Chris Harman


Where we came from

(June 1993)

From Socialist Review, No.165, June 1993, pp.20-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What is the real history of human development and do we all possess certain characteristics which are inevitably passed on? Chris Harman looks at the role of labour in human history and reviews two new books which throw valuable light on the subject

The question of human origins is of special interest to socialists. We are continually bombarded with two ideological approaches to the role of humanity in nature: the idealist views which see humans as semi-divine, completely separated from the animal world, whose duty is to purify our souls, and the crude materialist views which see humans as no more than machines or animals. One version of this latter view is sociobiology, which sees the horror of society encoded in the molecular make up of human genes; another is behaviourism, which sees humans as completely conditioned by the material environment.

Marx and Engels challenged both idealism and crude materialism, especially in The German Ideology and the Theses on Feuerbach. Their central point was that although human beings are a material product of nature, through labour they react back upon it, changing both it and themselves.

Much later, Engels extended the argument in The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, combining it with Darwin’s account of evolution to provide an explanation of how human beings evolved from ape-like ancestors – and he did so in a way that even today is in some ways more satisfactory than Darwin’s own account (published five years before Engels wrote).

Engels’ argument was that there were four key stages in the development of humanity, each laying the ground for the next. For reasons we cannot know, certain ape-like creatures began using two limbs only for walking, leaving their front paws free for other purposes. This allowed those paws to hold and shape things – to use tools – and so increasingly transform the natural world to their own needs through labour. Labour encouraged them to work together, to co-operate, and so to live in denser groups than previously. Finally, working and living in groups encouraged the development of language and, with it, consciousness.

Each of these stages fed back into the others – a growing reliance on labour made use of the hands ever more important and ruled out a return to four legged walking; living in dense groups demanded more successful food gathering and therefore more developed forms of tool making and labour; language and consciousness enabled social interaction to take place on a much wider scale and knowledge of different labouring techniques to spread. What is more, each stage transformed the biological animal itself, giving preferential chances of survival to those with certain physical features – a bone structure which made two legged walking easy, a forehand anatomy that made it easy to grasp and manipulate things, a jaw and mouth cavity shape which permitted the making of a large range of different sounds, and a large brain capable of processing much more information than before.

Labour was the key to explaining the interaction of the stages for Engels. Without it, two legged walking may have been a passing phase, social interaction would have remained at a fairly low level, language would never have gone beyond a few grunts and gestures, and the brain would never have grown bigger than that of the chimpanzee. ‘Labour is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and to such an extent that we have to say that labour created man himself.’

But how do Engels’ ideas stand up today? After all, he wrote at a time when archaeological research into the physical makeup and cultural artefacts of our ancestors was in its infancy. It would not be surprising if he was completely out of date. Neither of these books mention Engels. Yet the material in both of them show he was far from being off beam.

Richard Leakey is from a family that has been responsible for some of the most important East African discoveries of human remains from up to three million years ago. He wrote an excellent book 15 years ago with Roger Lewin, Origins, which drew together the then existing knowledge about our forebears. Its message, as he puts it, was that:

‘Contrary to much popular wisdom, the human species is not driven to violence ... Human behaviour is flexible in the extreme. Humans do not march in lockstep to the demands of aggressive genes ... There is no evidence of frequent violence or warfare in human prehistory until after about ten thousand years ago, when humans began to practice food production – the leading edge of agriculture ... Evolutionary history has endowed our species with an inclination to cooperate. Homo sapiens has a greater flexibility of behaviour, a broader range of choice – and therefore of responsibility – than any other species. Much of the conflict in the world can be traced to materialism and cultural misunderstanding, not to our biological nature.’

This was not, of course, Marxism. Missing was the centrality of class struggle once there was full agricultural production. But it was a starting point for an account of humanity that no serious Marxist could dissent from.

The new book sets out to incorporate into the account of human origins some of the most recent archaeological discoveries (some by Leakey himself). These overthrow some of contentions of the previous work, but leave its central message untouched. The result is a very useful and readable survey of what is known right across the field, and provides a useful introduction to all its controversies (such as when the human line separated from that of our ape cousins, the origins of language and culture, whether all preceding varieties of humans died out when anatomically modern humans spread across the globe, probably starting from Africa 150,000 years or so ago, or whether there was intermixing). In each case Leakey is careful not only to state his own view, but to present alternatives fairly.

For me there were only two faults with the book. First, a minor irritation: a certain ‘journalistic slant’ to some parts of it leads to too much on Leakey as an individual (as when he describes flying his plane to Lake Turkana in the first chapter). Secondly and much more seriously, when he attempts to account for the growth in the human brain and mental abilities, he shifts in part away from a stress on labour and tool making. He accepts a currently fashionable argument that the brain grew out of the need to cope with complex social interactions.

But this leaves aside the cause of the growth of such interactions themselves – which leads back to the question of labour. It also underestimates the degree of advance humans have made over all other mammals in their ability to cope with a vast range of different ecological circumstances. Our ancestors may have been able to sustain themselves in limited niches in East Africa on the basis of the tool making possible with a brain size and mental capacity much smaller than that of modern humans – indeed, there is evidence that some early hominids did survive like this for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. But they would hardly have been able to move out to colonise most of the rest of the world, as they had by a quarter of a million years ago.

Jonathan Kingdon makes this point, and does so well. For him, labour and tool making are the key to human evolution. And he uses his enormous knowledge of the lives of the mammals who would have inhabited East Africa alongside our ancestors – and competed with them for resources – to back up his argument.

His book, however, is weaker than Leakey’s in many other respects. He gives only his own view on most of the controversial subjects, and he sometimes treats what are no more than hypotheses – sometimes very doubtful ones – as truths. He projects back into pre-history forms of social behaviour typical of class societies, especially war. And he spends an inordinate amount of space developing a speculative theory about the origin of that most superficial difference between humans, skin colour.

Nevertheless, the two books together are very useful in helping us to challenge the confusions still engendered by religious hangovers and by talk of the ‘selfish gene’, the ‘naked ape’ and the ‘territorial imperative.’

Origins reconsidered, in search of what makes us human
Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin
Little, Brown and Co £18.99

Self made man and his undoing
Jonathan Kingdon
Simon and Schuster £20

Last updated on 18 June 2010