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Is socialism against "human nature"?

April 9, 2004 | Page 8

PHIL GASPER looks at one of the most common objections to socialism.

PEOPLE WHO want to end the exploitation, oppression, poverty and war characteristic of modern capitalist society are regularly told that fundamental change is impossible because of human nature. War? It's human nature to fight. Racism? It's human nature to fear "outsiders." Women's oppression? Men and women are "naturally different."

Human nature is also said to make socialism impossible. Human beings, it is claimed, are naturally selfish, competitive and aggressive. Thus, a classless society based on cooperation and equality can't be built.

But is there any evidence that these familiar claims about human nature are actually true? Sweeping claims about human nature are often made on the basis of evolutionary biology--that is, science's understanding of how human beings, like other species of animals, have evolved and changed over time.

In the 1970s, the Harvard scientist Edward Wilson launched sociobiology, claiming that certain forms of human behavior are universal, and that the best explanation for them is that they are coded for in our genes. Wilson suggested that there were genes for entrepreneurship, aggression, spite, conformity, xenophobia, gender roles and much more.

He speculated that "the genetic bias is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor, even in the most free and egalitarian of future societies...Even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to play a disproportionate role in political life, business, and science."

Concerning Marxism in particular, Wilson reportedly joked, "Wonderful theory. Wrong species." But almost none of the behaviors that Wilson claimed to be universal really are, since human societies exhibit enormous variations.

For example, the anthropologist Peggy Sanday conducted a survey of about 150 different societies going back close to 3,000 years to see whether they were male-dominated, female-dominated or based on collective decision-making. She found a huge diversity of sex roles in these societies--showing that such roles derive not from human nature, but "from the historical and political circumstances in which people find themselves."

The idea that violence and war have always been part of human society may seem like common sense. But the historical evidence reveals a very different picture. According to the Rutgers anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson, "The global archaeological record contradicts the idea that war was always a feature of human existence; instead, the record shows that warfare is largely a development of the past 10,000 years."

Ferguson argues that warfare became a feature of human society only as a consequence of specific historical developments, including the establishment of permanent settlements with accumulated wealth and the emergence of "social hierarchy, an elite, perhaps with its own interests and rivalries." Rather than war being the expression of some general human propensity to violence, war reflects the interests of those at the top of society who are most likely to benefit from it.

Claims similar to the ones made by Wilson have been revived more recently by self-styled "evolutionary psychologists," such as MIT scientist Steven Pinker. Pinker attacks "Marxists, academic feminists and cafe intellectuals" and claims that "[t]he standard Marxist theory of human nature has probably been refuted by...the anthropological record and Darwinian theory."

By the Marxist theory of human nature, Pinker means the view that human behavior depends on the historical and social circumstances in which people live. Instead, Pinker claims that inequality and conflict are inevitable, violence "is part of our design" and human nature is not compatible with socialist or egalitarian political arrangements.

According to evolutionary psychologists, basic features of human psychology were hardwired into the brains of our ancestors by natural selection to enable them to survive the conditions faced by early humans. If for tens of thousands of years our ancestors required social hierarchy, violence and a sexual division of labor to survive, then human nature would have evolved to include tendencies to behave in these ways.

While human environments have, of course, changed dramatically since the time of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, according to Pinker's hypothesis, our basic behavior has remained unchanged. But as Peggy Sanday and Brian Ferguson showed, the claims that violence and hierarchy were features of all early human societies and that gender roles have remained unchanged are mistaken.

More fundamentally, the idea that human nature is basically rigid and unchanging is incompatible with what we actually know about human evolution. The first modern humans are believed to have evolved in southern Africa a little over 100,000 years ago. According to Marta Lahr, a professor of evolutionary studies at Cambridge University, these creatures had "the potential of invention that we have. And I think that's actually what makes them modern--they [could] invent solutions to new problems."

Around 50,000 years ago, groups of modern humans began to migrate from Africa and disperse around the world, coming into contact with other similar species that had left Africa more than a million years earlier. Modern humans arrived in Europe around 35,000 years ago, where they lived side by side with Neanderthals, a closely related but distinct human species.

Neanderthals, unlike modern humans, were physiologically well adapted to the cold European climate, but they were cognitively inferior to our ancestors--that is, their brains had a lower capacity for intelligence. According to the archeologist Paul Mellars, "The most remarkable thing about Neanderthal technology is the way it hardly changes significantly over about a quarter of a million years. You get essentially the same shapes of tools made by the same techniques over this whole period.

"Now as soon as you get modern humans on the scene, you get a whole range of dramatic changes. They suddenly start producing new shapes of stone tools obviously designed for different functions, and they start producing tools from bones, antler and ivory, which had never been used before." It was this creativity and ingenuity of our ancestors--also exhibited in their elaborate ornaments, art and burial rituals, and the complex networks of trade and exchange they established--that explains why they survived and the Neanderthals did not.

When temperatures in Europe began to plummet with the onset of a new ice age, Neanderthals were unable to adjust to the new conditions. But modern humans continued to thrive, even in mountainous areas. By 28,000 years ago, the last remaining Neanderthals had disappeared. Similar developments took place around the world, where modern humans replaced other similar species.

Thus, the key to our ancestors' success was their enormous flexibility and ability to learn, not patterns of behavior hardwired into their brains. To claim this is not--as Pinker seems to assume--to say that the human mind is simply a "blank slate," or that there are no biological constraints on human behavior.

As the biologist Stephen Jay Gould once noted, "We would lead very different social lives if we photosynthesized (no agriculture, gathering, or hunting--the major determinants of our social evolution) or had life cycles like...gall midges," which devour their mothers' bodies from the inside. Nevertheless, our biological inheritance leaves open an enormous range of possible behaviors.

As Gould put it: "Why imagine that specific genes for aggression or spite have any importance when we know that the brain's enormous flexibility permits us to be aggressive or peaceful, dominant or submissive, spiteful or generous? Violence, sexism and general nastiness are biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors. But peacefulness, equality and kindness are just as biological--and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish."

Human beings have basic physical and emotional needs--for food and shelter, for social contact and affection--which all too often go unmet under capitalism. But we also have a need to exercise control over our own lives and to engage in activities that make use of our creative abilities. Capitalism, like other forms of class society, frustrates these needs, leading those who are exploited to fight back against it.

In different circumstances, people behave differently. But this doesn't mean that people are simply unalterable products of their society. Workers have the collective capacity to change the circumstances in which they live. In the process of doing so, they change themselves.

As Karl Marx wrote, "Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the old crap and become fitted to found society anew."

Socialism thus means not just a new form of society, but a new form of human consciousness, free from the distorting pressures of capitalism. Only in this way will the human capacity for self-determination finally become a reality.

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