Engels was right!

Three recent scientific papers have reignited the debate on a subject that was always a matter of contention between science and religion: the development of humankind from prehistory to now. In the last twenty years, advances in science have confirmed the need to study all fields of knowledge, from biology to cosmology, with a dialectical approach. This approach enables us to interpret the world as it is in constant motion and contradiction, in permanent transformation, and teaches us how to study processes as mutually connected. This takes into account the fascinating complexity that all of this implies.

The crisis in these years has toppled the bourgeois ideology that displays a growing trend to idealism and superstition and uses science to provide a “scientific” basis to reactionary ideas (racism) and abstractions (a godly creator, an intelligent designer). As science progresses, even if under the ideological pressure of bourgeois philosophy, dominant ideas are debunked and questioned, as are those topics we are used to regarding as consolidated in the collective consciousness for centuries. Reactionary ideology, on the opposite, attempts to bring the clock back to a biblical vision of the world in which everything – nature, humankind, and society – is only the static result of a scripted design by the “creator”.

Gender parity and family

In a recent article published by Science and commented upon by the Guardian, the anthropologist Mark Dyble and his colleagues at the University College of London, spent time closely watching two communities of hunters-gatherers which still exist in Congo (the Mbendjele BaYaka) and Philippines (the Agta). In so doing they have drawn the conclusion that men and women have the same amount of social influence within those communities. Only the rise of agriculture and the accumulation of a surplus of agricultural produces have made inequality emerge.

This paper highlights another particularly interesting aspect about networks of social relationships. In agricultural and patriarchal societies such networks develop based on family ties among men, who choose whom they want to live with, relegating their spouses to the edges of the community. At the same time in hunting-gathering societies, men and women alike have the freedom to choose and this contributes in building more fluid and diverse social groups. According to Dyble, this element has brought about advantages in their evolution. These things have caused more differentiation in contacts, a broader culture of sharing and a wider choice of sexual partners, which in turn, the anthropologists believe, has made man evolve differently from other primates.

This scientific evidence wipes out the idea that family structure, and the subordination of women in it, has always been immutable, almost as if it were a divine law. The relationships between man and woman, in fact, have not always been as we know them now. Gender inequality, patriarchy and the private conception of family are the result of a material process and has no eternal or sacred character. Those inequalities did not exist when society was not divided into classes. This is why Engels in Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State explains how the change from primitive communism to the early forms of wealth accumulation have marked the passage from community to monogamist family. Engel’s work and his intuitions are a correct reply, validated by modern science and recent discoveries, to the bourgeois ideology depicting private poverty and the institutions that defend it, starting with the family, as sacred and unchanging. The paper cited aims to demonstrate, and successfully does so, that a dynamic in family ties and organisation exists, as opposed to a static universal recognition of monogamist family throughout history. This dynamic is due to social change, reflected in different stages of development of humankind. Starting from the studies of ethnologist Morgan who pointed out how, in the three main eras of the rise of humankind (savagery, barbarism and civilisation), the decisive element in transforming the networks of social relations was the progress in production of the means of existence. Engels shows this basic concept: family is dynamic and social changes modify it. Every stage of development corresponds to a “family organisational model”.

Kalina hunter gathererIn fact, “The traditional view recognizes only monogamy […] The study of primitive history, however, reveals conditions where the men live in polygamy and their wives in polyandry at the same time, and their common children are therefore considered common to them all – and these conditions in their turn undergo a long series of changes before they finally end in monogamy. […] And what, in fact, do we find to be the oldest and most primitive form of family whose historical existence we can indisputably prove and which in one or two parts of the world we can still study today? Group marriage, the form of family in which whole groups of men and whole groups of women mutually possess one another, and which leaves little room for jealousy. […] If there is one thing certain, it is that the feeling of jealousy develops relatively late.” (F. Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State).

What were then, the relationship between the sexes and the role of women? The typical feature of group marriage was the certainty of mother’s identity – the descent was matrilineal. A communistic organisation was in force which meant the domination of women in household and community administration and a high value was placed on the female figure in society.

Back to the words of Engels, “Among all savages and all barbarians of the lower and middle stages, and to a certain extent of the upper stage also, the position of women is not only free, but honourable.”

So how and why did these conditions change? With the introduction of husbandry and agriculture the conditions were altered. The increase in available resources and the private hoarding of such resources by the family, “dealt a severe blow to the society founded on pairing marriage and the matriarchal gens”. As a matter of fact, the private property of excess resources owned by the family changed the relations. The need to defend the wealth produced and grant one’s offspring their inheritance marked a qualitative leap. The man, as the owner of the means of existence, increased his wealth and strengthened his domination, thereby acquiring a more important position in family than the woman, who only possessed less valuable household furnishing. It is on the basis of this process that matriarchal hereditary right was abolished and replaced by patrilineal descent and patriarchal hereditary right.

This passage marks, according to Engels, “the world historical defeat of the female sex”. In fact, male domination became characteristic; the economically oppressed woman lost any sort of autonomy and was reduced to a subaltern status, a means of procreation.

In this family model, born out of the need to defend private property, the woman is vilified and enslaved. This same model, in our time recognised and defended as natural and undying, is rooted in the change in social conditions. It arose in the passage from a communistic organisation to household administration as a private business where antagonistic material interests clash. It has very little or nothing at all to do with sacredness and love.

Are people naturally violent?

One of the most resilient commonplaces is the one about people being selfish and violent by nature. We often hear it repeated that a fair society based on solidarity, aimed at the common good and the collective interest, cannot be built since humans are inherently unable to do so because they are selfish “by nature”. As if violence, social climbing, egoism were innate feature, integral parts of human nature.

An interesting article by Marylen Patou-Mathis, research director at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (Paris), published by Le Monde diplomatique in July 2015 with the title No, humans did not always wage war, goes straight to a key point. It states that war started 10,000 years ago in the Neolithic period, with the birth of productive economy, accumulation of resources and a change in productive structures. The picture we have of the gruff and violent hunter is false. On the contrary, many ethnologists say that the socialisation of the goal of this necessary violence (the prey) has helped in building social links. This conception of an alleged inherent brutality, used as scientific grounds for reactionary ideas, is incorrect according to neuroscientists. Several studies in the field of neuroscience has shown that violent behaviour is not genetically determined, while it is affected by the family and sociocultural context. Essentially, sociologists, neuroscientists and anthropologists agree that people are naturally empathic, as shown by the way we used to live in common, heal the wounded, “disabled” or ill members of the prehistoric communities. The first signs of actual violence appeared with a change in production. Agricultural economy and the domestication of animals generated a surplus. The development of agriculture and husbandry is the origin of the social division of labour (class division) and the appearance of an elite. The demand on the workforce to till on larger and larger fields in the Neolithic period and the development of trade in the Age of Bronze added to the value of warriors who became a caste in all respects. War was institutionalised, and with it, the first forms of slavery emerged. Prisoners of war were used as toilers in ever-extending croplands. There was no hint of socioeconomic inequalities and hierarchical social structures in the Palaeolithic. Compassion, sharing and co-operation, which had a key role in the evolution of our species, give in to competition, struggle for selfish interests and class conflict.

Labour and human intelligence 

In his essay, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, Engels provides a materialistic vision of the origin of humankind. The assumption is that the human intelligence grew to the same extent that humankind learnt how to modify nature. Human evolution is the product of chance and necessity. 5 million years ago, the depletion of forests, caused by a shift in temperature, forced the apes out to the savannah. In this new environment, a lengthy process of natural selection ended up favouring the upright posture. The survivors were those individuals who could move in the savannah while scanning the horizon to detect the presence of potential predators. The hand, freed from its ambulatory task, began being used to pick up food and transport it, and more importantly to forge and handle tools. According to Engels, this had a decisive role in human evolution, because what started to differentiate humans from other animals is intelligent planning, the production of tools as an essential element of survival. This production implied a further fundamental passage: the need to communicate, therefore the need to develop a kind of language. Language developed and became necessary with common activity, cohesion, the processes related to work and its organisation. First of all, work, and after it and with it, language. These are the two most essential stimuli under whose influence the brain of an ape could gradually develop into a human brain.

In the beginning of the 20th century, psychologists like Vygotsky and anthropologists like Levy-Bruhl in their works had broadly confirmed these early intuitions, subsequently validated by many studies by geneticists, paleontologists, anthropologists and evolutionists during the last century.

There has been another article published on Nature in the last year which highlights the recent discovery in Kenya of the first stone tools, dating back to more than 3.3 million years ago, i.e. before the birth of genus Homo. Until recently, the tools found were from about 2.6 million years ago. The new findings are from the Lomekwi site, in the area of Lake Turkan, in Kenya, and they are about 700,000 years older than the first one produced by individuals belonging to genus Homo.

Actually, the hominids who used the Lomekwi utensils had a strong grip and a good motion control, but the shape of the tools seems to show that they were used by vigorously slamming them, to hit objects. Therefore, the author concludes, the movements to use them were more similar to those performed by some species of primates to crack nutshells with rocks than the more sophisticated ones of the individuals of genus Homo. What does it mean? Both apes and humans can indeed use instruments but, as the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky noticed, “even though the ape displays the ability to invent and use tools, which is the premise of the whole cultural development of the human being, nevertheless the work activity, based precisely on this ability, is not developed at all in the ape. The usage of tools in absence of labour is what makes the behaviour of ape and man at the same time similar and different.” (Vygotsky, Luriya, Studies on the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, and Child) Material conditions determine human development (“Labour created man himself”, as Engels explained) instead of intelligence being the differentiating factor of humans, from other animals, that enables a different material existence.

All systemic actions of all animals failed to leave the imprint of their will. Only humankind managed to do so. Vygotsky, quoting Engels, explains again that the animals just exploit nature, while humans change it to make it exploitable for their aims, “dominate it”. This is a fundamental difference due to human labour. And the reason we dominate it is because we are an integral part of it, all our domination amounts to an understanding of its laws. The more this knowledge is accessible to everybody and understood by everybody, the more will humankind be able to wipe out the mystical nonsense that blur it like a fog, i.e. the vision that man is divorced from nature, spirit from matter and so on. Once more science, even though this is not openly admitted in academia, confirms the main propositions of dialectical materialism. The close connection observed between material conditions, the development of society and natural environment should enable humankind to attain a deeper comprehension of reality and, as a consequence, a fairer, more equitable social organisation in harmony with the environment. However, this cannot happen unless the enormous potential of science and technology becomes a common heritage of the human species, which can only be possible by finally freeing these vast assets from the suffocating motive of capitalist profit.