Marx vs. the myth of human nature

November 4, 2011

If there is a fixed human nature, then why have human societies differed so radically?

WHY DO people behave the way they do? One common answer to this question is that behavior is determined by something in our "human nature." So greed, selfishness, violence and war are all blamed on something innate to all of us.

Of course, for every manifestation of greed, selfishness and violence, there are at least as may examples of compassion and sharing.

But leaving that aside for a moment, the problem with the commonly held view of human nature is this: If there is a fixed human nature, then how can it be that human societies have differed so much between different regions and historical times?

How is it, for example, that the early 17th century Jesuits, who proselytized among the Montagnais-Naskapi Indians in Canada, considered it healthy to instill obedience in children by beating them while the Indians considered beating children an unthinkable atrocity?

Consider an incident described by Eleanor Burke Leacock in her book Myths of Male Dominance.

A French drummer boy struck and injured a Montagnais boy. Alarmed, the Indians demanded gifts. But the French missionaries instead prepared to punish the French child by whipping him in front of the Indians.

According to the report of a Jesuit:

One of the Savages stripped himself entirely, threw his blanket over the child and cried out to him who was going to do the whipping: "Strike me if thou wilt, but thou shalt not strike him." And thus the little one escaped.

THE GREAT Sioux chief Sitting Bull made a similar observation about his disdain for the moral and economic practices of white settlers at the 1877 Powder River council:

[T]hey have a mind to till the soil, and the love of possessions is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich who rule. They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own, and fence their neighbors away.

Sitting Bull's Sioux nation was a collection of nomadic buffalo-hunting bands that had no class divisions and shunned farming.

Likewise, the Montagnais-Naskapi, at the time of European contract, lived in small bands that, according to the Jesuit Lejeune, "have neither political organization, nor offices, nor dignities, nor any authority, for they only obey their chief through good will toward him, therefore, they never kill each other to acquire these honors."

The "human nature" view of the world assumes that humans have a built-in nature--shaped genetically by their physical attributes--in the same way that other animals have a nature that programs their behavior.

But the physical attributes of humans--in particular their upright gait, larger brain size, opposable thumbs and language skills--gave them the ability to make tools to manipulate their environment and to pass those skills on to their offspring.

As Karl Marx wrote:

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence--their food, shelter and clothing.

Human beings have changed very little genetically over the last 30,000 years. Yet their social forms of organization--the way that they organize themselves to procure food, shelter, clothing and other necessities--have changed tremendously.

It is this that accounts for the changing nature of humans from one society to the next. Each form of social organization has a corresponding set of moral and behavioral "norms."

For thousands of years, people lived by procuring what nature provided. These societies had no need or ability to produce a surplus greater than their daily needs. But between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, people in various regions of the earth began to domesticate plants and animals.

In turn, domestication allowed for larger and more concentrated populations and the development of more permanent settlements. These changes in what Marx called the "productive forces" of society in turn changed the way society was organized--the "social relations" of society.

In other words, in changing their environment, human beings change themselves.

First published in the November 19, 1999, issue of Socialist Worker.

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