iOn "Engels was right...." by Chris Knight

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iOn "Engels was right...." by Chris Knight
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On “Engels was right...” by Chris Knight


The text by Chris Knight can be found by Googling the above where, as if by magic, a number of copies will appear. It's an interesting text and represents a positive contribution to the discussion. Some first thoughts on it...


The full title is “Engels was right, Early Human Kinship was Matrilineal”. This is a position that I agree with and the text is a defence of the positions of both the works of Engels and Lewis Henry Morgan, the early works of Marx and, implicitly, the analyses of Darwin and Wallace. I also think that this is a development of CK's earlier position and something of a contradiction to fundamental elements contained in “Blood Relations”, which in my opinion was a bit of a shot in the dark, particularly his Social Darwinist characterisation of early males as aggressive numbskulls. The text is an effective attack on the position of the bourgeoisie, on bourgeois ideology generally, that gives the impression that the organisation of society has been generally, if not always, been along patriarchal lines. Knight attacks the way that developing anthropology of the 20th century, exemplified by the LSE's Bronislaw Malinowski, has tried to perpetrate the myth of 'eternal patriarchy' and the individual family against Morgan's and Engel's mother-right as the cornerstone of prehistoric society, the latter position being generally accepted by “science” up to the 1920's. Knight says that he was 'delighted and astonished' that this paper generally bought agreement from his professional colleagues recently but I don't think he should be surprised. As he suggests himself, the insistence on the patriarchal, individual family was part of the counter-revolution from the scientific establishment in response to the very real threat from the proletariat that was clearly expressed in the revolutionary wave of the early part of the 20th century. Knight demonstrates, through the defence of Morgan and Engels, how patriarchal society became the norm with civilisation and the development of private property and although mother-right persisted well after the fall of the Roman Empire, civilisation bore the stamp of class divided society, the oppression of women and the “war of the rich against the poor”. Group motherhood was too dangerous a concept for the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie and, as Chris Knight says, it would be more accurate to define the social anthropology of the twentieth century as “moulded specifically in reaction against the ideas of Marx and Engels”.


CK explains well, through historical and ethnological examples and the theorising of communist militants (including Morgan), the organisation of society along the lines of mother-right. He talks of the importance of grandparents, particularly the grandmother. On the maternal certainty of parenthood as opposed to the possible uncertainty of fatherhood, CK shows how this was positive. Even now, according to Steve Jones in “The language of genes”, DNA tests among the “middle-class” show that 1 in 20 children have a biological father that is not the wife's husband. Darwin insisted the strong and complex tribal connections in relationships with the offspring being a major consideration and these loose forms of marriage with the strength of the mother child relations underpinning it all. Morgan thought, that while the “family” developed, these communal forms of marriage must have been universal and he demonstrates this with some detail in his analysis in the universality of the gentes. This choice of the mother, which emanates from the social instincts, doesn't have to be towards a certain partner; be it brief, seasonal, the whole year, it “suffices for the work of sexual selection” (“The Descent....”, Darwin). The most successful sexual selection made the most successful progenitors and, within the mutual aid and solidarity of these primitive societies, this was for the good of all. Sex between a male and a female is the motor force for this. Steve Jones again: “To define sex is simple; it is a process that brings together genes from different ancestors. It provides a chance to purge ourselves of the harmful mutations which arise in each generation and represents, in more ways than one, the antithesis of age”. Though this question of sexual selection is central to the role of womanhood and her selection of the more positive attributes of the male, Darwin did take it too far with the implication that biological characteristics could be favoured by it leading to a certain “racial” explanation to mankind's development.


I don't agree with some of the stuff around paternity quoted from the Steven Beckerman and Paul Valentine book about male strategies. I haven't read the book but I don't think that it was “male strategies” giving rise to “patrilineal descent”. Maybe it's out of context, but it wasn't male strategies that gave rise to agriculture on one hand, in which both sexes played a major role, or of rise of private property and the state.

I'm also a bit dubious about CK's use of the quote from Engel's “The Origin...”, which says that there is only a negative value in drawing conclusions from animal societies. Certainly “the animal family and primitive human society are two incompatible things”, but there are positive elements from the social instincts of the animal kingdom – Engels himself mentions the horde – and, in relation to the male dominated primates that he also mentions in the quote, evidence over the last thirty years or so has shown many primate societies, baboons for example, have complex and maternal dominated relationships. And one major omission from CK's defence of Engels is the latter's insistence on the development and use of tools and their role in cohering primitive society around a communistic method of production. But I welcome this text that takes a close and sometimes incisive look at the analysis of womanhood in early primitive society – and it's important to insist here that we are talking about early primitive society and not homo sapiens in Africa ninety-thousand years ago. The context here is from around 2 million years ago.


For me, there's a very important quote used by CK from an F. Marlowe, author of the text “Marital residence among foragers”, whom he calls “a major specialist on this topic”:“Across all societies, the greater the dependence on gathering, hunting and fishing, the less likely that residence is virilocal (patrilocal)” CK concludes: “Hunting has the strongest effect and, contrary to the proponents of the standard model, results in less patrilocality, not more”. And further, in order to underline his agreement with this position, Chris Knight adds: “A study conducted in 2004 reviewed the evidence behind the standard doctrine that patrilocality is the hunter-gatherer norm. Most of the widely used classifications turn out to have been based on totally inadequate data and ignore insightful discussions that took place in early anthropology”. What's being put forward here is not a society of aggressive, dominant animal-like males but a society that's altogether more cooperative and functional involving mother-right early on. This idea of very early cooperation in the post-ape transition is further underlined in recent evidence put forward elsewhere of research by Professor Henry Bunn suggesting systematic hunting by homo at least as far back as the 1.8 million-year-old Oldowan period which reinforces the position of Marlowe above. This organised hunting is a long way from the “marginal scavenger” thus painted in social Darwinist terms by the archaeologist Lewis Binford in Chris Knight's “Blood Relations”. There's a division of labour certainly between the male and female of the species of homo, but such hunting suggested by Bunn, and hunting and foraging, suggested by Marlowe, shows a wider cooperation and solidarity between the sexes – there had to be or we wouldn't be here to talk about it.


To use the quote of Engels again: “animal family and primitive human society are incompatible things”. If I said earlier that there are some “compatibilities” between the two, then Engels is absolutely correct to insist on the major leap out of the animal kingdom that is expressed by the appearance of homo. Given the environmental circumstances some two million years ago, the dangers and precariousness facing these puny creatures' very existence, not least given the lack of the controlled use of fire, a solid form of organisation minimising antagonisms between the sexes was absolutely essential. The most important demand for humanitie's future, for its very existence, was the raising and protection of children. Matrilineality was the abiding basis for this society both in sexual selection and the social consequences of mother-right – the “special role of womanhood”. Within this cooperation and solidarity between the sexes must have been one of the major advances out of the animal kingdom, particularly with the greater role of the male in the upbringing and protection of both mother and children, whether a parent or not.


I don't have time to read

I don't have time to read Knight's oeuvre, but does he really use the term "solidarity," as in "solidarity of the sexes" to describe social relationships in pre-history?

solidarity in pre-history

Just a quick reply jk if no-one else is going to. It's my view, following Darwin and Wallace amongst others, that solidarity and cooperation was an essential feature of our transition from the ape-like creature. I don't know if this is Chris Knight's view but I think that his text referred to above shows a move towards this position and a move away from the male the numbskull idea. But that's just my opinion.

Marin Jensen
Social Darwinist?

jk1921 wrote:

I don't have time to read Knight's oeuvre, but does he really use the term "solidarity," as in "solidarity of the sexes" to describe social relationships in pre-history?

As I understand it, yes.

I also think it is a great mistake to describe him as a Social Darwinist. His entire work is aimed at demonstrating that the evolutionary process of natural selection (he is entirely faithful to the neo-darwinian synthesis on this point) which is essentially a matter of competition to pass on genes, has actually produced an animal which a) is dependent on cultural evolution rather than genetic evolution to survive, and b) created a society founded on solidarity both among and between the sexes.

I don't think the "male numbskull" way of looking at things is at all useful: it simply imports an ideological construct into what ought to be a scientific, or at least materialist argument.

By the way, I am a big fan of Blood Relations, which is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in many a year. I believe you can even download it on the Internet now.

Pardon me if this uninformed,

Pardon me if this uninformed, but might it not be reading back into pre-history a concept that develops much later? It seems to me that solidarity would imply a prior seperation that solidarity is supposed to overcome. Are the uses of "solidarity" and "cooperation" synonomous or are they distinct concepts? 



Solidarity in pre-history

It's my position, and has been for some time, that the transition from ape (ape-like creature) to man (humanity) involved solidarity and cooperation (interchangeable terms) from a very early period (around 2 million years ago). In my opinion these factors of solidarity and cooperation were not just a consequence of the transition but a fundamental part of it without which I don't believe that the species would have survived. An important part of this ability to survive and develop was specifically a solidarity between the sexes in looking after and bringing up children. While these latter elements exist within the animal kingdom to one degree or another, they took a qualitative leap forward with mankind.

I saw an interesting

I saw an interesting documentary on animal domestication the other night. According to this show, the traditional thesis about how animals (dogs in particular) were domesticated (early man adopted orphaned pups and selected for tameness) might be wrong. It may be the case that animals "self-domesticated." The case of the pig was particularly interesting. The argument was made that although the life of most individual domesticated pigs is often rather Hobbesian (nasty, brutish and short); domestication has allowed the species to thrive. As a result of domestication, pigs have colonized the entire world. This reminded me of some of the discussions about how individual needs are expressed at the species level in the previous discussions regarding Darwinism. How can individuals act in the interests of the species, even if it might not be in the interests of their individual selves? There are obvious implications for modern theories of collective action (certainly including Marxism itself) here.

On cooperation and solidarity: the differences between Chimpanzees (who are often violent, brutal and even war-like) was juxtaposed to their Bonobo cousins who have a society based on cooperation, social sexuality and sharing. An experiement was done in which a pair from each species was placed in adjoining cages. Food was introduced into one cage. The chimpanzee ate all the food for himherself, while the Bonobo opened the adjoing cage and shared the food with hisher partner. The conclusion drawn from this was that Bonobos have been natually selected for cooperation and domestication. It was further speculated that perhaps humans have been similarly selected for cooperation and domestication allowing them to live together in society without destroying one another completely.

The language used was interesting--"domestication." In my experience, the concept of domestication often has a very negative connatation in the anarcho/communist milieu. It implies passivity, acceptance of oppression/exploitation, deference to authority and power, etc. In fact, there are a number of anarchist inspired anthropological texts making a critique of "domestication." I think even Camatte goes there with his idea of "leaving civilization" or whatever it is.

So what do we think about this idea of "domestication." Have we been selected for a certain degree of "tameness," which allows us to cooperate and get along in society, but which leaves us unable to effectively challenge authority, perceive threats, etc.?


Domestication of humans

I asked one of my archaeology professors a similar question when I was researching an assignment on early farming. Most animal species that live in human-controlled environments apparently become smaller (I was surprised, I would have thought the opposite), less aggressive, and reach sexual maturity earlier than their wild counterparts.


We know from archaeological evidence that, in Europe at least, the 'average' hunter-gatherers were taller and more massive than the early farmers. So I asked if farming communities were themselves a 'domesticated' breed of human. Is it likely that living in stable communities has made us shorter and less bulky - as seems to have happened - but also less aggressive, and quicker to mature? Has humanity to that extent (and that early) re-created itself?


He asked me if I'd read Engels, and warned that I was getting into some potentially dangerous territory (maybe he was thinking of the anti-civilisation critique). Wish I'd followed it up now, but at the time I was more concerned with understanding the processes in animals to get a decent mark on the assignment. But I'm sure that there is stuff out there on this question. 'The Origins of the Family...' is probably a good starting point!


That's a very good start Slothjabber.

The whole transition  from the Upper Palaeolithic to agriculture is fascinating and raises the question why? It developed independently across the globe and, as Darwin noted, had its roots in sedentism, ie settling in one place. It was an accident waiting to happen and it happened several times in different regions with different staples. There  are very much elements of a "fall" here: "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you eat of it all your life (...) therefore the Lord God sent him forth to till the ground from which he was taken" and Cain "set bounds to the fields". Biblical though that may be, humanitie's expulsion from the Garden of Eden sums up that toiling on the land, and setting up boundries was something of a curse as well as a "rise". With boundries comes enclosures and the development of private property.

According to Steve Jones in "The Language of Genes" one hunter-gatherer family needed 15 hours work a week to feed itself - far less than the farming economy. Prior to agriculture one person need a mile square to feed themselves. A mile square in agriculture would feed one hundred people. In south-east Europe the average height of people fell seven inches - similar to the proletariat in the industrial revolution. Agriculture brought many new diseases from contact with animals and plants - maize for example can cause anemia and damage to the eye sockets. Irrigation helped spread water-borne diseases and many of the biblical plagues were the result of agriculture. Many animal parasites adjusted their genes to attack  the new human hosts.






Some points on domestication and a more wider point about the Neolithic transition:

Firstly I don't accept that domestication means "lameness". The domestication of animals and the development of agriculture was a very positive step forwards for humanity. As regards the size of animals, all post-glacial mammals became smaller.

There's clear evidence of the domestication of the wolf (dogs) from 14,000 years ago and from DNA evidence possibly 135,000 years ago. It's easy to see how the wolf might have been domesticated, on the scrounge for food, attracted by the smell of cooked meat, came to be part of the "camp-fire" and accepted the food provider as the alpha of the pack. Jk's adoption and rearing of pups is equally feasible. But this was dogs used mainly for hunting; pigs, cattle, birds, etc are another kettle of fish.

The transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture was the period of the epipalaeolithic which lasted for around some  ten thousand years  - from fifteen thousand years ago to about five thousand years ago. This wasn't the farmer replacing the hunter-gatherer but  was the latter transforming into the former. This can be clearly seen in the sophisticated ornate  stone "temples" built by hunter-gatherers at Gobleki Tepe, Nevali Cori and Ain Ghazal nine to eleven thousand years ago. These are all sites in the near East and I don't want to at all suggest that these were a "model" for the move towards agriculture but they are a strong indication of it in this part of the world.

If there is no universal "intentionality" to the move towards agriculture then we have clear evidence of the material expression of a human consciousness elsewhere: the independent development of tools; the independent development of ceramics, the independent development of language; the independent development of metallurgy and the independent development of settlement and of agriculture. There are obviously wide differences over time and space - but there are clear independent developments going in the same direction.

One of the most important developments in my opinion, especially in relation to the Neolithic explosion, is the powerful and independent development of belief systems. Again, widely different factors and cultures involved but nevertheless a certain common tendency within the consciousness spectrum of humanity. In the simple huts of the Barasana and other tribes of the Americas, as well  as the man-made conurbations of Jericho and Cataloyuk (both in the near East) the tiered cosmos is incorporated. Part of these belief systems is that animal representations are brought into the domestic space (as they are in Gobleki Tepe, etc., above). These spiritual representations of these animals, where they are "captured" in stone, plaster or bones is entirely in continuity with the shamastic animal spirit helpers "fixed" on the cave walls of the southern European Upper Paleaolithic thirty thousand to fifteeen thousand years ago. Arising from some element of consciousness, animal domestication possibly comes about from a spiritual/religious belief that emerged from world-wide shamanism. The spirit animal and the real animal became one.

That this advance for humanity could be based upon a spiritual belief could be seen as putting the ideological over the material. But I don't think so. Religious belief systems, particularly shamanism, was strong enough to be a material force that was embedded in society. For me it must have been an important force in the development of the Neolithic. No one thought that agriculture was a "good idea" (you could easily argue that it wasn't) and then did it. There are much more complex forces involved here.