Works of Lev Vygotsky

Primitive Man as a Biological Type

By virtue of the entire mold of his personality, and all his behavior, primitive man is profoundly different from civilized man. In order to pinpoint the precise nature of that difference, which basically defines the initial and concluding points of the historical development of human behavior, we shall first consider those differences that are readily apparent.

The distinctive traits of primitive man and his behavior, as they appear at first sight, can easily be divided into two groups. On the one hand, an observer first encountering primitive man, particularly in his natural environment, is struck by his superiority over civilized man. This superiority has been described by a great many travellers, some of whom have gone to the extreme in claiming the primitive man is in all respects better equipped by nature than civilized man.

Observers and travelers have praised the exceptional visual acuity of uncivilized man, the extraordinary keenness of his hearing, his immense powers of endurance, his instinctive cunning, his ability to find his way, and his knowledge of the environment, the forests, desert and sea. Some authors have idealized his fundamental ethical qualities, seeing in his moral behavior traces of the instinctive virtue instilled into him by nature itself. Finally, all have unanimously praised (and scientific research has fully confirmed) primitive man’s command of the skill of interpreting natural signs: his ability to reconstruct, from the faintest tracks, very complex pictures of events, circumstances, etc.

Arsenyev described a tribesman with whom he traveled through the wilderness of the Ussur region. “The tribesman positively read the tracks like a book, and was able to reconstruct events in their exact sequence.” [4] This ability to reconstruct complex pictures of past events from tiny tracks, imperceptible to civilized man, gives primitive man an immense advantage over civilized man, making the latter highly dependent on the former in the circumstances in which travelers find themselves.

The first group of distinctions thus centers on the superiority of uncivilized man, which has generated profound respect for him as a perfect specimen of nature and also given rise to the claim that he is distinguished by so many positive qualities in comparison with civilized man, that the development of his natural psychological functions give him an immeasurable advantage.

There is another, quite opposite, group of distinctions: the helplessness and backwardness of primitive man, and his inability to perform operations of any real complexity, requiring calculation, cogitation and recollection, and a host of other failings which civilized man readily perceives when encountering uncivilized man. All of this long ago compelled observers to liken primitive man to a child, or an animal, and note all that he lacks in comparison with civilized man.

The result is a rather complex picture, with primitive man surpassing civilized man in a considerable number of respects, while clearly inferior to him in others. Such is the picture which becomes readily apparent, and which we shall now analyze.

The first issue confronting the researcher is the biological type to which primitive man belongs. In biological terms, is he not merely a being with a higher, lower or different development than civilized man? And is it therefore not possible that all these dual distinctions between civilized and primitive man could be due simply to another biological type, as happens when we compare man with any of the animals?

Unfortunately, despite the enormous amount of research done in this field, we still lack precise and definitive results on the biological study of primitive man. Apart from certain insignificant and unquestionably proven physiological differences (such as the faster healing of wounds in primitive people, their relative immunity to contamination and infection when wounded, their lower susceptibility to malaria, etc.) we are unaware of any irrefutably proven substantive peculiarities. It is true that some researchers have seen a direct link between a host of other facts and the cultural backwardness of primitive man.

If this assumption was correct, if primitive man really did belong to a different biological type than civilized man, and if his organism was in fact found to function in a substantially different manner, the behavioral difference between civilized and uncivilized man would have been fully and unquestionably explained, because science has established beyond any doubt that the behavior of any animal is a function of the structure of its organism. Organisms with different structures behave differently.

The facts which could be adduced to support the notion of a difference of biological type between primitive and civilized man include the assertion that primitive man’s cranial sutures unite by the age of puberty, in other words before those of civilized man. With regard to the development of the brain, which is the direct organic basis of behavior, it has been pointed out that gray matter is less highly developed in the brain of primitive man, that his cerebral folds are simpler and that the development of his brain ceases at an earlier age. The pace of overall physical development in primitive man differs to some extent from that of civilized man. It has been point out that the duration of overall development is briefer in primitive man, ending at or shortly after puberty.

None of these facts, however, provides any basis for the idea that primitive man belongs to a different organic type. The early union of the cranial sutures, as remarked by Thurnwald, cannot imply any substantial limitation in the development of the brain; nor is the macroscopic structure of the brain a direct expression of complexity or primitiveness of behavior. One should bear in mind the more complex relationships mentioned by Thurnwald, who noted that “much of what may be ascribed, on the basis of superficial observation, to physiological organization is really due to profound cultural backwardness."[5] In this case, therefore, cause and effect may be switched, and vice versa. It is much more plausible to argue that primitive behavior leads to a premature halt the development, than to blame primitive behavior on such prematurely arrested development.

Thurnwald rightly observes that contemporary anthropology is in the same phase of development as botany in the time of Linnaeus. Current anthropological studies of the constitution of primitive man in comparison with that of civilized man began only recently, in connection with the study of the endocrine system. To clarify the extent to which the physiological characteristics of primitive man may account for the observable differences between him and adult civilized man, it becomes necessary to dwell on a question that has hitherto been considered highly important, and that has a direct bearing on behavior: the functioning of the sensory organs.

Researchers have shown that travelers’ tales of the outstandingly acute vision, hearing and sense of smell of primitive man actually have no basis in fact. By comparison with the civilized European city dweller primitive man can, of course, be expected to have superior vision and hearing, as civilized living conditions often induce a weakening of visual acuity and shortsightedness. Here again, however, researchers warn us against hasty conclusions. In Thurnwald’s words, “Acuity of the senses in primitive man is often the result of practice; while sensory deficiencies in city-dwellers are often due to lack of practice related to their lifestyle in enclosed surroundings.” [6]

It should also be noted that the behavior of primitive man is often based not on the direct functioning of the sensory organs, but on their interpretation of certain tracks or phenomena. For example, an experienced fisherman interprets ripples of a particular kind on smooth water as a sign of a moving school of fish; a dustcloud of a particular height and shape suggests to the hunter the presence of a herd of animals of a certain species, and in certain numbers. In these instances we are dealing not at all with the acuity of this or that sensory organ, but with a trained ability, enhanced by experience, to interpret tracks.

In experimental studies, it has been found that sensory – and particularly visual – acuity among primitive peoples is not substantially different from ours. It can, of course, be taken as an established fact that the shortsightedness of Europeans is undoubtedly the product of culture. However, it has been found that this is not the only reason for the superior visual powers of primitive man: Europeans needs a clearer picture in order to form a judgement about it, whereas primitive man is accustomed to interpreting and guessing at the meaning of even unclear visual images. Of decisive importance in this respect, are the studies done by Rivers (vision), Meyers (hearing, smell and taste), MacDougal (tactile sensations, muscles and blood pressure), and Meyers .(speed of reaction).

All of these studies have shown that the elementary physiological activity underlying our perceptions and movements, and all the elements of the simplest reaction that go to make up behavior are essentially the same in primitive and civilized man. No substantial difference could be found even in respect of the perceptions of colors. Rivers, in his studies. found a very high percentage of color-blindness in one group of Papuans, but none at all in another group.

However, no one has yet discovered such a primitive race with total color blindness; in fact it has not proved possible to establish the existence of this condition even in apes. Thurnwald goes on to say, “It must be admitted that the development of the perception of color was completed long before the emergence of the human race, as such."[7]

The same can be said for keenness of hearing among the primitive peoples, which has been judged to be superior to our own. Studies by Meyers and Brunner have shown that keenness of hearing is usually greater in whites than. in primitive man. Primitive man’s powers of smell have also been exaggerated. As Thurnwald puts it, “Research on Negroes and Papuans yielded the same results that we had arrived at in the sphere of vision and hearing.” [8] The data obtained in the study of the sense of touch is somewhat contradictory. MacDougal’s experiments detected a slightly greater capacity for differentiation in Papuans. On the other hand in certain other primitive peoples no significant deviation was observed from the level of development of this function in civilized man.

Nor is there any evidence that the slightly higher tolerance of pain noticed by researchers has a physiological basis. Even right-handedness, which is not found in the higher apes, is clearly a common feature of the human Species, being found in primitive man to the same extent as in civilized man.

To summarize the results of this research into the physiological peculiarities of primitive man, we can conclude that scientific research at present has no evidence to suggest that there is a special biological type from which all the distinctive behavioral traits of primitive man originated. Indeed, those differences that have been identified by research turnout to be, on the one hand, quite insignificant, and on the other hand highly contingent on practice or the lack of it; in other words, they themselves prove to be closely connected to cultural development. For all of these reasons, we should assume an inverse relationship between the cultural and biological development of primitive man, and attribute the degree of backwardness in the sphere of psychological functions found in primitive man to his cultural underdevelopment.

Thurnwald observed that, “Primitive man must be granted the full status of human being.” The development of man as a biological type had on the whole been completed by the beginning of human history. This of course does not mean that human biology has stood still since the beginning of the historical development of human society. Such an idea is clearly wrong.[9]

Man’s plastic nature has continued to change. However, such biological change of the human organism now became subordinate to and dependent upon the historical development of human society. Contemporary scholars, among them Thurnwald, have established that the basic factors in the development of the psychology of primitive man are technology and the social organization that arises out of a certain stage in the development of that technology.

Human development, as we find it even in the most primitive peoples, is social development. We must therefore expect to observe here a highly peculiar process of development, profoundly unlike what we have seen in the evolution from ape to man.

First of all, we must note that the process whereby primitive man became transformed into civilized man is inherently different from the process whereby the ape turned into man. Or perhaps we should say that the process of the historical development of human behavior and the process of his biological development do not coincide, and one is not the extension of the other; rather, each of these processes is governed by its own laws.