The revolution that worked … after many experiments

In this guest post, MIKE NELSON comments on Steve Drury’s review on this site of Christopher Boehm’s book Moral Origins, and the exchange that followed between Chris Knight and Steve Drury.  

The discussion on this site about human origins points to the need for a Marxist critique of anthropology. We need to work towards a better understanding of the human revolution in the paleolithic period, and of

Lascaux cave painting

Hunters brought back food, which was shared. (A Lascaux cave painting.)

“human nature” – not as an inherent biological quality, but as the potential that we have to live in a different, communistic, way.

From the articles published, it seems that Christopher Boehm, Chris Knight and Steve Drury all profess that our morals today are not genetically determined. Most people on the left, including many anthropologists – and myself – would agree with that statement. But there are problems in understanding the period of overlap – when natural selection continued to transform hominin genes, but humans were also beginning to transform themselves through culture, through changes in behaviour of groups, i.e. were beginning to make themselves human in the first human revolution.

The problems are compounded by the use of terms “natural selection”, “evolution” and “Darwinian evolution”, sometimes to mean the evolution and selection of  genes, and sometimes to mean the evolution and selection of human social behaviours, perhaps using an analogy to Darwinian evolution. Sometimes it is unclear which meaning is being used. As the geneticist Steve Jones said: “Evolution is to analogy as statues are to birdshit.”

Genes do not have to be mentioned. They can lurk in expressions about “human nature”, “alpha males”, “naturally egalitarian” or “social selection”.

According to Chris Knight, Boehm says that “a revolutionary change in culture and politics can decisively reconstruct our deepest nature, altering the trajectory of genetic evolution“. So the change in culture became embodied in the genes.

In Moral Origins, Boehm puts it more precisely:

Even though common sense alone can tell us that our dispositions to extrafamilial generosity are significant, it’s equally obvious that this is rather negligible compared to our truly powerful dispositions to egoism and to nepotism. It is also apparent that these genetic dispositions don’t determine our actions. Rather, they set up the behaviours in question so that they will be exceptionally easy to learn. Thus we must consider the interaction of genes and culture, and the influence of social environment on how we behave should not be underestimated.

Fair enough. But why is there a heading that refers to “innate generosity”? It is not obvious at all how much is genetic disposition, and how powerful are the dispositions towards egoism and nepotism. Boehm is appealing to people’s familiarity with the way we live now, in a culture dominated by patriarchal class society, capital and an oppressive state. So –  the usual explanation (meaning justification) of the way things are. He builds a theory on the dispositions toward generosity.

Boehm chooses to focus on changes in genes of particular individuals, so a major hypothesis in Moral Origins  is of “selection by reputation” (which he credits to the evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander). Some people changed their behaviour, became more attractive mates, resulting in their genes prevailing.  

Boehm argues that “groups having more or better cooperators will outreproduce lesser groups.” Boehm concentrates more on “collective punishment and free-rider suppression as these affect selection taking place between individuals within groups.” The suppression sometimes takes the form of “elimination”. The result is passed on in the genes only of the promoters of cooperation.

There is no need for the postulation of the more altruistic individual, whose genes get selected and therefore passed on, because the group they are in survives. The growth in cooperation could work entirely through the selection and flourishing of those groups who adopted cooperative hunting and sharing of food. Suppose that the majority of early humans were able to overcome the dispositions to egoism and nepotism. Egalitarianism could be explained entirely by the selection of groups which pass their social behaviour on, not their genes.

Why focus on the genetic dispositions, when the communal activities of the human revolution overcame all kinds of genetic predispositions, including those towards selfishness and these behaviours were passed on socially, without reference to the genes?

These group behaviours would be passed on, for example, by members migrating to other groups, by other groups imitating, by one group imposing them on another.

I am not saying selection of the fittest individual ceased, but that this is not primary and not so important to understanding the human revolution. Focusing on the changes in genes can end up being a justification for the way things are, whereas looking at how cultural changes happened helps us understand how things could be.

I am not sure how useful a concept “memes” is in understanding this revolution in behaviour, because again there is the danger of assuming too much similarity with “genes”, aggravated by a focus on individual rather than communal behaviours. At least it is clear that they are passed on socially, not inherited, but not so clear that they survive through the flourishing of group behaviours rather than individual actions.

In his research Boehm has observed that classical hunter-gatherer bands “actively preach in favour of wider generosity within the group, precisely because human propensities to be selfish or nepotistic are so strong in our species”. Put this idea together with genetic selection of the promoters of cooperation and it will serve well as the justification for the elevation of the priesthood by virtue of genetic superiority, civilising the rest of humanity.

You have to wonder what Boehm means by “community cooperation” when you read this:

In later, larger types of societies such as chiefdoms or early states, the same prosocial propensities can contribute to still greater community cooperation — and that today, as with both a ruthless Nazi Germany and Great Britain as Hitler’s adversary, cohesive cooperativeness can at least approach the truly selfless, “eusocial” collaboration that takes place in anthills.

To cite either Britain or Nazi Germany as examples of cohesive cooperativeness is barbaric. Storm-troopers and forced labour are not cooperation. British miners during world war two would not have described their work as “community cooperation”!

Class society was not an extension of cooperation but the triumph of its opposite – the forced expropriation of producers. Was building the pyramids another great example of the efficiency of this kind of cooperation, also called slavery?

What is essential for today is that we need not more cooperation with the state, but its overthrow to allow free cooperation, especially between women and men.

Boehm uses “social selection” to mean only the selection of genes associated with some social behaviour. He describes his “general evolutionary hypothesis” like this:

[…] that morality began with having a conscience and that conscience evolution began with systematic but initially nonmoralistic social control by groups. This involved punishment of individual “deviants” by angry bands of well-armed large-game hunters, and like the preaching in favor of generosity that followed, such punishment could be called “social selection” because the social preferences of group members and of groups as a whole were having systematic effects on gene pools.

Did this “having a conscience” come into being after a lightning bolt? Perhaps similar to the one that was supposed to have produced a brain with all the wiring for language including syntax?

Why is Chris Knight supporting such theories, when he has made significant contributions himself which may not require such reliance on genetic outcomes – for instance in an article he wrote in 2008 where he argued:

The “female cosmetic coalitions/sex strike” model links reverse dominance to the rising costs to human mothers of producing and nurturing infants with increasingly large brains.

One beginning for morality could well have been groups of women saying, or rather chanting, hollering, to men: “Bring meat! Don’t eat!”, and the groups of men on the hunt enforcing that “own kill” rule amongst themselves. The reverse dominance does not have to become solidified in the genes.

In Boehm’s earlier book Hierarchy in the Forest, he wrote of “triangulating to human nature” (!). There are always grounds for wariness when this term is used.

Boehm wrote that gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees could be “placed well towards the despotic end of the continuum”, and went on:

With humans, it is far more difficult to locate our behavioural dispositions with respect to “despotic” as opposed to “egalitarian”. In different circumstances we practice both types of political behaviour. The human animal can exhibit far more tyranny than any despotic African great ape, but it also can be more egalitarian than even the bonobo […]. The nature of human political dispositions remains in question. Are we so flexible that human behavior can be reshaped “at will” by environmental forces, or do some some serious problems exist with regard to our definitions and the perceptions of our own political nature?

Does the environment have a will? Human flexibility was not a passive adaptation, but people actively experimenting with new ways of surviving together. The environmental forces selected which ones worked for the group.

Modern anthropology therefore faced a dilemma. Politically equalised bands and tribes had been found on every continent , so this anomaly could not be explained as some kind of local historical development. They were found in a bewildering array of ecological niches, so environmental influences did not seem to be a major determinant: egalitarians foraged, farmed, and herded animals. They also used many different residence and descent rules and a variety of kin terms.

There were also some constants. Their smallish groups had local political autonomy. […] A political regularity that prevails in the face of so much variation in environment, subsistence pattern, and social organization demands a single causal explanation.

But there are constants in the environment as well. There were similarities in the range of plant and high protein animal food available. Above all, human big-brained babies were part of the “environment”. The need for prolonged care, the impossibility of taking them on the hunt, and their need for food to be brought back to them, were powerful factors conditioning the relation of human groups with their environment.

So even if a single causal explanation were required, there is no need to look for it outside human self-creativity, and no justification for exclusively genetic causes. The egalitarian practices were the ones that worked for the group, not for the individual and their genes.

Knight has called the human revolution a “bottom-up rebellion – whose egalitarian outcome has required constant vigilance on the part of hunter-gatherers ever since”.  Why has it required constant vigilance? Because it did not become fixed in the genes. Although you could not say that Knight or Boehm are genetic determinists, perhaps Steve Drury is right to have doubts about their explanations which prioritise genetic outcomes, even if calling them dispositions or the result of human choices.

Should we expect there to have been continuous changes in the human gene pool? Probably not, Stephen Jay Gould wrote in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. “The correct observation that Homo sapiens has experienced no directional trending for at least 40,000 years seems outstandingly anomalous” only to those clinging to a definition of evolution as continuous flux, rather than punctuated equilibrium. He continued:

Most species […] remain stable throughout their history, at least following their origin and initial spread, and especially under the model of punctuated equilibrium that seems to apply to most hominid taxa.

In the relatively brief period since behavioural modernity, 50,000 years ago or 40,000 years ago – when Neanderthal, Denisova and possibly other homo species were still around – there has been little significant genetic change in homo sapiens.

So if morality is not written in our genes, what sense can we make of finding it in “human nature”? Steve Drury, in his review of Moral Origins, writes:  “The issue of human nature is central to Marxism, and a topic that most people wonder about. Marx and Engels considered that what we are, and how we behave and interact with one another and with the rest of the natural world, is veiled over by the social and economic conditions under which all humans now live.“

Yes, but what is it that is veiled over?  Most people, including many anthropologists and other scientists, think that human nature is something that was fixed in our evolution from apes. We need to counter this idea. Marx  did not think there was some pure, underlying human nature which then became lost behind class society.

Steve Drury’s view and that put forward on the People and Nature site suggests an original, natural, egalitarian state of humanity, unsullied by any alienation. That could only be before the human revolution when homo sapiens was one species among many, and there was no distinctively human labour.

Steve takes as a starting point the People and Nature article, Working out a socialist approach, which said:

labour (human interaction with nature, to provide the means of subsistence and the basis for culture), has been deformed, i.e. turned into alienated labour, through a succession of hierarchical societies, of which capitalism is the latest. This has also deformed relationships between human beings (which are increasingly conducted as the relationship of things, exchangeable commodities) and the relationship between humans and nature (which is conducted not in a human way, but according to the dehumanised logic of production and exchange under capitalism).

Labour is a particularly human form of interaction with nature, after the human revolution. Before it, then, was this the time without alienation? Other hominin species interacted with nature in similar ways. They used tools. Jared Diamond wrote in Guns, Germs and Steel that the early homo sapiens of 100,000 years ago:

had more modern skeletons than did their Neanderthal contemporaries, they made essentially the same crude stone tools as Neanderthals, still lacking standardized shapes. They had no preserved art. To judge from the bone evidence of the animal species on which they preyed, their hunting skills were unimpressive and mainly directed at easy-to-kill, not-at-all-dangerous animals. They were not yet in the business of slaughtering buffalo, pigs, and other dangerous prey. They couldn’t even catch fish: their sites immediately on the seacoast lack fish bones and fishhooks. They and their Neanderthal contemporaries still rank as less than fully human.

Not yet labouring, not yet human.

That same article from People and Nature points out that Marx developed a critique of political economy, which “conceals the estrangement inherent in the nature of labour”, and of the labour process itself, which “alienates people from their own nature, from each other, and from external nature”. Yes it’s there in Capital:

[A human being] confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature [alternative translation: he opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces]. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms and legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature. He develops the potentialities slumbering within nature, and subjects the play of its forces to his own sovereign power. (Capital  I,  chapter 7, Section 1.)

On the theme of the human revolution, Steven Mithen asked in The Singing Neanderthals: “What was different after the human revolution? The making and enforcing of new rules about sex, the division of labour and the distribution of meat, done by using symbolic communication, the beginnings of language though probably more sung, hollered than spoken.”

Is it right just to call the human revolution egalitarian? The outcome was both egalitarian and alienating. Women from men, humans from their own biological nature and from the rest of nature

Rather than simple cooperation there was division of labour. And it was indeed labour. The hunters do not own the food they have produced, they are obliged to bring it back to be shared out by the women.

There was not only sharing but exchange of food for access to fertile females. There was distribution of food by women to children, then her female kin, then men.

The first human revolution included many experiments with rules, divisions of labour, regulation of sex, control of food distribution. It was a revolution that worked – more babies survived, so groups adopting “better” rules flourished, overthrowing the tyranny of biology. The great leap forward contained the germs of class divisions.

Yes, there has been progressively greater alienation, but no original state of grace. Capital and commodity production take all this to the end of the road, the extreme alienation of one individual from another, alienation of men from women, of humans from nature, alienation of producers from what they produce – junk food, junk technology, all with the appearance of satisfying human needs but not really doing so; nothing works.

It is not a matter only of a correct explanation of human origins. We do not need Marxist anthropologists but a critique of anthropology. Marx was not an anthropologist any more than he was an economist (though Thomas Patterson makes a good case for that in Karl Marx, Anthropologist (2009)). But he surely hoped to study anthropology more than he did: in 1851, Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels that he expected to be “finished with the whole economic stuff in five weeks’ time” and that he would apply himself “to another branch of learning”. He then spent years writing Capital, and towards the end of his life worked on his Ethnological Notebooks but did not complete his research. The need for a critique of anthropology is now urgent.

As the communist writer Cyril Smith put it, seeking to return to Marx’s original ideas:

How is it possible for us to grasp who we are? This, it seems to me, sums up our predicament at the end of the twentieth century. I am going to look at one side of Karl Marx’s approach to this question, his conception of what humanity is. But Marx’s conclusions cannot be separated from the way he came to them, that is, his notion of what science is. . . .

Perhaps the question can be put like this: how can humanity make itself what it is in essence? Marx’s understanding of history, his critique of economics as a scientific expression of the existing socioeconomic order, his ethical ideas, his conception of the state, class struggle and revolution, his notion of a communist society – all are based upon his way of understanding what it is to be human.

Marx did not believe that there was a fixed, eternal “human nature”. So often did “Marxists” repeat this rather obvious truth to each other that they forgot that Marx was a communist. By “communist” I do not mean the policies, theories or action of parties or states who usurped this word. I mean that Marx concentrated all his work on the achievement of a truly human society, and, therefore of the notion of the truly human individual.

…  he thought that we ourselves have produced human nature, conceived as “the ensemble of social relations”. Through joint activity, in the course of their entire biological and social history, human individuals have made and remade themselves and their mutual relations.

Self-creativity is the specific characteristic of human beings. You might say that humans are that part of nature which is self-creating, self-conscious and social. This is not, of course, a definition. In fact, you cannot fit a definition – literally, placing a limit – on to something whose mode of being consists in continually making itself into something else. (From Smith, Marx at the Millennium, 1999.)

Some people may be distressed to lose the idea of a naturally cooperative homo sapiens, but egalitarianism is just a small part of the potential of humanity.

In the first human revolution humans had to estrange themselves from the rest of nature, estrange themselves from their own biological nature, estrange themselves from each other, women from men by means of division of labour and exchange. In the second human revolution, humanity as part of nature will need to unmake and remake all of these relationships.

We have as  much to learn from the first human revolution as from further investigations of October 1917 and its aftermath, or of the inner workings of the crisis of capitalism.

It is not enough to say: “Away with capitalism! Our natural communism, egalitarianism will be restored.” We have to find what human nature can be, what we can be as part of the whole of nature … not to explain the way things are, but to show the craziness of the way we live now and the origins of alienated labour and what potential humanity as part of nature have for the future of this planet. To find out what on earth human nature might become.

Previous articles in this debate (in the order that they appeared):

Steve Drury, No. Morals really are not written into our genes

Chris Knight, The Revolution that Worked

Steve Drury, Human origins: take care with the evidence

Books and articles referred to

Boehm, C., Hierarchy in the Forest: the evolution of egalitarian behavior. (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1999).

Diamond, J. M., Guns, Germs, and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. (Random House, 1998).

Gould, S. J., The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Harvard University Press, 2002).

Knight, C., “Language co-evolved with the rule of law”, Mind & Society, 7(1) (2008), 109-128.

Levy, G, People and nature: working out a socialist approach (2011)

Marx, K., Capital. [online] available at,

Mithen, S., The singing Neanderthals: The origins of music, language, mind, and body (Harvard University Press, 2005).

Patterson, T. C., Karl Marx, Anthropologist (Berg, 2009).

Smith, C., Marx at the Millennium. (London, Pluto Press, 1999).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: