Chris Harman


Engels and the origins of human society

(Part 1)


Arguments for socialism are always intertwined with arguments about the origins of human beings and social institutions. Socialists see the exploitation of some people by others, the existence of an oppressive state and the subordination of women to men in the nuclear family as products of human history. Our opponents see them as the result of human nature.

That was why when Marx and Engels first formulated their ideas, they did so by developing a completely new understanding of how human beings relate to the world around them. This involved rejecting the two dominant ways of seeing this relationship: idealism which sees human beings as semi-divine, subject to God’s will and completely separate from the animal world; and crude materialism which hold humans to be no more than machines or animals, either simply reacting to stimuli from the external world (today generally labelled “behavourism”), or as biologically programmed to perform in certain ways (today, called “sociobiology”). [1]

Marx and Engels first presented their own view in The German Ideology and the Theses on Feuerbach of 1845-6. They saw human beings as products of the natural, biological world, and history as part of natural history. But they also saw the specific character of humans as lying in their ability to react back on the circumstances that had created them, changing both those circumstances and themselves in the process. Knowledge of both natural history and human history was still very limited when Marx and Engels first formulated their ideas: the first discovery of early human remains (of Neanderthals) was not until 1856; Darwin’s Origin of Species was not published until 1859 and his Descent of Man until 1871; and the American Lewis Henry Morgan did not publish his pioneering account of the evolution of the family and state, Ancient Society, until 1877.

Engels relied on these scientific advances to enlarge on his and Marx’s earlier insights. This he did in two important works, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (written in 1876) [2], and The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (published in 1884) [3]. They contain the most extensive account by the founders of historical materialism of how human beings came to live as they do in modern times – of where ‘human nature’ and human institutions come from. For this reason attacks on the validity of Marxism and on Engels’ reputation have often concentrated on them – especially on The Origin of the Family. Scientific advance over the last century has, of course, dated some of Engels material: he was writing before the discovery of the Mendelian theory of genetics [4], before the earliest hominid remains were found in Africa and at a time when investigation into pre-literate societies was in its infancy. Yet his writings still retain enormous relevance. He applies a method which is materialist without being mechanical – and which continues to challenge both idealism and the terrible twins of behaviourism and sociobiology.

That is why it is worthwhile looking at Engels’ arguments in these two works and to defend what is valid in them while sifting out what is dated. This I attempt to do, looking first at his account of human evolution in The Part Played by Labour, then at his explanation of the rise of classes and the state in The Origin of the Family, and then, finally at the same work’s explanation for women’s oppression. In each case I will attempt to deal with gaps and discrepancies in Engels’ arguments by discussing some of the most important more recent material on these questions.



I) The argument on human origins

Engels outlined his account of human origins in a few paragraphs which are worth reproducing here with only slight editing:

Many hundreds of thousands of years ago, during an epoch not yet definitely determinable ... a race of anthropoid [i.e. human-like] apes lived in the tropical zone ... they lived in bands in the trees ...

These apes began to the lose the habit of using their hands to walk and adopted a more and more erect posture. This was the first decisive step in the transition from ape to man.

Other diverse functions must, have devolved upon the hands. The first operations for which our ancestors gradually learned to adapt their hands ... could have been only very simple ones ... But the decisive step had been taken, the hand had become free and could henceforth attain ever greater dexterity ...

Using the hand for labour had other effects:

Our simian ancestors were gregarious... 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.

Men-in-the-making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other. Necessity created the organ; the undeveloped larynx of the ape was slowly but surely transformed by modulation to produce constantly more developed modulation, and the organs of the mouth gradually learned to pronounce one articulate sound after another.

Parallel with this there was a necessary development of the brain: “The reaction of labour and speech on the development of the brain and its attendant senses, of the increasing clarity of consciousness, power of abstraction and of conclusion, gave both labour and speech an ever renewed impulse to further development.” Overall:

Hundreds of thousands of years certainly elapsed before human society arose out of troop of tree climbing monkeys. Yet it did finally appear. And what do we find once more as the characteristic difference between the troupe of monkeys and human society? Labour.

Engels’ position, then, sees human evolution as going through a number of interlinked stages: two-legged walking, tool making and use, development of the hand, sociability, brain and speech development, more control over nature, more sociability, more brain and speech development. His account of this was dependent on Darwin’s prior work, and each of these elements is mentioned by Darwin. But Engels alters the order of the stages in a significant way.

Darwin assumed that the growth in brain size and intellect occurred before the transition to two-legged walking and the use of hands to make tools. Engels argued the sequence of events was the other way round. It was the freeing of the hands that made co-operative labour possible on a scale unimaginable among apes, and from this flowed the development of the brain. As the archaeologist Bruce Trigger tells:

Darwin was ... constrained by reluctance to challenge the primacy which the idealistic religious and philosophical thinking of his time accorded to rational thought as a motor in bringing about cultural change. Hence in discussing human evolution... it was the development of the brain that in turn resulted in tool use. [5]

By contrast:

Engels argued that an increasingly terrestrial life-style had encouraged ... increasing use of tools. This caused natural selection in favour of bipedalism and manual dexterity as well as ... a more complex division of labour: Tool making and the development of a capacity for language the better to co-ordinate productive activities led to the gradual transformation of the brain of an ape into the that of a modern human being...

Darwin’s view of the sequence of stages dominated research on human origins for the best part of a century, leading to the belief that any “missing link” between apes and humans had a large brain but an ape-like posture and throwing the whole study of our evolution askew. It encouraged acceptance for some 50 years of one of the great scientific frauds of all time – the Piltdown affair, in which the skull of a man and the jaw of an ape were presented as the remains of one of our earliest ancestors. And it led to the refusal for 30 years to take seriously a genuine find, the discovery in South Africa by Raymond Dart of the remains of an apelike creature which had adopted two legged walking. It was not until the discovery by Donald Johanson in 1974 of a complete three and half million year old skeleton with an ape sized brain and a erect posture that Darwin’s sequence was finally abandoned. [6] Only then could archaeologists begin to explain the evolution of one set of skeletons from another. [7]



Assessing Engels’ argument today

But if Engels was, amazingly, right in this respect as against Darwin, how does the rest of his account hold together? We have much more knowledge today than in Engels’ time. But there are still enormous problems in fitting it together.

Most physical knowledge of our ape and early human ancestors rests on findings of odd fragments of bone, occasional teeth, and small bits of rock which may or may not once have been tools. Using such evidence, students of human origins have to try to guess what whole skeletons were like, the nature of the nerves and muscles that once encased them, the intellectual capacities of the creatures to which they belonged, how they fed themselves and the social context in which they lived. As one of Britain’s leading archaeologists, Chris Stringer, has put it:

The field of human evolution is littered with abandoned ancestors and the theories that went with them... Failure to realise the complexities involved in trying to interpret a few fossils scattered sparsely through space and time has characterised the approach of even the most competent workers, resulting in naive interpretations... Consequently, whole evolutionary edifices would collapse, complete with attached ancestors and descendants, with each development in theory, investigation of an underlying assumption or new discovery. [8]

So, for instance, until the late 1970s it was assumed there had been four ice ages in the last 800,000 years. Now it is believed there were at least eight. [9] Again, until 20 years ago it was commonly accepted that the separation of our ancestors from those of great apes occurred with an ape known as Ramapithecus, 15 million years ago. Now it is usually held the separation took place with the evolution of the “Southern Apes”, Australopithecus, that lived in east and south Africa 3 or 4 million years ago. [10]

The sparsity of reliable information makes it very easy for people to make elaborate, unsubstantiated conjectures about what might have happened, with no facts to confirm or deny them – the modern version of the Just So stories Rudyard Kipling wrote for children nearly a century ago. All sorts of writers on human evolution make hypotheses of the form, “And, so, perhaps, we can explain the descent of certain apes from the trees by their need to do X.” Within a couple of paragraphs, the “perhaps” has gone, and X becomes the origin of humanity.

This method is the special hallmark of sociobiologists, [11] but there are also some very good theorists who fall into it on occasions. [12] It is a method Marxists have to reject. We are not interested in story telling for the sake of story telling. So I will try to concentrate on what we know for certain.



The established record: our relatives

It is generally accepted that our nearest relatives are the chimps, the pygmy chimps (or bonobos) [13] and the gorillas [14]. Studies of genetic material suggest that we shared a common ancestor some 4 to 7 million years ago and that even today, after evolving in different directions, we still have some 97.5 percent of genes in common with the chimpanzees. Genetically, “man and chimpanzee are more closely related than horse and donkey, cat and lion, or dog and fox”. [15]

This is still an uncomfortable fact for idealists of all sorts, and confirms Marx’s view that human history is part of natural history. But it is often seized on by modern mechanical materialists who claim that we are simply “naked apes” and that all the faults of society can be blamed on our inherited mammalian genetic make up. As one popular account of human origins put it:

Hierarchy is an institution among all social animals and the drive to dominate one’s fellows an instinct three or four million years old ... The human drive to acquire possessions is the simple expression of an animal instinct many hundreds of years older than the human race itself ... The roots of nationalism are dug firmly in the social territory of almost every species of our related primate family ... Status seekers are responding to animal instincts equally characteristic of baboons, jackdaws, rock cod and men. [16]

Even an allegedly more sophisticated socio-biological text that claims to take into account the effects of cultural as well as genetic evolution concludes that “bigotry” and “group aggression” stem from genetic determination – “the fear of strangers response, the proneness to associate with groups of the early stages of social play and the intellectual tendency to dichotomise continua into in-groups and out-groups”. [17]

From such standpoints, Marxism rests on a terrible error – the “romantic fallacy” of failing to see the genetic basis for the horrors of modern society and instead blaming them on “the social environment” [18], Marxism’s “key error” being to “conceive of human nature as relatively unstructured and largely or wholly the product of external socio-economic forces”. [19]

But the fallacy in fact lies in any “naked ape” claim that we can read off from ape behaviour some inbuilt genetic basis of human behaviour. It ignores a most important feature of the human genetic make-up which separates us from both our closest cousins. They are genetically programmed in narrow ways that provide them with the behaviour appropriate to a limited range of environments, while we are characterised precisely by an immense flexibility in our behaviour that enables us, virtually alone in the animal world, to thrive on any part of the globe. This is a fundamental difference between us and the existing apes. So gorillas are not to be found outside tropical rain forests, chimps outside wooded regions in sub-Saharan Africa, gibbons outside the tree tops of south east Asia, Orang-utangs outside a few islands in Indonesia; by contrast, humans have been able to live across a vast swathe of Africa, Europe and Asia for at least half a million years. Our genetic “speciality” is precisely that we are not specialised, not constrained by any limited range of instinctive behaviour.

What is more, “naked ape” views rest on very simplistic models of ape behaviour. Until the 1960s nearly all studies of apes were carried out in zoos, like Solly Zuckerman’s famous 1930s account of life in the chimpanzee enclosure at London Zoo. They fitted the apes into a wider model of behaviour based on baboon studies (although baboons are monkeys and have quite substantial genetic differences with all the apes). They were seen as almost completely vegetarian, with little learning capacity and nothing that could, by any stretch of the imagination, be called culture. Above all they were seen as innately aggressive, with the males involved in continual, vicious sexual competition for females and kept in order only by a hierarchy of “dominance” imposed by the most successfully aggressive “alpha male”.

In the last 30 years studies of chimps, pygmy chimps and gorillas in the wild have challenged any such model, [20] suggesting that drawing conclusions about ape behaviour from life in zoo cages is about as valid as drawing conclusions about human behaviour from case studies of long term inmates in Dartmoor. [21] The main conclusions that can be drawn are:

  1. Chimps and pygmy chimps are much more sociable than used to be thought. Aggressive confrontations are much less frequent than friendly interactions. Most aggressive confrontations are settled without violence. [22]
  2. Males are not involved in continual, bitter competition to dominate females. “In the chimpanzee troop, unlike the Savannah Baboon, the dominant male is relatively tolerant of other males’ attention to females: sexual promiscuity is the natural order of things...” [23] “Generally there is little sign of jealousy or aggression.” Females initiate many sexual contacts and their co-operation is essential if males are to have special relationships with them. [24]
  3. The role of “dominance” among chimps and gorillas has been overstated in past. There is no single hierarchy for all activities among chimps, and among gorillas “dominance” often seems closer to what we would call leadership than to domination. [25]
  4. There is much more learned and socially transmitted behaviour than used to be thought, and much more use of primitive tools. Chimps use stones to break nuts, sticks to collect termites from holes, and leaves as sponges to pick up liquids for drinking.
  5. Chimps are not completely vegetarian. They hunt small animals (for instance, small monkeys) when the opportunity arises and so get about 10 percent of their diet from non-vegetarian sources. And hunting is a social activity: some chimps will chase the monkeys, others will lie in wait, ambush and kill them.
  6. Apes do not behave as competing individuals when it comes to consuming food. If one chimp finds a source of good food – a bush well endowed with edible shoots, for instance – it lets others know. And although common chimpanzees consume vegetarian foodstuff individually (except for the mother who provides food for her young offspring), they share meat with each other [26], while pygmy chimps share some vegetarian food as well.
  7. Elementary forms of communication play a significant role among apes. Gestures are used not merely to attract attention but also to indicate certain intentions – as when a female pygmy chimp tells a male how she wants sex. [27] And a range of sounds are used for different purposes, for signalling danger or a plentiful source of food.
  8. The social behaviour of apes varies from band to band within each species, showing that it depends not merely on instinctive, genetically programmed, factors but also on the natural terrain they live off and the learned techniques they have for coping with this.

Most of these developments are more marked in pygmy chimps than among common chimps and gorillas. There is more sharing of food, more female initiation of sexual activity, and more of a break with the “baboon” dominance model of social interaction since a group of females tends to play a central role in holding the troop together. [28]

This has led to suggestions that “pygmy chimps offer many clues to the nature of the ‘missing link’ between apes and humans”. [29] Be that as it may, the evidence from apes in the wild, and from pygmy chimps in particular, challenges the usual image of innately aggressive and competitive behaviour. It also shows how in certain conditions elements of what we usually think of as uniquely human forms of behaviour arise among humanity’s nearest relatives – and so could also have begun to arise among our common ancestors of more than 4 million years ago.



Our ancestors

We know very little for certain about our ape and early human (or hominid) ancestors. But what we do know tends to point to the adoption of two-legged walking by creatures, Australopithecines (meaning “southern apes”). [30] These were, in most other respects, closer to apes than to human beings, with brains still little more than chimp size, averaging 385 to 500 cubic centimetres and with no definitive evidence of tool making among them. [31] Hence their classification as apes, not humans.

The first human [32] remains are from 2-2.5 million years ago. The brain is substantially bigger (by up to 50 percent) than that of the Australopithecines and chimps, [33] and the species has been called homo habilis (or “handy man”) because it was first found, in the Olduvai gorge in east Africa, alongside stone tools. The shape of its teeth suggests a mixed diet of meat and vegetation, as against the overwhelmingly vegetarian diet of the modern great apes.

By about 1.6 million years ago, humans with considerably larger brains – usually designated as a new species, homo erectus (“upright man”), were to be found in Africa and were soon spreading out from Africa to the Eurasian landmass. Over the next million years brain size continued to grow until it reached about 1,000 cubic centimetres – as big as that of some modern humans, even if smaller than our average. By now teeth were clearly adapted to meat eating, showing that hunting went along with the gathering of vegetarian foodstuffs. Stone tools were shaped into standard patterns (usually referred to as the acheulean) for different jobs – hand axes, cleavers, scrapers, and so on. And, significantly, the males were on average only about 20 percent larger than the females (as opposed to twice as large among the Australopithecines and the great apes). This indicates that defence against predators must have depended much more on co-operation within each group and the use of tools as weapons than on the physical prowess of any individual male.

From about 500,000 years ago a variety of human types were to be found through Africa, Europe and Asia which resembled modern humans in having large brains (in some cases bigger than ours), and thin skulls. These are designated “archaic homo sapiens”, as the earliest version of our own species. The best known of them are the Neanderthals, who lived in Europe and parts of the Middle East from about 150,000 to about 35,000 years ago.

Finally, anatomically modern humans (often known as homo sapiens sapiens) seem to have evolved in Africa and possibly the Middle East 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. [34] By 40,000 years ago they were spread throughout Africa, Asia and Europe and were making the first landings in Australia. By 12,000 years ago at the latest they had crossed from north east Asia to the Americas. [35]

There have long been arguments about the relation of modern humans to the Neanderthals. When the first Neanderthal skeleton was found 140 years ago, it was seen as representative of a species much more primitive than ourselves, with many “bestial” ape-like characteristics (hence the colloquial use of “Neanderthal” to mean animal-like or barbaric). Forty years ago it was still assumed to be an evolutionary blind alley – “a human type which evolved in the colder climes of ice age Europe before dying out”. [36] Then the intellectual pendulum swung in the opposite direction: the emphasis was on the large Neanderthal brain and its similarities to ourselves.

Today the pendulum has swung at least part of the way back again, with the most popular view being that the modern humans evolved along a completely separate line from the “archaics”, originating from a group of homo erectus, normally identified as living in Africa. But there is still substantial resistance to this “out of Africa” view from those who see some continuity between at least some of the archaics and ourselves. [37] Such is the paucity of evidence the arguments may never be finally resolved. [38] And, however important the debate is from a purely scientific perspective, it is not, in itself, particularly significant when it comes to understanding the nature of modern humans. [39]



A species born from blood?

Much “naked ape” theorising is based on the assumption that our ancestors were engaged in continual bloody combat both with other species and with each other. Thus Ardrey argues, “man emerged from the anthropoid background for one reason only: because he was a killer”. [40] From this the conclusion is drawn that murder is in our genes, held in check with difficulty by the mechanisms of civilisation. Such views were encouraged by the ideas on early human evolution developed by Raymond Dart after discovering the first Australopithecine remains. He claimed his bone finds showed that hunting was the major factor in the evolution of our earliest non-ape ancestors, that there had been “the predatory transition from ape to man”. [41] Such views are still peddled in some quarters. But much of the evidence deployed to justify them has been discredited. Dart’s piles of bones were probably not the result of human hunting. Our nearest cousins, especially the bonobos, are not particularly aggressive. And, as we shall see, war is non-existent and vegetation has supplied more nourishment than meat in those surviving societies that are similar to those our ancestors lived in until about 10,000 years ago.

One interpretation of the “out of Africa” position would, however, back up the “born from blood” thesis. It rests on the claim that geneticists have proven that certain of our genes originated with a single woman in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. Humanity began with her, it is said, with her descendants spreading out from Africa, “replacing ancient, indigenous humans all around the world ... in an abrupt and violent manner”. [42] The implication is that modern humans engaged in primeval genocide against peoples who were very similar to themselves and that this points to ingrained, warlike characteristics built into our very nature.

But the whole argument rests on an elementary confusion between what happens with genes and what happens to the bearers of those genes. Every individual has at least one pair of genes for each genetically transmitted characteristic, one from its mother and one from its father. [43] But both genes do not necessarily have equal impact on the individual’s physical make-up and sometimes one will be “dominant”, completely masking the existence of the other, although each has an equal chance of being passed on to the individual’s offspring. Thus, a child with one parent with blue eyes and one with brown can itself have brown eyes, but still be able to transmit blue eyes to its own children.

Evolution takes place when a new form of a gene appears which can change the physical characteristics of an individual, so increasing the chances of that individual surviving to breed. Eventually, the new form of the gene will completely replace the old. But in the interim (which may be a very long time) successive generations of individuals can carry both forms of the gene, with some individuals displaying the new characteristics but still passing on to some of their offspring genes for the old characteristic. Likewise those displaying the new characteristic can transmit the gene for the old characteristic to some of their offspring. When the new gene comes to predominate, it usually does so among people who share a common ancestor (the first possessor of the gene) but who have many other ancestors as well. [44] So an African origin for modern humans does not entail us all having one, and only one, distant female ancestor, whose descendants wiped everyone else’s; rather it means we had at least one shared ancestor as well as many others.

Allan Wilson, who did the first genetic research suggesting the shared African ancestor, certainly did not believe she was the single source from which we came. As two of his colleagues wrote shortly after he died about such interpretations: “they have confused the migration and extinction of genes with those of populations. There is no suggestion that Eve was the first, and, at one time, the only, woman.” [45]

Chris Stringer, one of the most eminent members of the “single origin” school, recognises that “during the few thousand years of possible coexistence of Neanderthals and modern homo sapiens, extensive gene flow could have occurred between groups ...” [46] At a 1987 conference on human origins there was “a consensus that although there are considerable morphological differences between archaic and modern homo sapiens, hybridisation or local continuity between the two groups cannot be ruled out”. [47] This possibility is reinforced by the fact that the two groups coexisted for some thousand years in certain areas, living in the same sites (although not necessarily together) and using similar tools.

Even if humans did not interbreed with the Neanderthals and other archaic members of our species, it does not at all follow that they displaced them by violence. It does not require violence for one animal population to replace another within a few thousand years. It only requires that one is more successful than the other at getting a livelihood from the environment. This leads to its numbers growing, depleting the resources available to the other until its birth rate is no longer sufficient to make up for its death rate. Models have been suggested for how this could have happened in the case of modern humans and Neanderthals within a mere 1,000 years, without one butchering the other. [48]



Brain, culture, language and consciousness

Much more important than the argument over the exact line of ancestry of modern humans are other questions with which it is often interlinked. These concern the origins of culture and language.

The debate arises because skeletal and stone tools do not, in themselves, tell us how our ancestors lived, the degree to which they communicated with each other, how successful they were at gathering vegetarian foodstuffs and hunting, still less whether they told each other stories, engaged in rituals or had inner thoughts. The structure of the cranial skeleton does not even let us know in detail how the brain was constructed, let alone what it did. And the remaining stone tools of our ancestors cannot tell us anything about their wooden and bone tools (which were probably much more prevalent, since these substances are easier to shape than stone), whether they used animal skins and vegetarian matter for decoration (which would imply imagination) as well as simply to eat and keep warm.

So, just as there are elaborate, opposed conjectures about the genealogies of the physical bodies from which skeletons come, there are completely contradictory interpretations of the development of their minds and cultures.

There are two main sets of theories. First are those which see culture and language arising very early in hominid history, at least by the time of homo habilis (2 million years ago) as human beings co-operated to use tools to get a livelihood. The development of culture, language, the brain and human intelligence is seen as a long, cumulative process, beginning 2 million years ago and continuing until the arrival of the first fully modern humans, some 100,000 or more years ago. The requirement of coping with the environment and the upright posture adopted by the ancestral hominids led, in each generation, to the natural selection of those genes which encouraged intelligence and sociability. As Nancy Makepiece Tanner has put it:

Selection would intensely favour the more intelligent young who could effectively execute the new behaviour ... Reorganisation (of the brain) could have happened quite rapidly: young who did not make it and died before reproductive age did not pass on their genes. Selection would have favoured young who were curious, playful and cued in to the behaviour of other group members, imitating tool making skills and environmental know-how, learning to recognise and to interact with a wide and diverse social network. [49]

Most such interpretations have built on the work of Glyn Isaacs, who argued that collections of animal bones alongside tools at Olduvai pointed to the existence among homo habilis of “home bases” to which they carried the carcasses of hunted animals to be shared out among themselves. [50] The tools themselves, it is claimed, could not have been made without a level of manual dexterity and intelligence way beyond that of the apes. As John Gowlett argues:

We know certainly that tool making goes back for at least 2 million years ... Through the process of detaching hundreds of flakes ... in sequence ... each individual step is subordinate to the ultimate goals ... The striking of individual flakes requires manual dexterity and hand-eye co-ordination, as well as an appreciation of the fracture properties of stone. More than this, it requires the ability to “see” where the flake will come off. [51]

Along with this stress on tool making and intellectual development goes a claim that the skull of homo habilis points to a specifically human-like organisation of the brain, complete with the first development of areas adapted to speech (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas), which is “strongly suggestive that even 2 or 3 million years ago natural selection was operating on eco-niche adaptation and that cognitive and social behaviour was surely the main focus”. [52]

According to this view, the successive enlargements of the brain over 2 or 3 million years correspond to the increased dependence on communicative and cognitive skills, which in turn were necessary for the transmission of knowledge about increased tool making, for co-operative gathering and hunting and for coping with the much denser networks of social interactions which grew out of both these activities.

Some proponents of this account claim there is archaeological evidence which backs it up: the finding of “base camps” among homo habilis, the remains of fire use among homo erectus, “ritual burial sites”, the remnants of ochre skin painting and of hut building among archaic human beings. All these are said to point to a growing complexity of social life, to growing transmission of culture, to increased symbolic communication, and to expressions of intelligence and artistic imagination similar to, even if less developed than, those among modern humans.

If this model of human evolution is correct, it vindicates Engels’ account. As Charles Woolfson has said, it means that “the broad outlines of Engels’ theory are, by and large, confirmed by contemporary research, and that, in this respect, Engels’ essay is a brilliant scientific anticipation of what is now thought to be the likely pattern of human evolution”. [53]



The new idealist challenge

But this model has faced some sharp challenges in the last few years. These have rested on a number of claims.

Firstly, that much of the archaeological evidence is unreliable. Isaacs’ homo habilis “base camps” could have been little more than early human versions of the chimpanzees’ nests and the animal bones the result of individual scavenging of animal remains left by other carnivores, not of socially organised hunting. [54] Skull remains do not tell enough about the shape of the brains they once enclosed for us to deduce the existence of specialised areas (Broca’s and Weinecke’s areas) devoted to speech. [55] Remains which allegedly show hut construction among homo erectus and the use of decoration among archaic homo sapiens can, in fact, be explained in very different ways that do not involve any high level of culture. Alleged ritual burials could just as well have been the result of natural events – the collapsing of cave roofs on their occupants, for example. [56]

Secondly, the most convincing evidence we have, the stone tools that remain, change very little through the million year long duration of homo erectus and the hundred thousand long history of the Neanderthals. What is remarkable, it is claimed, is not that there is change, but that there has not been much greater, much more rapid, much more systematic advance. This does not occur until the “upper palaeolithic” cultures of the modern humans some 35,000 years ago. Until then, it is claimed, the tool production did not differ qualitatively from what happens among non-human mammal species. [57] And it is only then that we find unchallengeable evidence of artistic production (cave paintings) and ritual behaviour (ceremonial burial, etc).

Thirdly, it is claimed that neither homo erectus nor the Neanderthals had a larynx capable of making more than a fraction of the range of sounds made by modern man, and that, they were, therefore, incapable of language as we know it. [58]

Finally, it is said, the model rests on an outdated, gradualist version of evolutionary theory, in which species change a little at a time as individual genetic mutations arise and are selected. More recent evolutionary theory accepts the possibility of what Gould and Eldridge call “punctuated evolution” according to which genetic change can take place in bursts. [59]

The overall impact of these different arguments has been to encourage a fashion in recent years which sees “a distinctively human way of life” as arising very late in history, as a result of a “human revolution” which first produced culture and langauge. A recent exposition of the argument puts it like this:

Homo erectus had very nearly a modern brain capacity, but apparently very little in the way of human culture to show for it. If human origins are taken to mean the beginnings of a recognisably human culture, then the first 3.5 million of the 4 million years of hominid history must be countered still as a period of pre-history ... [60]

It seems likely that the most momentous changes occurred only after the evolution of homo sapiens. They may even have begun later still, after anatomically modern humans replaced the early varieties of homo sapiens. [61]

If this is true, then Engels’ account was fundamentally misconceived. Something other than co-operative labour must have been behind the evolution of humanity. But the argument has huge holes in it which cannot be plugged by materialist explanations.

The evidence on stone tools does not prove that no advance in culture occurred. Stone would never have been the only substance used by our homo habilis and homo erectus predecessors to make tools, even if it was the one most able to survive the rigours of time. They certainly used wood, bone, animals skins and fire to cope with their environment, and would probably have found ways to make twine of various sorts for trapping animals and for carrying. [62] All of these could have been as important to them, if not more important, than stone, and could have been used in innumerable, changing, ways which left next to no evidence. What is more, a slow change in stone tools is not the same as no change at all. And it certainly does not prove they were made by creatures without cumulative intellectual and cultural development.

As McGrew points out, there is an enormous gap between the tools used by chimps and those used by homo habilis, let alone homo erectus:

Chimps are skilful makers and users of tools ... there are certain things chimps have not been seen to do ... They do not make flaked stone tools ... They do not use digging sticks to get at roots ... They do not use missiles or ladders to get at out-of-the way fruit. [63]

S.T. Parker and K.R. Gibson, using Piaget’s conceptual framework for language development in humans, claim that evidence suggests that early hominids would have had “intelligence and language comparable to that of young children”. [64] Thomas Wynn argues by the end of the Acheulian period, 300,000 years ago, early humans had already reached the second highest stage in human intellectual development, that of “concrete operations”, with the “almost perfect symmetry of hand axes” pointing to an aptitude for “reversibility, conservation, correction of errors, and so on”. [65]

Stone tools could have changed very slowly simply because they were adequate to the tasks set them – in the same way that some basic tools of carpentry show little change from Ancient Egyptian times through to the early 20th century. And even if the stone tools changed slowly, this does not mean they were easily made or could be the result of people simply copying others without giving any thought to what they were doing.

Certainly, stone tools cannot be used to justify claims of an enormous gap between the first modern humans and the later “archaic” humans. Not only did both groups coexist for many tens of thousands of years, but also that they shared cultures. Until 40,000 years ago the modern humans of Europe and the Middle East used the same sort of “Mousterian” tools as the Neanderthals (as is acknowledged by Adam Kuper, who accepts the fashionable view that a “distinctively human culture” only goes back 25,000 to 35,000 years.) [66] Yet the last surviving Neanderthals of 35,000 years ago had learnt to use some of the same more advanced technologies as their modern human neighbours. [67]

Even after modern humans had moved on to these new technologies, change was often very slow, with “no major technological developments, no significant increase in man’s ability to generate energy” for a long period. [68] In what is now France, for example, there was a gap of up to 20,000 years between the arrival of “upper palaeolithic” culture 35,000 years ago and the Magdalenian cave paintings at La Marche. And it was another 10,000 years before agricultural techniques replaced hunting and gathering in the area.

The picture, then, is one of a slow development of techniques over 2 or 3 million years, with some acceleration 200,000 to 150,000 years ago just as the Neanderthals and the first modern humans were appearing. Further acceleration took place 30,000 to 35,000 years ago, among both the growing modern human population and the declining Neanderthal population; further rapid change at the time the cave paintings some 15,000 years ago; very rapid development with the rise of agriculture 10,000 to 5,000 years ago; and massive acceleration over the last thousand years. This suggests that, although there could have been important biological differences between archaic and modern humans, the speed of innovation did not, necessarily, depend on this. Something else had to be involved.

Even if homo erectus and the archaic humans had a much more limited vocal range than modern humans – and some paleontologists challenge this conclusion [69] – this does not mean that Neanderthals and other archaic humans lacked language completely. It simply means they were not as good at communicating with each other as ourselves. As Lieberman, the arch-exponent of the view stressing the linguistic limitations of the Neanderthals, himself writes: “The computer modelling does not show the Neanderthal hominids totally lacked speech or language; they had the anatomical prerequisites for producing nasalised versions of all the sounds of human speech save [i], [u] and [a] and velar consonants, and probably had fairly well developed language and culture”. [70]

Finally, the argument that punctuated evolution can take place does not, in itself, prove that it did take place in such a way as to produce culture and language suddenly. And there is one powerful argument against this – that of brain size. If the evolution of humanity was the result of very rapid changes towards the end of a period of millions of years, then that is when you would expect the most characteristic feature of homo sapiens – the massive size of our brain compared to our bodies – to arise. The original formulation of the punctuated evolution hypothesis by Gould and Eldridge in fact held to this view, contending that the brain hardly increased in size for the million years homo erectus existed. But, as Stringer points out, there is “little evidence” to back up this view. [71]

That leaves a problem for any theory which sees the “human revolution” as occurring all at once half a million years ago with the replacement of homo erectus by homo sapiens, let alone 35,000 years ago after the evolution of anatomically modern humans: why did late homo erectus have a brain twice the size of the Australopithecines, and the Neanderthals a modern sized brain? It could not have been simply to undertake the mental operations which could be done by their ancestors millions of years before.

At the same time, it is inconceivable that our forebears of a million years ago could have survived unless they had already developed ways of co-operating together to cope with their environment and of transmitting knowledge to each other on a qualitatively greater scale than is to be found among our ape cousins. For by that time they were already moving out of the African valleys where their species originated to colonise much of Eurasia, showing they were capable not just of living in a certain restricted ecological niches, but of adapting a variety of environments to their needs – learning to discriminate between those newly encountered varieties of plants that were edible and those that were poisonous, learning to hunt new sorts of animals, learning to protect themselves against new predators, learning to cope with new climates.



The dialectic of labour and intellect

The direct archaeological evidence for social labour – or for any other form of behaviour – among our forbears is necessarily weak. But the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

Look at the features that distinguished homo erectus from the apes. It walked on two legs and lost the easy escape route from predators of fleeing into the trees; its young took considerably longer to mature (and so needed a longer period of protection by their elders); the males of the species were now only on average 20 percent larger than the females, not 100 percent, and so were not built mainly for defence; it experienced considerable reduction in the size of the canines (the long pointed side teeth with which monkeys and apes can threaten would-be predators and to kill small animals for food); its back teeth (molars) were adapted to a diet which included much meat, while excluding any vegetable matter that required much grinding down during chewing; the hand was reshaped, with the development of a thumb that could hold and manipulate small objects; female sexual interest was no longer concentrated mainly around the time of ovulation; and, as we have seen, there was an enormous increase in brain size.

A creature with this combination of features could only survive if it had developed some means of replacing some of the physical characteristics it had lost. It had to be able to defend its young for longer periods of time than its ape cousins despite losing apes’ enormous canines, tree climbing abilities and large male build. It had to be able to cope with a greater variety of vegetation than them despite having molars that were not as good at grinding. It had to find some way to cut up the flesh of animals, whether it hunted them itself or merely relied on finding carcasses left by other predators. All of these things point to an enormous dependence on the use of artefacts of various sorts to defend, to cut up, to dig, to gather and to grind. They also point to a much greater level of social organisation than is found among even the most sociable of apes: it is this which probably explains the change in the pattern of female sexuality, encouraging permanent ties between the sexes rather than the frenetic coupling concentrated around a couple of days a month to be found in common chimps. But to transmit the knowledge of the necessary techniques and to cope with the enormous level of social co-operation involved in social living on this scale required a much higher level of brain power than previously. Over many millennia those creatures whose genes changed in such a way as to best enable them to learn from, to communicate with and to care for each other would have an advantage when it came to surviving and reproducing. Natural selection would bring about the evolution in the direction of ever larger, denser and more complex neural networks, capable of directing and learning from intricate motor functions of the hand and of using minute changes in gesture or voice to communicate.

Only if you see things in this way can you explain why our species was already endowed with the capacities 35,000 years ago to develop a whole new range of technologies. The explanation lies in 2 million years of cumulative evolution, with labour at each stage encouraging the adept hand, greater sociability and the larger brain. And, at each stage, the adept hand, greater sociability and the larger brain made possible more advanced forms of labour. But all this makes labour the real missing link in the story of human evolution, as Engels rightly insisted.

Such labour had enormous implications for the brain. Those best at the co-operating with others in tool production and use would have been those whose brains underwent changes in structure and size that made them better at co-ordinating the motor functions controlling the hands with vision and hearing, while also becoming more responsive to the signals of others of their kind. [72] A cumulative process would soon have been underway in which survival depended on culture, and the ability to partake in culture upon a genetic endowment that encouraged the combination of sociability, communication, dexterity and reasoning power.

It is this which explains why our forebears were able, a million or so years ago, to move out of their African ancestral home into the very different climatic conditions of Eurasia, and why the Neanderthals were able to survive the harsh conditions of the European ice age for 100,000 years or more. However great or little their differences from us, they could not have survived unless they had at least substantial rudiments of culture, language and intelligence. After all, they were like us in one very important respect: they had nothing else to protect them – no body fur, no great speed in flight, no tusks or claws, no ready ability to disappear into the trees.

It is this which also explains the development of those most peculiarly human attributes, language and consciousness. The distinctive feature about human language, as opposed to the sounds and gestures made by other animals, is that we use words to refer to things and situations that are not actually present in front of us. We use them to abstract from the reality that confronts us and to describe other realities. And once we can do this to others, we can also do it to ourselves, using the ‘inner speech’ that goes on inside our heads to envisage new situations and new goals. The ability to do these things cannot have arisen at one go. It must have grown up over many generations as our remote ancestors learnt in practice, through labour, to abstract from and to change immediate reality – as they began to use sounds and gestures not merely to indicate what was immediately in front of them or what they immediately desired (which is what some animals do) but to indicate how they wanted to change something and how they wanted others to help them. In tool use we know there was a significant change from the ape to the early humans: the ape picks up a stick or stone to use as a tool; the early humans of 2 million years ago were already not only shaping the stick or stone, but using other stones to do the shaping, and, undoubtedly, learning from each other how to do this. This implies not merely conceptions about immediate things (food stuffs), but about things once removed from immediacy (the tool that can get the food stuff) and twice removed from immediate reality (the tool that can shape the tool that gets the food stuff). And it also implies communication, whether by gesture or sound, about things two stages removed from immediate conditions – in effect, the first use of abstract nouns, adjectives and verbs. The development of labour and the development of communication thus, necessarily, go hand in hand. And as they both develop, they both encourage the selection of those new genes which made people more adept at both: the more agile hand, the larger brain, the larynx that made a wider range of sounds.

Such developments do not involve just quantitative changes. As the growth of labour, the growth of sociability and the growth of language reinforced each other, encouraging the selection of a whole range of new genes, new networks of nerve cells would emerge in the brain, making possible whole new ranges of interaction between people and the world around them. This may well explain why suddenly new species of humans developed that lived alongside and then superseded those that went before, as with the successive emergence of homo habilis, of homo erectus, of the various sorts of archaic human. Thus, it may well be the case that modern humans eventually replaced the Neanderthals because they were able to communicate more quickly and clearly with each other (although we will probably never know for certain if this was so).

So there has to be a recognition of how quantity turns into quality, of how through successive changes animal life gave birth to that new form of life we call ‘human’, which had a dynamic of its own, shaped by its labour and its culture not by its genes. But this should not lead to a collapse into a new idealism which sees culture and language as emerging from nowhere in the fairly recent past. If such an approach is fashionable in some circles, it is not because it can provide a scientific, materialist account of our origins, but because its fits in with the much wider mood of the intelligentsia since the late 1970s. In virtually every discipline there has been the attempt to separate off the development of language and ideas from the development of material reality. As in the days of Marx and Engels, the struggle for science is a struggle against both idealism and mechanical materialism – with idealism today taking the form of “post modernist” fashions, and mechanical materialism of sociobiology. [73]



Loose ends

There are many details in the story of human evolution that are not yet resolved and which, because of the paucity of the evidence, may never be resolved. This accounts for a whole series of ongoing debates which produce heat at academic conferences and give rise to nice titbits for science journalists.

There is, for example, a fascinating debate about why a group of apes adopted two-legged walking in the first place. Most authorities say it was because climactic change broke up the forests in which the ancestral apes lived, presenting the ancestral apes with a choice between retreating into the remaining forest or adapting to a more open environment. Natural selection would then have picked out genetic traits among the groups which retreated into the forest adapted to that sort of life, the traits we find in today’s gorillas. And in the same way it would have picked out among the grassland dwellers the “co-operative” and culturally transmitted tool using traits we find among humans: “The hominids obtained less succulent and probably much harder to find plant foods in the new environment, the east African savannah. They specialised by becoming more intelligent and bipedal, and by using tools.” [74] As against this, others claim archaeological evidence points to the first two-legged apes living in forests, not bush and grassland. [75]

There is another debate about the role of hunting in the first steps along the hominid line. The revival of discussion on the social aspects of human evolution was given an enormous boost by the 1966 Man the Hunter conference convened by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore which drew together archaeologists and anthropologists studying present day hunter-gatherer societies. As the title of the conference suggests, the stress was on hunting as the formative social activity. [76] But this was soon challenged by those [77] who said the archaeological evidence for homo habilis pointed to individual scavenging (the eating of animals already killed by other carnivores) not collective hunting. This in turn led to the rejoinder that our ancestors would have had every incentive to scavenge collectively (numbers would have frightened off the carnivore that killed the prey in the first place, while there was little point in the individual hominid hogging for him or herself a carcass far too big to be eaten by one person before it went mouldy). [78]

At the same time, from another direction, it was stressed the early bipeds would necessarily have been unsuccessful hunters, but that to rear their young and to be successful gatherers of vegetarian food they would have had to become social tool users: “To all indications the ancestral chimp-like population of 5 million years ago possessed behavioural and anatomical elements basic to the development of a gathering adaptation in which a whole range of savannah plant foods could have been exploited with tools ...” [79] The young had to undergo extensive socialisation if they were to learn to perform such tasks, which put a premium on the “mother-offspring tie”, with females “as the necessary centre of the social group: Appropriate motor patterns for making and using gathering tools for digging, knocking down, scraping, opening or dividing foods, for carrying implements, food and babies, and for defence from predators, had to be learnt.” [80]

Finally, there is the debate already referred to, in passing, on the relations between the different hominid specimens that have been found – the various sorts of Australopithecus, homo habilis, homo erectus, the various sorts of “archaic humans”, the Neanderthals and modern humans.

But none of these disagreements among the professionals should obscure one of the most fascinating developments in intellectual history over the last 30 years – the vindication of the line of analysis laid out in the unfinished, unpublished pamphlet which Frederick Engels wrote after reading Darwin. Trigger tells how:

Engels’ work demonstrates that it was possible to conceptualise the modern materialist theory of human evolution already in the 1870s. Yet Darwin’s essentially idealist concepts about human evolution were clearly more compatible with the beliefs of most middle class scientists in Western Europe than were those of the arch-revolutionary Engels. Hence it was not surprising that Engels’ work was ignored ...

The result was that the search for origins spent three quarters of a century going up blind allies until, in the 1960s, “Kenneth Oakley, Sherwood Washburn and F. Clark Howell laid the groundwork for the construction of a new theory of evolution that, while arrived at largely inductively, closely resembled Engels’ long forgotten work”. [81]




1. The history of modern bourgeois philosophy has been very much a history of the polemic between the two views, although it cross cuts with other arguments, over how we gain access to knowledge, between empiricism and rationalism.

2. He never completed it, but it was later published in its incomplete form soon after his death, in the German socialist journal, Die Neue Zeit.

3. Utilising copious notes by Marx on Morgan’s book, published as Karl Marx, Ethnological Notebooks.

4. Gregor Mendel actually published his findings in an obscure journal published in Brünn (Brno) in 1865, but they were not rediscovered by other biologists until the turn of the century.

5. B. Trigger, Comment on Tobias, Piltdown, the Case Against Keith, in Current Anthropology, Vol.33, No.3, June 1992, p.275.

6. For an account of all these confusions, see A. Kuper, The Chosen Primate (London, 1994), pp.33-47.

7. On the paucity of attempts to explain human evolution until the 1960s, see the introduction to R. Foley (ed.), Hominid Evolution and Community Ecology (London, 1984), p.3.

8. C. Stringer,‘Human evolution and biological adaptation in the Pleistocene, in ibid., p.53.

9. N. Roberts, Pleistocene environment in time and space, in ibid., p.33.

10. Such a rapid change in the state of knowledge means that otherwise very useful works can be out of date in important respects. This applies, for instance, like Charles Woolfson’s Marxist account of much of the material on human evolution, The Labour Theory of Culture, although it was only published in 1982 and although its basic argument is very close to the one I present here. While I was writing this article, reports appeared in the scientific press suggesting the famous “Java man” fossil was a million years older than previously thought (New Scientist, 7 May, 1994) and that the earliest example yet of an Australopithecine had been found in Ethiopia.

11. And of one of their allegedly “radical” followers, Chris Knight. His book Blood Relations (Yale, 1991) is one great big Just So story – with lots of factual material distorted in an attempt to justify his claims. See my review, Blood Simple, International Socialism 54, Spring 1992, p.169.

12. Engels himself does at points in The Origin of the Family, but see later.

13. A separate species, Pan paniscus, to the common chimp (Pan troglodytes).

14. Although a few zoologists still argue for the orang-utang. See, for instance, J.H.J. Schwartz, The Red Ape (London, 1987), reviewed by Peter Andrews in New Scientist, 14 May 1987.

15. S.I. Washburn and R. More, Only Once, in P B Hammond, Physical Anthropology and Archaeology (New York, 1976), p.18.

16. R. Ardrey, African Genesis (London, 1969), pp.9-10.

17. C.J. Lumsden and E.O. Wilson, Genes, Mind and Culture (Cambridge, Mass, 1981), p.258.

18. R. Ardrey, op. cit., p.170.

19. C.J. Lumsden and E.O. Wilson, op. cit., p.354.

20. These studies have been not been easy to undertake in a scientifically controlled way. They have involved trailing dispersed bands often 40 or more strong through sometimes dense woodland and among tree tops to which humans cannot easily get access, while recognising that the human presence itself can influence ape behaviour (with chimps, for instance, fighting over food when it is handed out once a day from a single human source in a way in which they might not when eating from dispersed plant life). As a result the evidence from the studies is open to different interpretations. They do, however, all point in a very different direction to the old “baboon” model. For discussions taking into account the wild life studies, see I.S. Bernstein and F.O. Smith (eds.), Primate Ecology and Human Origins (New York, 1979); W.C. McGrew, Chimpanzee Material Culture, in R.A. Foley, The Origins of Human Behaviour (London, 1991), pp 16-20. For accounts of original investigations, see J. Goodall, The Chimpanzees of Gombe (Cambridge, Mass, 1986); M.P. Giglieri, The Chimpanzees of Kibale Forest (New York, 1984); A.F. Dixson, The Natural History of the Gorilla (London, 1981); B.M.F. Galiliki and G. Teleki, Current Anthropology, June 1981.

21. Thus aggression between males over mating is more frequent in captivity than in the wild “because of the greater ability of the male to control the female in the cage”, according to R.H. Nadler, “Aggression in Common Chimps, Gorillas and Orang-utangs”; female pygmy chimps exercise choice over the males they mate with in the wild in a way in which they cannot while caged, according to J.F. Dahl, Sexual Aggression in Captive Pygmy Chimps. Abstracts of both papers appear in International Journal of Primatology, 1987, p.451.

22. For a summary of the evidence on this, see N.M. Tanner, Becoming Human (Cambridge, 1981), pp.87-89.

23. R. Leakey and R. Lewin, Origins (London, 1977), p.64.

24. N.M. Tanner, Becoming Human, op. cit., pp.95-96. See also Dixson, op. cit., p.148.

25. A.F. Dixson, op. cit., p.128. Amazingly, Ardrey admits that the gorilla is not aggressive or driven by a “territorial imperative” – and then concludes it has lost “vital instincts”, that “universal primate compulsions” have faded because the species is “doomed”! R. Ardrey, as above, pp.126-127.

26. This makes sense. Vegetarian foodstuffs are relatively bulky and found on dispersed trees and bushes. There is no advantage for the individual or the troop either in all eating at the same place. By contrast, meat can only be obtained if several chimps co-operate to kill a single, animal – and that is unlikely to happen unless the prey is shared between them.

27. See the drawings of Lokelema, a 25-35 year old female, and Bosondro, a 5.5 to 7.5 year old male, in N.M. Tanner, On Becoming Human, op. cit., pp.124-125.

28. A.L. Zihlman, Common Ancestors and Uncommon Apes, in J.R. Durrant, Human Origins (Oxford, 1989), p.98.

29. Ibid., p.98. See also J. Kingdon, Self Made Man (London, 1993), p.25. Cronin suggests that molecular evidence points to pan paniscus being the “relic stock” from which gorillas, the common chimpanzee and humans all descended, quoted in N.M. Tanner, On Becoming Human, op. cit., p.58.

30. The Australopithecines are usually divided into three or four species. One, Australopithecus afaresis (of which there exists a full skeleton, nicknamed “Lucy”), is seen as a direct ancestor of modern human beings; the others are usually seen as evolutionary dead ends, as creatures that adapted to certain ecological niches but which could not make the transition to new niches when the terrain changed.

31. Dart, the discoverer of the first Australopithecine skeletons, saw animals bones found with them as evidence of hunting by Australopithecines. But this claim has been challenged since, and the bones are usually thought to have been gathered by hyenas.

32. There is no universally accepted account of where the ape line ends and the human line begins, nor or how the human line is be distinguished into different species. However, most present day accounts put Australopithecus with the apes and accept the 2 million year old skull 1470 as being from the earliest known human species, homo habilis. See, for instance, R. Leakey and R. Lewin, Origins Revisited (London, 1993), p.117.

33. P.V. Tobias, The brain of homo habilis, Journal of Human Evolution, 1987, p.741; R. Leakey, Recent fossil finds in Africa, in J.R. Durant (ed.), Human Origins (Oxford, 1989); N.M. Tanner, On Becoming Human, op. cit., p.254.

34. It is claimed that skeletal remains at Omo in Ethiopia and Klasies River and Border Cave in South Africa are of modern humans living 130,000, and 80,000 to 100,000 years ago. But this evidence is challenged by people like Milford Wolpoff and Alan Thorne, see, for example, their article, The case against Eve, New Scientist, 22 June 1991, and the brief summary of critical comments at the 1987 Cambridge conference on human origins in S. McBrearty, The origins of modern humans, Man 25, 1989, p.131. It is also claimed that remains of anatomically modern humans found at Qafzeh in Palestine are 80,000 to 100,000 years old see, for instance, McBrearty, p.131, who notes, “this is consistent with either an African or a south west Asian origin for modern people”.

35. There is much controversy about the age of various early human remains in the Americas. For one summary of the arguments, see Gordon R. Willey, The Earliest Americans, in P.B. Hammond (ed.), Physical Anthropology and Archaeology, op. cit..

36. A point made by Graves, New Models and Metaphors for the Neanderthal Debate, Current Anthropology, Vol.32, No.5, December 1991, p.513. For an account of the discussion from more than half a century ago, see V.G. Childe, What happened In History (Harmondsworth, 1954), p.30.

37. This alternative view sometimes called the ‘multi-regionalist view’ and its best known proponent is Milford Wohlpoff.

38. There are doubts about the full “Out of Africa thesis” from people like Roger Leakey who do not ascribe to the full multi-regionalist position either. See, for instance, Leakey, Recent fossil finds in Africa, in J.R. Durant, op. cit., p.55: “I believe the world of 100,000 years ago was populated by regionally distinct groups of the same species; I do not favour the idea that the modern form of our species had a single geographic origin ...” The fossil evidence from widely separated parts of the world indicates to me that “homo sapiens in its modern form arose from a population of a more archaic form wherever its was established.” His tone is much more measured in his 1993 book, Origins Reconsidered, but this book was written jointly with Roger Lewin, who favours the single origins view. The joint authorship probably explains why the book gives such an excellent overview of the debate, see R. Leakey and R. Lewin, Origins Reconsidered, 1993, pp.211-235. For other accounts of the controversy see: Roger Lewin, DNA evidence strengthens Eve hypothesis, New Scientist, 19 October 1991; J Poulton, All about Eve, New Scientist, 14 May 1987; C Stringer, The Asian Connection, New Scientist, 17 November 1990; Scientists Fight It Out and It’s All about Eve, Observer, 16 February 1992; M. Wohlpoff and A. Thome, The Case Against Eve, New Scientist, 22 July 1991; S. McBrearty, The Origin of Modern Humans, Man 25, pp.129-143; R. Leakey, Recent Fossil Finds in Africa, and C. Stringers, Homo Sapiens: Single or Multiple Origin, both in J.R. Davent (ed.), Human Origins (Oxford, 1989); P. Mellors and C. Stringer (eds.), The Human Revolution (Edinburgh, 1989); P. Graves, New Models and Metaphors for the Neanderthal Debate, Current Anthropology, Vol.32, No.5, December 1991; R.A. Foley, The Origin of Human Behaviour (London, 1991), p.83.

39. The “multi-regionalist” view is sometimes seen as somehow providing some justification for racism, since it argues that people in different parts of the world began to develop certain differentiating features hundreds of thousand rather than tens of thousands of years ago. But this is to make an elementary logical mistake. Since it assumes a much slower rate of evolution, and therefore of the evolution of human differences, than the single origins view, it cannot be taken to prove the final differentiation was any greater.

Just as mistaken is the claim that the origin of modern humans in Africa refutes the white racists or even proves that Africans are a superior “race” to “whites”. A racist could easily accept an African origins for modern humans, and then insist that this shows Africans are more “primitive” since they have “evolved less” than “whites”, basing the claim on the argument that if modern man could evolve very quickly into a separate and superior species from the Neanderthals 100,000 or so years ago, why could not white have developed into separate and superior species to blacks 20,000 years ago? This was, in fact, the racist argument during the many decades in which Neanderthals were seen as “primitive ape men”.

Racist arguments are wrong, not because of one or other hypothesis about human origins, but because there is no backing for them in what we know about the genetic and biological make-up of living human beings. The human species cannot be divided into distinct sub-groups, each of which is made of individuals who are distinguished from those in other subgroups by a complete set of genes and physical characteristics. At most it can be divided into groups according to variations in particular individual characteristics such as the amount of melanin in the skin, the tendency of hair to curl, eye colour, blood group, height, nose length, or whatnot. But these groups for particular characteristics are not congruent with each other. The group of people with little melanin (“whites”) contains many people with brown eyes. The group of people with large noses contains people with all levels of melanin. This cross cutting nature of the groupings applies even when particular characteristics tend to be concentrated in certain parts of the world: so the geographic distribution of blood groups does not coincide at all with that for melanin (i.e. skin “colour”), and neither coincides with the distribution of the sickle cell gene (which is found among Greeks, Turks, Italians, Arabs and Africans). So the common sense notion of race – a product of the slave trade and imperialist conquest – cannot be used as a valid scientific category. For a full discussion on these matters, see F.B. Livingstone, On the non-existence of human races, in Current Anthropology, 3 (1962), p.279; see also the comment on Livingstone’s argument by T. Dobzhansky, in the same place.

It would be a fundamental mistake for anyone to make the argument against racism dependent upon theories about the past which might by thrown into doubt by a new discovery of archaic bones or new techniques for deciphering humanity’s genetic past.

40. R. Ardrey, African Genesis (London, 1967), p.20.

41. R.A. Dart, The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man, International Anthropological and Linguistic Review, Vol.1, No.4, 1953.

42. This is the presentation of the argument by two of its opponents, M. Wolpoff and A. Thome (The Case Against Eves, New Scientist, 22 June 1991). But the same gloss is put on the hypothesis by some of those who support it.

43. I am simplifying the argument here to make it as easy to follow as possible. In fact, most characteristics are a product of many different pairs of genes. But this does not affect the validity of my point. For a fuller popular account of the most modern genetic theory, see S. Jones, The Language of Genes (London, 1993), Ch 2.

44. Geneticists distinguish between the continuous transformation of a whole species into a new species which succeeds the old through gene selection (“anagenesis”) and the branching off of one sub-population to develop into a new species alongside the old (“cladogenesis”). See the introduction to R. Foley (ed.), Hominid Evolution and Community Ecology, p.15. Alexeev calls those who see whole human species developing into new species as “lumpers”, those who see one small group splitting off to form a new group “splitters”. O. Alexeev, The Origins of the Human Race (Moscow, n.d.), p.101.

45. This leads them to point out the “African Eve” and the “multi-regionalist” hypotheses need not necessarily exclude each other: “If genes controlling skull shape are in nuclear DNA, which seems probable, they may locally change frequency as a result of drift or local environmental selection pressures. Thus we see no incompatibility in the African origin of all human mitochondrial tissue and the local continuation of distinctive bone structure. The existence of both certainly strengthens the view of the human race as one single interbreeding population”, T. Rowell and M.C. King, letter in New Scientist, 14 September 1991.

46. C. Stringer, Homo sapiens, single or multiple origin, in J.R. Durant, op. cit., p.77.

47. S. McBrearty, op. cit., p.134.

48. See, for example, P. Graves, op. cit., p.521, and E. Zubrow, quoted in R. Leakey and R. Lewin, Origins Reconsidered, p.234-5.

49. N.M. Tanner, op. cit., p.155.

50. For summaries of Isaacs’ views, and the criticisms made of them by Binford and others, see R.J. Blumenschine, Breakfast at Olorgesalie, Journal of Human Evolution, Vol.21, No.4, October 1991, and J.M. Sept, Was there no place like home?, Current Anthropology, Vol.33, No.2, April 1992.

51. J.A. Gowlett, The Mental Abilities of Early Man, in R. Foley (ed.), op. cit.

52. Quoted in N.M. Tanner, op. cit., p.206 See also P.V. Tobias, The brain of homo habilis, Journal of Human Evolution, 1987, p.741.

53. C. Woolfson, The Labour Theory of Culture, op. cit., p.3.

54. J.M. Sept, Was there no place like home?, op. cit., and Binford, quoted in R.J. Blumenshine, Breakfast at Olorgesailie, p.307.

55. Argument quoted by P. Graves, op. cit., p.519.

56. Robert Cargett’s view, referred to in R. Leakey and R. Lewin, Origins Reconsidered, p.270; see also M.C. Stimer, T.D. White and N. Toth, The Cultural Significance of Grotta Guaterii Reconsidered, Current Anthropology, Vol.32, No.2, April 1991.

57. Strangely enough, this argument is put very strongly by a would-be Marxist, Chris Knight, op. cit.

58. Lieberman’s arguments are contained in his Uniquely Human (Cambridge Mass, 1991).

59. See Gould and Eldridge, Paleobiology 3, 1977; for a criticism of their views, see Cronin and others, Nature 292; for a summary of the debate, see C. Stringer, Human Evolution and Biological Adaptation in the Pleistocene, in R.A. Foley (ed.), Hominid Ecology, p.57.

60. A. Kuper, op. cit., p.53.

61. Ibid., p.79.

62. The importance of twine or string of some sort is stressed by Jonathan Kingdon, whose knowledge of the ecology of African mammals is able to throw enormous light on the conditions in which early human found themselves, see his Self Made Man, op. cit., p.51.

63. W.C. McGrew, Chimpanzee Material Culture, in R.A. Foley (ed.), The Origins of Human Behaviour (London, 1991, p.19-20.

64. S.T. Parker and K.R. Gibson, The Importance of Theory for Reconstructing the Evolution of Language and Intelligence, in A.B. Chiarelli and R.S. Corrucinia (eds.), Advanced Primate Biology (Berlin, 1982), p.49.

65. T. Wynn, Archaeological Evidence for Modern Intelligence, in R.A. Foley (ed.), The Origins, op. cit., pp.56-63.

66. A. Kuper, op. cit., p.89.

67. P. Graves, op. cit., pp.519-521; R.A. Foley, The Origins, op. cit., p.83.

68. N. David, On upper palaeolithic society, ecology and technological change: the Noaillan case, in Colin Renfrew (ed.), Explaining Cultural Change (London, 1973),p.276.

69. B. Arensburg and B. Vandermeersch claim that the hyoid bone of a Neanderthal from 60,000 years ago found in the Kebara Cave at Mount Carmel in Israel indicates that “the morphological basis for human speech capabilities appears to have been fully developed”, quoted in R. Leakey and R. Lewin, Origins Reconsidered, op. cit., p.272. Lieberman challenges the significance of this find. For his own account of this controversy, see his Uniquely Human, op. cit., p.67.

70. Lieberman, ibid., p.65.

71. C. Stringer, Human Evolution and Biological Adaptation in the Pleistocene, in R.A. Foley (ed.), op. cit., p.64.

72. Even Lieberman, with his contention that full use of language was a late development, stresses the role of labour: “The brain mechanisms that control speech probably derive from ones that facilitated precise one-handed manual tasks.”

73. The point is very important, since one of the best refuters of sociobiology, Stephen Gould, shows some signs in his recent works of a certain “post-modernist” slippage. In Bully for Brontosaurus he tends towards acceptance of the view that language arose suddenly 35,000 years ago, while in Wonderful Life (London, 1989) he outlines a whole philosophy of history that emphasizes its accident proneness and arbitrariness rather than its intelligibility, as when he writes: “A historical explanation does not rest on direct deductions from laws of nature, but on an unpredictable sequence of antecedent states, where any major change in any step in the sequence would have altered the final result. This final result is therefore dependent, or contingent, upon everything that came before – the unerasable and determining signature of history” (p.283). But, in fact, everything is not “contingent”. In certain conditions, both in the biological world and in history, certain things are likely to happen – faced with mass exinctions of species, certain creatures with a certain genetic make-up are more likely to survive than others, faced with a certain change in the environment certain sorts of human labour and social organisation are more likely to be able to cope than others, faced with certain changes in society classes with certain interests are likely to react in certain ways. That is why we cannot only write history, but use it, within limits, to illuminate the present. I can’t help feeling that Gould himself would have recognised this in the radical 1960s and his present stance is very much a reflection of changing intellectual fashions rather than personal conviction. It should also be added that excellent simplicity of language with which he expresses scientific ideas can disguise the fact that sometimes the views he expresses are ones which other researchers strenuously resist (as with his particular interpretation of the Burgess Shale findings in Wonderful Life.

74. N.M. Tanner, op. cit., p.56.

75. R.J. Rayner and others, Journal of Human Evolution, Vol.24, p.219, quoted in S. Bunney, Early Humans were Forest Dwellers, New Scientist, 10 April 1993.

76. See, for example, the contribution of W.S. Laughlin, Hunting, its Evolutionary Importance, in P.B. Hammond, op. cit., p.42.

77. For instance, L. Binford, Bones, Ancient Man and Modern Myths (New York, 1981).

78. See, for example, B.J. King, Comment on J.M. Sept, Was there no place like home?, Current Anthropology, Vol.33, No.2, April 1992, p.197.

79. N.M. Tanner, op. cit., p.139.

80. Ibid., p.149.

81. B. Trigger, comment on Tobias, Piltdown, the Case Against Keith, in Current Anthropology, Vol.33, No.3, June 1992.


Last updated on 17.4.2004