recently workers on the superconductivity of liquid helium confirmed the prediction made thirty years ago by a Soviet physicist that particles moving at above a critical value in superconducting helium would suffer resistance. 

Negation of Negation

The succession of qualities, or negation of negations, has been exemplified, but it may be useful to illustrate its universality. In climatology there are recognised glacial and interglacial periods as if the seasons were re-enacted on a grand scale; in geophysics are recognised periods of intense orogeny separated by epochs of quiet erosion only broken by earthquakes; there are the periodic reversals of the polarity of terrestrial magnetism. In biology there is the alternation of generations, meiosis followed by the fusion of gametes. There is the phenomenon of ‘convergence’ where animal and plant phyla recover functions they have long lost, as whales returned to a maritime existence adapting mammalian morphology to a life like that of a fish; Zostera marina lives in the sea and masquerades as seaweed until you see its greenish flowers. In the history of man we have a creature that once walked the ground, then lived in the trees, and finally returned to the ground with something in him that he got from the trees! 

In the process by which fossil vegetable matter progressively approximates to carbon, the hydrogen/ oxygen ratio rises to a maximum around the composition of the coking coals so important in the history of metallurgy, and then falls as the coal is converted into anthracite. Thirty years ago it was suggested that there were marked discontinuities in this process, but in this case I am not convinced, though in the individual molecules which polymerise there must be. I give the example to show that it is possible to be both mistaken and uncertain. 

For there are many ways of ‘negating’. Richard Gunn, referring to Engels’ example from algebra, asks ‘why multiplication?’ This is a reasonable question. I am rather inclined to suspect Engels of a little mathematical slip, and that he may have intended his series to run 1, -a, a2. It could then continue -a3, a4, -a5 and so on. The negating factor would then introduce a new quality “a” which would then display its movement. But in any case the mode of negation depends on the specific motion and the history of the system. Thus, confining ourselves to simple ‘negation’, an electron and a proton can according to circumstances, produce either an atom or a neutron, whereas an electron and a positron mutually annihilate each other and confer energy on surrounding matter. But in the latter case the earlier part of the cycle involved the expenditure of energy in producing the positron. 

Nature the Ultimate Determinant

The so-called ‘black holes’ are said to be solar bodies so dense that the mass of the sun could be compressed into a sphere a few miles across. It was thought that everything near would be sucked in, though there was anything but a hole. The general aspect of the universe is of repulsion, all the largest systems flying apart. The ‘black hole’ is thus the supreme negation of the predominant aspect of the universe. Quite recently it has been shown that a ‘black hole’ cannot go on indefinitely gobbling up matter and converting it into ‘neutron jelly’. A part is still regularly converted into energy. At a certain point there must come an explosion of scarcely conceivable magnitude. Some of these may have been observed. 

Now through technology men avail themselves of forms of motion already existing in nature. No machine was ever constructed that did not rely on action and reaction. For computers decimals have to be transcribed as duals. Devices for maintaining a steady state incorporating countervailing tendencies, range from the humble centrifugal governor through the thermostat and programme controller to the sophisticated constructions used to keep space-craft on their path. Machines also rely on quantitative regulation of the quality of motion, by means for example of the pawl or the cam. Automation should be a happy hunting ground for dialecticians. And of course there can be artificial catastrophes, made by locking up in matter more energy than it can comfortably hold. The elements composing nitroglycerine can be breathed in the air. Arrange them in the right way, and supply the necessary energy, and you have the active principle of dynamite, a quick path to the negation of negation, when the original constituents can float on a higher plane. 

Natural Action

In these examples we see men making use of nature’s specific modes of action for their own purposes, just as they breed animals. But nature is always the ultimate determinant, dictating the means and the limits. For the machines wear out, the devices go wrong, stale dynamite goes off when it shouldn’t, and the animals as well as their owners die. 

If I had space I would push beyond technology into the sphere of art and mathematics where Engels held that motion through opposites also held. We will just open the door. In the product of artistic labour, where a thing and the representation of something else, are combined in the one object, the regularities of the primary material always hold. In the same way the brain does not abrogate the (to it) ‘laws’ of physics and chemistry by thinking. The substance of sculpture is still perishable stone or corrosive metal, that of the drama mortal men. In music the diatonic scale from which the chromatic is derived, is constructed from a single fundamental by placing its harmonics in order of frequency and sounding them as secondary fundamentals. Here is a polarity between a linear form of motion representing the human element and an exponential one representing the natural. The parabolic trajectory of a missile involves similar components, and indeed one could play a game of taking the formulae of applied mathematics and showing the human requirement linked to the natural necessity. We are approaching familiar ground—Marx’s analysis of the movement of that social product the commodity.

I hope I have demonstrated all three modes of ‘motion by opposites’ in nature and in human action upon nature. Every practising scientist could give me back a hundred examples for my one. It remains however to show that human action is a special case of natural action. Natural action obviously preceded the other in time. What then could human action be derived from unless it sprang like Athene from the brain of Zeus ? The matter is best approached historically, beginning with the origin of life.

The classical work on this subject is Oparin’s. The generally accepted scientific opinion is that life originated from non-living matter as a result of the interaction of compounds of the lighter non-metals in the primaeval ocean. From an energetic point of view its co-ordinates are oxidation and reduction, forms of the movement of electrons. With the appearance after millions of years of the first self-reproductive cells began the process which was ultimately to distinguish ‘man’ from ‘nature’. 

Self-reproduction is of course a special form of self-regulation in which the ‘negation of negation’ is more apparent, for example when we see the progress of the race achieved through individuals that die. Despite its distinctness the organism lives in a constant reciprocal relation with its environment. One part of nature has become marked off from another. Nothing has escaped from nature, which resembles heaven in one thing, that once you get in you can’t get out! 

The distinct living part of nature is distinguished from the rest by its special form of motion. The reciprocity can lead to spectacular consequences. When the appearance of chlorophyll made possible the fixation of carbon dioxide, the atmosphere was completely transformed from a mixture of hydrides into a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen. This change could have taken place in the space of a few thousand years. It enlarged the biosphere a hundred fold and was a greater feat than was performed by all human technology, through the work of poor dumb protista. 

Those organisms that remained incapable of photosynthesis were enabled to avail themselves of it by adding a second stage oxidation process to their existing system of glycolysis. Life had at its disposal a vast new reservoir of energy. But the process of adaptation to it involved a process protracted over millions of years and one that is not yet complete. For example, very few plants can absorb atmospheric nitrogen though they require it for their protein metabolism, and remedying this deficiency has been proposed as one of the tasks of •genetic engineering’. The evolution of multicellular organisms of increasing complexity demands the evolution of a genetic system, mediated by molecules shaped like knotted ropes a mile long, while those capable of independent motion, that is to say animals as opposed to plants, evolved a nervous system, mediated by elongated cells radiating from a centre, the brain, to the extremities of the body where it abuts on its environment.

The nervous system evolved the reflex, the brain the conditioned reflex; in the large brains of the highest animals the phenomenon of consciousness arises from the multiplicity and complexity of conditioned reflexes, culminating in what Pavlov called the ‘reflex of purpose’ which gives the illusion of ‘free will’ and sets Richard Gunn talking about teleology. In the evolution of man the reflex of purpose made possible primitive co-operation, and under these conditions the co-ordination of purposes came to be achieved by communication through speech and hearing (that the tongue is of small use without the ear is often forgotten). All these changes increase the self-regulation of the organism, but simultaneously increase its responsiveness to its environment. 

Human and Natural Action

The correspondence between the movement of the organism and that of its environment was ensured through natural selection. A faulty permeability in a cell wall, a misplaced chromosome, a wrong reflex, a faulty conditioning, even the misunderstanding of an interjection or imperative, may carry the penalty of non-reproduction. Where these deficiencies are heritable the genes that cause them are automatically diminished in number. There is no reason to doubt the operation of natural selection between the most primitive human communities, and this is implied in Engels’ brilliant study of the role of labour in the evolution from ape to man. 

It is known of course that tools and fire were available to species of men which preceded the ‘homo’ who classified himself ‘sapiens’. The correspondence of human action to natural action is thus a product of natural selection and has been constantly retained at the level of technology, and made increasingly conscious through science. The human animal strode on to the stage of history with all the equipment necessary to bring human consciousness into general correspondence with the world of nature of which he remained a part. It is not a matter of passive ‘reflection’ but of a dynamic evolution over long ages. The human brain was never tabula rasa, either in the individual or the race, and the simplest concepts are the product of long evolution involving practice as well as theory. 

The reciprocal relation between man and nature has been constantly extended and diversified through developing means of production. The needs of production placed a premium on correspondence between human and natural action. But human control of human society is at the mercy of productive relations. To this day the greater part of the world regulates production through the market. One asks to what extent in effect it regulates it at all. The separation of mental from physical labour has tended to imprison the thinker within the world of social relations. And philosophy is thereby entwined with ideology. 

The recognition by Engels (and I find it hard to believe that his opinion was not endorsed by Marx in view of the importance of the issue) of objective dialectics in nature, was part of the process (a practical one to be mediated by politics in the broad sense) of putting an end to ideology and enabling men to grasp their position, as the Communist Manifesto put it, with their own sober senses. And there is a sense in which it is not romantic to speak of ending the contradiction between man and nature, if it is understood as resulting from the ending of all those forms of socially generated mystification which prevent the full recognition by man of his reciprocal relations with nature. 

A Concluding Fantasy

I have not dealt polemically with Richard Gunn’s arguments, preferring to attempt a scientific defence of Engels’ position. I do not think that it is possible to discuss this subject adequately without taking into account the received position of science, which I cannot expect will alter, whether my illustrations are well or indifferently chosen. Modern science takes for granted ‘motion through opposites’. It must be twenty years since I discussed with the late Emile Burns the desirability of publishing the modern evidence for Engels’ objective dialectics of nature. He told me that all the scientists he discussed the matter with replied that dialectics were so much a part of science that it would be supererogatory. But of course you cannot find out anything new by dialectics alone. They can give warnings of what to look for, and sometimes save a lost journey. 

Allow me a little concluding fantasy. Suppose despite all efforts to the contrary plutonium effluence destroyed life on earth. The oxygen in the atmosphere would last about three thousand years. An imaginary observer somewhere in space would watch the earth’s spectrum gradually change, and realising something was up, investigate. He might conclude that there were still signs that the earth’s primary atmosphere consisted of hydrides, but that organisms has arisen which excreted oxygen, and that this oxygen nourished other organisms. All organisms tended to grow more complex. Finally at a certain point an organism had evolved which excreted poison that killed itself and all the others. And then the atmosphere changed slowly back, but not exactly to what it had been. Looked at from the point of view of society this would be the penalty for forgetting that man was part of nature. 

But to the observer in space it would be an example of—the dialectics of nature! Vae incredentibus, Mr. Gunn! For the dialectics of nature will get YOU, if you don’t watch out!