LettersTheory & Practice

Extrapolation, not Acceleration

We hoped; we waited for the day

The state would wither clean away,

Expecting the Millennium

That theory promised us would come:

It didn’t…

W. H. Auden, New Year Letter, 1941

It would appear that in the twenty-first century, we should probably relinquish a faith in a force external to capital, even if generated by it, that could negate it and raise it up into another form. It would appear rather imprudent also to rely on some faith in an acceleration of capital toward some new, even inhuman form, given that it clearly doesn’t do well in addressing the limits to its own conditions of existence.

Perhaps one might imagine, then, a way of thinking that is neither a negation or an acceleration, but rather an extrapolation from what we know, and what we can actually do, about forms of organization. It may take some time to elaborate what such an extrapolative theory and practice might look like. As a modest contribution, I offer this synthetic account of the thought of Joseph Needham, extracted from his essays of the late 30s, collected in Time, The Refreshing River (Allen & Unwin, 1943). (For those who would like a more general introduction to Needham’s remarkable work and life, see here.)

A strikingly contemporary aspect of Joseph Needham’s work and thought is that he comes very close to a kind of epistemological pluralism, where different kinds of knowledge might co-exist, each with its own aims, methods and criteria. Initially he seems to have thought of different modes of knowledge as separate but parallel. Later, his thought turns to the problem, not of their synthesis, but of their relation to each other. He remained skeptical of any way of knowing that claims to be the royal road to knowledge or total worldview. Like the nineteenth century biologist Ernst Haeckel, he remained “a prowler, an explorer, among ideas.” (8)

He took an active interest in the worlds of science, religion, philosophy, history and art. He was critical in each domain of those tendencies which tended to set each up as not only separate butb sovereign over the others. For example he was opposed to logical positivism in philosophy, which reduced philosophy to a formal exercise willfully ignorant of history and art, yet with the ambition of legislating for the sciences. But he was equally opposed to that tendency in literature represented for him by D. H. Lawrence that belittled the scientific worldview and put irrationalism in command. In each mode of knowledge what was of value was that which supported both autonomy and communion with other modes.

In the sciences, this raised problems of both theory and practice. While himself almost of that class of gentleman-scientist of independent means, a type that goes back at least as far as Robert Boyle, Needham saw clearly that its days were numbered. The model for a new kind of practice was JBS Haldane, who was by class origins a gentleman, and certainly a distinguished scientist, but who was also trying to carve out a space for the scientist as a new kind of citizen.

For Needham, this was a matter of reviving the claims of the scientists of Boyle’s era that their work would, even if indirectly, be a contribution to the commonwealth, but beyond better ways to make “textiles and cheese.” (41) As such, science could even have elements of social practice that could suggest a model for others.

This was a refusal of the self-understanding of the scientist as pursuing knowledge for its own sake, a ‘modest witness’ to pure discovery. Yet at the same time it resists reducing science to a social function not of its own making. Needham: “The development of scientific thought, proceeding according to its own inner logic, and free to direct its attention to whatever facts may seen relevant, is the only guarantee that discoveries of fundamental importance to humanity will be made.” (107) For Needham this was necessary but not sufficient for the modern citizen-scientist.

Needham: “Science is a society within a society.” (96) He almost goes as far as JD Bernal, who claimed that science is communism. Rather, from CH Waddington he took the idea that science is a way of resolving the problem of authority and freedom. A testable, repeatable knowledge is the only basis on which authority ought to rest in science, and yet there is still authority. Freedom is the knowledge of necessity; science is the means of knowing, not with absolute certainty but with some authority, what the contours of necessity might be.

Scientists step into history and politics as soon as they start to see their work in a larger context. A kind of praxis specific to the scientific world might be to draw attention to the collective aspect of science as practice and connect it to a wider world. “A concentration on scientific experience alone gives you the individualistic researcher, inapt for team-work and bent on priority, the easy prey of all the reactionary social forces…” (25) Scientists have to be encouraged to understand both the social dimension of science itself and its connection to other modes of social experience and struggle.

Interestingly, Needham sees the problems of thinking science and religion as having a certain parallel. It’s a question of locating their objectives in space and time. Science is worldly, a social practice. Needham: “scientific discoveries are not made by an inexplicable succession of demiurges sent to us by Heaven…” (45) Science is rather a social practice of knowing with a self-legitimating authority, based on open communication of results. Needham opposed this to the tendency to ‘spiritualize’ the essence of science as mathematics. “Here we substitute for the kingdom-concept of mysticism a kingdom-concept of mathematics, equally sterile with respect to human welfare, equally satisfactory to the powers of the world.” (45)

Science ought not to substitute for religious feeling. It can’t be a total worldview. A “scientific opium’” would not be awake to the “tragic side of life” (67) Science has a purpose in eliminating unnecessary suffering, but some residue of suffering remains as an unavoidable experience of life. In sum: “Science is autonomous in that certain modes of reasoning are entirely foreign to it, and ethically neutral in that natural phenomena are unaffected by our desires. They represent what is, irrespective of what we think ought to be. But science does not exist in a vacuum. It is essentially a product of society, and the communism of its co-operating observers is but a prefiguration of that economic and social solidarity which humanity is destined to achieve.” (106)

Science ought to have a relation of neither domination nor subservience to philosophy. The founders of modern science were not indifferent to philosophy, and indeed sometimes thought of themselves as ‘natural philosophers.’ Needham does not propose a governing philosophy for science, however, even if he thinks some philosophies are more appropriate than others. “In the end we may say that the progress of a branch of natural science such as embryology depends on a delicate balance of three things; speculative thought, accurate observation, and controlled experiment.” (153)

Too much observation or experiment can be a problem, as findings pile up and receive merely a formal classification or ad hoc theoretical frame. But theory has its dangers too. “Speculative thought, in particular, has shown a tendency to crystalize too readily into doctrines which, by way of attachment to some philosophical or theological issue, live a longer life than they deserve.” (153) There is however no avoiding philosophies, as scientists have them whether they know it or not. “But if one must have a philosophy, let it be a good one, congruent with the scientist’s experience of nature.” (112)

As a young scientist Needham had been something of a follower of Ernst Mach. Needham wanted to clear away defunct philosophies within science, particularly vitalism, and limit philosophical claims to adequate descriptions of what the apparatus of experiment and observation showed. But with that negative task achieved, at least in his own thinking, he moved away from Mach and the kind of positivism to which his thought might lend itself.

Mach did not really allow Needham to bring into relation the various parts of his thought and action in different domains. In biology, Mach helped Needham dispense with vitalism, and its magical causes of ‘life’, and also to reject mechanistic metaphors for understanding biological form and process. His ‘organicism’ insisted like vitalism that living forms had a specific level of organization, but even more strongly insisted, in line with the mechanists, that these distinctive biological forms and processes could all be studied with scientific methods. “Organization is not inscrutable.” (33) It can be measured and modeled. God or His avatars were not lurking there, as tended to be the case with vitalist thinkers.

But Needham felt the need for a more speculative mode of thought, between forms of knowledge, that Mach appeared not to allow. His interest turned to the relation between scale of organization, and hence to a renewed interest in what passes between the kinds of knowledge specific to each organizational form. Needham: “… every level of organization has its own regularities and principles, not reducible to those appropriate to lower levels of organization, nor applicable to higher levels, but at the same time in no way inscrutable or immune from scientific analysis and comprehension.” (18)

This had two consequences of the rest of his thought. Perhaps other scales or forms of organization, in the social and historical domain for example, could be thought as having their own principles of organization that could be empirically studied. Perhaps organicism could be extended to other scales. But this would not be a matter of reducing the social to the biological, any more than the biological could be reduced to chemistry or physics. So on the one hand organicism suggested a general theory of organization, but one where the principles of organization at each ‘scale’ or ‘level’ were specific to it. Hence thought about each form would have a form specific to it too.

Needham’s social and historical organicism had several sources. One was the Epicurian philosophers of the ancient world. “In the modern world, Epicurus and Lucretius have come into their own.” (71) Interestingly, he seems to have read Lucretius not just as an atomist, but of thinking relations among atoms as well. He did not see in atomism a prototype for bourgeois individualism. “All things have come into being by way of an eternal battle between attraction and repulsion, aggregation and disaggregation, in which the victories of aggregation, though decisive, are never absolutely complete; remnants of the defeated remaining as essential elements of the new level of organization. Thus are the Furies conducted to their caves under the Acropolis; and the Dragons incorporated into the Civil Service.” (39)

Another was a deepening of his interest in Marx, Engels and Lenin, particularly the latter’s attack on the followers of Mach such as the Marxist thinker Bogdanov, in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. With Lenin and against Mach and Bogdanov, Needham wanted to make stronger claims about what can be known of the world beyond what the apparatus of science and everyday sensation can tell us.

Following Lenin, Needham sees the Machists as confusing the binary of the absolute versus the relative with that of the objective and subjective. Scientific truth is relative and not absolute, but it is objective and not subjective. Scientific truth is relative in that the science of a given age can advance of that of its past but does not ever become a conclusive, absolute knowledge. It is objective in that it refers to a real, material world independent of subjective values or preferences. Needham’s acceptance of Lenin’s version of a Marxist theory of science however had the unintended side-effect of drawing attention away from the means by which scientific knowledge is produced, and towards a somewhat abstract, metaphysical notion of the real, material world.

Still, Needham’s Marxism appears more as an ethics and a politics than an ontology. As a practicing scientist, he knows that philosophy no less than science deals with real external events only through the “optic glass” of human limitation. (22) His thought rarely hardens into dialectical materialist dogma, or diamat. Rather, Marxism offers him a language for thinking between domains of knowledge, a practice which, unknown to Needham, was actually closer to that of the Machist-Marxist Alexander Bogdanov than to Lenin, his nemesis.

Rather than a dogmatic metaphysics of the real, Marxism for Needham is just one example of a practical, engaged, open-ended theory and practice. Needham: “No more shall we take Gautama and Plato for our guide, but rather those determined men who from Confucius to Marx were vehicles of the evolutionary process, working through them to implement the Promise occluded in the very beginning of our world.” (27) Or as he puts it even more telegraphically: “If christian theology is one grandmother of communism, confucian philosophy is the other.” (140) This might seem like a strange parallel. The essential point for Needham is a further evolution in his taking of his distance from those who see the resolution of contradictions happening only in some other world. Both the spiritual and the political are worldly.

For Marx, contradictions to be resolved in this world, although never finally. “Sir Thomas Browne was wrong; ‘the great Mutations of the world’ are not yet all acted, and time will not be too short for the development of human society that is to come.” (15) Needham thinks this a generalization that can hold for different levels, across the natural and social worlds. “We cannot consider nature otherwise than as a series of levels of organization, a series of dialectical syntheses.” (15)

This is a strange kind of ‘dialectics’. Needham’s thought is actually monist: there is one substance, even if there are plural forms in which it is organized. There is a continuity running from the natural and social worlds, and hence from knowledge of one to the other. “Karl Marx and Frederick Engels have adumbrated the idea of levels of organization in setting the Hegelian dialectic actually within evolving nature.” (31, emph. added) Consciousness does not confront nature from without. ‘Dialectic’ in Needham’s sense refers to the nesting of levels of organization and their relation.

Dialectic in a more traditional sense is for Needham connected to a yet more traditional sense of it, as dialogue: “dialectical thinking is essentially social thinking within the one mind” (15) Needham’s is not a dualistic dialectic of class against class or of social labor against nature. It is not the dialectic of either Lukacs or Engels. The dialectic strictly speaking applies only to the clash of ideas, but dialectic in the sense of organizational thought is not limited to the social realm. What Needham takes from the Marxist tradition is more a sense of continuous, nested, levels of organization, which extends from the biological to the social.

In a way that is actually closer to the Machism of Bogdanov than to the dialectical materialism of Lenin, Needham acknowledges that idealist thought, particularly of the dialectical variety, is a kind of transposition into thought of the ‘higher’ levels of social activity. But it is not derived from, or applicable to, the kinds of organized activity of the sciences. Mechanical materialism was however not much of an alternative. As Engels’ showed, it did not deal with change, it left too much room for idealism ‘above’, and it thought existing physics to be account of matter enough and applicable to everything. Needham: “But the essence of dialectical materialism… is the acceptance of the existence of diverse levels of complexity and organization, and the interpretation of them as successive stages of a world-process the nature of which is synthetic or dialectical.” (122)

A third source for Needham’s organicist theory, beside Epicurus and Marx, emerged out of his collaborations with the Theoretical Biology Club, particularly Joseph Woodger who he read in parallel to the pioneering systems theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. These were “perhaps the most technically well-informed manifestation of a great movement of modern thought which sought to base a philosophical world-view on ideas originating from biology rather than from classical physics.” (184)

In Needham there is however always a certain stepping back from a kind of scientific Platonism of Woodger, who wanted to abstract all phenomena back to ideal, and now usually mathematical, forms. While Needham’s association with Woodger was short-lived, he corresponded with Bertalanffy for many years – a topic for further investigation. In sum, Needham’s thought by the end of the thirties was both dialectical and materialism if not exactly orthodox ‘diamat’ of the official kind. It was for him “the theory of the nature of transformations and the origins of the qualitatively new.” (244)

Needham’s turn to Marxism did not, however, end his Anglo-Catholic faith. Needham kept his philosophy and theology relatively separate. The latter had a different standard for a well-formed statement. “Theology has to accept hypotheses for which there is no positive evidence, because in a system so unlikely as the universe, of which there is only one, no comparisons can be made by which to test the credibility of anything.” (64)

Needham offers an interestingly structuralist account of christianities, which divides them into four broad types, depending on how they imagine the Regnum Dei, or Kingdom of God, along the two axes of space and time. The Kingdom of God could be here and now (the power of the church), it could be here but not yet (the apocalypse), it could be now but not here (the ideal realm of the neo-Platonists) or it could be not here and not yet (the unearthly reign of God after the last judgment).

The second (here but not yet) he took to be the original impulse of the Christians. The first (here and now) was an expression of the church at the height of its worldly power. The third and fourth begin, as Simon Critchley might say, in disappointment, with the failure of the second coming to arrive, or the failure of actual church power to live up to its own beliefs. But for Needham, thought does not begin in disappointment but rather in boredom with such consolations. The task of religious thought is to restart the mission of the early christians for a this-worldly (here but not yet) Regnum Dei of justice and freedom to come. In neither science nor religion was Needham otherworldly. He was not one of those scientific ascetics in his lab, and nor was he a monk in his cell.

Interestingly, he thought of communism as a certain kind of acceleration, rather than the negation, of christian activism. The relation between them is perhaps best described with a term Needham uses very occasionally: extrapolation. Aside from its technical meanings, extrapolation could be a speculative extending or expanding from the known toward the unknown. If ideology works by interpolating, or interiorizing within the subject what its role as a bearer of social relations should be, extrapolation is something else. Something like an externalizing of a quite other shared emotion. Needham’s technique, in short is to extrapolate from one knowledge domain toward those outside it; and, on another level, to extrapolate from all of those heterogeneous forms of thought towards a realizable future form of life.

This is the sense in which he reads communism as an extrapolation from the here but not yet Kingdom of God of the early christian radicals. “Marx and Engels would have been more acceptable to the martyrs and the Father than the comfortable 19th century theologians contemporary with them, seeking to excuse and support the phenomenon of class oppression.” (53) Communism is an ethical philosophy for the era, because Christian theology gave up that mission. “There is a definite affinity between the classless world-state with its ordered production and racial equality, and the Regnum Dei, the genuine new world order, the christian ideal of comradeship and social justice.” (33)

Moreover, “there is a natural affinity between millenarianism and evolutionary naturalism” (240) Both take the ‘here but not yet’ form of thought. There is no other-worldly form or idea outside of the material world. The possibilities of both natural and social change are imminent in them. There may even be a way for God to occupy historical materialist thought, after the manner of Spinoza. (55) It is not a matter however of impersonal natural and social forces. “But must we not admit the part which heroic virtue plays in human evolution?” (34) There is a role in Needham’s social thought for the exceptional.

Even were the revolution to succeed, and communism realized, even such a just society would still have “cosmic oppression” or “creatureliness” that religion would best address. (68) Needham remained, for all that, an Anglo-Catholic, even if in some things a rather atypical one. “… we shall continue those ancient rites which still have meaning for us, while nevertheless being on the best of terms with the clergy and people of the New Dispensation.” (58) Which might be a typical statement of an accommodating Anglo-Catholic toward more Protestant forms of faith, only Needham is referring to communism.

As it turned out, he might not have been wrong in feeling that the radical strain within christianity had more staying power than its communist variant. “Future communist Clements of Alexandria will have the task of codifying the preparatio evangelica of the christian centuries.” (55) Whatever was of value in the century of communism may be absorbed, where it prevails, into radical christianity, rather than the other way around. In Needham’s time, however, it was the communists who had a sense that oppression is unholy – and who were persecuted for it.

Curiously, Needham thought the Marxism of the east was in some respects a modern version of the christian activist politics of the west. “Eastern theology was rhetorical in form and based on philosophy; western theology was logical in form and based on law. The Byzantine divine succeeded to the place of the Greek sophist; the Latin divine to the place of the Roman advocate.” (68) The Eastern church did less to control economic activity. After Byzantium, this tradition headed further east to the Russian church. Needham thought that this is why the Russian revolutionaries did not appeal to a Christian tradition, which was too identified with exploitation of the common people.

“But will not christian feeling be succeeded by another form of numinous feeling; a new development of social emotions?” (59, emph. added) Needham thought the best expression of such social emotion in his time had come from the poets, Day Lewis and in particular Auden, who he quoted frequently. Poetry was a place where various elements of Needham’s worldview could coexist without necessarily being synthesized into a consistent dogma. Particularly in the poetry of Auden, he found his combination of “… the evolutionary background, the materialist view of human history, the task of Eros in social progress, the revolutionary belief in the future world of justice and comradeship.” (25) Unlike Auden, Needham didn’t break faith with the social emotion that welled up in the 1930s.

Needham did not oppose the ancients to the moderns but saw them as a continuum. Perhaps cinema could become a new mode of expression of social emotion, one that, like church used several media in a ritual gathering. His examples are Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Grierson’s Night Mail, which includes a poem by Auden, and René Clair’s A Nous la Liberté, with its extraordinary closing scenes of the former factory workers enjoying a life of leisure after the automation of their factory has freed them from wage labor.

Grace is only transmitted by a material object, and perhaps cinema could be its vehicle. Grace, is not something otherworldly in Needham. It is immanent in the present. Faith is a matter of believing that social evolution is possible. “We would be foolish to put ourselves in the position of the devil, who was defined by the patristic writer, Hippolytus, as… he who resists the world-process.” (247) Again, there’s no dialectic in Needham in the sense of an external force of negation. Rather, it is all about whether it is possible to extrapolate from existing forms of organization what the next one could become.

Leave it to Needham the biologist to make this observation, so close in spirit to Bogdanov: “It was with profound insight that the pioneers of the worker’s movement chose the color of blood for the banner of world community and solidarity, for the blood of animals and men is, after all, the internal medium which assures the co-operation of all the cells in that society of cells which is the body.” (136) Needham could be considered a pioneering thinker of what a radical and popular ‘biopolitics’ could be. He had tried to stick to the biology, but the politics kept interrupting. He became one of the pioneers of the ‘social relations of science’ movement among scientists, that largely forgotten Marxist project that prefigures, but is all but forgotten, by the science studies of the late twentieth century.

Needham parted company from other Marxist scientists of the ‘social relations of science’ movement in seeing scientific socialism as necessary but not sufficient. He was skeptical about science as “eupeptic opium,” which while improving the social metabolism left a good deal else unaddressed. Politics is more a question of an advanced ethics realized.

In a capitalist society that thought of itself as a chaotic swirl of individualistic atoms, ethics was the valency bonds that held them together. “From this point of view, the bonds of love and comradeship in human society are analogous to the various forces which hold particles together at the colloidal, crystalline, molecular, and even sub-atomic levels of organization.” (56) The principle of such a political ethics would be this: “The good is that which contributes most to the social solidarity of organisms having the high degree of organization which human beings do in fact have.” (56)

This could veer towards a somewhat technocrat vision. “For marxism, the origin of evil, like the ultimate origin of everything else is, I suppose, inscrutable, and the problem of evil is not a problem of fixing the responsibility on some one, some being, or some constituent of the universe, but a problem of biological engineering.” (131) But Needham’s understanding of ‘biological engineering’ is not mechanistic. It does not think of life as something to be instrumentalized.

He explicitly warns against “a ruthlessness derived from the very statistical character of the scientific method itself.” (70) Even socialism, as he warns in a dark and prescient moment, could use a technical rationality against the misfit and the deviant in the name of some alleged higher good. “There is no need for marxists to follow the example of those many unchristian christians who manned the Inquisition…” – even if their criteria appear more numerical than theological. (70)

There is however a lively sense of the politics of technology in Needham. He draws up a detailed chart with a continuum of beneficial to harmful forms of human machine interaction. Already in the thirties he was groping for something like a cyborg politics later developed by Donna Haraway, one of his finest interpreters. “Few people yet realize the marvels of self-acting productive machinery…” or its dangers. (133)

What’s interesting about Needham is his attempt to think, at the same time, and not necessarily as things opposed, techne and the numinous. Needham borrowed the latter concept from Rudolf Otto, and for Needham it seems to mean a kind of religious experience, where an extreme otherness appears, one which both attracts and compels, but which is not transcendent. The grace that it compels is immediate and worldly, here and now.

The sense of the numinous is relative and not absolute; subjective and not objective. “The numinous shifts as the economic possibilities open out during human social evolution. Those who are ahead of their time are those who visualize the new possibilities and are able to divine the new position of the numinous.” (127) The religious vocation points not upward but forward, and is grounded in real-historical situations. The religious does not determine a politics, but perhaps one can be extrapolated from a sense of the numinous.

The situation in which the experience of the numinous is situated can open up onto a much larger vista, in both spatial and temporal horizons. “Of a famous Edwardian statesman it was said that he approached politics with the air of one who remembered that there had once been an ice age and that it was very likely there would be another. He was unnecessarily chilly. In the light of biology and sociology, those who remember that there were once autotrophic bacteria and that there will some day be a co-operative commonwealth of humanity, are better politicians.” (236) Here the numinous points forward also from a situatedness in a certain kind of scientific knowledge as well as a given stage of human development.

This could seem rather cosmic, but Needham directly connected the everyday business of activism with this larger orientation in both scientific and religious thought. “However fascists may laugh, there is something divine about a committee.” (14) He was certainly on plenty of them. His pastor, Conrad Noel, apparently joked that the universe is ruled by committee – the holy trinity. Very immediate and local forms of organizing coexist in Needham with some very different scales of thought and action.

To put it somewhat crudely, Needham extrapolated a speculative worldview out of biology, politics and religion using some conceptual tools borrowed from philosophy. Biology provided the deep history, encompassing the whole of the evolution of life. Religion was a way of pointing forward, generating the will toward yet more elaborations of organizational form. Politics was the mediating practice where past met present and insisted on an organizational ethics.

What remains to be considered is the way Needham constructed a way of writing out of these elements, a way of putting certain things together in a sentence and then a paragraph that would not usually go together, or might go together in too reductive a form.

Consider, for example: “But this great sweep of vision needs further elucidation. First, if we look carefully at the steps between the successive levels of organization we find that sharp lines of distinction are only made all the more sharp by the ‘mesoforms’ which occur between them. Thus between living and non-living matter the realm of the crystalline represents the highest degree of organization of which non-living matter is capable. It approaches, moreover, quite closely to the realm of the living in the phenomena presented by so-called ‘liquid crystals’, states of matter intermediate between the random orientation of a liquid and the almost absolute rigidity of the true crystal.” (234-235)

Of particular interest is the way Needham uses the languages of the sciences, and in particular of evolutionary biology, for social thought. He is not the first to do so of course. “Engels, whom nothing escaped” saw that evolutionary science put questions on the agenda that went beyond what the philosophy of his time could think. (214) “Social evolution is continuous with biological evolution…” (15)

However, one has to be very careful about imputing to the biological features of the current social form. “Evolution as a whole is neither a scene of Flaubertian tortures as the Victorians saw it, nor yet does it betray any conscious purpose of goodness.” (36) The Flaubertian preference for artifice over nature (which runs through Wilde, Huysmans, all the way to Baudrillard and Deleuze and Guattari) has a contemplative relation to nature, as does the counter-trend, which runs from christian providence up through the environmental and ecological movements.

Needham is particularly critical of attempts to yoke biologism to ideologies which justify either free market capitalism or the authoritarian state, such as Spencer and Pareto, respectively. It would appear that he did not know first-hand about Bogdanov, whose work in curious ways prefigures his own attempt to extrapolate from biological to social organizational possibilities. Needham: “Pareto was not the first to have recourse to the analogies of physico-chemical equilibria; Bogdanov and others in Russia had taken that line at the beginning of the century, and it is interesting that they were severely criticized by Lenin.” (171) It is unfortunate that Needham did not explore Bogdanov first-hand.

Needham: “… the organic conception of the world involves succession in time and envelopes in space.” (184) Biology sets limits to the social, but not in a way that can be known in advance. The social emerges in a different temporality, and is a different kind of envelope. On the other hand: “Biology, like biochemistry and biophysics, is an inescapable datum to the sociologist. It gives the limits within which the answer must fall, and not the answer itself.” (176) Any static view of human institutions becomes impossible. Given how much biological forms have evolved, social ones cannot possibly be static. Yet there is a limited space of possibility for the kinds of social form that a biological infrastructure can support, and no responsible social thought can ignore those parameters.

As a monist, Needham sees the world as one thing, but with qualitatively different kinds of organization, which can build up towards higher forms of complexity and self-regulation. ‘Higher’ forms refers to a rise in number of parts and envelopes, of the effectiveness of control of functions, of the degree of independence from environment and of the effectiveness of individual organism at survival. “In saying that living things differ from dead things in degree and not in kind, and are, as it were, extrapolations from the inorganic, I was explicitly adumbrating the scheme of successive levels of complexity and organization.” (20, emph. added) Evolution can lead to higher forms of organization, but it does not guarantee it. There is also the possibility of regression and arrested development.

From his studies of the embryo, Needham took the concept of fields of development. Organization is not a matter of the random exchange between monads. “Hence the fate of a given monad, protein molecule, atomic group, or what have you, in the original egg, is a function of its position in the whole…. In topographic analogy, such as the thermo-dynamicians use, the influence of the thing grades off past successive contours, like the slopes of Fujiyama, in every direction.” (197) At the level of organization of the embryo, it is not ‘self-organizing’, in the sense of an emergence out of the random interactions of molecular agents. An embryo is not a free market.

Needham resists the mapping of neo-classical economic thought onto biological thought. “Function depends on position within the whole. Statistical regularity of fortuitous random motions is not the whole story; there is a plan of organizing relations too. The world is not entirely like a perfect gas or an absolutely homogeneous solid, it also contains viscous phases, crystals rigid in one, two or three dimensions, plasticity and elastic deformation, living organization.” (186)

Like both Whitehead and Engels, Needham thought that advances in science mattered for philosophy. In Engels’ time these were thermodynamics, the cell, and evolution. Whitehead was interested in moving the model of science for philosophy on from physics to biology. Needham understood that it is not a question of reducing knowledge of one level of organization to a ‘lower’ one, but of understanding how one level sets limits to others. “Meaning can only be introduced into our knowledge of the world by the simultaneous investigation of all the levels of complexity and organization.” (204 emph. added)

The goal then is not a kind of ideological interpolation, imprinting into the subject metaphors from the capitalist economy that have been ‘naturalized’ by interpreting the natural world as if it conformed to them. Rather, it is an extrapolation, a speculative expansion into the unknown of what is in fact known about forms of organization, but oriented toward the construction of the next one.

Some examples of Needham’s extrapolative thought: He proposed that highly organized societies should be more stable and less wasteful. “Is there not a thermodynamic interpretation of justice? Is not injustice wasteful? Is not the failure to utilize to the maximum the available talent and genius of men a wasteful thing?” (231) Marx had asked the crucial question of how a surplus is disposed. It could be expended on social growth, on increased leisure, or it could be appropriated by the dominant class. Needham: “the class stratification such as we know it… is an ankylosis, a rigidity, a biological petrification, analogous in some ways to the armor-plating in which so many extinct animals spent their efforts.” (260)

As a biologist, Needham could not entertain the idea of social justice as a universal and abstract equality. Rather, he was much closer to the classic formula of ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’, which he was able to extrapolate out of biological knowledge. Or as Needham put it: “… biology does not support democracy if democracy is defined as the belief that all human beings are alike or equal… If democracy is defined as such a constitution of society that any part of the mass can in time supply individuals fitted for all its functions, then biology sanctions democracy. A democracy that produces experts.” (261, cf 164) The good life honors differences as well as commonalities in needs and abilities.

Having a theology of another kind, Needham does not invest evolution itself with a theological air. Nothing guarantees that evolution, any more than markets, is ‘naturally’ self-correcting and auto-developing. Certainly the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ doesn’t guarantee optimal outcomes. The clash of bodies might just produce arms races that consume a surplus but render the competitors calcified and ill-adapted to changing circumstances. “When predatory rather than cooperative behavior wins the day, the path towards the higher social organization is closed.” (262)

Writing in the late thirties and early forties, Needham was only too aware of how the evolution of social forms could go wrong. “It is true that we might envisage a long period of stagnation as the outcome of our present civilization…. Some kind of scientifically stabilized stagnant class-stratified totalitarian social organism… might succeed our own age.” (268) And arguably that is exactly where we did arrive.

This incapacity to evolve new forms, to make effective use of human potential, where everyone could be ‘expert’ at whatever their capacities would allow, could in turn render the social form maladapted to its own conditions of existence. “…a time may some day come when the struggle of mankind against the adverse conditions of life on our planet will have become so severe that further social development will become impossible.” (215) That too is, arguably, a rapidly approaching limit-condition. He is a thinker for and of the anthropocene – in advance of our knowledge of it.

Politics for Needham is a kind of applied ethics, a attempt to realize in the social world a more sophisticated form of organization. Biology provides a scientific knowledge of actual forms of organization, and ones which set limits to what social form can be, but it is not prescriptive, and social form need not imitate the biological. Religion is the experience of the numen, of radical otherness, but not a transcendent one. Rather it is a ritual practice that calls into being the social emotion which orients a people toward justice. And lastly, out of the differences between these forms of knowledge comes a mode of writing, in which language can extrapolate from one form to another, but can be modified and re-interpreted along the way.

Or as Needham himself sums up the differential unity of his own thought: “The more truly orderly order is the more it approximates to the heavenly and this process is our own social evolution itself, our own history, in which it is our duty to participate, but we must always beware of mistaking the lesser forms for the greater, and, as Auden reminds us, we must be modest in our claims.” (231)

It is a sentence that Needham follows with a quotation from Auden’s New Year Letter – a rather more optimistic one than the epigram for this essay. If there is a task for critical theory in the anthropocene, perhaps it is to follow the lead of Needham and others who think the continuum from natural to social form on the basis of a strong knowledge of the limits and affordances of natural systems. But it is also to follow Needham in finding in social emotion, of whatever form, reasons to be cheerful and forward-looking, but without the manic, promethean urges which would leap too soon over what we now know about limits. The Millennium did not come; indeed our task is to complete the level that is the twenty-first century without going back to the start.


McKenzie Wark

Previous post

Call for International Solidarity against War in Rojava

Next post

Gray is Beautiful: An Introduction to a Series of Reflections on Democracy Dilemmas