How does Marxism explain human evolution?

Something that’s fascinated me for decades is just how Marxism explains the evolution of the human species? It’s such a fundamental question. Faced with millions of years of evolution from primates to what we are today, how does Marxism account for the way we came to dominate the planet?

Friedrich Engels – Karl Marx’s fellow theoretician – had a go at explaining this in 1876 with an essay titled: The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.

Now it hardly needs to be stated that Engels was applying dialectical materialism to the past based on far less evidence than we have today. So, we can cut him slack for that. But does his analysis prove that Marxism can offer anything towards our understand of how we evolved?

First let’s recap on the fundamental core of Marxist dialectical materialism. Namely that everything we see in the world including the products of nature and societal relations are based in the material world and not spiritual or metaphysical.

God or philosophies that doubt the existence of what are senses perceive have no place in our understanding of how we came to be. Religion and ‘idealist’ philosophies are basically intellectually outdated or just plain wrong.

Marx and Engels believed capitalism had come into being through a long process of social and economic development in which societies collapse as they are overwhelmed by their own contradictions.

There is motion or propulsion that powers human development forward but it’s not an even and smooth process but rather prone to hitting the buffers and then having to change significantly into something quite different.

Feudalism took society so far in terms of developing humanity’s productive forces but then was able to go no further. It transitioned to capitalism and a new form of exploitation in which a new class of oppressor emerged. Before feudalism, there was slavery – the ownership of humans, body, and soul – and so on.

Darwin’s theory of evolution versus Marxism

While Marx and Engels were huge fans of Charles Darwin, they didn’t agree with him entirely. The father of evolution emphasised the continuity between our primate past and subsequent development into Homo sapiens. Engels tended to focus on the differences.

Marxism wasn’t going to be able to press into service Darwin’s theory of evolution so easily. The key difference was the Marxist emphasis on labour and social organisation over biological evolution.

Human beings engaged in labour. They worked. Their interaction with nature was to change and control it. And in doing so, they developed social structures. That in turn led to physical and psychological evolution.

We then waved goodbye to the animal kingdom.

Engels complained that bourgeois evolutionists were obsessed with the development of the brain and its capacity for lofty thoughts that gave rise to great civilisations – dominated by glittering elites.

Whereas the Marxist take on human development was that without labour and the evolution of the human hand, the species would not have emerged to dominate the planet. Basically, the hand and its opposable thumb preceded the emergence of our amazing brains. And those who create the fruits of human labour should reap the rewards – not those who extract the benefit without doing the hard grind.

Bourgeois Darwinists were aware of how well the theory of evolution had gone down in socialist circles. It validated the materialist view of history in spades. But…Darwinism could also be deployed as a scientific proof of eternal inequality.

Whereas socialists strive for equality and a society free of want, Darwinists can happily theorise that existence is a struggle for survival in which, as one early Darwinist put it, “the theory of selection is thoroughly aristocratic”. 

This kind of logic at its most extreme led to the application of the phrase “survival of the fittest” to mean that Darwinism equals the weeding out and extermination of the weak – a favourite trope of racial supremacists and the supporters of eugenics.

In more recent times, there has been a heated debate since the 1970s between those who emphasise biological, genes-driven evolution over cultural and social evolution. I’m fascinated by this discussion and will cover it in a separate blog post.

From the hand to social organisation

Engels argues that the reason human beings stood erect was so that they could use their hands to labour. The first tools of production were at the end of our wrists. And so, our hands evolved. Our five-fingered friends in turn then fashioned stone axes and other tools beyond our bodies.

As we encountered problems and challenges, our brains developed accordingly. But it was our labour that created human consciousness.

However, we like to overplay the importance of our brains, which were only slightly larger than chimpanzees. We fall victim to our intellectual arrogance. The reality is that the key to our success as a species was what we did to our surroundings.

Engels explains:

“Animals in the narrower sense also have tools, but only as limbs of their bodies…Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature”.

And this:

“One sees the great gulf between the undeveloped hand of even the most manlike apes and the human hand that has been highly perfected by hundreds of thousands of years of labour.”

Yes, human beings have composed sonatas, built palaces and skyscrapers, and invented the internet. But it all happened because our primate ancestors stood up straight and used their hands. The brain then played catch up.

As humans developed more complex tasks, they grasped the need for organisation and communal activity. Stuff was collected, transported, prepared, manufactured, and dumped. Over time, activities were divided up and so emerged the division of labour – a key plank in Marxist thought. This laid the basis for great civilisations that rested on the creation of an economic surplus, a ruling class, and a majority whose labour would be exploited.

The development of human consciousness

For Marxists, what differentiates humans from animals is human consciousness. The ability to analyse data without reference to one’s immediate surroundings and create abstract notions to understand things better.

Apes can communicate but it’s essentially emotive and related to what is around them. Chimpanzees can be taught to mimick and undoubtedly display an impressive level of intelligence. But humans go a decisive step further.

This started with the production of tools. Humans didn’t just bash stuff thoughtlessly into shape. They pondered at a primitive level what kind of tool would achieve the required task and then made it. To share ideas or teach others how to use a tool, our ancestors began to develop language skills. Speech was about getting things done.

DISCOVER: Stop worrying about dialectical materialism and let me explain it

Marxism, evolution and human-centrism

Marxism is undoubtedly human-centric. Marxists nod to genetics and biological evolution but argue that human labour has separated the species from the rest of the animal kingdom. It allowed human beings to make their own history. And humans have even been able to accelerate the rate of change by their own labour as opposed to being subject to blind genetic forces.

That is putting it a bit crudely and I fully intend to return to this and add a bit more depth by delving into some of the nasty rows of the last few decades over how to interpret evolution and the role of genes. It’s pitted Darwinists against Marxism and given rise to some very fruity exchanges!

I fully admit to being a rank amateur in these matters but hopefully my enthusiastic interest will allow me to translate complex debates into something more comprehensible to me and thee. In the meantime, I shall use my evolved hand to publish this post…



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