Engels' Dialectics of Nature

IX: The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man

LABOUR is the source of all wealth, the economists assert. It is this next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth. But it is also infinitely more than this. It is the primary 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.

Many hundreds of thousands of years ago, during an epoch, not yet definitely determined, of that period of the earth's history which geologists call the Tertiary period, most likely towards the end of it, a specially highly-developed race of anthropoid apes lived somewhere in the tropical zone - probably on a great continent that has now sunk to the bottom of the Indian Ocean.[1] Darwin has given us an approximate description of these ancestors of ours. They were completely covered with hair, they had beards and pointed ears, and they lived in bands in the trees.

Almost certainly as an immediate consequence of their mode of life, for in climbing the hands fulfil quite different functions from the feet, these apes when moving on level ground began to drop the habit of using their hands and to adopt a more and more erect posture in walking. This was the decisive step in the transition from ape to man.

All anthropoid apes of the present day can stand erect and move about on their feet alone, but only in case of need and in a very clumsy way. Their natural gait is in a half-erect posture and includes the use of the hands. The majority rest the knuckles of the fist on the ground and, with legs drawn up, swing the body through their long arms, much as a cripple moves with the aid of crutches. In general, we can to-day still observe among apes all the transition stages from walking on all fours to walking on two legs. But for none of them has the latter method become more than a makeshift.

For erect gait among our hairy ancestors to have become first the rule and in time a necessity presupposes that in the meantime the hands became more and more devoted to other functions.[2] Even among the apes there already prevails a certain separation in the employment of the hands and feet. As already mentioned, in climbing the hands are used differently from the feet. The former serve primarily for collecting and holding food, as already occurs in the use of the fore paws among lower mammals. Many monkeys use their hands to build nests for themselves in the trees or even, like the chimpanzee, to construct roofs between the branches for protection against the weather. With their hands they seize hold of clubs to defend themselves against enemies, or bombard the latter with fruits and stones. In captivity, they carry out with their hands a number of simple operations copied from human beings.[3] But it is just. here that one sees how great is the gulf between the undeveloped hand of even the most anthropoid of apes and the human hand that has been highly perfected by the labour of hundreds of thousands of years. The number and general arrangement of the bones and muscles are the same in both; but the hand of the lowest savage can perform hundreds of operations that no monkey's hand can imitate. No simian hand has ever fashioned even the crudest stone knife.

At first, therefore, the operations, for which our ancestors gradually learned to adapt their hands during the many thousands of years of transition from ape to man, could only have been very simple. The lowest savages, even those in whom a regression to a more animal-like condition, with a simultaneous physical degeneration, can be assumed to have occurred, 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 must probably have elapsed in comparison with which the historical period known to us appears insignificant. But the decisive step was taken: the hand became free and could henceforth attain ever greater dexterity and skill, and 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, by inheritance of the resulting special development of muscles, ligaments, and, over longer periods of time, bones as well, and by the ever-renewed employment of these inherited improvements in new, more and more complicated operations, has the human hand attained the high degree of perfection that has enabled it to conjure into being the pictures of Raphael, the statues of Thorwaldsen, the music of Paganini.

But the hand did not exist by itself. It was only one member of an entire, highly complex organism. And what benefited the hand, benefited also the whole body it served; and this in two ways.

In the first place, the body benefited in consequence of the law of correlation of growth, as Darwin called it. According to this law, particular forms of the individual parts of an organic being are always bound up with certain forms of other parts that apparently have no connection with the first. Thus all animals that have red blood cells without a cell nucleus, and in which the neck is connected to the first vertebra by means of a double articulation (condyles), also without exception possess lacteal glands for suckling their young. Similarly cloven hooves in mammals are regularly associated with the possession of a multiple stomach for rumination. Changes in certain forms involve changes in the form of other parts of the body, although we cannot explain this connection. [4] Perfectly white cats with blue eyes are always, or almost always, deaf. The gradual perfecting of the human hand, and the development that keeps pace with it in the adaptation of the feet for erect gait, has undoubtedly also, by virtue of such correlation, reacted on other parts of the organism. However, this action has as yet been much too little investigated for us to be able to do more here than to state the fact in general terms.

Much more important is the direct, demonstrable reaction of the development of the hand on the rest of the organism. As already said, our simian ancestors were gregarious; it is obviously impossible to seek the derivation of man, the most social of all animals, from non- gregarious immediate ancestors. The mastery over nature, which begins with the development of the hand, with labour, widened man's horizon at every new advance. He was continually discovering new, hitherto unknown, properties of natural objects. On the other hand, the development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by multiplying cases of mutual support, joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual. In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to one another. The need led to the creation of its organ; the undeveloped larynx of the ape was slowly but surely transformed by means of gradually increased modulation, and the organs of the mouth gradually learned to pronounce one articulate letter after another.

Comparison with animals proves that this explanation of the origin of language from and in the process of labour is the only correct one. The little that even the most highly- developed animals need to communicate to one another can be communicated even without the aid of articulate speech. In a state of nature, no animal feels its inability to speak or to understand human speech. It is quite different when it has been tamed by man. The dog and the horse, by association with man, have developed such a good ear for articulate speech that they easily learn to understand any language within the range of their circle of ideas. Moreover they have acquired the capacity for feelings, such as affection for man, gratitude, etc., which were previously foreign to them. Anyone who has had much to do with such animals will hardly be able to escape the conviction that there are plenty of cases where they now feel their inability to speak is a defect, although, unfortunately, it can no longer be remedied owing to their vocal organs being specialised in a definite direction. However, where the organ exists, within certain limits even this inability disappears. The buccal organs of birds are of course radically different from those of man, yet birds are the only animals that can learn to speak; and it is the bird with the most hideous voice, the parrot, that speaks best of all. It need not be objected that the parrot does not understand what it says. It is true that for the sheer pleasure of talking and associating with human beings, the parrot will chatter for hours at a time, continuing to repeat its whole vocabulary. But within the limits of its circle of ideas it can also learn to understand what it is saying. Teach a parrot swear words in such a way that it gets an idea of their significance (one of the great amusements of sailors returning from the tropics); on teasing it one will soon discover that it knows how to use its swear words just as correctly as a Berlin costermonger. Similarly with begging for titbits.

First comes labour, after it, and then side by side with it, articulate speech - these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man, which for all its similarity to the former is far larger and more perfect. Hand in hand with the development of the brain went the development of its most immediate instruments - the sense organs. Just as the gradual development of speech is inevitably accompanied by a corresponding refinement of the organ of hearing, so the development of the brain as a whole is accompanied by a refinement of all the senses. The eagle sees much farther than man, but the human eye sees considerably more in things than does the eye of the eagle. The dog has a far keener sense of smell than man, but it does not distinguish a hundredth part of the odours that for man are definite features of different things.[5] And the sense of touch, which the ape hardly possesses in its crudest initial form, has been developed side by side with the development of the human hand itself, through the medium of labour.

The reaction on labour and speech of the development of the brain and its attendant senses, of the increasing clarity of consciousness, power of abstraction and of judgement, gave an ever-renewed impulse to the further development of both labour and speech. This further development did not reach its conclusion when man finally became distinct from the monkey, but, on the whole, continued to make powerful progress, varying in degree and direction among different peoples and at different times, and here and there even interrupted by a local or temporary regression. This further development has been strongly urged forward, on the one hand, and has been guided along more definite directions on the other hand, owing to a new element which came into play with the appearance of fully-fledged man, viz. society.

Hundreds of thousands of years - of no greater significance in the history of the earth than one second in the life of man[6] - certainly elapsed before human society arose out of a band of tree-climbing monkeys. Yet it did finally appear. And what do we find once more as the characteristic difference between the band of monkeys and human society ? Labour. The ape horde was satisfied to browse over the feeding area determined for it by geographical conditions or the degree of resistance of neighbouring hordes; it undertook migrations and struggles to win new feeding grounds, but it was incapable of extracting from the area which supplied it with food more than the region offered in its natural state, except, perhaps, that the horde unconsciously fertilised the soil with its own excrements. As soon as all possible feeding grounds were occupied, further increase of the monkey population could not occur; the number of animals could at best remain stationary. But all animals waste a great deal of food, and, in addition, destroy in embryo the next generation of the food supply. Unlike the hunter, the wolf does not spare the doe which would provide it with young deer in the next year; the goats in Greece, which graze down the young bushes before they can grow up, have eaten bare all the mountains of the country. This "predatory economy" of animals plays an important part in the gradual transformation of species by forcing them to adapt themselves to other than the usual food, thanks to which their blood acquires a different chemical composition and the whole physical constitution gradually alters,[7] while species that were once established die out. There is no doubt that this predatory economy has powerfully contributed to the gradual evolution of our ancestors into men. In a race of apes that far surpassed all others in intelligence and adaptability, this predatory economy could not help leading to a continual increase in the number of plants used for food and to the devouring of more and more edible parts of these plants. In short, it led to the food becoming more and more varied, hence also the substances entering the body, the chemical premises for the transition to man. But all that was not yet labour in the proper sense of the word. The labour process begins with the making of tools. And what are the most ancient tools that we find - the most ancient judging by the heirlooms of prehistoric man that have been discovered, and by the mode of life of the earliest historical peoples and of the most primitive of contemporary savages? They are hunting and fishing implements, the former at the same time serving as weapons. But hunting and fishing presuppose the transition from an exclusively vegetable diet to the concomitant use of meat, and this is an important step in the transition to man. A meat diet contains in an almost ready state the most essential ingredients required by the organism for its metabolism. It shortened the time required, not only for digestion, but also for the other vegetative bodily processes corresponding to those of plant life, and thus gained further time, material, and energy for the active manifestation of animal life in the proper sense of the word. And the further that man in the making became removed from the plant kingdom, the higher he rose also over animals. Just as becoming accustomed to a plant diet side by side with meat has converted wild cats and dogs into the servants of man, so also adaptation to a flesh diet, side by side with a vegetable diet, has considerably contributed to giving bodily strength and independence to man in the making. The most essential effect, however, of a flesh diet was on the brain, which now received a far richer flow of the materials necessary for its nourishment and development, and which therefore could become more rapidly and perfectly developed from generation to generation.[8] With all respect to the vegetarians, it has to be recognised that man did not come into existence without a flesh diet, and if the latter, among all peoples known to us, has led to cannibalism at some time or another (the forefathers of the Berliners, the Weletabians or Wilzians, used to eat their parents as late as the tenth century), that is of no consequence to us to-day.

A meat diet led to two new advances of decisive importance: to the mastery of fire and the taming of animals. The first still further shortened the digestive process, as it provided the mouth with food already as it were semi-digested; the second made meat more copious by opening up a new, more regular source of supply in addition to hunting, and moreover provided, in milk and its products, a new article of food at least as valuable as meat in its composition. Thus, both these advances became directly new means of emancipation for man. It would lead us too far to dwell here in detail on their indirect effects notwithstanding the great importance they have had for the development of man and society.

Just as man learned to consume everything edible, he learned also to live in any climate. He spread over the whole of the habitable world, being the only animal that by its very nature had the power to do so. The other animals that have become accustomed to all climates - domestic animals and vermin- did not become so independently, but only in the wake of man. And the transition from the uniformly hot climate of the original home of man to colder regions, where the year is divided into summer and winter, created new requirements: shelter and clothing as protection against cold and damp, new spheres for labour and hence new forms of activity, which further and further separated man from the animal.

By the co-operation of hands, organs of speech, and brain, not only in each individual, but also in society, human beings became capable of executing more and more complicated operations, and of setting themselves, and achieving, higher and higher aims. With each generation,[9] labour itself became different, more perfect, more diversified. Agriculture was added to hunting and cattle-breeding, then spinning, weaving, metal-working, pottery, and navigation. Along with trade and industry, there appeared finally art and science. From tribes there developed nations and states. Law and politics arose, and with them the fantastic reflection of human things in the human mind: religion. In the face of all these creations, which appeared in the first place to be products of the mind, and which seemed to dominate human society, the more modest productions of the working hand retreated into the background, the more so since the mind that plans the labour process already at a very early stage of development of society (e.g. already in the simply family), was able to have the labour that had been planned carried out by other hands than its own. All merit for the swift advance of civilisation was ascribed to the mind, to the development and activity of the brain. Men became accustomed to explain their actions from their thoughts, instead of from their needs - (which in any case are reflected and come to consciousness in the mind) - and so there arose in the course of time that idealistic outlook on the world which, especially since the decline of the ancient world, has dominated men's minds. It still rules them to such a degree that even the most materialistic natural scientists of the Darwinian school are still unable to form any clear idea of the origin of man, because under this ideological influence they do not recognise the part that has been played therein by labour.

Animals, as already indicated, change external nature by their activities just as man does, if not to the same extent, and these changes made by them in their environment, as we have seen, in turn react upon and change their originators. For in nature nothing takes place in isolation. Everything affects every other thing and vice versa, and it is usually because this many-sided motion and interaction is forgotten that our natural scientists are prevented from clearly seeing the simplest things. We have seen how goats have prevented the regeneration of forest in Greece; on the island of St. Helena, goats and pigs brought by the first arrivals have succeeded in exterminating almost completely the old vegetation of the island, and so have prepared the soil for the spreading of plants brought by later sailors and colonists. But if animals exert a lasting effect on their environment, it happens unintentionally, and, as far as the animals themselves are concerned, it is an accident. The further men become removed from animals, however, the more their effect on nature assumes the character of a premeditated, planned action directed towards definite ends known in advance. The animal destroys the vegetation of a locality without realising what it is doing. Man destroys it in order to sow field crops on the soil thus released, or to plant trees or vines which he knows will yield many times the amount sown. He transfers useful plants and domestic animals from one country to another and thus changes the flora and fauna of whole continents. More than this. Under artificial cultivation, both plants and animals are so changed by the hand of man that they become unrecognisable. The wild plants from which our grain varieties originated are still being sought in vain.[10] The question of the wild animal from which our dogs are descended, the dogs themselves being so different from one another, or our equally numerous breeds of horses, is still under dispute.

In any case, of course, we have no intention of disputing the ability of animals to act in a planned and premeditated fashion. On the contrary, a planned mode of action exists in embryo wherever protoplasm, living protein, exists and reacts, i.e. carries out definite, even if extremely simple, movements as a result of definite external stimuli. Such reaction takes place even where there is as yet no cell at all, far less a nerve cell. The manner in which insectivorous plants capture their prey appears likewise in a certain respect as a planned action, although performed quite unconsciously. In animals the capacity for conscious, planned action develops side by side with the development of the nervous system and among mammals it attains quite a high level. While fox-hunting in England, one can daily observe how unerringly the fox knows how to make use of its excellent knowledge of the locality in order to escape from its pursuers, and how well it knows and turns to account all favourable features of the ground that cause the scent to be interrupted. Among our domestic animals, more highly developed thanks to association with man, every day one can note acts of cunning on exactly the same level as those of children. For, just as the developmental history of the human embryo in the mother's womb is only an abbreviated repetition of the history, extending over millions of years, of the bodily evolution of our animal ancestors, beginning from the worm, so the mental development of the human child is only a still more abbreviated repetition of the intellectual development of these same ancestors, at least of the later ones. But all the planned action of all animals has never resulted in impressing the stamp of their will upon nature. For that, man was required.

In short, the animal merely uses external nature, and brings about changes in it simply by his presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture. When, on the southern slopes of the mountains, the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, with the effect that these would be able to pour still more furious flood torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that they were at the same time spreading the disease of scrofula.[11] Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature - but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.

And, in fact, with every day that passes we are learning to understand these laws more correctly, and getting to know both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances of natural science in the present century, we are more and more getting to know, and hence to control, even the more remote natural consequences at least of our more ordinary productive activities. But the more this happens, the more will men not only feel, but also know, their unity with nature, and thus the more impossible will become the senseless and antinatural idea of a contradiction between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body, such as arose in Europe after the decline of classic antiquity and which obtained its highest elaboration in Christianity.

But if it has already required the labour of thousands of years for us to learn to some extent to calculate the more remote natural consequences of our actions aiming at production, it has been still more difficult in regard to the more remote social consequences of these actions. We mentioned the potato and the resulting spread of scrofula. But what is scrofula in comparison with the effect on the living conditions of the masses of the people in whole countries resulting from the workers being reduced to a potato diet, or in comparison with the famine which overtook Ireland in 1847 in consequence of the potato disease, and which put under the earth a million Irishmen, nourished solely or almost exclusively on potatoes, and forced the emigration overseas of two million more? When the Arabs learned to distil alcohol, it never entered their heads that by so doing they were creating one of the chief weapons for the annihilation of the original inhabitants of the still undiscovered American continent. And when afterwards Columbus discovered America, he did not know that by doing so he was giving new life to slavery, which in Europe had long ago been done away with, and laying the basis for the Negro slave traffic. The men who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries laboured to create the steam engine had no idea that they were preparing the instrument which more than any other was to revolutionise social conditions throughout the world. Especially in Europe, by concentrating wealth in the hands of a minority, the huge majority being rendered propertyless, this instrument was destined at first to give social and political domination to the bourgeoisie, and then, however, to give rise to a class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, which can end only in the otherthrow of the bourgeoisie and the abolition of all class contradictions. But even in this sphere, by long and often cruel experience and by collecting and analysing the historical material, we are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote, social effects of our productive activity, and so the possibility is afforded us of mastering and controlling these effects as well.

To carry out this control requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and with it of our whole contemporary social order.

All hitherto existing modes of production have aimed merely at achieving the most immediately and directly useful effect of labour. The further consequences, which only appear later on and become effective through gradual repetition and accumulation, were totally neglected. Primitive communal ownership of land corresponded, on the one hand, to a level of development of human beings in which their horizon was restricted in general to what lay immediately at hand, and presupposed, on the other hand, a certain surplus of available land, allowing a certain latitude for correcting any possible bad results of this primitive forest type of economy. When this surplus land was exhausted, communal ownership also declined. All higher forms of production, however, proceeded in their development to the division of the population into different classes and thereby to the contradiction of ruling and oppressed classes. But thanks to this, the interest of the ruling class became the driving factor of production, in so far as the latter was not restricted to the barest means of subsistence of the oppressed people. This has been carried through most completely in the capitalist mode of production prevailing to-day in Western Europe. The individual capitalists, who dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only with the most immediate useful effect of their actions. Indeed, even this useful effect - in as much as it is a question of the usefulness of the commodity that is produced or exchanged - retreats right into the background, and the sole incentive becomes the profit to be gained on selling.

The social science of the bourgeoisie, classical political economy, is predominantly occupied only with the directly intended social effects of human actions connected with production and exchange. This fully corresponds to the social organisation of which it is the theoretical expression. When individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results can be taken into account in the first place. When an individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with only the usual small profit, he is satisfied, and he is not concerned as to what becomes of the commodity afterwards or who are its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What did the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees, care that the tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the now unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock? In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the first, tangible success; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be of quite a different, mainly even of quite an opposite, character; that the harmony of demand and supply becomes transformed into their polar opposites, as shown by the course of each ten years' industrial cycle, and of which even Germany has experienced a little preliminary in the "crash"; that private ownership based on individual labour necessarily develops into the propertylessness of the workers, while all wealth becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of non-workers; that ...[12]


1. This is rather unlikely. A broad ridge across the Indian Ocean has been found in the region indicated, but if it represents a sunken continent, this probably sank before our ancestors had evolved so far.

2. It has been suggested that this process was speeded up by the dying out of forests in central Asia, so that our ancestors were forced to run after their prey.

3. Chimpanzees can carry out some operations on their own initiative.

4. The connection can now be explained in a few cases. Thus white onions are more susceptible to moulds than the coloured forms, because they lack an antiseptic substance as well as colouring matter. The antiseptic is a necessary stage in building up the pigment.

5. This is doubtful. A dog cannot distinguish betweeen smells which are distinct to men, but the converse is also true.

6. A leading authority in this respect, Sir W. Thomson, has calculated that little more than a hundred million years[*] could have elapsed since the time when the earth had cooled sufficiently for plants and animals to be able to live on it. [Note by F. Engels.]

* This time has been greatly extended by the discovery of radioactivity. The correct figure is probably about fifteen hundred million years.

7. It is very doubtful whether evolution occurs as a result of this process.

8. Engels' belief in a meat diet is by no means shared universally by students of biochemistry, although it must be remembered that most so-called vegetarians partake of milk or its products.

9. This is probably an exaggeration. A study of stone-age technique suggests that periods of stagnation lasted for scores or hundreds of generations. Of course the time occupied by human evolution is much longer than Engels (or his scientific contemporaries) thought possible.

10. They are now, in many cases, known with fair certainty.

11. At the time when Engels wrote it was widely believed in medical circles that scrofula (tuberculosis of the neck glands) was due to eating potatoes. There is a causal connection in the sense that it is a disease of inadequately fed people, including those who live on a diet mainly of potatoes. But there is no real evidence that potatoes, as such, play any part in causing it.

12. The manuscript here breaks off abruptly.

Transcribed in 2001 for MEIA by jjazz@hwcn.org