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Dialectical Biology: A Marxist Approach to Nature and Agency in the Anthropocene Camilla Royle

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

This thesis aims to assess how radical perspectives in biology might animate and inform political ecology.
In the 1970s and 1980s there were several social movements of politically engaged scientists active in various parts of the world, represented most prominently by Science for the People in the US. These scientists critiqued the uses to which scientific knowledge was being put but also its content. Therefore their activism called into question the supposed neutrality of science. Among them were a small group of biologists who, following Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, tried to develop an approach to biological knowledge informed by Marxist dialectics.
The contribution of these biologists is addressed here in relation to two current theoretical debates around the relationship between society and nature and the role of the non-human in thinking about environmental issues. Firstly, new/vital materialist accounts of the more-than-human world are often opposed to ecological Marxism which is seen as being founded on a problematic nature-society binary and as insufficiently attentive to the materiality and agency of non-humans. Secondly (and related to the first) there is also a heated debate among Marxists on the question of nature. For example, there have been arguments between metabolic rift theorists and advocates of a world-ecology approach with the latter accusing the former of soft dualism and the former responding by defending an account of society and nature as a differentiated unity.
These controversies are playing out in the context of widespread discussions of the Anthropocene. The idea of an Anthropocene itself calls into question old certainties about society and nature, representing for some a recognition of the complex entanglements of human and non-human agencies, and for others an assertion of the overriding influence of humans on the biosphere.
In this thesis I argue that the dialectical approach developed within biology addresses many of the concerns of the new materialists. Far from neglecting the role of non-human agency, dialectical biologists have actually renewed discussions of this topic within their discipline, in particular with the concept of niche construction where it is argued that organisms ought to be seen as subjects as well as objects of evolutionary processes. It also points the way forward for a more ecologically informed Marxism.
This thesis is largely theoretical but it does draw on interviews with radical/Marxist biologists as well as some social scientists who have found the formers’ ideas relevant in their own work.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date2019

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