NOTE: This paper has been submitted to Monthly Review as a response to Richard York’s article, “Homo Floresiensis and Human Equality: Enduring Lessons from Stephen Jay Gould,” in the March 2005 issue of Monthly Review. York’s article may be found at: http://www.monthlyreview.org/0305york.htm.

 

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On humans and hobbits

 

Eugene E. Ruyle

 

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Eugene E. Ruyle is semi-retired from teaching anthropology at California State University, Long Beach. His paper “Labor, People, Culture: A Labor Theory of Human Origins” was published in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology in 1976. Since then he has published various other articles on Anthropology and Marxism. He played a significant role in protecting the sacred creation center of Puvungna, on the Cal State Long Beach campus, from being bulldozed for a strip mall.

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Richard York’s article (Monthly Review, March 2005) on the discovery of a fossil hominid on the Indonesian island of Flores raises significant issues which merit the attention of Marxists.

Two areas of York’s discussion are problematic. The first is York’s apparent denial of the lawful and progressive nature of human evolution. The second is his one-sided treatment of the competing models of human evolution. Some background is important in order to place these issues in perspective.

Marx and Engels were avid students of the anthropology of their day. By applying historical materialism to anthropological data, Marx and Engels gained insights which continue to enrich our thinking about who we are and how we got here.

This interest led Engels to write two classics of Marxist thought: Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, and “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man.”[1] Few Marxists have attempted to update these important works with modern anthropological fact and theory, and, with few exceptions, they have been ignored by anthropologists.[2]

Modern anthropology, including paleoanthropology, continues to be under the sway of what Engels called “that idealistic world outlook:”

All merit for the swift advance of civilisation was ascribed to the mind, to the development and activity of the brain. Men became accustomed to explain their actions as arising out of thought instead of their needs (which in any case are reflected and perceived in the mind); and so in the course of time there emerged that idealistic world outlook which, especially since the fall of the world of antiquity, has dominated men's minds. It still rules them to such a degree that even the most materialistic natural scientists of the Darwinian school are still unable to form any clear idea of the origin of man, because under this ideological influence they do not recognise the part that has been played therein by labour.[3]

Almost universally, anthropologists see culture as the defining feature of our species, and culture is usually seen in an idealistic way, composed of symbols, ideas, values, and so on. It is rarely acknowledged that human culture is built on a foundation of labor. For Marx and Engels, it is precisely labor and social production that serve to define our species:

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.[4]

Engels was even more direct:

First labour, after it and then with it speech -- these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man.[5]

Engels wrote before there was any real fossil evidence for human evolution, but the fossil finds over the last century have confirmed his insights. What these fossils show is that our bodies became human first, and only later, after our ancestors began manufacturing stone tools, did our brains begin to enlarge and become human.

Our earliest human ancestors, known collectively as australopithecines, lived between about 5 and 2 million years ago. They were small, bipedal hominids with essentially ape sized brains. One can view them as apes with human bodies or humans with ape brains. The fact that they were bipedal means they had already adapted to a way of life that required that the hand be free to engage in rudimentary labor processes, making and carrying things. This early productive system involved: 1) making simple tools such as digging sticks and leaf baskets out of wood, twine, and leaves and using unmodified stones and other objects as tools, 2) carrying these tools with them on the food quest, 3) collecting food and carrying it back to a common home base, where 4) food was shared by members of the group. All of these behaviors are within the behavioral capabilities of living apes.

What was new is that these early humans were dependent upon this new behavioral way of life. In contrast to the individual food quest of all other primates, our early ancestors had to rely on each other in the new ways. To paraphrase Marx, in the social production of their existence, our early ancestors entered into definite social relations that were indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which corresponded to a definite, though rudimentary, stage in the development of their material productive forces.

Our dependence on social labor created selective pressures which transformed our ape-like ancestors into humans. This development took millions of years to unfold. The adaptive changes required, such as bipedalism and, later, large brains, were costly and disadvantageous for any way of life other than one based on social labor. Once we became dependent upon social production, however, our evolution was lawful and progressive. As Harris notes:

And so had we been present where the forest meets the savanna one morning five million years ago, we would have caught a glimpse of our ancestors. Still in shadow, they stood peering anxiously across the bright panoramas. It would have been easy at a distance to mistake them for a family of chimpanzees. Except that as they started forward through the grass, they kept erect. Each of the adults held a pointed stick in one hand. All of history was there that morning—all that we were to become and still might be.[6]

About two million years ago, our ancestors began making rudimentary stone tools ushering in the pithecanthropine (aka Homo erectus) phase of human evolution. Since that time we can see, on the one hand, a progressive development of the forces of production, as manifest in ever more finely made stone tools, and on the other, a progressive increase in the size of the human brain.

Language develops probably rather late in this process. The connection between language and labor is, first of all, that labor develops the mental capabilities upon which language is based, and second, labor creates the need for better communication within a system of social production. As Engels put it, people finally “had something to say to each other.”[7]

By about forty thousand years ago, Upper Paleolithic cultures comparable to those of modern hunters and gatherers appear and, presumably, the full range of behaviors of modern culture: language, kinship, religion, art, etc.

Throughout this entire period, our ancestors were communists.[8] For millions of years of human evolution, there were, as Engels wrote of the Iroquois,

No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits - and everything takes its orderly course.... All are equal and free - the women included. There is no place yet for slaves, nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of other tribes.[9]

Humanity evolved under conditions of liberty, equality, and solidarity in the ancestral commune. By about 30-50,000 years ago, quite likely earlier, humanity had achieved our present level of mental, physical, and spiritual capabilities. Since that time, there has been no significance genetic change in our ability to acquire, use, and develop productive systems and other aspects of culture. We have continued to evolve, but significant evolutionary change has been cultural, not genetic.

It is only within the last five or ten thousand years, after the development of new productive systems based on plant and animal domestication, that some men began to develop structured systems of inequality and injustice that have characterized civilization. Slavery, patriarchy, racism, exploitation, and oppression are not inevitable concomitants of our human nature, but simply a phase we are passing through.

There are, of course, numerous issues which this overview sidesteps.

This framework is essential to place the recent discoveries on the Indonesian island of Flores in perspective. They are indeed surprising. The remains include a pygmy-size adult female said to have lived as recently as 13,000 years ago. Popularly known as the Hobbit, she is cataloged as LB1, after the Liang Bua cave in which she was found. The team that discovered her decided that she represents a new species, Homo floresiensis, descended from Homo erectus.

Her skull suggests a chimpanzee-sized brain smaller than any seem among hominids for over two million years. Stone tools comparable to those of modern humans were also found in the cave, and modern humans also lived on Flores since it is on the route to Australia peopled some 40,000 years ago.

In York’s view, the “discovery of Homo floresiensis is only particularly surprising from a bourgeois perspective, with its paradigmatic assumption that history necessarily unfolds in a progressive manner, leading inexorably to our contemporary world” (p. 15). York prefers a view he attributes to Stephen Jay Gould: “Gould argued that the unfolding of natural history, and by extension human history, is not properly characterized by a progressive, directional trend, but rather as a wandering across a landscape of possibility governed predominantly by happenstance.” (p. 16) Thus, York would have us believe that “there is no necessary direction in the evolutionary process”(p.16) and specifically in light of the hobbit: “there was clearly no inherent evolutionary drive toward larger brains among our ancestors.” (pp. 17)

I doubt that the founders of historical materialism would agree with York’s rendition of Gould’s theory. Here is Engels:

But chance is only the one pole of a relation whose other pole is named "necessity." In the world of nature, where chance also seems to rule, we have long since demonstrated in each separate field the inner necessity and law asserting itself in this chance. But what is true of the natural world is true also of society.[10]

And from the first animals were developed, essentially by further differentiation, the numerous classes, orders, families, genera, and species of animals; and finally mammals, the form in which the nervous system attains its fullest development; and among these again finally that mammal in which nature attains consciousness of itself - man.[11]

These views need not be accepted simply because Marx and Engels said so. For example, Simpson writes:

The record as a whole gave an effect of opportunism, of divergence into nearly all available ways of life, yet this in itself is an oriented rather than a random process. Examined in greater detail, the record seems still less to be purely random and descent within anyone line usually gives the impression of being rather stringently oriented in many, although commonly not in all, of its features.[12]

For that matter, even Gould would probably not agree. In criticizing Lunsden and Wilson’s claim to have “discovered” gene-culture coevolution, Gould wrote:

I don't doubt that something like gene-culture coevolution was involved in the evolution of our brain. But then Darwin and Haeckel, and all other major thinkers about human evolution, have made the same argument. In fact, I don't know that any serious theory other than gene-culture coevolution has ever been proposed to explain the sequence of upright posture first, brains later and quickly. The standard account argues that upright posture freed the hands for development of tools and weapons. This evolving culture of artifacts and their attendant institutions of hunting, food gathering, or whatever, then fed back upon our biological (genetic) evolution by setting selection pressures for an enlarged brain capable of advancing culture still further-in short, gene-culture coevolution.

Gould then goes on to quote Darwin and some of the passages from Engels I included above and concludes by noting “there is virtually no other path to follow” in explaining our large brains.[13]

Evolution moves in the direction of adaptation to particular behavioral ways of life within particular ecological niches, since, as Darwin noted, “Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.”[14] This may take different directions for clams, spiders, dolphins, and humans, but the evolutionary process is a lawful one in each case. There may be wanderings and quirks, but these do not obscure the general direction of human evolution, as discussed above.

York’s views on human equality are equally problematic. York links human equality with a particular model of recent human origins, the “out of Africa” theory. The competing model, multiregionalism, is dismissed as racist:

Scholars in the multiregionalist tradition have long claimed that modern human populations descended from regional populations of Homo erectus that evolved in parallel over hundreds of thousands of years, with modest genetic exchange across populations. MuItiregionalists adhere to the position that the division of humans into distinct groups (races) is very old, which implies that genuine biological differences exist among contemporary races. This perspective parallels a view common before the rise of Darwinism known as polygenism, which asserted that each human race was the product of a separate divine creation, and that, therefore, human races are in fact separate (hierarchically orderable) biological species. After evolutionary theory became widely accepted, multiregionalism arose as a scientific version of polygenism. It is important to note that contemporary supporters of multiregionalism typically deny any support for racist views or policies and acknowledge the high level of genetic similarity among human populations, but the multiregionalist position does, nonetheless, reify divisions of humans into distinct biological races (if not species). (p. 17)

The combination of recent paleontological and genetic evidence has made the multiregionalist explanation of human origins increasingly untenable, supporting, rather, the argument that all modern humans share a very recent (in geological terms) common ancestor who lived in Eastern or Southern Africa approximately a quarter of a million years ago and whose descendants spread out of Africa around 100,000 years ago, eventually replacing all other human groups. (pp. 17-18)

As Stephen Jay Gould argued two decades ago, human equality is a contingent fact of history. We could have lived in a world where divisions among human groups occurred long ago, and, therefore, races were truly biologically distinct. We do not, however, live in such a world due to the quirks of history. (p. 18)

This is misleading. It is a mistake to think we have to accept the “Out of Africa” theory, either because it is politically correct or because certain experts claim the evidence supports it. Multiregionalists could equally well hurl charges of racism at the “out of Africa” theory, but this would not resolve the issue.

Let me propose an alternative view.

Irrespective of which continent they may inhabit, all living human populations are equally human and equally capable of acquiring and developing culture, or civilization. Clearly, within each population, individuals may vary in their mental, physical, and spiritual skills and abilities, but all efforts to discover any systematic differences between populations (or “races”) in these regards have failed. The search for evidence of racial inequality within our species has proved even more elusive that the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It may be added that this formulation applies not only to populations in different geographical areas, but also to classes within populations. We are left, then, with human equality as a scientific reality. Any theory of human evolution must be compatible with this observed reality.

According to the Out of Africa model, human equality is a result of the very recent origin and spread of modern humans, too recently for significant differences to develop.

The multiregional view is more complex and nuanced. We are at present a polytypic, geographically and biologically diverse species (which is not to say that “race” is a good concept for understanding our diversity). Within our diversity, however, is a common dependence on culture and social production. This is what creates our unity and equality. To quote Harris again:

Three forces explain the unity of our species: natural selection, cultural selection, and migration and gene flow. Sapienization everywhere led to greater reliance upon culture as a source of adaptive innovations. Thus human beings were everywhere simultaneously selected for their ability to live as cultural animals, and this meant selection everywhere for expanded neural circuitry, vocal capability, and language behavior.[15]

Harris should have added that selection everywhere favored manual dexterity and other skills in manipulating materials, for living as a cultural animal means dependence on social labor.

The unity and diversity of our species has been a feature of the last two million years of our evolution. Throughout this entire period, we have been what we are today, a single, diverse species, unified by our common humanity.

The diversity of our species flows from our geographical dispersal over first three and then six continents. Our unity and equality has been maintained through uniform selective pressures and gene flow.

In this view, diversity, both physical and cultural, is something to be embraced, not feared. It does not lead to extermination or extinction, but rather contributes to the progressive development of our species.

Many paleoanthropologists would disagree with this view and, along with Gould and York, prefer to think that humanity was divided into as many as three different species as recently as 40,000 years ago, and that all but one died off or were killed off.

I find such a scenario highly unlikely. It takes a long period of isolation for species to develop, “perhaps a million years or more in mammals, on the average.”[16] I know of no one who has argued that any human population has been isolated for that long, in Africa or elsewhere. If they could interbreed, chances are they did, and they were not separate species.

Current paleoanthropological opinions must be taken seriously, of course, but we are not obligated to adopt them as our own. Paleoanthropology is a contentious field whose history has been marked by jealousies, squabbling, and fraud. The sophistication of its data collection and analysis is not matched by a corresponding conceptual clarity. Wolpoff has complained that most opponents of multiregionalism simply do not understand it,[17] and even Gould complained that multiregionalism “is awfully hard to fathom.”[18]

Our evolution from an ape-like ancestor took several million years and was spread out over three continents. Trying to reconstruct the details of our evolution is like trying to reconstruct the Encyclopedia Britannica from scraps of a couple of dozen randomly torn out pages.

Caution is certainly in order, and openness. Gould noted that he would be “willing to wager” on some variant of the Out of Africa model, but he ”won’t be shocked if ...  multiregionalism triumphs” (1994:21).[19] Such openness is rare and refreshing.

In any event, I’m not sure there are any real political or philosophical issues to be settled by the debate between the Multiregional and Out of Africa models. Neither the evidence nor our commitment to human equality requires us to adopt one rather than another, and both are compatible with the labor theory of human origins.

Perhaps the Out of Africa theorists are correct and we are all descended from Mitochondrial Eve and Adam “Y” somewhere in Africa. They were still communists sustaining themselves through social labor and their ancestors had been doing so for millions of years.

And, for that matter, even if we believe our species came about through sheer happenstance, we must still deal with the real conditions of our existence, with our relations with our kind and the rest of our evolving world, just as the Manifesto says.

As to where our hobbit friend fits it, it is simply too soon to tell. Various interpretations have been offered, as York notes, but there is no easy explanation.[20] Marxists always need to be open and self critical, but so far, there is nothing that necessitates a rejection of the basic tenets of historical materialism.



[1]   Both are reprinted in Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: International Publishers, 1972). with an Introduction by anthropologist Eleanor Leacock. They are also available in the Marx & Engels Internet Archive (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/).

[2]   I have discussed this elsewhere, see Eugene E. Ruyle, "Rethinking Marxist Anthropology," in Perspectives in U.S. Marxist Anthropology, edited by D. Hakken and H. Lessinger, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988), pp. 24-56, and "Anthropology for Marxists: Prehistoric Revolutions." Nature, Society, and Thought: A Journal of Dialectical and Historical Materialism 1 (1988): 469-499.

[3]   Engels, “The Part Played by Labor,” pp. 258-259.

[4]   Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (New York: International Publishers, 1939, original edition 1876), p. 7.

[5]   Engels, “The Part Played by Labor,” p. 255.

[6]   Marvin Harris, Our Kind: Who We Are, Where We Came From, Where We Are Going. (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 33.

[7]   Engels, “The Part Played by Labor,” p. 253-254

[8]   Richard B. Lee, “Reflections on primitive communism,” in Hunters and Gatherers. Volume 1: History, evolution and Social Change, edited by T. Ingold, D. Riches and J. Woodburn (Oxford: Berg, 1991).

[9]   Engels, Origin, p. 159.

[10] Engels, Origin, p. 232

[11] Frederick Engels. Dialectics of Nature (New York: International Publishers. 1940, original edition, 1883), p. 17.

[12] George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949), p. 130.

[13] Stephen Jay Gould, An Urchin in the Storm. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987), pp. 112, 114.

[14] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964, facsimile of the 1859 First edition, with an introduction by Ernst Mayr), p. 6.

[15] Marvin Harris, Culture, People, Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology (New York: Crowell, 1975, Second Edition), p. 95.

[16] L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza, The History and Geography of Human Genes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 65.

[17] Milford H. Wolpoff, Paleoanthropology (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999, Second edition).

[18] Stephen Jay Gould, “So Near and Yet So Far,” The New York Review of Books (October 20, 1994), 24-28.

[19] Stephen J Gould, “In the Mind of the Beholder,” Natural History (February, 1994), 14-23.

[20] Interest in the hobbits has continued. They were on the cover of Scientific American in February 2005 with an article by Kate Wong, “The Littlest Human,” pp. 56-65. Also a PBS special, “Little People of Flores,” on Nova on April 19, 2005: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/3209/01.html. For the latest, just google “Homo floresensis” or see the Wikipedia Enclopedia which is updated every few weeks: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_floresiensis.