Issue 204 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: The human touch

John Parrington

`Socialism is a good idea but it won't work. You can't change human nature!'

This is the most common and influential of all the arguments used against socialism.

Why do people claim human nature makes socialism impossible? They say it is because our natural disposition is to behave in a way incompatible with the achievement of a classless society based on common ownership and control of production. In particular, it is argued that most people are inherently greedy and ambitious, so that they want more than their fair share of material goods and try to dominate others.

Any serious examination of how people behave even in capitalist society shows how one sided this argument is. Of course there are many examples of greed and selfishness. Yet for every act of selfishness there are many more examples of self sacrifice, courage or caring. There are the most memorable examples the Chinese student who single handedly faced down the tanks in Tiananmen Square or the man who made himself into a human bridge during the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. But there are also countless other everyday examples parents who devote their lives to caring for handicapped children, workers who choose to do abysmally paid caring jobs rather than earn a higher wage elsewhere, the generosity of many people with little money themselves in their response to charities and appeals.

The basic flaw in the human nature argument is that it believes human nature is fixed like that of an animal. This ignores the fact that people can behave quite differently according to different circumstances. The very definition of what is `natural' behaviour has varied tremendously across history and between different societies. To the American Indian private ownership of the land was `unnatural', to the 18th century landowner it was the most basic human right. To the Ancient Greeks homosexuality was the highest form of love; to the Victorian English it was the lowest. So people change with changing circumstances. But does this mean there is no such thing as human nature? And if humans are so different from animals, how did we come to be different? In other words, what makes us human?

The question is not a new one. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said that human beings were different from animals in that we were gifted with the power of reason. But this still leaves the question of how we came to possess such an ability. What was needed was to bring the question down to earth and it was Karl Marx who first achieved this. He pointed out that `men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence their food, shelter and clothing.'

It was left to Marx's lifelong collaborator Frederick Engels to put forward the first convincing theory of how using our hands to produce things was the driving force in human beings' evolution from the apes. Engels described his theory in an essay he wrote in 1876 called The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. The ideas expressed within it were obviously based on the scientific evidence of the time. To say this was limited compared to what we know today would be an understatement. The first prehistoric human remains were only discovered in 1856. Darwin's book The Descent of Man had just appeared in 1871. What is amazing given these circumstances was just how farsighted Engels' theory turned out to be.

Engels proposed that the first stage in human evolution began when our ape ancestors began to walk upright. Perhaps this was a reaction to being forced out of the shrinking forests of Africa and on to the savannah, but no one really knows for sure. What walking on two legs did achieve was to free the hands for using and making tools. And using the hands in this way had one particular important consequence. It led to social labour. As Engels put it,

`The development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society together by increasing the cases of mutual support and joint activity, and by making clear the advantages of this joint activity to every individual.'

This in turn led to the development of humanity's other unique features our ability to communicate via language and our ability to reason both linked to the development of a bigger brain.

A crucial part of Engels' theory was his insistence that language and our powers of reason were the last of humanity's unique features to develop. They were the result of human beings adopting social labour, not its cause. Such a view was far too radical for its time. A much more popular position was that advanced by Darwin, who was convinced that growth in brain size and intellect must have occurred before the transition to walking on two legs and using our hands to manipulate tools.

Not surprisingly it was Darwin's theory that won the day. But history has proved Engels right. Darwin's ideas distorted research on human origins for almost a century because everyone was looking for a `missing link' with a large brain and an ape like posture. It was not until the discovery in 1974 of a true missing link a complete three and a half million year old skeleton with an ape sized brain and an erect posture (the now famous `Lucy') that Darwin's evolutionary sequence was finally abandoned. But although recent discoveries have confirmed Engels' claim that the defining feature separating human beings from other animals is our ability to engage in purposeful, social labour in cooperation with other human beings, there are still people who see competition and aggression as central to our origins. One justification for such a view stresses our close relationship to the apes.

One of the main blows to the religious view, which sees human beings as God's children and totally separate from the animal world, is the scientific finding that we share an amazing 99.6 percent of our genes with chimpanzees. These same people invariably also say that class society, women's oppression and warfare have their roots in supposedly universal ape behaviour patterns such as widespread aggression between males who fight over passive females.

But in fact there is an important qualitative difference between human beings and apes. All animal behaviour, including that of apes, is primarily determined by inherited biological make up. It is part of a chimpanzee's make up to show flexibility in its actions and a high capacity for learning. Given these are qualities we value in human babies, it is not surprising that chimps at the zoo can often astound us with their apparently `human like' behaviour.

Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference between us and apes. Only human beings are capable of passing on what they have learned to successive generations, primarily through our capacity for language. Chimpanzees today are still living much the same way as they have done for the last several million years. Human beings on the other hand have in the last 30,000 years gone from living in caves to sending rockets to the moon. But there is another flaw within `naked ape' type arguments. Their descriptions of apes as predominantly aggressive and competitive turn out to be incorrect. They were based on studies of chimpanzees in London Zoo carried out in the 1930s. More recent observation of chimps in the wild show earlier studies are about as valid as trying to draw a picture of human society after studying the long term inmates at Dartmoor Prison. The recent studies provide a completely different picture of ape society. They indicate that there is widespread sociability and much less aggression than was thought. Females are not passive but play an active role during sex and in ape society as a whole.

A quite different source for the idea that human beings are naturally aggressive and competitive comes from mistaken interpretations of human history. The idea that we are a species `born from blood' has resurfaced most recently in connection with speculation about the reasons for the demise of the Neanderthals.

Neanderthals were proto-humans who lived in Europe and parts of the Middle East from about 150,000 to 35,000 years ago. Although `Neanderthal' is now often used as a term of abuse to mean animal-like or barbaric, Neanderthals were far more similar to us than to animals. They made and used tools, had discovered fire and possibly even had language. Because the Neanderthals appear to have died out at around the same time as modern human beings were spreading out across the world it has been suggested that our ancestors wiped them out in an act of primeval genocide. But there is absolutely no factual evidence for such a viewpoint.

For a start, there is still the possibility that Neanderthals did not die out but were absorbed into a common human stock. Even if we did remain separate and if competition for resources did eventually lead to the extinction of the Neanderthals, this is quite different from any act of genocide. In fact the latest archaeological discoveries on Mount Carmel in Israel argue that we coexisted peacefully with the Neanderthals. As one commentator puts it, `Two human species, with far less in common than any two races or creeds now on the planet, may have shared a small, fertile piece of land for 50,000 years, regarding each other the whole time with steady, untroubled, peaceful indifference.'

One of the main reasons for the continuing popularity of claims that human beings are prone to domination and killing is the fact that we live in a world where society is divided into rulers and ruled and where there is widespread warfare and brutality. It is easy to take it for granted that things have always been like this. But for the greater part of human history there were no classes, no private property and no armies or police.

We know this to be the case not just from historical studies but because there are still small groups of so called hunter-gatherer people, like the !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert in Africa who still live much as our ancestors did. Among such people there is no division between rich and poor, and no chiefs or leaders. The universality of such a way of life among hunter-gatherer groups has led one anthropologist to suggest that this `lends strong support to the theory of Marx and Engels that a stage of primitive communism prevailed before the rise of the state and break up of society into classes'.

There is one final question about what makes us human. It is how do people change? If humanity's past shows us there is nothing about socialism which goes against human nature, how do we achieve a socialist society today? One view which is often heard nowadays says that `to change society, you must first change yourself'. If only individual men and women would cure themselves of `selfishness' or `materialism' then society would automatically get better.

The answer is that ordinary people's own experiences contradict the official ideas of society. The result is that a worker's consciousness is a contradictory one. Many psychologists now view thought as a kind of `inner speech'. There is an internal dialogue going on in our heads which echoes the social struggles in the world outside. In this case, consciousness must be a battle of words. We take it for granted that children have a questioning nature. They are always asking, `Why?' In most people this side of our nature is too often stifled early in life and instead we see a passive adaptation to the values and language of a society that does not reflect most people's everyday experience.

However, in a period of social crisis this disparity between the dominant ideas of society and the reality faced by workers can become so great that the questioning side of the human character can surface again.


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