Baboon’s revenge: Marxism versus feminism on the origins of humanity

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

As usual, the organisers of the Anarchist Book Fair in London denied us a stall on the grounds that we are ‘dogmatic, authoritarian Leninists'. But, as usual, we set up a stall outside, and had many friendly and fraternal discussions with comrades from various backgrounds. We also went to 3 meetings - one on the NHS, one (allegedly) on workers' councils, and the meeting reported below by one of our sympathisers. We think it raises some interesting questions about human origins and early human society that we hope to come back to at a later date.


This is a report of a meeting on "Were the first humans anarchist?" by the ‘Radical Anthropology Group' that aims "...to communicate findings from modern science and anthropology relevant to an anarchist audience and to convince people of the relevance and importance of anthropology to political activism. This is for political activists interested in what science can teach us about what it means to be human".

The presentation made by Chris Knight, an evolutionary anthropologist, started off underlining the importance of the appearance of Homo Sapiens that he characterised as the "first revolution that worked". He pointed out the egalitarian aspects of hunter-gatherer society and the development of gens-based organisation, as opposed to the nuclear family of today. He was dismissive of previous species of Homo, whose millions of years' existence he described as "Darwinian dog eat dog". The "missing pieces to the jigsaw of the revolution" he informed us, was menstruation and the moon. Women ovulate around the full moon or a 29 and a half -day cycle, and this coincides with the hunt, which takes place then because of the light of the moon. His basic thesis was feminist, in that "oppressed sex, sex strikes and women's secrets was the basis for the HS revolution". In a short while he had dismissed Sapiens' ancestors as "animals"; he also dismissed male Homo Sapiens, often falling into the most ignorant bourgeois descriptions of ‘cave-man'. He could prove beyond doubt the menstruation theory because of the use of red ochre on body decoration, a totally unscientific assertion. One of the lessons from this for revolution today would be not to take power, but to take back this time of plenty and fun for today and perhaps have street parties once a month.

I've no doubt that menstruation was an important element and that the moon played a significant role in hunter-gatherer society and, possibly, the former rituals involved the use of red ochre. But to elevate this assertion to an importance of a motor force of change was ridiculous and unscientific. I spoke to agree with the importance of primitive communism as a concept and the qualitative leap that Homo Sapiens represented, but denounced his ignorant dismissal of pre-Sapiens species as "animals". I also pointed out that his ‘irrefutable' proof of the use of red ochre by Sapiens predated this species by hundreds of thousands of years. It was used by Homo Heidelbergensis 300,000 years ago, by everyone's admission by Neanderthals, in France, Spain and Czechoslovakia, and even findings in the Olduvai beds of Africa date from one million years ago. My inference was that its use in hunter gatherer society was more to do with life and death (red ochre is probably the "red earth" in Genesis from which God created Adam). He insisted he was the one digging in Africa, and it was left to his colleague to point out to the meeting that the use of red ochre as body decoration predated Homo Sapiens by some time. I also raised the question of the change from hunter gathering to the Neolithic - a change from a relative paradise to hard work and struggle, and this question was taken up by several other interventions. I put the view that this change was more due to the development of tools, associated labour and consciousness, where what is described as "cave men" were building stone temples prior to the domestication of plants and animals. "Where were they building them" he mocked, "in caves?" Which of course they were - twenty thousand years earlier in southern France and northern Spain, before the complex stone structures around the Tigris and Euphrates some ten thousand years ago.

He hit the roof about tools and referred to a discussion with or within the SWP on this question that I have never heard of, but he was dismissive of tools as a factor in the development of man and described it as an "anti-woman" concept (and politically correct as these feminists usually are, he also found the generic term "man" offensive). He said that monkeys use tools. I pointed out that so did birds, but the evidence for fine tooling within the development of the hand and the undoubted effect on consciousness prior to Sapiens was substantial, while not denying the qualitative leap that Homo Sapiens represented. In this respect, Anton Pannekoek's description of the development of touch, fingers and thumb, the hand, tools and consciousness represented a major contribution to the marxist understanding of the development of humanity. In Anthropogenesis, Pannekoek writes wonderfully about how the first hominid creatures, Sapiens' ancestors, began making advances through the use of tools and how the brain developed consciousness through a "detour", an indirectness, i.e., not using something for immediate gratification, but putting it off for better effect or result. A sideways dip to appear in front as it were, which I think is a good description of one of the properties of sub-atomic particles, which again accords similarities with marxism, consciousness and the science of quantum mechanics. But our anarchist anthropologist said that tools in the hands of species of Homo would have been used as weapons. This statement represents the crassest, most ignorant thought of the bourgeoisie.

Determined to demonstrate his anti-scientific credentials further, he particularly singled out and lambasted baboons! This seemed to be from the point of view of an anti-female activity by male baboons. But marxism has always taken lessons from the animal kingdom and a recent 14-year study of the Moremi baboons of Botswana by Cheney and Seyfarth of the University of Pennsylvania has demonstrated the bearing of the dynamics of baboon society and baboon thought processes on the nature and evolution of the human mind and human existence (New York Times, 28.10.7). As Darwin wrote in 1838: "He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke".

I further intervened to underline the role of women and the development of democracy in post hunter-gatherer society, a positive point for the working class in the marxist understanding of the necessity for world revolution today given the collapse of capitalism. But this sorry anarchist ‘analysis' by Radical Anthropology was more concerned about monthly street parties than the lessons of prehistory for the struggle of the working class or for the working class at all. Baboon 1.11.7