Friday, January 23, 2015

What about human nature?

From the Spring 1985 issue of the World Socialist

Although not very much to their liking, it was the Victorians who made the discovery that the human being was not an example of an act of special creation on the part of the Almighty, but instead, another animal that had evolved. Since Victorian limes many have claimed that humans could not be regarded as being unique; homo sapiens was nothing but another animal species.

The word "unique" means the only one of its kind and, although this tends to connote a concept of the absolute, the term can only be used relatively. For example, somewhere in North London is a building which the architects claim to be the first of all concrete-constructed buildings in the world. Let us assume that this claim is authentic. As a building it is like others; it was not the first building ever to be constructed. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it was the first in the world to be constructed throughout with concrete.

This kind of reasoning is applicable to the human condition. Homo sapiens is not just another animal species. Animal species it most certainly is, with phylogenetic links with the rest of the animal world, and indeed with the whole organic world. But it is a very special kind of animal species with a unique combination of complementary biological attributes which enable it to have a potentiality for qualitative behaviour of almost unlimited variability.

Superficially, there does not seem to be very much difference between the human species and its nearest animal relative, the chimpanzee, with regard to genetic distance. Anatomically and physiologically there are great similarities, but bearing in mind the adage that it is the last straw that breaks the camel's back it does not require very much in genetic distance to transform quantity into a tremendous difference in quality. So that if ramapithecus of about 9-12 million years ago can be said to be the common ancestor of all future hominid evolution, it may well be that australopithecus of about 3 million years ago represents the first great qualitative leap towards homo sapiens. The emergence of homo erectus of about 800,000 to one million years ago represents a type of homo very near indeed to the Cro-Magnon of Combe Capelle type, the homo sapiens of about 40-50 thousand years ago, of which all men and women living today are examples.

The available evidence suggests that this species has not undergone any significant biological, evolutionary changes during the 50,000 years of its existence. Homo sapiens is the sole surviving hominid species. What exists at present is a single human species which is genetically unified and which populates the earth, whose basic biological attributes are the same in every case.

It is at this point that we need to deal with the term "race" as applied to human beings. In the context of biology the most basic fact in defining a species is its genetic and reproductive isolation from other species. During the course of evolution by natural selection, different species have developed through the agency of adaptation of favourable mutant variations to a restricted environment brought about by geographical isolation. A race, on the other hand, is made up of the members of a same species which, through geographical isolation, have developed physical differences which are non-basic in the sense that reproduction with the other members of the species still remains possible. A race is therefore a sub-species, or subdivision of a species which could, with continued geographical isolation and further adaptation through natural selection, eventually develop into a new species. In most cases the formation of a new species took a very long time, far longer than the 50,000 years that homo sapiens has peopled the earth.

The non-basic physical variations which now exist between groups of human beings (skin colour, hair, facial characteristics, etc), and which are considered by some ethnologists as defining "race", are mistakenly interpreted by popular wisdom to mean species. In fact all existing human beings are members of the same species, and even the term "race" is inappropriate in the human context since those sharing non-basic physical variations do not live in geographical isolation. On the contrary, there is, and always has been, constant and increasing intermarrying between the various groups. As far as the human species is concerned the factors which operate in the formation of new species have largely ceased to exist.

Although humankind is the highest form of organic existence (the supreme achievement of evolution by natural selection, as it were) it is also the end-product of biological evolution in the sense that its coming into being gave rise to a new direction which is determined by cultural development in which the ability of humans to adapt, to learn and to transmit knowledge by non-biological means is the most important single factor. With homo sapiens, evolution is no longer biological but cultural and social.

Is human nature a barrier to socialism?
In order to come to any conclusion with any degree of objectivity, it is first necessary to define what we mean by the term socialism, and also what we mean by the term "human nature".

The World Socialist Movement has a clearly stated objective which is the establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community. The establishment of world socialism will result in a transformation in human relationships and social behaviour. All the manifestations and paraphernalia necessary for a market economy will be discontinued and only those things under capitalism which would be useful to the new society will be retained and the rest discarded. The concept of exchange will fall into disuse together with the use of money. The production of wealth will be carried on throughout the world with the sole purpose of satisfying needs. Socialism will be a system in which the spontaneous and voluntary code of social behaviour will be from each according to ability to each according to self-determined need.

The factors which determine human nature are the same as those which apply to other animal species. The nature of a particular species is the sum total of the basic biological attributes common to all its members. It is these biological characteristics which impose behavioural limitations on all the individuals belonging to a species, irrespective of individual variations.

Chimpanzee behaviour refers to the chimpanzee on a species basis. All chimpanzees have the biological equipment enabling them to climb trees when necessary, although they are also adapted to movement on the ground. Elephants cannot climb trees, but there is no reason for them to do so. When a tree comes into their path, their nature determines that they go around it or uproot it. Neither chimpanzees nor elephants can modify to any great extent these biologically-determined and genetically-inherited behaviour patterns; they are not only the products but also the prisoners of natural selection.

The lower animals spend the greater part of their time engaging in functional behaviour, foraging for and consuming food, excreting waste, and mating and producing young, for example. The higher primates are also subject to this functional behaviour, including homo sapiens, but in human society, with its highly complex learned and non-biologically transmitted social activity on a collective basis, this reflex and functional behaviour has become of secondary importance as an individual survival factor.

There is no evidence to suggest that the nearest animal relatives of the human species, the anthropoid apes, are evolving towards the emergence of a higher form of ape. On the contrary, they are on the way to extinction. Homo sapiens on the other hand, has no evolutionary necessity to evolve biologically. The biological equipment it already has is sufficient to ensure the possibility of millions of years of cultural development to come. Human nature is the sum total or combination of the anatomical and physiological attributes applicable to all members of the human species on a species basis. This is to say that all groups of members of homo sapiens have, apart from minor variations, the same basic biological characteristics, which are, upright stance with bipedal locomotion, prehensile hands with opposable thumbs, stereoscopic, binocular, colour vision, vocal tract anatomy, and above all, the relatively largest and most complex brain of any species or organism living, or long since extinct.

Human behaviour on the other hand is what the human being does individually and on a social basis within the limits set by human nature as it has now been defined. But unlike other animals whose behaviour is not only very limited but stereotyped by specialised biological attributes for a simpler lifestyle, the complementary character of human beings' biological nature enables the species to possess what is virtually unlimited plasticity and adaptability of thought and action. A glance at our history over the past 40,000 years will show that human behaviour has changed considerably over time, and on occasions very drastically. Over tens of thousands of years human nature has remained more or less constant. But what is there in bipedal locomotion with upright stance etc., which makes it absolutely certain that human beings in society will behave in a preconceived way? The answer to that question is—nothing.

The human animal is a conceptually-thinking animal. It has the biological ability, not only to react in its behaviour to environmental changes going on around it, but to condition and determine changes in that environment for its own purposes. Human nature is not therefore a barrier to socialism. But this does not mean that human beings will automatically use their potentiality for finding rational solutions to social problems, so that socialism will come about without any effort from individual members of society. Socialism can only happen if people the world over want it to happen. It can only be operated by socialists.

It only remains to add on this whole question of human nature/human behaviour that they are both parts of a single whole. But this is not to say that they are the same, any more than each end of a walking stick is the same because they are part of a whole stick. When considering the anatomy and physiology of the human body, although the feet and the head are joined together as parts of the whole body, this is not to say that an assessment of the particular function of each is the same.

All of the investigations of modern science tend to become more specialised (more and more becoming known about less and less). But in those sciences pertaining to the human species, the reverse seems to have taken place, each specialist presenting the same kind of eclectic explanation.

It is the kind of reasoning which enables a person like Richard Leakey, who is eminent in the study of pre-history, to at the same time hold religious ideas, and Sir Frederick Hoyle, world-renowned astro-physicist and mathematician not only to hold creationist ideas of the origin of the universe but to suggest a theory of biological evolution to accommodate this belief which claims that, although evolution has proceeded through the agency and mechanism of the genes, it has not been by the process of natural selection. According to his theory, mutations are not generated through the cell structure and the genetic pool but occur from outside; apparently outer space is full of organic particles, genes, which are directed by a mysterious force and float down to the surface of the earth and in some miraculous way are incorporated into the mechanism of reproduction.

There is no doubt that Hoyle would have been well advised to have confined his writing of science fiction to the field of astronomical physics and to have left the field of biology (in this regard) well alone. However this is not to say that there are no eminent biologists who are, or were, creationists at the same time. Which might explain Hoyle's admiration of Alfred Russel Wallace, who has been described as the co-founder, with Darwin, of the theory of evolution by natural selection, and regarded by Hoyle as the greater of the two. Wallace, who became a spiritualist, in spite of his undoubted great knowledge of natural science, was hoodwinked by the most outrageous charlatanism and trickery of fake mediums.

The human behaviour of property societies is, taken as a whole, a corrupt and degenerate behaviour compared with that of peoples who lived in the so-called primitive societies that preceded them. In spite of this, however, there are many instances of people living in modern "civilised" society performing acts of heroism and self-sacrifice for the benefit of the common interest. These two factors alone—the superior social behaviour of primitive society and the many instances of self-sacrifice of people living in property society—illustrate the enormous range and flexibility of human social behaviour.

Although it is true that "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness" (Marx), it is also true that the forms that this consciousness takes can become instruments that determine social existence. It is the social contradictions engendered by capitalist society that give rise to socialist ideas. The antagonistic productive forces which have developed in the modern capitalist system have created also the material conditions for its abolition. But it is only people, or rather a majority of people, who have become conscious of this possibility who can bring about the required change in social existence. All previous social revolutions have been a transition from one kind of property society to another. The socialist revolution will abolish the last antagonistic form of the social process of production. By its very nature the introduction of socialism demands the participation of the world's population on the basis of majority understanding.

It is not human nature (which is relatively unchanging) that is a barrier to socialism, but human social behaviour which at present is determined by the social conditions of capitalism, reinforced with capitalist ideology. When this ideology is dissipated then human social behaviour, under the impact of the socialist revolution, will change dramatically, and the introduction of socialist society will become a reality.
Harry Walters

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