By Frederick Engels
I bought the 1940 version of this book, which was in its 6th printing (1971). It has an amazing cover. If you're not interested in buying a copy, though, you can read the book online at the Marxists.org repository for Engels. It's the same version.
A bit of background. The reason that I'm including the "activity theory" tag in this post is that Dialectics of Nature deeply influenced the Vygotsky Circle. In his epilogue to The Making of Mind: A Personal Account of Soviet Psychology, A.R. Luria [edit: this epilogue was actually written by Michael Cole] recounts that "When Engels' Dialectics of Nature appeared in 1925, Vygotsky immediately incorporated it into his thinking" (p.204). Indeed, Vygotsky uses one of Engels' illustrations of dialectics—two flammable elements, oxygen and hydrogen, combining to form a nonflammable substance, water—in his Thought and Language. More on this in a moment.
Dialectics of Nature was unfinished, and chunks of it are actually notes rather than a finished book. This fact is described in the book's foreword and footnotes by JBS Haldane, who has the unenviable task of pointing out and attempting to minimize the import of Engels' frequently inaccurate understanding of science as well as his reliance on sketchy 19th century science (e.g., the ether, p.201). This is a tough job. Engels essentially argues that dialectics is not just a social theory, it actually underlies all of reality. Here's how Engels begins Chapter 2, "Dialectics":
It is, therefore, from the history of nature and human society that the laws of dialectics are abstracted. For they are nothing but the most general laws of these two aspects of historical development, as well as of thought itself. And indeed they can be reduced in the main to three:
The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
The law of the negation of the negation.
All three are developed by Hegel in his idealist fashion as mere laws of thought.... The mistake lies in the fact that these laws are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought, and not deduced from them. This is the source of the whole forced and often outrageous treatment; the universe, willy-nilly, is made out to be arranged in accordance with a system of thought which itself is only the product of a definite stage of evolution of human thought. If we turn the thing round, then everything becomes simple, and the dialectical laws that look so extremely mysterious in idealist philosophy at once become simple and clear as noonday.
We are not concerned here with writing a handbook of dialectics, but only with showing that the dialectical laws are really laws of development of nature, and therefore are valid also for theoretical natural science. Hence we cannot go into the inner interconnection of these laws with one another. (pp.26-27, my emphasis)A few things here. First, Engels wanted to portray dialectics as a materialist, all-encompassing explanation for development, one that applied both socially and materially; based on my limited reading of Marx and commentaries on him, I don't think Marx would have gone this far. Second, to develop this account, Engels offered an easy-to-follow version of dialectics, almost a how-to. Third, this account provided a unique and irresistible offering to scientists and policymakers in the young Soviet Union: they were looking for a way to pursue a uniquely Soviet science, one in accordance that applied appropriate ideology and avoided bourgeois thought, and Engels provided such a way. Fourth, Engels' dialectics of nature was teleological. For instance, he claimed at the end of Ch.1 that the laws of development will always give rise to intelligent life:
But however often, and however relentlessly, this cycle is completed in time and space, however many millions of suns and earths may arise and pass away, however long it may last before the conditions for organic life develop, however innumerable the organic beings that have to arise and to pass away before animals with a brain capable of thought are developed from their midst, and for a short span of time find conditions suitable for life, only to be exterminated later without mercy, we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it. (p.25)This teleological understanding of the laws of development fit right into the Marxist (and, later, Marxist-Leninist) idea that history proceeded in inexorable stages toward a universal communism accompanied by (as Marx, Engels, and Lenin predict elsewhere) the eventual withering of the state. To the members of the young Soviet Union, this claim of certainty was heartening: they were on the right side of history, and nature herself was their ally.
Back to the question of dialectics in nature. Engels elaborates in Ch.2 on how dialectics explicate natural phenomena. Here's a molecule illustration, used to illustrate the "law of the transformation of quantity into quality" (roughly, the tipping point that causes systemic change):
If we imagine any non-living body cut up into smaller and smaller portions, at first no qualitative change occurs. But this has a limit: if we succeed, as by evaporation, in obtaining the separate molecules in the free state, then it is true that we can usually divide these still further, yet only with a complete change of quality. The molecule is decomposed into its separate atoms, which have quite different properties from those of the molecule. In the case of molecules composed of various chemical elements, atoms or molecules of these elements themselves make their appearance in the place of the compound molecule; in the case of molecules of elements, the free atoms appear, which exert quite distinct qualitative effects: the free atoms of nascent oxygen are easily able to effect what the atoms of atmospheric oxygen, bound together in the molecule, can never achieve.
But the molecule is also qualitatively different from the mass of the body to which it belongs. It can carry out movements independently of this mass and while the latter remains apparently at rest, e.g. heat oscillations; by means of a change of position and of connection with neighbouring molecules it can change the body into an allotrope or a different state of aggregation.
Thus we see that the purely quantitative operation of division has a limit at which it becomes transformed into a qualitative difference: the mass consists solely of molecules, but it is something essentially different from the molecule, just as the latter is different from the atom. It is this difference that is the basis for the separation of mechanics, as the science of heavenly and terrestrial masses, from physics, as the mechanics of the molecule, and from chemistry, as the physics of the atom. (pp.28-29)In relation to the second law, he uses various examples, including attraction and repulsion (p.38), life and death (p.164), and light and darkness (p.210). The example of life and death also illustrates the negation of the negation (i.e., synthesis): dialectics involves understanding that the materials of the body persist, but the spirit doesn't, and thus dialectics abolishes superstition (well, that's that! p.164).
Let's skip around a bit. In notes, Engels discusses the illustration below, which was later discussed by Ilyenkov and Engestrom (and, later still, by me in Network) in terms of the germ-cell, the abstract that can undergird multiple concrete applications:
Induction and analysis. A striking example of how little induction can claim to be the sole or even the predominant form of scientific discovery occurs in thermodynamics: the steam-engine provided the most striking proof that one can impart heat and obtain mechanical motion. 100,000 steam-engines did not prove this more than one, but only more and more forced the physicists into the necessity of explaining it. Sadi Carnot was the first seriously to set about the task. But not by induction. He studied the steam engine, analysed it, and found that in it the process which mattered does not appear in pure form but is concealed by all sorts of subsidiary processes. He did away with these subsidiary circumstances that have no bearing on ‘the essential process, and an ideal steam-engine (or gas engine), which it is true is as little capable of being realised as, for instance, a geometrical line or surface but in Its way performs the same service as these mathematical abstractions: it presents the process in a pure, independent, and unadulterated form. And he came right up against the mechanical equivalent of heat (see the significance of his function C), which he only failed to discover and see because he believed in caloric. Here also proof of the damage done by false theories. (p.213)Another issue into which Engels wades is that of evolution. In Ch.9, "The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man," Engels argues boldly that labor "is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself" (p.279). (Bear in mind Solzhenitsyn's critique of this assertion.) Based on Darwin, Engels argues: "owing to their way of living which meant that the hands had different functions than the feet when climbing, these apes began to lose the habit of using their hands to walk and adopted a more and more erect posture. This was the decisive step in the transition from ape to man." (p.279; cf. p.18). He continues:
The first operations for which our ancestors gradually learned to adapt their hands during the many thousands of years of transition from ape to man could have been only very simple ones. The lowest savages, even those in whom regression to a more animal-like condition with a simultaneous physical degeneration can be assumed, are nevertheless far superior to these transitional beings. Before the first flint could be fashioned into a knife by human hands, a period of time probably elapsed in comparison with which the historical period known to us appears insignificant. But the decisive step had been taken, the hand had become free and could henceforth attain ever greater dexterity; the greater flexibility thus acquired was inherited and increased from generation to generation.
Thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour. Only by labour, by adaptation to ever new operations, through the inheritance of muscles, ligaments, and, over longer periods of time, bones that had undergone special development and the ever-renewed employment of this inherited finesse in new, more and more complicated operations, have given the human hand the high degree of perfection required to conjure into being the pictures of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini. (p.281)According to Engels, the evolution of the hand set off other developments as well, both physical and social: "the development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by increasing cases of mutual support and joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual" (p.283). Entities had something to say to each other, so they developed the larynx and other organs of speech (p.283). The combination of labor and speech eventually yielded society (p.285) and then tools, beginning with hunting and fishing implements (p.286). Hands plus organs of speech plus the organ of the brain, Engels says, yielded the division of labor: "men became capable of executing more and more complicated operations, and were able to set themselves, and achieve, higher and higher aims. The work of each generation itself became different, more perfect and more diversified" (pp.288-289).
Note that this basic account underlies that of Leontyev, especially in terms of the origin of the division of labor. Yet JBS Haldane is kept especially busy in this chapter, footnoting aspects of the evolutionary account that are false or exaggerated. Dialectics of Nature is a foundation for first- and second-generation activity theory, a foundation that held together well in the ideological context of the Soviet Union, but that seems soft in our current milieu.
In short: I see Dialectics of Nature as a tremendously important book for understanding Soviet thought and especially the underpinnings of activity theory. But that doesn't mean that I think it's a good book. Engels cherry-picks facts from different fields and makes them fit into his thesis rather than using the facts to develop the thesis. If you'll forgive me for exaggerating a bit (as Engels does): this book has more in common with Chariots of the Gods than it does with scientific literature.
Note: I previously reviewed this book (in part) in 2005.