PhD Research

Royle, Camilla. 2019. Dialectical Biology: A Marxist Approach to Nature and Agency in the Anthropocene. PhD thesis, Department of Geography, King’s College London. 224pp.

In these troubled times, questions of nature and the environment have become centre-stage. The human impact on the natural world has become so widespread and has intensified to the extent that some now argue that we live in the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch defined by recent human influence on Earth System processes. Debates about the Anthropocene can force us to call into question old certainties: is humanity overwhelming the great forces of nature? Or is this itself a hubristic way of thinking? Does it suggest an undifferentiated human subject? Would it be better to emphasise the interconnectedness of human and non-human processes? Perhaps it is no longer tenable (if it ever was) to treat “nature” as something distinct from human activity.

My PhD engaged with Marxist approaches to questions of nature in the context of the Anthropocene. It is becoming clear that Marx and Engels were deeply interested in environmental questions; several of their followers have continued to develop an ecological Marxism. However, there are major disagreements about what this might look like. Some call for a world-ecology approach that emphasises capitalism developing through nature rather than impacting upon it, others defend a conception of nature and society as a differentiated unity. I argue that these debates have their roots in different interpretations of Marx and Engels’ own dialectical method.

From a different perspective, an influential new set of ideas that I refer to as the “new/vital materialisms” has emerged. New/vital materialists reject dualistic approaches to science and nature, and, interestingly, expand the notion of agency almost to the point where anything can be considered an agent. While these thinkers are often hostile to Marxism, and Marxists have (rightly, in my view) raised their own criticisms of the new/vital materialists, I argue that we ought not simply to dismiss their ideas.

In the second part of my thesis I discussed the work of the dialectical biologists and how it informs these debates. In the 1970s and 1980s there were several active social movements of politically engaged scientists, represented most prominently by Science for the People in the US. These scientists critiqued the content of mainstream science as well as its uses. Among them were a group of biologists who developed an approach to their subject explicitly informed by Marxist dialectics. Their contribution has often been neglected in political ecology. One of the key insights of dialectical biology is its concept of niche construction. This theory proposes that living organisms actively modify their environment as well as adapting themselves to the environment and that these processes of modification should be taken into account in evolutionary theory. Although not all niche construction biologists are Marxists, the Marxist influence on the development of this theory is clear.

Niche construction suggests that living things, not all of them human, do express a kind of agency, they are subjects as well as objects of evolution. It has important implications for thinking about how humans also produce environments in multiple specific ways. Biologists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin have said: “one cannot make a sensible environmental politics with the slogan ‘save the environment’ because, first, ‘the’ environment does not exist, and second, because every species, not only the human species, is at every moment constructing and destroying the world it inhabits”.
My research uses interviews with biologists who refer to their work as dialectical as well as social scientists who draw on their work.

I am developing this research by publishing it as a book which will further address the practical consequences of my findings. I am particularly interested in debates about alienation from nature and in the phenomenon of ecotherapy, where contact with “nature” is pursued as a solution to mental distress.