The question of the relations between nature and culture (on the book by Patrick Tort, Sexe, Race & Culture)
The discussions around the proposed law on “marriage for all” (same-sex marriage) in France, 2013, aroused much emotion, posturing, grandiloquence and stupidities, and more still when “gender studies” were bandied around as decisive arguments by one camp or another. Then, change of subject, the passionate controversies took a dramatic turn when thousands of refugees, forced from their homes by misery and war, knocked on the door of the developed countries, or when we had the sound of the Kalashnikov aimed at annihilating young people in Paris for their way of life, or the young of Orlando for their sexual orientation. The left, the right, the extreme-right, the extreme-left, all the elements of the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie expressed their gut feelings on the media theatre – some among them proclaiming “je suis Charlie” or again “je ne suis pas Charlie”, redoubling the demagogy so as not be outdone by the competition.
Let’s leave the theatre of official politics and return to the basic question posed by racism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia, by all these social behaviours which reveal human alienation and which can go as far as murder. How does one explain such an unleashing of social violence, how do you understand these prejudices which seem to come from a bygone age of superstition? How, faced with these types of problems, do you guard against the ideological thinking that the bourgeois system abundantly spreads around in order to mask reality and accentuate the divisions which weaken its historic enemy, the class of proletarians?
Of course, one can sense the profound causes of these phenomena in a society divided into antagonistic classes, based on exploitation of man by man, where the commodity imposes its tyranny on all levels of existence, including the most intimate. In a society where a monstrous cold state dominates and watches each individual, it’s not surprising that social violence is extremely high. In this type of society, the Other, the individual in front of us, is straightaway felt as suspect, as a potential danger, at best as a competitor, at worst as an enemy. He is stigmatized for a thousand reasons, because there’s not the same skin colour, the same sex, the same culture, the same religion, the same nationality, the same sexual orientation. Thus the multiple facets of competition that are found at the base of capitalist society regularly give rise to pauperisation, war, and genocides but also at another level, stress, aggression, harassment and psychological suffering, the pogrom mentality, superstition, nihilism and the dissolution of the most elementary social links[i].
But this explanation remains general and is insufficient; it is still necessary to identify the dynamic which generates these prejudices and the acts that they are supposed to justify, or to explain their survival and both their immediate and more deeply-rooted causes. It is a most vital question for the working class. First of all, because in its struggles, it is ceaselessly confronted with the necessity for its forces to come together, to fight for its unity. The struggle to reject or neutralise prejudices which divide its forces, such as racism, sexism or chauvinism for example, is indispensable and it is not won in advance. Secondly, because the revolutionary perspective carried by the working class has the aim of a society without classes, without national frontiers, that’s to say the creation of a human community finally unified at a global level. This means that the proletarian revolution intends to conclude a whole period of human history from the groupings, mixtures and alliances within primitive society up to the struggles of the XIXth century for national unity, a process based on the development of the productivity of labour leading to revolutions in the relations of production and an enlargement of the scale of society.
Defending the work of Darwin
It’s true that the working class, as a historic class that carries within itself the communist project, as the highest representative of the active principle of solidarity, is already pushed in practice to overcome these divisions. But racism, sexism and xenophobia remain a real problem, since they touch on the subjective factor of the revolution. Objective conditions are not sufficient for the revolution to succeed and it is still necessary for the class to be subjectively capable of undertaking its historic task to the end; for it to acquire, in the course of its struggles, the capacity to unify and organise itself; to develop a depth of intellectual and moral understanding. As for the communist minority, it has to be able to give clear and convincing political orientations, and to constitute a world party when the conditions of the class struggle allow it.
The little book by Patrick Tort, Sexe, race et culture, can help us to better understand these questions and constitutes a real stimulus for the most conscious workers. We already know about the scientific rigour of the works of this author[ii] which are not always easy to read, but the will to make all types of problematic accessible is clearly present here. Conceived under the form of an interview, the book is composed of two parts: the first confronts the question of racism and takes a position on the decision recently made in France by several state and scientific institutions to abandon the use of the word “race”; the second confronts the question of sexism and tries to define the relations between sex and “gender”. All these questions are to be found at the crossroads of biology and the social sciences and cannot begin to be clarified without a critique of the dominant conceptions of “human nature”; in other words, without a critique of the old, congealed opposition between “nature” and “culture”.
Here the contribution of Darwin is considerable. In his own field, the science of life, Darwin puts forward a whole series of theoretical tools and a scientific approach which allow the construction of a materialist vision of the passage of nature to culture, from the reign of the animal kingdom to the social world of man. At the international level Patrick Tort is one of the best authorities on Darwin, and he has now published the complete works in French in the Slatkine (Geneva) and Champion (Paris) editions. The publication of the monumental Dictionnaire du Darwinisme et de l’ évolution, drawn up by him, has put an inestimable tool at our disposal. Notably through the idea of the reverse effect of evolution, he has greatly contributed to making intelligible elements in the anthropological work of Darwin which have been obscured because of their subversive content[iii]. This combat remains very much active today because we still find resistance to the fundamental advances made by Darwin. There are those, trying to avoid the fundamental questions, who feign surprise “What do you see in Darwin? Is this a new cult of a now fashionable scientist?”[iv] There are those that Patrick Tort calls “the premature gravediggers” who, forgetting that Darwin wasn’t a socialist, that he was a man of his time and thus shared some of its prejudices, use carefully isolated quotes as trophies that are supposed to disqualify the whole logic of his work[v].
Of course, we are not necessarily in agreement with all the political positions coming from the text of Patrick Tort. The essential here is to base ourselves on the contributions of different scientific disciplines in order to give more flesh, more clarity to the ideas that, for the most part, marxism has long integrated into its theoretical heritage. The great quality of this author, alongside a rigorous materialist method, is the capacity to bring together different disciplines, his critique of accepted ideas and of good old common sense, products, of both what he calls the “liberal right” and “the dominant progressivist ideology ”. It is this critical approach which enables him to keep his distance from the lumber room of the media, that “great machine of influence”.
Towards the overthrow of bourgeois civilisation
The fundamental contribution of the anthropology of Darwin consists of a coherent and materialist description of the emergence of the human species through the mechanism of natural selection, which allows individuals with an advantageous variation to give rise to better adapted and more numerous descendents. Basically the process is the same for all species. In the struggle for existence the least apt are eliminated, which ends up, when certain conditions are met, in the transformation of a species by prolonged selection of advantageous variations, and the appearance of new species. What is transmitted to the descendents, in the case of the higher animals [vi], are not only advantageous biological variations but also the social instincts, the sentiments of sympathy and altruism, which themselves serve to amplify the developments of rational capacities and moral feelings. What happens with man is precisely that the development of sympathy and altruism comes up against the elimination of the weakest and opposes it. The protection of the weak, assistance for outcasts, sympathy towards the stranger who appears similar despite differences in culture and external appearance, as well as all the social institutions responsible for encouraging these reactions, Darwin calls this civilisation. Tort briefly recalls the content:
“Through social instincts (and their consequences on the development of rational and moral capacities) natural selection selects civilisation, which is opposed to natural selection. This is the simplified and current formula of what I have called the reverse effect” (p. 21). It’s a perfectly materialist and dialectical conception. An overturning comes into operation with the appearance of man, who more and more adapts his surroundings to his needs rather than adapting to them, and thus frees himself from the eliminatory grip of natural selection. At the beginning of the process it’s the elimination of the weakest which predominates; then, through a progressive inversion, it’s the protection of the weak that finally imposes itself, an eminent mark of the solidarity of the group. The original error of socio-biology consists of seeing human society as a collection of organisms in struggle; it thus postulates a simple continuity between the biological (reduced to a hypothetical competition of genes) and the social. This is not the case with Darwin. According to him there is a continuity, but it’s a reversive continuity. In effect, the overturning that we have just described produces not a break between biological and social but a new synthesis. According to Tort this notion allows us to understand the theoretical autonomy of the science of man and society, while maintaining the material continuity between nature and culture. It’s a rejection of any dualism, of all rigid opposition between the inner and the acquired, between nature and culture.
The discoveries of Darwin, to which we can add the reverse effect as an indispensible key to understanding his work, represented a real overthrow of our scientific conceptions of the appearance of human society. By calling into question the old certainties (fixism) and the apparent stability of the living world, and by adopting the perspective of its real genealogy, Darwin opened up new horizons. It’s the same type of overturning that was provoked by Anaximander in Greek antiquity when he called into question the dominant view that our planet necessarily had to rest on something. In reality, he affirmed that the Earth floated in space and in this sense there was no up and down. By simply changing how we look at sensual reality, Anaximander opened the door to the discovery of the Earth as a sphere – where people who lived in the antipodes didn’t walk upside-down – and all the scientific advances that flowed from it[vii].
The consequences of Darwin’s discoveries are recalled by Patrick Tort:
At this stage of evolution, natural selection is no longer the main force which governs the future of human beings:
“In other words, if evolution preceded history, history today governs evolution” (p. 1).
“Biology is necessary for the social, but on one hand the social can’t be reduced to the biological, and, on the other hand it is the social which from the point of view of man, actor and judge of his evolution, produces the truth of biology in the capacities that through him biology shows itself apt to reveal” (p. 1).
As there exists a (reversive) continuity between nature and culture, and as “Historic man hasn’t for all that ceased to be an organism, evolution englobes or includes history” (p. 1).
We are not going to reproduce in full the famous quote in chapter IV of The Descent of Man, but only two phrases which are fundamental for understanding the importance of Darwin’s conclusions about man reaching the present stage of “civilisation”: “Once this point is reached, there’s no longer an artificial barrier to prevent sympathies spreading to men of all nations and races. It’s true that if these humans are separated from each other by great differences of exterior appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shows us how it is a long time before we regard them as similar” (Quoted by Tort, p. 23).
By reading The Autobiography[viii] that Darwin reserved solely for his close friends, we can note that he was perfectly conscious of the revolutionary nature of his discoveries, notably of the fact that he called into question belief in God: he himself became an atheist. But he showed an extreme prudence in avoiding, in puritan and religious Victorian England, his book being indexed. We find in this passage the same profound and revolutionary vision of human becoming: national frontiers are artificial barriers that civilisation will have to breach and abolish. Without being communist, without even explicitly envisaging the destruction of national frontiers, Darwin in fact included in his hypothesis a disappearance of the national framework. In this spirit civilisation is not a state of fact, it is a constant and painful movement (“it’s a long time before...”), a continual process of overcoming which, by achieving the unification of humanity, must continue beyond the human species towards sympathy for all sentient beings. Bringing together the perspective forged by Darwin and the one forged by Marx, we consider that on the shoulders of the proletariat and its reconstituted solidarity rests the heavy task of overthrowing bourgeois civilisation in order to allow the free development of human civilisation.
Against mechanical materialism
One other important consequence is the way in which we conceive the famous “human nature”. We know the error of the Utopian socialists. Despite all their merits, due to their time they were incapable of defining the premises which, within bourgeois society, favoured the overthrow of existing social relations and the construction of a communist society. It was therefore necessary to invent a whole ideal society which conformed to a human nature as an absolute criterion. By doing this the Utopian socialists took up the dominant vision of their time, an idealist vision still largely extant today, according to which human nature is immutable and eternal. The problem, responded Marx, is that human nature is constantly modified during the course of history. At the same time as man transforms external nature, he transforms his own nature.
The conception defended by Darwin on the relations between nature and culture allows us to go much further than a simple abstract vision of a human nature that’s ephemeral and fluid. A continuity exists between the biological and the cultural, which implies the existence of a constant kernel in human nature, a product of the whole of evolution. Marx shared this vision. It’s what stands out in this passage of Capital where he responds to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham: “To know what is useful for a dog, one must study dog-nature. This nature itself is not to be deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would criticise all human acts, movements, relations, etc., by the principle of utility, must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch”[ix].
Even if the profound roots of human nature have been recognised, the error of interpretation made by the Utopian socialists still remains dominant today. Patrick Tort shows its nature well: “The error is not to affirm the existence of a ‘nature’ in the human being, but to still think of it as an all-powerful heritage which governs it following the intangible law of a sustained and one-sided determinism” (p. 83). This sustained and one-sided dterminism belongs to mechanical materialism. Whereas modern materialism adds an active determination, as Epicurus well understood with his theory of clinamen (the unpredictability or ‘swerve’ of atoms). In his doctorate thesis, The Difference Between the Democritian and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature[x], Marx recognised the considerable contribution of Epicurus which went beyond the reductionist atomism of Lucretius and Democritus and which introduced freedom into matter. This freedom signified that in nature nothing was predestined as absolute determinism claimed, and that there was space for the spontaneity of agents. It meant that for organisms which have acquired a certain autonomy, “at any moment, I can decide on an act, a contrary act or a non-act without the need to be ‘programmed’” (p. 83).
This active materialism – not passive and submissive – defended by Patrick Tort leads to a definition which should be etched in all memories: “’human nature’ is the incalculable sum of all the possibilities of humanity. Or again, on a deliberately existential mode: ‘human nature’ is what is in our own hands” (p. 86).
The tale of the scapegoat
We have seen above that the persistence of racism, sexism and homophobia are products of a society divided into classes. It’s important to keep this in mind because it is then possible to understand why the struggle of the proletariat, because it’s the only class that can lead to the abolition of classes, includes the struggle against these different phenomena. Whereas the inverse is not true. As soon as anti-racism or feminism claim to wage an autonomous struggle they rapidly become a weapon against the working class and take their place within the dominant ideology. It’s the same with pacifism which, when it’s not explicitly linked to the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat against capitalism as a social system, is transformed into a dangerous mystification.
But these are still real problems for the proletariat and we must, with Tort, refine the analysis. Xenophobia is not simply a rejection of the Other because of the perception of totally different characteristics. This element is flagrant in the case of racism, but that can and must be explained in a deeper way: “Racism is the rejection of what one exteriorises, of what one hates most in oneself” (p. 22). Fundamentally, what is rejected in the Other is not the difference, it’s what one wants to banish from oneself. “In the most extreme versions, racism must then define itself less as the simple ‘rejection of the Other’ than as the negation of similarity in similarity through the fabrication of the “Other” as vile and threatening” (p. 23).
The person or population aimed at doesn’t represent an unknown menace; it is considered a threat because it is precisely part of ourselves, the part that we consider contemptible. As Patrick Tort says, German Jews and Christians lived together for more than sixteen centuries. It is the one who is most similar that becomes the victim that it’s necessary to kill. In the Old Testament, “the ritual of the ‘scapegoat’ is a ritual of atonement, which exteriorises the guilty part of oneself and dedicates it to the demon and symbolic death in the desert” (p. 28). We know that bourgeois society has very often been the theatre of pogroms or genocides and that the dominant class bears the entire responsibility for them. But it’s necessary to widen our understanding of these phenomena and not stop at their most spectacular manifestations. We should examine to what point the search for a scapegoat and the pogromist mentality, with the extreme violence that they contain, are rooted in the soil of capitalist society, where they always find the nourishment they need.
If you re-read the passage from The Descent of Man quoted above, you can understand better what Darwin wanted to underline with these words: “It’s a long time before we regard them as similar”. The very principle of civilisation is the process of the development of sympathy, that’s to say the recognition of similarity in the other. As this civilisation is the product of natural selection before being overthrown, the process of the elimination of the elimination (the reverse effect according to Tort) is still ongoing and a backward turn is always periodically possible. But from what we’ve said above it means we can’t talk about a still primitive “human nature”. “Anthropology influenced by Darwin has never ceased to metaphorically use a biological concept in order to interpret, within civilisation, the reappearance of ancestral behaviours that return the human to his animal origins: this is the concept of the atavistic return, unfortunately inflated and besmirched in the French hereditary psychiatry of the nineteenth century and in the Italian criminal anthropology which inspired it, but which is nevertheless useful for thinking about what remains, and what can potentially re-emerge, of a persistent ancestral heritage” (p. 27).
Race and culture
The argument most used to fight racism consists of explaining that what appears as great differences in exterior appearances of human beings is objectively negligible when put on the genetic or molecular level. We know very little about “race”, the argument goes on, because in fact it’s the name used for a pseudo-reality and what we do know about it seems enough to conclude that it is non-existent. It is thus ridiculous to be racist. This argument is totally unworkable says Patrick Tort. If tomorrow, scientific research affirmed, thanks to new discoveries, that “races” existed biologically, would that then justify racism? The weakness of this argument comes from the fact that racism addresses itself to phenotypes[xi](biological and cultural) and not to genotypes[xii], to whole individuals with their observable characteristics and not to their molecules. It is thus easy for identity-based conservatism (Alain de Benoist, Zemmour, Le Pen) and for all the racists to appeal to common sense: the races are an evidence that all the world can see, it’s enough to compare a Scandinavian and an Indian.
It’s certain that the non-scientific use which is made of the word “race” totally disqualifies its use and obliges us to at least put it in inverted commas. But in reality “races” do exist and as such correspond to “varieties” which distinguish the identifiable subdivisions within a species. Certainly it’s a very difficult notion to demarcate, it is not homogenous, it remains even more in flux than the notion of species, because the living ceaselessly evolve under the effect of incessant variations and the modification of their milieu. Thus species are not perennial entities but groups that classification ranges under categories. They exist nevertheless. Darwin showed that species are in permanent transformation, but that at the same time it is possible to distinguish them because they correspond to a stabilisation – certainly relative or temporary if they are placed on a geological time-scale – imposed by the presence of other species in competition with them in the struggle for existence, and even by the need for classification. There is, under the regularity of specific forms, an effective combination in relation to a given milieu and an ecological niche which explains why individuals of the same species look alike. “Even if it’s understood that in the history of the science of organisms, classificatory divisions have only a temporary and technical value, there is still a naturalist sense to say that there is a single human species, and that this species, as roughly all biological species, comprises of varieties. In the naturalist tradition ‘race’ is synonymous with ‘variety’” (p. 33).
Racism is a social phenomenon and it is at this level that it’s necessary to respond to it. From this point of view the colonial past continues to have harmful consequences and the proletariat will have to firmly combat “an ideology which turns human characteristics into signs of native and permanent inferiority, as well as a threat to other human beings” (p. 41).
The problematic is globally the same for the question of sexism. Sex is a biological reality, but “gender” is really a constructed cultural reality and thus a becoming, a possibility which remains open. The radical attitude of some feminists or of certain “gender studies” which want to “denaturalise” sex is as stupid as that which denies the reality of visible inter-racial differences. The fight for the social equality of men and women, which will never happen under capitalism, the fight for sympathy towards others, that’s to say for the recognition of the Other as similar despite all the cultural differences – all these combats are at the heart of Darwin’s anthropology. Proletarian ethics continue this heritage. That’s why the struggle for communism is not the work of robotised and undifferentiated individuals, and has nothing to do with a negation of cultural differences. It defines itself as unification in diversity, inclusion of the Other within one association, the creation of a community which has need of the richness of all cultures[xiii].
The critique of dualism and the demand for a reversive continuity between nature and culture, between biology and society, leads us to a rigorous definition of human nature and takes up the Darwinian idea of civilisation as a still unachieved process. What are the consequences for the revolutionary struggle? Within capitalism this struggle is before everything a struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat, even if it bears within it the emancipation of all of humanity. The proletariat must prepare itself for a particularly difficult civil war faced with a bourgeoisie which will never accept giving up power. However it’s not mainly by force of arms that the proletariat will carry the decision. The essence of its strength comes from its capacity for organisation, from its class consciousness and in its natural tendency, on the one hand to achieve unity and on the other hand to draw behind it all the non-exploited layers, or, at least, to neutralise them in periods of indecision about the outcome of the combat. Does this process of unification and integration operate automatically under the pretext that man is a social being and that human nature contains the evolutionary advantage supplied by the generalisation of the sentiment of sympathy? Of course not. But the results of the scientific approach exposed in the book by Patrick Tort, confirm the marxist vision of the importance of the subjective factor for the proletariat, in particular of consciousness, and more globally of culture. They confirm the validity of the Communist Left against the fatalism of degenerating social democracy which defended the opportunist position of a gradual, automatic and peaceful passage of capitalism to socialism. They confirm that the future of humanity is in the hands of the proletariat.
[i] On the nature of violence within bourgeois society, see our article: “Terrror, terrorism and class violence”:http://en.internationalism.org/ir/014_terror.html. International Review, no. 14, 1978 on our site.
[ii] Tort demonstrates this all through the 1000 pages of Qu’est que le materialisme? , Paris, Berlin, 2006. We recommend this book of Patrick Tort in order to deepen the questions treated here.
[iii] We have presented the work of this author and the idea of the reverse effect of evolution in the article The Darwin Effect, A materialist conception of the origins of morality and civilisation on our site http://en.internationalism.org/book/export/html/2842
[iv] On France Culture, Jean Gayon, a philosopher specialising in the history of sciences and epistemology, doesn’t fear resorting to banality when he declares of Darwin that “he’s neither Jesus nor Marx” (La Marche des Sciences, broadcast February 4, 2016, called “Darwin under fire from today’s reality”).
[v] The International Communist Party which publishes Le Proletaire in France undoubtedly belong to the “premature gravediggers”. You can verify this by reading its magazine, Programme Communiste no. 102, February 2014. In a polemic aimed at the ICC, this group, blinded by the Malthusian legend of Darwin, undertake a real tour de force by confusing not only the Darwin and the social Darwinism of Spencer, but in the same outburst, Darwin with sociobiology.
[vi] By “higher animals” traditionally in natural history we mean the warm-blooded vertebrates - the birds and mammals.
[vii] See our article on the ICC English website http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201203/4739/reading-notes-science-and-marxism.
Karl Marx, Capital, chapter XXIV, Section V, “The so-called labour funds”.
[xi] Phenotypes: in genetics, all of the observable characteristics of an individual.
[xii] Genotype: all of an individual’s genes.
[xiii] The proletarian vision of the richness of culture, considered as a positive factor in the fight for unity in struggle – in total opposition to multiculturalism and bourgeois communalism which reproduce the ideology of identity politics– is developed, with numerous historical examples, in our article “Immigration and the workers’ movement” http://en.internationalism.org/ir/140/immigration on our website.