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Each month, this new Living Marxism feature will seek to challenge prejudice and mysticism on matters scientific, technological and environmental.
This month, John Gillott takes issue with some fashionable theories of sociobiology

No man is a monkey

Laboratories around the world are wondering what to do with their apes. It can cost up to $50 000 a year to hold an ape, and times are hard. If governments won't stump up the cash, the obvious solution is to kill them. Animal rights activist and professor of ethics Peter Singer is appalled by this prospect and has launched 'A declaration on great apes' to stop it. But Singer's manifesto demands a lot more besides. It calls for human rights to be extended to orang-utans, gorillas, and chimpanzees of both known species (Pan troglodytes and P paniscus).

Many scientists, including John Maddox, editor of Nature, praised Singer's motivation and ideas. The eminent Oxford biologist, Richard Dawkins, signed the declaration and provided its intellectual backbone. His argument was that in evolutionary terms we are very close to apes, as reflected in the fact that we share over 98 per cent of our genes with our closest ape cousins.

Like Singer, Dawkins believes that there is no reason to regard humanity as being superior to apes or other animals. His view is based on the assumption that humanity, like the rest of the animal world, is a biological species the behaviour of which is framed by its specific genetic make-up. The positive response to the declaration on great apes within the scientific community is due in large part to the widespread support there is today for this theory, which goes under the name of sociobiology.

Last year in London, a conference sponsored by the Times Higher Education Supplement and the London School of Economics presented the latest scientific evidence in an attempt to show that all human activities, even our reasoning abilities, are biologically based. Human reason, brain scientists present argued, is no different in origin, and no better than the instinctive activity of animals. That humans possess language ability, argued Steven Pinker, is no sign of superiority. After all, bats have sonar.

The shift in the intellectual climate on this subject is striking. In 1975, EO Wilson of Harvard published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. He called it a 'systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour', and extended the analysis to humanity. Wilson speculated that biology 'may soon be in a position to investigate the very origin and meaning of human values'. There was uproar at this suggestion. He was accused of being little better than a fascist, and leading academics campaigned against him. Yet today views identical to Wilson's meet little or no opposition. When Jared Diamond, another supporter of the declaration on great apes, published The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee in 1992, it was awarded the prestigious Rhône-Poulanc science book prize. The book is, if anything, more sociobiological than anything Wilson wrote: humans are the 'Third Chimpanzee'.

Sociobiological theories point to significant conclusions. If the character of human life and behaviour really is determined by our biology, then there is little we can do to alter the world in which we live for the better. Like the rest of the animal world, we are the prisoners of our genes. And if our genes are responsible for wars, xenophobia, inequality, and other undesirable features of human existence, as sociobiologists suggest, then what chance is there of dealing with such problems? The best we could hope for would be to suppress our natural instincts and face the inevitable alienation from our true selves. Society would be trapped forever in a Freudian dilemma: either war, racism and inequality - or neurosis.

The sociobiologists' point is that humanity has to accept these consequences, because they flow from hard science. But is sociobiology correct? Today there seems to be two choices: accept a sociobiological perspective, or fall back on the religious superstition that man is unique because of a personal relationship to God. But there is an alternative: the social-historical view.

The social-historical approach argues that man, far from being shaped by nature, has made himself in the course of his biological and social development. This view is fully consistent with natural science, and yet is far more convincing than sociobiology as an explanation of what makes us unique.

In terms of behaviour, humans are clearly unique in possessing the capacity to act purposively on the world according to a preconceived plan. Even the most advanced animal lacks this capacity. An understanding of advanced genetic theory is not needed to grasp this point, which Karl Marx and Frederick Engels emphasised many years ago. In Capital, Marx argued that the worst architect was superior to the best bee, because an architect made plans in his head before he built anything in reality (and so might improve on his bad designs!). In The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, Engels wrote that 'animals have never contrived to impress the stamp of their will upon the earth. It took man to do that. In short, the animal merely uses external nature, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes nature serve his ends, masters it'.

The core of the social-historical perspective is that modern humanity has not been determined by nature. Instead, what we are is the result historically of human action upon and against nature, as a consequence of which we have changed ourselves. What makes modern man uniquely human cannot be explained by human biology. Instead, our biological evolution has been first influenced by, and then overcome by, the development of human society.

Charles Darwin was the first to propose a satisfactory mechanism of evolution. He argued that there is no plan or purpose in nature, no necessity for any creature, including man, to exist; and that there is no trend for simple creatures to give way to more complex ones. All that matters is how well individuals in a species are adapted to their environment. Change occurs because, while on the whole creatures faithfully reproduce, occasionally small mutations occur. If the mutation is favourable in the given environmental context, it will tend to spread in a population, it will be 'selected' by the environment. These are the two key themes in Darwinism: chance mutation and natural selection.

Our ancestors went through such a pattern of evolution. In his fascinating Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human, leading paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey argues that the huge tectonic movements that led to the creation of the Great Rift Valley in Africa changed the environment so significantly that a new behavioural pattern was selected in the primate population: bi-pedal movement to cover the more open terrain in search of food. A chance happening - changes in the African natural environment - led to the emergence around 7.5m years ago of hominids, essentially upright apes.

Another dramatic shift occurred around 2.5m years ago, which led to the Homo line of which we - Homo Sapiens - are the descendants. Again a change in the natural environment was the key according to Leakey. A rapid global cooling necessitated greater calorific intake. Nature threw up two solutions from the hominids: greater meat-eating, or greater intake of the largely vegetarian diet hominids had lived on until then. Our line was the meat-eaters. The other line died out, possibly killed by our ancestors.

However, from 2.5m years ago until around 50 000 years ago, something novel became significant, something not seen on earth before: a process of natural evolution that was in part culturally driven. Man began to make himself. Leakey comments on the chief symptom of this; that the rate of natural evolution became very rapid. The evidence we have of what caused these changes is fully consistent with the theory Engels put forward, which emphasised the centrality of labour in the transition from ape to man.

Through his own labours, man changed his immediate environment in an increasingly deliberate fashion, and so affected the course of his own biological evolution within that environment. This led, among other things, to a rapid growth in brain size, as man began to create an existence that depended on an ability to perform complex tasks. Unlike other animals, even many of the biological features of humanity are due to its own labour, mediated by its impact on the environment - mediated, in other words, by the primitive society which early man created.

The human genetic material has changed very little over the last 50 000 years. Yet the character of human life and behaviour has been transformed many times over, beyond all recognition. Cultural development has taken over from biological evolution, as human society has flourished and expanded at an ever increasing rate.

When agriculture was established 10 000 years ago, mankind for the first time produced more than was necessary to meet its immediate subsistence needs. This surplus product led to an ever more rapid development of human productive activity, since the accumulated resources gave people the capacity to plan ahead and invent new technologies. Science developed as man began to learn and speculate on the basis of his attempts to manipulate nature. A surplus product also led to class divisions, the formation of states, and wars over resources. Over the past 10 000 years humanity has developed at an increasingly rapid pace, and different societies have proliferated with different social conflicts.

Through this process of attempting to master nature, something wonderful emerged: civilisation itself. No longer a hunter-gatherer, man has begun over the past 10 000 years to take control of his own destiny. At the same time, Darwinian evolution has ended for us, because society now prevents natural selection taking its course.

Marx said that the essence of modern man was not fixed by biology, but was the 'ensemble of social relations'. This does not mean that biology is irrelevant - if we didn't have complex brains then we couldn't be humans. It means that what a human being is and can achieve is framed by the development of society rather than by genetics.

Animals have only a limited ability to learn from experience. In his most recent book, The Making of Memory, neuroscientist Steven Rose gives an example of the limits that this places on animal behaviour. He found that he could train a chick to avoid pecking a coloured bead by coating it in a bitter-tasting substance. He tried a different approach, and got a different result: 'I tried to pair the bead-pecking with a different form of discomfort. I arranged the experiment so that every time the chick pecked a dry, tasteless bead, it felt a mild electric shock to its feet.' This didn't stop the chicks pecking the bead. If anything they did it more. This was an experience they were unable to learn from. What is true of chicks is true of all animals to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the context and their complexity. There is a passivity in animals' relationship to their own experience which means that their behavioural patterns change very slowly, if at all.

Steven Rose reasoned that the inability of his chicks to learn from their new experience was due to the fact that 'in nature they are scarcely likely to have to learn the peck-pain-in-the-foot relationship'. And hence through evolution they wouldn't have developed the behavioural flexibility to deal with it. Genetically encoded behaviour is not rigidly deterministic, but it is limited in this kind of way.

People can train apes to recognise a collection of words, even follow very simple instructions, but try as they might they can't get apes to recognise syntax. Richard Leakey is among those who have been over-impressed by attempts to teach apes language. 'The evidence from primate language studies', he notes in Origins Reconsidered, 'suggests that we are not as special as we would like to believe...our language skills are firmly rooted in the cognitive abilities of ape brains'. Leakey is referring to the success of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, at the Language Research Centre of George State University, in getting Kanzi, a male pygmy chimpanzee, to recognise language to a level similar to that of a two-year old child.

Contrary to what Leakey and Savage-Rumbaugh claim, the striking things about these studies is that they show apes can only recognise a collection of words. Unlike humans, they cannot deal with meaning, and, crucially, they cannot use language to organise their activity in the way humans do. Language and purposive activity are a package, and apes lack both. Ape behaviour is more flexible than that of a chick, but it is still fundamentally limited by biology. They cannot respond to a new experience or human stimulation beyond a certain point.

Humans are not so constrained. Humans theorise and adopt new responses accordingly. After 10 pints we might keep on pecking like the chick, but even without a theory of what was causing the shock, most sober people would stop pecking until they worked one out. Unlike even the most flexible of animals, apes, we can interact with our experiences and experiment with new patterns of behaviour because we can theorise and act purposively. We can do this because we have acquired purposive behaviour in our collective history, and, crucially, because we can draw upon the cumulative, collective knowledge of society. Animals do not pass on their experiences to the next generation. Humans do. This has created a unique learning pattern.

There is nothing in human natural evolution that would have given us the flexibility to fly, write books, bungee-jump, or whatever. Human social organisation has given us the capacity to do these things; to pass on knowledge from generation to generation in the written and spoken form; to move beyond natural evolution and overcome the limitations of our biological make-up.

In the words of a famous critic of sociobiology, Richard Lewontin, 'social organisation does not reflect the limitations of individual biological beings but is their negation'. The capacities possessed by individual humans are conditioned by the social context in which they develop and learn. As an individual is socialised he or she gains access to, and is shaped by, the knowledge and norms of human society. This means that individuals are unique neither because of a relationship to God, nor because of their genetic make-up, but because of unique experiences, unique socialisation. More significantly, it means there are no intrinsic limits within the individual to what he or she can do. There are only limits set by the character of society at any given time. And those can be overcome by social change.

Today, economic stagnation and a conservative social climate place severe limitations on individual freedom. The conservative social climate is also responsible for the rise of sociobiology.

Sociobiology thrives on today's culture of low expectations. It denigrates uniquely human abilities. It denies our capacity to change the world and ourselves through human activity. It emphasises the burden that our biological make-up places upon us. All of this makes it a conservative ideology for our time.

Sociobiology has no basis in science. Rather than science 'proving' socio-biology to be true, society's pessimism about human capacities is influencing scientific thinking. No advance in natural science has occurred in almost 20 years since EO Wilson published his major work that would justify the shift in opinion towards sociobiology. Not a single example of human behaviour has been shown to result from our genes. And yet today, unlike 20 years ago, sociobiology pervades scientific thinking and is rarely challenged.

About 70 years ago the great Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, observed that a pre-lingual child was like an ape in its ability to recognise words. So Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has hardly made a breathtaking discovery with her work on Kanzi. But note the sequence: for Vygotsky, a young child was like an ape. The similarity showed how far the child had to go to become human, not that humans are like apes. Vygotsky's conclusions were more in accord with reality because he recognised the unique human potential. Rumbaugh's dubious conclusions are informed by her pessimism about humanity.

The rise of sociobiology is a sign of the anti-humanist times in which we live. Enough of this monkey business - a critical defence of humanism and the human potential is long overdue. Future articles in the Progress series will be taking up these themes. If you'reading this Kanzi, it's nothing personal. It's the soft-headed humans we are after.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 64, February 1994
 
 

 

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