From the January 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard
Returning on the train from Manchester the other day, desperately wanting to nod off to sleep, I was doomed to share a carriage with one of those creatures I dread: the incessant train-talker. To increase my woe, this monster began to discourse upon the nature of the world in such a manner that I felt obliged to attempt to clear up a few of her mistakes.
It all began with complaint about poverty, violence and anti-social attitudes — with which I truly sympathised. Then came that dreaded statement: “But we can’t change anything — it’s all due to human nature”. My heart sank and I felt a huge chasm suddenly open between my travelling companion and myself.
As the conversation continued I began to realise what a mass of muddles has arisen since the spread of Darwinism and the theory of evolution. Uniformed acceptance has moulded our attitudes to our fellow men and given us ideas of man’s social existence as ludicrously unmodifiable. Man is part of nature and therefore, it is often believed, he is involved in a fight for existence which is manifest violently in the animal world and in the battle between nations. In addition, part-time biologists postulate vague statements about “basic human nature” which is generally thought to refer to inheritable, instinctive behaviour lying deep in every human (since the time of the first baby homo sapiens), waiting to show its ugly head — which it is frequently supposed to do — in the form of unpleasant anti-social behaviour.
Such a view is based on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of both evolution and behavioural mechanisms. Evolutionary theory is concerned with group or species survival. Obviously, individuals are necessary for these group structures, but stress on the group is a prerequisite for a comprehension of evolution. A successful species is likely to be one that can adapt relatively easily to changing environmental conditions, and examination of the phylogenetic scale indicates that higher organisms appear to possess behavioural systems that give increased adaptability, i.e. they possess a greater capacity for learning with reliance on learned behaviour over purely instinctive mechanisms. Thus, in unicellular and other simple creatures, behaviour is largely due to involuntary and unmodified actions controlled by the genetic material of the organism and elicited with specific environmental stimuli, depending partly on genetic material but mostly upon past experience through learning.
The most dramatic example of this change through evolution is seen in the determination of sexual behaviour in animals. There are three factors involved: genes, hormones, and learning. In very simple creatures, sexual behaviour is controlled purely by the genes which determine whether the organism is male or female. With the evolution of vertebrates, it appears that genes determine the development of the male and female sexual structures, but that hormones secreted by these sexual organs become the important factors in the instigation of sexual behaviour. Hormones are greatly influenced by environmental stimuli and so provide a kind of monitoring system whereby reproduction can be stimulated in suitable conditions. As we pass further up the phylogenetic scale we see the development of better mechanism that allows for the adaptation of the species. In the higher vertebrates, especially primates, genetic material plays a minor part in the development of sexual behaviour (distinguished from physiological structure) and sex roles are determined by a social conditioning, i.e., through learning processes. It is well known that sex ascription will determine the behavioural pattern of the adult human despite the sexual structures so that, for example, a boy who is brought up as a girl will behave like a girl. (In certain cases the picture is more complicated, of course).
Paralleled with the progression from instinctive to learned behaviour through evolution is the development of affection and social behaviour. This is an important step as we see the direct organisation of individuals to ensure the continuation of the group or species. Man is a social animal and in addition modifies his behaviour continuously through learning.
My travelling companion was unaware that the factor that places Man at the top of the genetic scale is his ability to change. She was aware that she was dissatisfied with a world of violence, poverty and anti-social behaviour. Most people feel the same. The next step is to learn how to change the world so as to allow the satisfactory existence of mankind. This is well within Man’s capabilities.
Let’s get together as social creatures and organise our society as we would like it. Let’s have production for use not profit and at the same time remove the evils of war and excessive pollution that threaten to eliminate our species altogether.
Come on! Change for Socialism.