Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Marxism and human nature, part 2: Anthropology and culture

If we are to gain the fullest understanding of ‘human nature’ it is not enough to confine our researches to the Marxist canon — we also need to draw upon the insights provided by contemporary science, above all anthropology and biology. Human beings are inseparable from nature: we belong, like all animal species, to natural history and are subject to natural laws.

That humans across history have a basic physical constitution which changes at an evolutionary pace is uncontroversial from a scientific point of view. In common with other living creatures, every human being has to breathe, to eat, to drink and to sleep. These were basic biological needs for early human species, for the very first Homo sapiens, and for contemporary people. We also possess reason, the capacity for language, and sexuality. We have emotions that are universal to all humans such as fear, anger and happiness, for which even the facial expressions are the same across all cultures. In short, the argument that there are no characteristics universal to all human beings is not serious.

Our species characteristics also, of course, impose boundaries. We have no species ‘need’ to swim, whereas some species of shark die if they stop swimming; nor can we suspend our need to breathe. As we touched on when discussing artistic progress, the reach of our human powers today is in many ways similar to our Paleolithic ancestors’: there is no evidence that we are more intelligent, or can see better, or have a superior sense of rhythm, etc. So these species characteristics define not only what we are, but what we are not: they create limits on what is human. In fact, every object that exists is constrained by limits imposed by its own nature. Marx made a similar point when he said that the way humans produce and their consciousness is “determined by their physical organisation”.

This physical organisation is the result of millions of years of evolution. But of course, there is rather more to us than that.

An anthropological view of human nature

About four million years ago in Africa, a group of primates evolved into a bipedal ape known as australopithecus. By about two million years ago, these apes had changed so far from their ancestors that later anthropologists named them a new genusHomo — whose first species was Homo habilis. By the time of Homo erectus, these early humans, taller than their predecessors, equipped with larger brains, fire and stone tools, showed a significant advance over other primate genuses in cognition and intelligence.

150–200,000 years ago a new phase occurred which produced our own species, Homo sapiens. From a genetic point of view, we have hardly changed since. And yet, it was only about 40,000 years ago that we saw the startling new stage in human development sometimes referred to as the Human Revolution. Although humans have broadly the same physical and cognitive makeup as other primates — the same body plan, senses, etc — something occurred to transform the early generations of Homo sapiens into a species that made complex tools, used symbols, possessed language, and engaged in complex social practices such as ritual burial and creating art.

As we have mentioned before, this time discrepancy has been described as the ‘sapient paradox’. Colin Renfrew, who coined the term, views the decisive leap as dating to 10,000 years ago, i.e. to the Neolithic Revolution — I would prefer to date it to the first flowering of artistic culture. Either way, the leap from early Homo sapiens to its art-making successors, and the subsequent further leap to the invention of agriculture, came too fast to be based upon evolutionary change. At the beginning of The Prehistory of the Mind, Steven Mithen imagines human development as a four-act drama, with the Human Revolution comprising the last scene of the last act: “after almost 6 million years of relative inaction, we find it difficult to make sense of this final, hectic scene.”[1]

The first surviving attempts to explain the nature of human beings were religious, often with a teleological cast: in the idealist view, the separation of humans from other animals was absolute. For Christianity, we humans are part of a plan that is taking us to a pre-ordained conclusion when all humans will be judged and everything will be resolved in a millenarian ‘end of history’. Teleology survived in some early materialist conceptions, for example in the persistence of the metaphor of the ‘Great Chain of Being’ — with humans sitting gloriously at the top of the tree of life — among revolutionary thinkers of the Enlightenment. The modern materialist view, by contrast, recognises that humans are members of the animal kingdom and a product of evolution. Our evolution was not part of an unfolding destiny initiated by a creator God, or as a gradual movement towards the realisation of an Idea (as in Hegel), or any other teleological goal. It arose from a process in which our species followed a particular path in response to its environment. What makes us unique is the active engagement of human beings with this environment, which both creates our consciousness and is driven onwards by it.

Engels made the first great Marxist contribution to anthropology when he conceived of human beings as the result of their own productive activity [2]. There have since been many attempts to explore human nature through archaeology, anthropology and genetics. Many materialist analyses have tended to stress the continuity between primates, early humans and Homo sapiens, whereas Marxists (along with those who might be described as “fellow travellers” such as Stephen Jay Gould) stress dialectical leaps and qualitative change.

Some recent materialist approaches, most notoriously the sociobiology movement that arose in the 1970s and later reinvented itself as evolutionary psychology, conceive human nature as essentially the product of the Pleistocene [3], our consciousness and behaviours having been determined by evolutionary adaptations. (Human nature in this view usually bears a wonderful similarity to the mentality of the US bourgeoisie). It is probably true that the human mind owes a great deal to adaptive processes, but the claims of evolutionary psychology are generally too rigid to explain what we know about the remarkable flexibility of human consciousness.


A more convincing view has been put forward by scientists who include Michael Tomasello, Colin Renfrew and Merlin Donald. This argument runs: 1) there has not been enough time for recent developments such as art to have arisen through evolutionary processes. 2) Human nature is highly adaptable, not fixed in a ‘Pleistocene’ hunter-gatherer mentality. 3) The human mind uses cognitive processes unique to our species and is a hybrid, changeable process rather than, in reductionist language, a kind of biological computer.

As Donald puts it:

One consequence of this idea is that ‘human nature’, viewed in the context of evolution, is marked especially by its flexibility, malleability and capacity for change. The fate of the human mind, and thus human nature itself, is interlinked with its changing cultures and technologies. We have evolved into the cognitive chameleons of the universe. We have plastic, highly conscious nervous systems, whose capacities allow us to adapt rapidly to the intricate cognitive challenges of our changing cognitive ecology. As we have moved on from oral cultures, to primitive writing systems, to high speed computers, the human brain itself has remained unchanged in its basic properties, but has been affected deeply in the way it deploys its resources. It develops in a rapidly changing cultural environment that is largely of its own making.[4]

We can detect in Donald’s language here and elsewhere a continuity — whether or not he is conscious of it — with the work of Marxists like Engels and Childe.

Donald talks of a ‘cognitive revolution’ that took place after the last speciation phase, that is, after the most recent major genetic leap of our species which produced Homo sapiens. He points out that our highly adaptive minds are capable of processes such as advanced mathematics or art, which would not have existed when the brain was evolving — this suggests that the human mind did not develop out of a series of specialist adaptive functions; rather, it offers a tremendous plasticity of potential, which we have been building upon ever since. As early humans became more socialised and interactive, with the sharing of tool-making skills, co-operative hunting, tending fires, building shelters, and so on, their path of evolutionary development came to depend more and more upon group co-operation, division of labour, and the sharing of learned knowledge. This led to increasingly complex social systems and what Donald calls “distributed cognition”, which flowered into symbolism and the use of language.

In this view of human nature, the process that made us capable of art was culture.

Human culture is a marketplace of ideas and images, feelings and impressions. Indeed, it is a vast cognitive network in its own right. The cultural network introduces an entirely new element to human life: immersion in a cognitive collectivity, or community of mind. This is perhaps the primary source of the enormous cognitive differences between human beings and our closest genetic relatives. Monkeys and apes solve the world alone; we do not. Human culture is based on the sharing of mental representations, and we are tethered to that network. It allows us to achieve things that are far beyond the capabilities of an ape, or that matter, a socially isolated human brain.[5]

New symbolic tasks will have required new uses of the brain, but such changes developed side by side with culture, without which no human being possesses language, knows how to make a handaxe, or creates art.

This new phase of human development subsequent to the speciation phase has been termed by Colin Renfrew the ‘tectonic’ phase, tectonics meaning the constructive arts in general. In this phase, he writes, “cultural innovation and cultural transmission have now become the dominant mechanisms.”[6] Culture did of course affect our speciation — it is highly likely that the use of tools and control of fire, for example, will have had an selective role — but culture became the decisive force given that our genotype has hardly changed since 60,000 years ago.

Culture is a much faster and more efficient form of development than evolution: it allows members of a species to learn from one another and pool their knowledge. Humans are not unique in possessing culture — it has been observed for example in the song-birds who learn their songs from their parents, in young chimps who learn tool use from adults, and in the bluetits who learnt to peck through the foil caps of milk bottles — but human culture is qualitatively more advanced than anything in the animal kingdom. Donald underlines this:

Culture... provides the only explanatory mechanism that can unlock the distinctive nature of modern human awareness. Without deep enculturation, we are relatively helpless to exploit the potential latent in our enormous brains because the specifics of our modern cognitive structure are not built in. Our brains co-evolved with culture and are specifically adapted for living in culture.[7]

Culture is learned, not instinctive or genetic, and the need to assimilate a complex learned culture is one reason for the extended childhood of our species. Through culture, our primate cognitive skills are transformed and expanded into social skills. The cultural transmission of information takes place as a process of cumulative change, labelled the ‘ratchet effect’, whereby an artefact or practice is invented by one individual or group, then modified by another, then that is modified by another, and so on. This mechanism allows fast and exponential technological progress.

What is the key to this process? The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello suggests that the key difference between human beings and other animals is their particular gift to identify conspecifics (i.e. members of the same species) as people with intentions and minds like ourselves: “the human child understands that other persons are beings like herself — in a way that inanimate objects are not, for example — and so she sometimes tries to understand things from their point of view.” [8] This ability to recognise the mental independence of others allows us to collaborate on cultural objects with a collective meaning, “built around shared intentions and beliefs” (Donald).

We share an inherited cognitive capacity similar to that of other primates and early humans, and everything we do must depend to some extent upon our physical neural systems and what they allow us to perceive and achieve, but our minds develop through something more: it is shared social processes that produce our humanised senses and consciousness.

This concept is not incompatible with the humanisation of the senses that Marx discusses in the 1844 Manuscripts:

On the one hand, therefore, it is only when the objective world becomes everywhere for man in society the world of man’s essential powers — human reality, and for that reason the reality of his own essential powers — that all objects become for him the objectification of himself, become objects which confirm and realise his individuality, become his objects: that is, man himself becomes the object… The specific character of each essential power is precisely its specific essence, and therefore also the specific mode of its objectification, of its objectively actual, living being. Thus man is affirmed in the objective world not only in the act of thinking, but with all his senses...

Just as only music awakens in man the sense of music, and just as the most beautiful music has no sense for the unmusical ear — is [no] object for it, because my object can only be the confirmation of one of my essential powers — it can therefore only exist for me insofar as my essential power exists for itself as a subjective capacity; because the meaning of an object for me goes only so far as my sense goes (has only a meaning for a sense corresponding to that object) — for this reason the senses of the social man differ from those of the non-social man. Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form — in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being.[9]

The social aspect is essential: a human cannot survive alone, and our society is the creation of collective activity applied to the raw materials of nature. A human being isolated from society (raised by wolves, perhaps), although still Homo sapiens, does not become a full person. As Eagleton put it, “becoming a person is a project, not a given.”[10]

Although the human brain is particularly large, it is not radically different in architecture to that of other primates. What distinguishes us, and makes culture possible, is our capacity for symbolisation. This capacity — which we will discuss in detail another time — probably developed out of our gift of mimesis, or imitation, which first served to help us create stone tools of consistent quality, and is the logical antecessor of language. Language, itself a higher and more precise form of mimesis, enabled us to store and share information efficiently (and, as a symbolic complement to this, to invent the art of narrative, of mythic story-telling, and its attendant arts of ritual, costume, and gesture/drama). Symbols are understood collectively via sets of conventions, but these are constantly changing.

One consequence of living in a world of meanings is that we are no longer one with nature like other animals — we begin to reflect upon our own meanings and our own nature, and become a subject for whom nature is an object. We are split or dual beings: part of nature, yet separate from it. In Marx’s words:

The animal is one with its life activity. It does not distinguish activity from itself. But man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. He has a conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he is completely identified.[11]

Why is this important to our conception of human nature?

There are five main points.

Firstly, even if it is correct that our genotype has barely changed in 60,000 years, it is inadequate to think of human development as having been fixed during the Paleolithic, leaving us stuck with a hunter-gatherer mentality in a digital age. (The biologist Steve Jones has even claimed that human evolution has come to a halt.) The majority of biologists argue that human beings are, in fact, still subject to evolution. But the importance of culture means that we are changing in other ways at a faster than evolutionary rate — creating new needs, new wants, new capabilities. As Homo sapiens left Africa and confronted an ever wider range of environments, it was our flexibility as a species that enabled us to survive and prosper. As Marxists have always argued, we, like other animals, are not static organisms but always subject to processes of change, and able to change ourselves. This is why reductive attempts to ascribe every aspect of human nature to this or that gene — at its worst, in attempts to locate ‘genes’ for homosexuality or criminality — are completely misguided. Human nature, and culture, is the result of dynamic interaction between social and biological beings and their environment.[12]

Secondly, it stresses that human development is always social development, because humans are social beings. It is only through their interactions with others, from infancy onwards, that we develop our human capabilities. Art is in part a form of social communication. Whereas the bourgeois ideal is of a society of atomised individuals, society “does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelation, the relations within which these individuals stand” (Marx) [13]. As society changes, for example in the shift from one mode of production to another more advanced one, human social relations alter: our attitudes and beliefs, our perception of ourselves and others, our intellectual concepts, our institutions and so on are constantly reshaped. As Merlin Donald writes in A Mind So Rare: “The ultimate irony of human existence is that we are supreme individualists, whose individualism depends almost entirely on culture for its realisation.”[14]

Thirdly, our highly enculturated world, rich in linguistic and mythic symbols, metaphor and imagination, is currently the best contender for what allowed us to make the revolutionary step to the creation of art, and indeed to becoming behaviourally modern human beings.

Fourthly, it stresses our common humanity, our shared faculties and powers. All human beings alive today seem to be descended from a small population that left Africa about 70,000 years ago. It is quite possible that the thousands of languages ancient and modern, which are basically similar in grammatical structure and complexity, all ultimately derive from the language spoken by those emigrants. “A more plausible scenario [than dedicated genetic origins] is that all human cultural institutions rest on the biologically inherited social-cognitive ability of all human individuals to create and use social conventions and symbols” (Tomasello). Human beings are both immensely diverse and immensely similar.

Fifthly, this is a human nature full of creativity and potential. Human beings are not mere biological units, once described by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as “survival machines — robot vehicles programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”[15] We are the sum of our being: built upon a biology that has been expanded and enriched by society, culture, history and environment. Our potential is limitless.


Art history is littered with brave attempts to use the latest scientific discoveries, ground-breaking in their time, to explain art. Neuro-science is still in its infancy, and we cannot declare the riddle of the sapient paradox solved, nor can we be sure that the ideas of Donald, Tomasello et al will not be superceded. Theirs are not the only views in the field, and, as always, there is no Marxist magic that can conjure final, ‘correct’ answers to such questions. But the arguments presented by the latest cognitive research are more convincing, from a scientific point of view, than the reductive alternatives [16]. They also sit comfortably with dialectical materialism — this will become even more apparent in the next post when we move on to the relationship between human nature and history.


[1] Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind (1996).
[2] See Friedrich Engels, The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876). His contribution was mostly ignored.
[3] It is not of course possible to talk of a single opinion within sociobiology or evolutionary psychology, but generalisations are necessary in a short article. Evolutionary psychologists have protested with some justification that they are being accused of a reductiveness they do not in fact espouse. So the difference is to an extent one of emphasis.
[4] Merlin Donald, ‘The definition of human nature’, from D. A. Rees and S. P. R. Rose, eds, The new brain sciences: Perils and prospects (2004).
[5] Merlin Donald, ‘Art and Cognitive Evolution’ from M. Turner (ed) The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity (2006).
[6] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[7] Merlin Donald, A Mind So Rare (2002).
[8] Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999).
[9] Karl Marx, Third Manuscript, 1844 Manuscripts
[10] Terry Eagleton, ‘Culture and Socialism’, International Socialism (March 2009).
[11] Karl Marx, First Manuscript, 1844 Manuscripts.
[12] Engels put it well many years ago: “Everything affects and is affected by every other thing, and it is mostly because this manifold motion and interaction is forgotten that our natural scientists are prevented from gaining a clear insight into the simplest things.” From The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).
[13] Karl Marx, from Notebook II, ‘The Chapter on Capital’, Grundrisse (1857).
[14] Merlin Donald, op. cit.
[15] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976). Dawkins belongs to the reductionist camp in biology.
[16] For an excellent response to reductionist biology, see Steven Rose, Lifelines: Life Beyond the Gene (2005).

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