The question of the relations between nature and culture (on the book by Patrick Tort, Sexe, Race & Culture)

3 posts / 0 new
Last post
The question of the relations between nature and culture (on the book by Patrick Tort, Sexe, Race & Culture)
Printer-friendly versionSend by email

The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: The question of the relations between nature and culture (on the book by Patrick Tort, Sexe, Race & Culture). The discussion was initiated by baboon.
Below is the discussion so far. Feel free to add your own comments!

Science eh?

I've got to comment on this given what I've written about Darwin elsewhere. It's a very good text and a very good basis for the question of racial and sexual differences.

When I first read Darwin's "Descent" I wasn't sure about some of his analyses about "race", myself tending towards the position criticised in this ICC text that races do not exist, i.e., the "we are all the same under the skin" argument. To compound my confusion on this issue was Darwin's occasional outburst of outright racism in the book that the text itself mentions but which is entirely contradictory to his overall analysis and rather, understandingly, represents the contradiction between his social and revolutionary position. Re-reading the book, one can see that Darwin's analysis of race is correct and their existence "corresponds to a stabilisation", that's also fluid in my opinion. In today's society, the racists can point to very clear differences in human beings with skin colour being an obvious one, e.g. the Indian looking different to a Norwegian. Some time ago Scientific American published an article on these differences in colour and even differences between black and white are not black and white. Take the region emanating from equatorial Africa where there are several distinct shades of black (a bit like all the children in Bill Cosby's TV "family") and if one takes a sheet of paper or pure snow as being white, then there are not that many white people about. The article estimated that someone moving from the heart of equatorial Africa to Norway say would undergo a change of skin colour in about eight thousand years due to ambient conditions.

But the "races" of Darwin are about much more than the colour of ones' skin and his analysis of this question tends to undermine the position of a linear, one-track descent of humanity. DNA evidence has now confirmed Darwin's theory that humanity is made of different races, not fundamentally different but different in certain aspects and lineage wih visible characteristics related to certain ancestries be it Neanderthal, Denisovan, Sapien, others we don't know about and mixtures and combinations of all of these. These real differences will continue to be used by the bourgeoisie and, as the text says, like the inequality between the sexes; it is only the proletarian struggle that can overcome them.

Another confusion that I found in the book that is repeated in the text is about Darwin's use of the word "civilisation" in order to describe the positive thrust of humanity, as in "natural selection selects civilisation". For Darwin "civilisation" didn't mean the bourgeoisie, nor even class society, both of which he denounces but the tendency towards to cooperation and morality overcoming (reversing) the natural (blind) selection of the strongest and fittest. This is no ideal but, as Darwing said, a "constant and painful movement" and it remains so with the one of its fundamentals being that "the very principle of civilisation is the process of the development of sympathy" and of which sexual selection, by the introduction of a conscious choice, is also a fundamental part. But he doesn't mean the civilisation of class society, oppression and "the war of the rich against the poor" as we understand the civilisation of the last five or six thousand years. Indeed, in some ways this latter could be seen as a reversal of the reversal, such as Darwin and the text by Tort intimates.

Darwin's book and the analyses of Patrick Tort are great on the question of human nature and the relationship of nature to culture and it's particularly clear from "Descent" that this relationship and this "reverse effect" started in a very ancient period of humanity. Against the "dog eat dog" social Darwinism of Spencer, human nature is neither utopian idealism nor immutably fixed once and for all but, as Marx said, is constantly modified: "At the same time as man transforms external nature, he transforms his own nature".

One last point on Alfred Russell Wallace: at the moment there is a "great debate" going on between Noam Chomsky and Tom Wolfe over the question of language. I have no interest in what seems to be a clash of egos but in reply to something that Chomsky has said Wolfe has responded that "Darwin stole everything he knew from Wallace". This is a lie and the work of the two men both on natural selection and then the overturning of natural selection is a joint work from two great men that thought alike from a scientific basis and corresponded deeply almost every day. To see them in competition, as Chris Knight has done or as thieving from one another, as Wolfe says, is a gross slander.

I think that the ICC has done good work with Tort's analyses in this and the previous text. I haven't read any more of Tort's work than that published by the ICC. I don't know if he is aware of the work of Alfred Russell Wallace and the effect that it had on Darwin's own works. What is clear is that in 1864, seven or eight years before "The Descent of Man..." was published and over a century-and-a-quarter before Patrick Tort used the phrase, Wallace wrote clearly about "the reverse effect of natural selection" in exactly the same context as that used by Tort. That needs to be acknowledged. Maybe Tort does, I don't know.


Towards the end of the piece

Towards the end of the piece on Neanderthal art on this website I get a bit carried away and after talking about the number of species of homo extant around three hundred thousand years ago, make a brief speculation about very early hominines referencing the above text.  The article above is a profound defence of the work of Charles Darwin and, in relation to nature and culture, is entirely relevant to the reductionist arguments of "identity politics" today from a position that the text says is already "integrated into the theoretical heritage of marxism". It poses an "active materialism" against any mechanical vision, against any determinism and rates the work of Darwin as "indispensable" and "opening new horizons".  It defends the materialism of natural selection and from there, through the work of Patrick Tort, examines his analysis of the "reverse" effect of natural selection and the "freedom" from natural selection which is completely in continuity with a natural selection which is overturned and turned into a "new synthesis" and which, in a nutshell, is largely based on a cooperation expressed at another level and the establishment and defence of society.

I don't see any mention in the text or from Tort of Alfred Russel Wallace who, along with Darwin, was the co-author of the idea of the "reversal" of natural selection (see the text on this website: "Alfred Russel Wallace and his inestimable contribution to the workers' movement"). I say "co-author" although, as on the question of natural selection, it was Wallace who pushed Darwin forwards on his idea of the origins of man but to all intents and purposes you couldn't oppose one's position against the other and their almost daily correspondence clearly shows that both shared and impelled forward the same analysis. Thus Wallace wrote in his 1864 paper "The Origin of the Human Race and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of 'Natural Selection':
"(Man) is indeed, a being apart, since he is not influenced by the great laws which irresistibly modify all other organic beings. Nay more; this victory which he has gained for himself gives him a directing influence over other existences. Man has not only escaped ‘natural selection' himself, but he actually is able to take away some of that power from nature which, before his appearance, she universally exercised." And... "Briefly to recapitulate the argument;--in two distinct ways has man escaped the influence of those laws which have produced unceasing change in the animal world by development of mental capacities; by moral and solidarity (developments)". Wallace also talks of the "blocking" of natural selection.

Wallace further expands in great detail in his paper but his idea of the "reversal" of natural selection (the latter which he henceforth puts in inverted commas) in the sense of Darwin and later of Tort, is evident. But while the analyses of Wallace demands its rightful place in this discussion this is not the main point of this post. Darwin, Wallace, Tort and the text above demonstrates a scientific approach that rejects the bourgeois approach of "evolution" on one hand and "social Darwinism" on the other and defends a fundamentally scientific and materialist thesis. The point is not to oppose Tort v Wallace, the former develops his analysis well in his science of man, on "human nature" and the development of society and the article goes further in using these analyses in explaining the questions of racism, sexism, etc.

The main point of this post is to put forward the suggestion that this "reversal" of natural selection and all that that involved at the new level of mental and moral capacities, wasn't the result, the outcome, of the transition of ape to man but was its revolutionary driving force - the threshold was already crossed and the species Homo was its consequence.

The transition of ape to man, or, more accurately, the transition of an ape-like creature to the species Homo, was a complex journey that took many paths and lasted for a period of more than a million years but, from a point to a point, a revolutionary change was effected which was based on the advantage conferred by the reversal and overturning of natural selection, a "new synthesis" which could have only been contained in the transitional period and was its motor force.

The article above says that "At the beginning of this process it's the elimination of the weakest which predominates" and no doubt the elimination of the weakest happened. But the puny ape-like hominines of the transitional period who were ancestral to Homo (the australopithecines) would, in my opinion, never have survived if the elimination of the weakest was the main feature of its existence. It doesn't take much to imagine the precariousness of the situation of these creatures given the world they lived in. Even a slight decrease in the birth rate for any period would probably have done for them - and probably did for many. To sacrifice the weak in the sense of infants would have been fatal for the development of the species and the world may well have belonged to the animal kingdom forever down to a missed opportunity. The contrary must have taken place: the protection of the weak; solidarity, altruism, the development of the mental faculties, society - all these were the dynamic forces of the transitional period as natural selection was stood on its head by the fundamental need to survive. Certainly the weak would have perished but it would have been the cowards, look after number one, etc., and the solidarity of the group would have won through (Though this is never a done deal to this day and the bourgeoisie and its system makes sure of it). I think that the origin and nucleus of this revolutionary change was the development of the strongest animal instinct, the maternal instinct as the male of the species rallied around the female, her kin and her infants for the well-being of all in an organised way beyond anything remotely achieved in the animal kingdom. The sexual selection of Darwin and Wallace also played a role in these developments. Given the circumstances of the world around them, I don't see any other way that this pre-Homo species could have possibly survived for so long in the face of such adversity and advanced.