A view on Charles Darwin’s 'Descent of Man...' and its contribution to the workers’ movement

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The first element of production is reproduction and it’s this element of reproduction that forms the basis for so much of Darwin’s work. There’s no linear, predetermined movement from the animal kingdom, through prehistory, to capitalism and the perspective of communism, but Darwin, from his vigorous scientific method, investigation and speculation, joins the theoreticians of the workers’ movement in laying bare the fundamentals of animal and human society, the laws and perspectives of which have produced the possible positive negation of the present state of things. Darwin’s work is important for the perspectives of a communist society because it demonstrates the basis for the development of mankind from the development of a cognitive (conscious and unconscious) moral and social force. It is all the more important now to learn and re-learn these lessons, when capitalism, the ultimate ‘dog eat dog’ society, decomposes under its own contradictions into crisis, incoherence and irrationality. Darwin only once mentions the phrase “survival of the fittest” in this book and that’s to take a clear position against it – in fact the whole book is a clear position against that bourgeois interpretation, as well as dog eat dog capitalist competition generally.

In the elaboration of the materialist conception of history, The Descent of Man is as important as Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, and together these two books make a fine whole and a great contribution to the workers’ movement. One could write a fair sized text, using direct quotes from Descent, to make Darwin look like an apologist, even a triumphalist for English bourgeois society from a liberal point of view, at the same time expressing some of the worst prejudices of the ruling class. But this is insignificant compared to the analysis undertaken and probably shows some of the contradictions that Darwin lived and worked under and the pressures he felt. Later in the book he himself he says, in a reproving fashion (he has a sense of humour so I thought this might be tongue in cheek), “but I here exceed my proper bounds” in suggesting the equality of the sexes through education available to all. The depth of the work is great and the analysis builds on The Origin of Species: for the first time Darwin mentions “evolution”, takes it further, and back again, on the primacy of sexual selection, firstly in animals and then in man, in developing confidence, consciousness and morality and from this, Darwin poses a future for humanity even if he couldn’t see the agency identified by Marxism. Darwin was a man of the times and his work, driven by a scientific impetus and humanitarianism, was taken up and distorted by expanding capitalism in order to justify the superiority of the current order of bourgeois society. Against the explicitly racist conclusions of the pro-slavery Reverend John Brodie Innes, Darwin replied, “my views do not lead me to such conclusions about negroes and slavery as yours do: I consider myself a good way ahead of you, as far as that goes”. The bourgeois world took some of Darwin’s words and phrases and used them to justify their system of competition and the survival of the fittest. But we have to conclude that whatever his reflections of current prejudices, from which none of us are individually immune, this work well transcends these weaknesses and abuses and deals a deadly blow, not just to religion, but to bourgeois ideology generally and demonstrates a material basis for revolutionary change.

For the second time, with Descent, Darwin’s work had to be provoked into the public arena and it was the same man, Alfred Russel Wallace, who performed this service again in 1864. Wallace confronted the reactionary Anthropological Society in London, where he talked about the production and the cooperation of labour, the survival, not of the fittest, but mentally the brightest and the most moral. Darwin used his arguments to repudiate Malthus. Wallace had jumped in with an analysis applied to the development of man through production and cooperation, though according to some opinion in this field, his position was a compromise. Wallace rejected sexual selection as the basis for the development of the community, which is why Darwin devotes much of the book to this phenomenon among animals and showing its antiquity in man. Wallace eventually ended up in spiritualism, seeing the morality of man coming from a higher power, the spirit and not the natural world. Reflecting on this reactionary step of Wallace, Darwin said: “I hope you have not murdered completely your own and my child”. These words are particularly poignant given Darwin’s passionate detestation of infanticide. 

Darwin and Morgan on human history

The book follows on from Origins in demonstrating that there are no separate creations and that natural selection is the chief agent of change, with variations of the latter acting on individuals that benefits the community through mental powers that are “wholly different”. I think that his need to demonstrate the importance of sexual selection in animals and apply it to early man led Darwin to greatly underestimate what Morgan loosely describes as ‘savagery’, the whole period of prehistory that today could be said to cover some two-and-a-half million years up until around some ten or twenty thousand years ago. Darwin uses Morgan’s work on the American beaver and consanguinity in his book and he met Morgan at Down House, his home near Downe in Kent in 1871. But Morgan was still to finish his work on Ancient Society that so greatly enhances and deepens Darwin’s own work. Darwin talks of savages and barbarians and the uneducated in the same terms: they are unable to see beauty, and they have “insufficient powers of reasoning”, “weak powers of self-control” and likens them to “domesticated animals”. He suggests support for the civilised races supplanting and trampling on native populations, the Tasmanians for example. But all this is contradicted by the overall analysis, conclusions and tenor of his work as well as in other specific quotes throughout the book. I will return to this question.

Though nothing like the scale over the last century, archaeological evidence was appearing at the time that demonstrated the validity of Darwin’s analysis (and of some of his speculations: Darwin was scientific in his conclusions and said so when he couldn’t be absolutely positive). Ancient monkey and other animal fossils were being found as well as varieties of stone tools, clearly evidence of human existence before the Ice Age. His friend Thomas Huxley had a cast of large brained hominid, the species of Neanderthal that could have been so important for his analysis (what would he have made of the relatively recent finds in the Shanidar Cave of northern Iraq that show archaeological evidence of morality in a Neanderthal dwelling some sixty thousand years ago). But I think that Darwin had fixed on sexual selection as the key: “He who admits the principle of sexual selection will be led to the remarkable conclusion that the nervous system not only regulates most of the existing functions of the body but has indirectly influenced the progressive development of various body structures and of certain mental qualities”. He thus saw the development of man’s qualities and senses, “through the exertion of choice”, “and these powers of the mind manifestly depend on the development of the brain”. Here alone is a striking contradiction of his words above about savagery and barbarians. There is no sexual selection without choice and without that there would be a lesser effect on the offspring produced by animal and man. After some almost obligatory remarks about the highest ranks of bourgeois society, Darwin gets down to the nitty-gritty about the development of diversifying standards of beauty, communal marriage, tribal connections in relationships, with strong and complex relations between the tribe and offspring, itself coming from mutual protection and aid, with Darwin insisting on the persisting strength of the relations between mother and child. Morgan, Darwin says, thought it more complex than this, thinking that communal and loose forms of marriage must have been universal (which I think correct). But however long the relationship from a choice that emanates from the social instincts - brief, seasonal, the whole year - it “suffices for the work of sexual selection”. The latter he saw as “more powerful at a remote period than the present day, though probably not yet wholly lost”. He’s clear that in savagery the role of women’s preference in choice is a factor of sexual selection and the good of the tribe and preferences for both sexes would also have meant an acquisition, a further impulsion of the species. He talks about women’s’ discrimination and taste, showing that it’s not a matter of numbers, lower female to male ratio for example, that would equalise out anyway. The most successful sexual selection made the most successful progenitors.

The importance of sexual selection

Darwin underlines the importance of sexual selection, inherited from the animal kingdom, a positive, instinctive recognition of others, which developed into complex relationships including gentes, clans and tribes with all their sympathies, interrelations and rules. Within and from this came the positive development of the family. In his book Ancient Society, written in the 1870s after nearly 40 years work, the fundamentals of which are still entirely valid, Morgan saw the family “progressing to a higher form”, an active element within the gens. This is expanded throughout Morgan’s book and demonstrated in his complicated classifications of the earliest Hawaiian and Rotuman system of relationships, then the Seneca-Iroquois and Tamil and finally the Roman and Arabic system of relationship. Marx and Engels adopted this work virtually intact. Darwin doesn’t mention incest in Descent, but this concerned him personally given his marriage to his first cousin. Bourgeois Victorian society preferred to marry their ‘own’, often marrying into familial circumstances with the attendant hypocrisy. Though there doesn’t seem to be a problem with first cousins, his wife’s family had been inbreeding for generations and Darwin was worried about it. Three of his children died young and he put one of his son’s illnesses down to a “deep flaw in his constitution”, even writing to a friend “we are a wretched family and ought to be exterminated”. Morgan noted that even in the most basic social complexes studied, the Australian Kamilaroi for example, neither the male nor the female could marry into their own gens, the prohibition being absolute. He called the sexual relations between brother and sister an “abomination”, “evil”, showing pockets of mental and physical deterioration, which we can see here and there today. Morgan demonstrated that even in the earliest forms of relations, what he called the “Malayan”, blood line and marriage, where brother partnered with sister, because of the complexities of kinship relation, this often meant first, second, third, or even more distant cousins marrying as “brothers and sisters”. In his Ethnological Notebooks, Marx depicts the horde organisation as the “Oldest of all... with promiscuity: no family; only mother-right could have played a role here”. And goes on to say that “The larger the group recognising the marriage relation, the less the evil of close interbreeding”, “... the gradual exclusion of own brothers and sisters from the marriage relations, spreading slowly and then universal in the advancing tribes still in savagery... illustrated the operation of the principle of natural selection”. The development of the family and the social organisation that brings it about is expressed in the full title of Morgan’s book: Ancient Society or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery though Barbarism to Civilization. Darwin did address the question of incest in his earlier Variations of Plants and Animals, his longest work with a hundred pages on pigeons alone. He well knew about the injurious effects of inbreeding on animals and birds, and recognised that closely related breeding pairs generally produced poor or damaged stock. There’s a chapter in the book entitled: “On the Good Effects of Crossing and on the Evil Effects of Inbreeding”. He said that avoiding closely related marriages, an “almost universal practice of all races at all times” was an argument of “considerable weight”. In the book he says: “A considerable body of evidence has already been advanced, showing that the offspring from parents which are not related are more vigorous and fertile than those from parents which are closely related”. Natural selection would augment this into instinct and thus I would think, something “unconsciously acquired”. Instinctively, as with the rejection of it in the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall, incest appears as lazy, insular and restrictive, not at all the attributes of natural or sexual selection. Darwin distanced himself from this view in a later addition to Descent, but there seemed to be some pressure from the family. His whole work, one intuitively feels, reinforces his main position, as he concluded from his work on plants: “Cross-fertilisation is generally beneficial, and self-fertilisation injurious”.

The common ancestor of the ‘races’

On races, where one can find perfunctory reactionary quotes elsewhere, he writes: “all the races agree in so many important matters of detail of structures and in so many mental peculiarities that these can only be accounted for by inheritance from a common progenitor...” In the development of man “...the intellect must have been all important to him, even at a very remote period...” and the use, adaption and inheritance of this intellect meant “the continual improvement and exercise of... other mental faculties”. The development of the moral qualities whose foundation lies in the highly complex and ever present, enduring nature of the social instincts and family ties, leads man, he says “unavoidably”, to look both backwards and forwards, a great impulsion of consciousness. Wallace’s work on seeing survival as from mentally the brightest and the most moral collaborators is taken up in Descent, with Darwin showing morality and compassion as the highest human instincts. As with Wallace’s original position, Darwin shows man’s adaptation as mental rather than physical, ie, his intellectual and moral faculties (and confidence, that he mentions elsewhere) and this collective expression would have strengthened the whole tribe. Even in a brief reference to the Bronze Age and the warrior peoples of that time (whom Darwin tends to underestimate here and there) he says that their success was more due to their “superiority in the arts” (and what art!). Like Wallace, Darwin also sees the development of mental powers from tools but disagrees with Wallace on his ideas about “imitation” (possibly like Dawkins’s “memes”), instead emphasising it as “practice”, which I think is a more solid way of putting it.

Man is a social animal with an instinctive morality, “Man himself a natural object” as Marx says, “his essence being his relations in society and in social production, including the production of himself” (Ethnological Notebooks). Sympathy, Darwin says, is “a fundamental element of the social instincts”, these social instincts acquired from animals, the herd, the troop, etc. And a moral being is “one who is capable of comparing his past or future actions or motives and of approving or disapproving of them”. Lower animals didn’t have this capacity and Darwin goes on to say: “But in the case of man, who alone with certainty can be ranked as a moral being, whether performed deliberately after a struggle with opposing motives, or impulsively through instinct, or from the effects of slowly-gained instincts”. He’s completely clear about how the “puniest” of men from the age of savagery, surviving in the most adverse conditions, against the most fearsome beasts, could develop their “intellectual powers”, with an awareness of the future being important for morality and humanity. Morality “aboriginally derived from the social instincts for both relate at first exclusively to the community”. Just as in the lower animals, these instincts are acquired by man for the good of the community. Being weak relative to his conditions man had no choice but to develop in order to struggle against them, and it was these adverse conditions themselves that continually spurred mankind on in spheres of organisation, production, morality and consciousness. 

Going further, on the question of races, he suggests that these sympathies expressed should be extended to the whole human species and that they are stopped only by “artificial barriers”. Darwin also see the importance of belief systems developed in savagery, saying that “no being could experience so complex an emotion until advanced in his intellectual and moral faculties at least to a moderately high level” and that these features “show us what an indefinite debt of gratitude we owe to the improvement in our reason”.

As to the “survival of the fittest”, which is only mentioned once in the book as far as I can see, Darwin says, referring to it specifically, “We should however bear in mind that an animal possessing great size, strength and ferocity and which, like the gorilla, could defend itself from all enemies, would not perhaps have become social. And this would most effectively have checked the acquirement of the higher mental powers... sympathy and love for his fellows. Hence it might have been an immense advantage to man to have sprung from some comparably weak creature”. He returns to this question in Chapter 5 and again his position contradicts that of the “survival of the fittest”. Individual strength or forcefulness in early man would not necessarily make an advantageous partner, being more likely to be killed or injured and thus less able to produce offspring with their qualities. But it’s morality that infuses the whole tribe, so a slight general (not individual) increase in morality, a concern for the common good, courage, sympathy, etc., would be natural selection.

Darwin’s sympathies

This is an eminently readable book written by a scientist somewhat tortured by the personal contradictions he finds himself in, but which he takes on with diligence, method and a sense of humour in order to produce a great work. He didn’t stop despite the pressures that must have been all around him. There’s an endearing episode when, in thinking about morality in animals, he hears the story of a baboon which ‘adopted’ a kitten and as the kitten’s claws grew it inadvertently kept scratching the baboon. So to get around this problem, the baboon chewed the kitten’s claws down. After hearing this tale, Darwin got hold of the family kitten and attempted to chew its claws off in the interests of science. He concluded that it was possible.

Apart from the breathtaking overall analysis there are some real gems from Darwin here and there. For example, throughout the 20th century it was generally thought that cultivation, agriculture proper, started up in one place and spread throughout the globe. This is a position exemplified in the work of Gordon Childe and ex Oriente lux. From research over the last decade, it now seems clear that agriculture developed independently in at least half-a-dozen areas of the planet as did the sedentism that preceded it, as did the development of metallurgy, as did the emergence and existence of the state. In Chapter 5 Darwin almost casually predicts this. He clearly describes the universal tendency to sedentism (though he doesn’t call it by this name) as the prerequisite for civilisation, almost necessitating the cultivation of the ground. He does this effortlessly and convincingly, generalising from one ancient Tierra del Fuegan dwelling, Like David Lewis-Williams on this question (Inside the Neolithic Mind, Lewis-Williams and David Pearce), he talks of accidents (waiting to happen) propelling agriculture forward. Later in this chapter, he reaffirms this view of an independent development in relation to culture, cultivation, animal domestication and, further back, to the development of tools. There are some jarring statements in this chapter referring to the poor and the masses completely reflecting bourgeois ideology, but it ends affirming the “view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps from a lowly condition to the highest standard as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals and religion”.

Towards the end of the book Darwin once again expresses his distaste and disgust with elements of savagery: “For my own part I would have as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descended from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs – as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions”. Really, he could have been talking about bourgeois society, particularly capitalism in its period of decay: child killing on an industrial scale, torture, sacrifices by the million, repression, oppression, ruthlessness and irrationality. He already has insights into this with his denunciation elsewhere of “the polished savages of England for their complicity in slavery”.

Baboon, 18/7/9 


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