The "Descent of Man" came out 150 years ago

4 posts / 0 new
Last post
The "Descent of Man" came out 150 years ago
Printer-friendly version

I want to welcome this text from the ICC, its strength and defence of Darwin's theory against Social Darwinism and the reproduction of the work of Patrick Tort in defence of Darwin and his revolutionary theory.

The text characterises "civilisation" as the period that emerges with the existence of homo, production and society. In this case then the period starts with some of our earliest hominin ancestors whose productive and organisational capacities and their distinct development over time are a fact of the archaeological record. It's one way of looking at civilisation but I prefer the "standard" model that sees it emerge from the long-standing stage of primitive communism. But this approach has problems because "civilisation" wasn't a single, linear development. If we say that civilisation represents an expression of conglomerates of people, their production, organisation and eventually a state then it becomes an interesting aspect in itself. Contrary to what was thought by elements of the "scientific community" just a few decades ago, civilisation didn't come about as the result of a new "breed" of humanity that replaced the outmoded hunter-gatherers but the transformation of the latter which also transformed themselves, production and society. The twelve-thousand-year-old temple at Gobekli Tepe, along with other similar sites, is an expression of this development which, in accordance with the text, is an expression of both continuity and discontinuity in the development of society. Another clear fact about civilisation is that there wasn't a civilisation as such but numerous civilisations. Just like the developments of agriculture, cultivation and farming, civilisations appear separate, independent of each other in various parts of the world over a time scale of thousands of years. There is no linear development connecting them and there are vast differences between them; some could be called "progressive" while others are authoritarian but all of them tend to advance production and the development of the state. What was universal about the development of civilisations was that they all, or very largely all, emerged from the ancient gentes, the organic organisation of society through kinship ties so well described by Lewis Henry Morgan in his "Ancient Society...". Again this shows the continuity and discontinuity of the development of humanity and is entirely in line with Darwin's theory as expounded in the article.

In the recent frenzy to criticise "old, white men", Darwin has come in for some stick over his misogynist and racist views particularly from the right-wing British mainstream press that can out-woke the wokest in pursuit of a denigration of materialism and defence of bourgeois society. But there is no doubt that in "The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex" there are some very jarring quotes that suggest a superiority of males over women and overtly racist comments. From memory, these amounted to about a page-and-a-half of the book and are "jarring" because they go completely against the sense of the whole work but taken as a whole could give a completely false impression of his theory (which has a long history of falsification by the bourgeoisie). The basis of this theory is that through human action society geared itself to co-operation, solidarity and the protection of the weak, escaping from natural selection and strengthening a forward dynamic. The disparaging comments by Darwin in "The Descent"appear like involuntary tics, a sort of literary Tourettes that are difficult to explain. Darwin's almost continuous correspondence with Alfred Russel Wallace at the time show Darwin calm, personable and lucid, discussing the most detailed developments around sexual selection (amongst other elements of his work and beyond) and the primary role of the female in the process of reproduction. There is nothing in this correspondence to suggest racist or sexist views and he discussed these issues long and hard with Wallace. For a man in his position Darwin showed great courage because he was under enormous pressure, not least from the bourgeois milieu that he inhabited, which, particularly through his vision of humanity, he saw in all its brutality, rank hypocrisy, fakery and incestuousness.

The article defends the idea of continuity/discontinuity in general and this applies specifically to the links between "The Origin of Species" and "The Descent..." As the article says against those suggest a chasm, there is no "break" between the two and one leads into the other expressing both continuity and discontinuity. In fact within "The Origins..." this dialectical approach is also evident in "descent with modification" which, at the same time, expresses both a stability and change. This equally applies to "The Descent..." which also shows the marxist understanding of the progression of humanity through the overturning of natural selection.

Patrick Tort's work on Darwin and the real basis of his theories and their connection is extremely welcome but any text on Darwin that doesn't mention Alfred Russel Wallace is going to be lacking. They both hit on the idea of "The Origins..." together but independently with Darwin writing to Wallace that "it is your theory and yours alone". But like Marx and Engels this was a political double-act and through correspondence they continually discussed and refined their positions with some but few disagreements. Patrick Tort's "reverse effect" of evolution is exactly what Alfred Russel Wallace wrote about in his 1864 paper "The Origins of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of 'Natural Selection'" through which, for the second time in this "Copernican revolution", Wallace provoked Darwin into decisive action. Wallace didn't call it the "reverse effect" but the "escape" from natural selection where the positive aspects of humanity's development and action "were subjects of natural selection" on which "it would most powerfully act". He continues saying that man has ceased to be "influenced by the great laws which irresistibly modifies all other organic beings" and "Man has not only escaped 'natural selection' himself but he is actually able to take some of the power from nature which, before his appearance, she universally exercised".  This in fact is Patrick Tort's "reverse effect" one hundred and fifty years ago. Any paper on Darwin has to include the contribution of Alfred Russel Wallace to his two great works and to materialism in general.

On the other hand, against the disregard for Wallace's contribution shown in the article, there are those want to give Wallace all the credit even up to the point of saying that Darwin stole his work. One such effort comes from a TV documentary by Bill Bailey, apparently and appropriately a comedian, which insisted on the fracture between the two men with Darwin eventually stealing Wallace's work. The basis for this was the mystery about the how and when Darwin received a letter from Wallace on the question of natural selection, saying that Darwin stole his ideas. This "mystery" was solved a while ago ("Science Daily", 8.3.2012, "The Darwin-Wallace mystery solved: Darwin vindicated from accusations of deceit") but others around Darwin might have been involved. At any rate, five minutes of reading Darwin's and Wallace's correspondence shows how close the two men were: brothers, comrades, friends and scientists. You can't have one without the other.



The article above makes the

The article above makes the valid point that the use of tools is not a distinguishing feature of homo as opposed to that of animals given the increasingly obvious and widespread use of tools in the animal kingdom. The article instead states the difference is “production”. Marx said that the first element of production is reproduction and it’s clear that the animal kingdom is pretty good at that and many of the activities of tool-using animals are based on production, i.e., the struggle for the sustenance of life. So I don’t think that production alone as a defining difference is sufficiently clear.

The article is very good for bringing out the fundamental analysis of Darwin that the social instincts of humanity are to be found not just in what Darwin calls the “higher” animals but also in elements of the lowest. Thus elements of reason, memory, sympathy, love, morality, which exist in homo and the “higher” animals (apes, etc) which “differ only in degree” also has roots in the lower animals (and particularly birds I’d add). As the article says natural selection unified these feelings to a new level showing a significant advance with homo.

“Physarum polycephum” – known in scientific circles as “the blob” – is neither fauna, flora nor fungi but a ubiquitous single-cell slime mould that feeds on decaying matter. What’s attracted a great deal of scientific attention to it is the decision-making ability of “the blob”; its ability to learn to overcome complex problems and, through a sequence of thousands of experiments confirming it, the ability to teach other “naive” elements of the species how to overcome these problems without having to go through them. “The blob” not only learns, it teaches too. This is indicative of what Darwin mentions only fleetingly in his “Descent”, that many of the fundamental instincts and attributes of homo derive from the higher and lower animals “and most plants”.

After “Descent”, Darwin turned more to the kingdom of plant life producing with his son Francis “The power of movement in plants” in 1880 (see Darwin here talks of the “root-brain” of plants and, like many of Darwin’s theories this aspect of plant life has been confirmed by modern-day science, particularly cellular biology and electro-physiology. Plants are communicative, sensory organisms capable of complex behaviour and are definitely not passive organisms.


animals using tools

The article instead states the difference is “production”. Marx said that the first element of production is reproduction and it’s clear that the animal kingdom is pretty good at that and many of the activities of tool-using animals are based on production, i.e., the struggle for the sustenance of life. So I don’t think that production alone as a defining difference is sufficiently clear.

I don't think animals use these tools (like a tree-branch or rock) to create new (lasting) products though.


first created product

If we're speaking about actual production, ie if we're speaking about the creation of new (lasting) products, and what makes humans humans, then the production of animal hides spring to mind first. Here's a recent discovery;

" Humans likely sported clothes made of jackal, fox and wildcat skins some 120,000 years ago

... according to the recent discovery of a 120,000-year-old leather and fur production site that contains some of the oldest archaeological evidence for human clothing."