What makes us human?

Modern scientific research has identified the major physiological, neurological, and genetic differences between humans and our biological ancestors. In particular, it has been found that the human brain is qualitatively different in terms of the development of the parts of the brain that control abstract reasoning, social behaviour, and manual abilities. This discovery is yet more evidence in favour of the explanation that Frederick Engels gave for the evolution of humans in his essay “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”.

This latest research, by Dr Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, was reported in a recent edition of The Economist (4th February 2012), which states that:

“Dr Paabo and his colleagues focused their examination, just published in Genome Research, on two parts of the brain. One was the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of abstract reasoning and social behaviour – things that humans are particularly good at. The other was the lateral cerebellar cortex, which is more to do with manual abilities.”

Compare the above to this paragraph from Engels’ work, written in 1876:

“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, which for all its similarity is far larger and more perfect. Hand in hand with the development of the brain went the development of its most immediate instruments – the senses.”

Unfortunately Engels is very rarely given credit for this analysis, which was incredibly advanced for his time.

The part played by labour

In his essay “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”, Engels explains that the decisive step in the evolution of humans was the adoption of an upright posture. This move from walking on four feet to two was the result of changes in the environment, which forced some primates from the forests to the ground below, where they were required to travel long distances in the search for scarce food resources. This transition to a bipedal, upright stance freed up the hands and allowed them to develop a range of flexible functions.

Through the interaction between these proto-humans and their surroundings, the hand developed new strength and dexterity. This, in turn, allowed for these early ancestors of ours to manipulate nature in increasingly complex ways. For example, the development of opposable thumbs allowed for hands that could grasp and grip objects, whilst the development of the muscles and ligaments in the hand allowed for finer, more intricate and detailed tasks to be carried out. As Engels explains:

“Thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour. Only by labour, by adaptation to ever new operations, through the inheritance of muscles, ligaments, and, over longer periods of time, bones that had undergone special development and the ever-renewed employment of this inherited finesse in new, more and more complicated operations, have given the human hand the high degree of perfection required to conjure into being the pictures of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini.”

The development of the hand was a qualitative leap forward in terms of the ability for these early humans to manipulate their surroundings. Through the development of the hand, more complex tasks could be implemented and more advanced tools could be fashioned. Whilst other animals may “use tools”, it is mostly in a simplistic, accidental, and unplanned manner. Humans are qualitatively different, however, in that they actively and consciously make tools in a planned manner in order to carry out complex operations and alter nature.

As Marx and Engels explained in their various works on historical materialism, the original contradiction in human society was not between man-and-man, but between man-and-nature. By studying the development of humankind and society through the ages, Marx and Engels saw that there are general laws that can be observed, the clearest of which is the development of the productive forces over time. In other words, we can see, over the course of history, an ever increasing ability for humankind to manipulate nature and to therefore free itself from the confines of nature.

It is this ability to manipulate nature for our own ends that separates humans from all other species. Engels remarks that:

“In short, the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.” (emphasis by FE)

Development of the brain

Engels explained that the development of one part of the body, such as the hand, would have a dialectical effect on the rest of the body, including the brain and the senses:

“But the hand did not exist alone; it was only one member of an integral, highly complex organism. And what benefited the hand benefited also the whole body it served...

“...the body benefited from the law of correlation of growth, as Darwin called it. This law states that the specialised forms of separate parts of an organic being are always bound up with certain forms of other parts that apparently have no connection with them...

“Changes in certain forms involve changes in the form of other parts of the body, although we cannot explain the connection.”

Some evolutionary scientists lay emphasis for the development of humans in the brain, the explanation being that the brain of our early ancestors gradually increased in size, leading to superior intelligence and the capacity for language, tool-making, etc., which in turn led to the dominance of the human species over others.

Engels turned this argument on its head, and explained that it was not the larger brain size and superior intelligence that led to the development of tools and language, but vice-versa. Through the development of the hand, and the increasing complexity of tasks that this allowed, the brain was stimulated. In addition, the new upright posture also allowed for a heavier skull and brain to be carried.

The dialectical relationship between the hand and the brain meant that as the hand developed, the brain developed also, which in turn led to greater intelligence. This dialectical relationship, however, is not confined to the hand and the brain, but exists between humans and their surroundings also. Through the development of the hand and tools, early humans were able to interact with their surroundings to an ever greater degree – to manipulate their environment. Through this greater level of interaction, over time, early humans could begin to examine and understand the world around them in a more “scientific” manner.

By manipulating nature, we gain an understanding of nature itself. Like the development of the hand, the development of thought is also the product of human activity – i.e. labour. Through interacting with and acting upon their surroundings, early humans could begin to abstract and generalise their experiences to a higher level. Rather than seeing each individual action and outcome as an isolated event, general laws and processes could be understood. Through our repeated actions on our surroundings, we begin to see cause and effect. Unexplained phenomena become understood processes; mankind transforms the “thing in itself” to a “thing for us”.

In turn, the ability to abstract and generalise leads to the ability to develop even more advanced tools. We gain an understanding of processes by generalising our experiences of many repeated actions and outcomes, comparing what makes them similar and what makes them different. For example, by repeatedly smashing one stone against another, an early human would gradually come to understand the force and angle that was needed in order to create a sharp tool for hunting. In this way, rather than being at the mercy of nature, humankind becomes master of it, and is able to manipulate it to a greater and greater degree.

By interacting with our surroundings, we become more aware of them. We begin to gain a sense of self-awareness and self-consciousness. A similar process to the early development of humans is seen in the early development of children, with the progression from the unconscious to the conscious through their interaction with the environment. We begin to understand and generalise the experiences of the past and thus we are able to plan for the future.

However, despite our greater scientific understanding nowadays, the brain and the mind are still imbued with a mystical quality by some. Throughout history, the origin of human ideas and thought has always been the subject of debate. Some people claimed (and still claim) that we might have “innate” knowledge of some things. But all knowledge is gained through practice and experience of the material world. Our thoughts and ideas do not exist in a separate realm, but are an imperfect reflection of the physical world in which we live.

Mind and matter were said by many philosophers to be separate entities. But the mind is simply the result of the complex interactions and processes taking place within the brain. Consciousness is nothing more than matter that has reached a certain level of organisation and development – matter that has become aware of itself – as Engels comments in his essay, “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy”:

“Our consciousness and thinking, however supra-sensuous they may seem, are the product of a material, bodily organ, the brain. Matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter. This is, of course, pure materialism.”

The role of language

Alongside the development of the hand, Engels attributes the growth of the brain to the role of language and speech, which, like the hand, were also the product of labour. Engels explains that language is the result of the development of social production and organisation, which led to the need for greater levels of communication:

“The development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by increasing cases of mutual support and joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual. In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other.” (emphasis by FE)

Whilst other animals clearly communicate through noises, it is only in humans that we see the complexities of language, with clearly defined words, grammar, and syntax. This is the result of the social mode of production, which requires a higher level of communication as a result of the greater level of social interaction between individuals.

Language itself requires a certain level in the development of abstract reasoning and thought, since words themselves are used to represent abstractions and generalisations of complex, imperfect objects and processes in the real world. For example, we come up with the word “circle” to describe the general idea of a round object, which we have observed and experienced in a variety of forms in the real word. Similarly, the word “mammal” is used to represent the abstract category of species that share certain characteristics.

Whilst language requires the ability to abstract and generalise, the emergence of language leads, in a dialectical manner, to the further development of abstract reasoning, by allowing humans to generalise their experiences. Through the use of internal monologue, more complex ideas and thoughts can be processed, and humans begin to consciously plan their actions. In turn, the use of language allows ideas to be communicated and passed down from generation to generation, creating a “social memory”, i.e. societal knowledge. As Engels explains:

“The reaction on labour and speech of the development of the brain and its attendant senses, of the increasing clarity of consciousness, power of abstraction and of conclusion, gave both labour and speech an ever-renewed impulse to further development...

“...This further development has been strongly urged forward, on the one hand, and guided along more definite directions, on the other, by a new element which came into play with the appearance of fully-fledged man, namely, society.” (emphasis by FE)

Genetic determinism

The great genius of Engels was to give a materialist explanation for the evolution of humans and their difference from their ancestors. As explained above, the main thrust of Engels’ explanation lies in identifying the development of the hand and speech, through labour and socialised production respectively, as the impetus for the growth and development of the brain and human intelligence.

The modern research by Dr Paabo mentioned above, whilst seemingly strengthening Engels’ analysis, is in danger of inverting cause and effect. As mentioned previously, it is not simply the growth of certain parts (or the whole of) the brain that leads to the development of abstract reasoning, social behaviour, and manual abilities, but vice-versa. The need to survive required greater social intercourse between individuals, whilst the need to stand upright led to the development of the hand and increased manual dexterity, which in turn led to the development of the brain and the increased ability to abstract and generalise. In other words, the size and structure of the brain is the product of the interaction between ourselves and our environment, and also between the brain itself and the other parts of the body.

The main element in Dr Paabo’s research was in attempting to identify the specific genes that are uniquely active in human brains but not in those of other similar species, and thus find the genes responsible for “making us human”. This is dangerous territory. To think that the qualities of humans can be reduced to a single set of genes is to reduce the qualities of all life to a simple, mechanical one-sided genetic and biological determinism. Humans are not mere mechanical machines and our genetic code – i.e. DNA – is not completely analogous to the programming computer code that defines the actions of a robot.

Human DNA is 98% identical to that of chimpanzee DNA, but that 2% makes a qualitative difference. More importantly, one cannot explain the qualities of humans – either as individuals or as a species – by simply comparing their genes against those of our ancestors. We are not simply the product of our genes, but of the complex, dynamic interaction between our genes and our environment, including all the various social, economic, and cultural factors involved.

We are more than the sum of our parts. For example, the human brain when removed from the body ceases to act as a brain, but merely becomes a lump of inert matter. Similarly, one cannot ascribe a particular physical or psychological quality of humans, or of any individual, to a single gene or even a set of genes. It is the complex interaction between our entire genetic code and our environment that gives rise to us as a species with all our qualities.

The mechanical approach of analysing a thing or phenomena in isolation has nothing in common with the method of dialectical materialism, which recognises that all things are interconnected, and that it is these very interconnections that give rise to the qualities of any one thing. To detach one element of a thing – i.e. one gene in a human – and analyse it in isolation means losing the connections and interactions between that element and all the others that give rise to the various qualities of the thing.

Human nature

The arguments of the biological and genetic determinists stray perilously close to the ideas of those who talk of an innate “human nature”, a concept which is used to justify the entire exploitative nature of capitalism. After all, how can we ever have socialism if we’re all inherently greedy, selfish individuals?

Dialectical materialism – the philosophical method of Marxism – recognises that no thing possesses innate properties that are simply inherent characteristics of the thing itself. All properties are relations and are relative. For example, a knife does not simply possess the properties of “sharpness” and “hardness” that allows it to cut. The properties of sharpness and hardness are relations between the knife and another object. In relation to butter, a knife is both sharp and hard; however, in relation to a diamond, a knife is no longer hard and its sharpness is of no use.

Similarly, Marx explained in Capital that capital itself is not a thing, but a social relation between things. Money or machinery by itself is not capital; money or machinery used to exploit labour and produce a surplus is capital.

Hence there is no such property called “human nature”. All the qualities of humans are a result, on the one hand, of the interaction between our genes and our environment, and on the other hand, of our social relations – i.e. of the relationship between the classes and the means of production. Greed and selfishness are not inherent qualities of the human species that arise due to the competition for resources, as is proclaimed by the Social Darwinists, who seek to indentify these qualities as an inevitable product of the “survival of the fittest” – a term that Darwin himself never used. Rather, greed and selfishness are products of the capitalism system, which thrives on competition between individuals.

Greed and selfishness are not innate qualities of humans that arise from a Darwinian struggle for existence, but are qualities that arise from the struggle between the classes. What’s more, these qualities are not natural to the working class, who are, in fact, compelled to cooperate and collectively organise in order to maintain their standard of living in the face of attacks by the capitalists. Greed is not a quality of human beings in general, but a reflection of the ideology of the bourgeoisie, a class whose entire existence is based on greed and competition.

Unlimited potential

The great leap forward in the evolution of humans was the freeing up of the hands. With this decisive step, our ancestors freed themselves from the confines of their genetic code. Early humans were not the strongest creatures or the fastest hunters, but with the freeing up of the hands, humankind began to develop tools, thus gaining a great advantage over all other animals. For the first time in the history of the earth, a species existed whose evolution was not simply determined by nature and the given environment. Here was a species that could change the environment in which it lived.

We have now reached such a point as a species where our understanding of nature and ability to manipulate it means that we can actually change the code of life itself through genetic engineering. Meanwhile, the development of tools has reached such a high level that modern research is being conducted into mind-controlled machines. The ability to augment ourselves through genetic design and bio-engineering is now a real possibility. In this respect, the potential for what we can achieve as a species goes far beyond what is dictated by our genetic code.

This unlimited potential, however, cannot be fulfilled under capitalism. The private ownership of the means of production, with its constant quest for greater and greater profit, is a great barrier on the development of the productive forces; of the development of science and technique. Rather than moving humankind forward, and using the accumulated knowledge of millennia, capitalism throws millions into poverty and threatens to reduce us back to a level of barbarism. We will only be able to use our full potential as a species by democratically planning our society and using the great productive forces that we have at our disposal for the good of people, not profit. As a species we have evolved an immense potential. Our brains are capable of the most advanced thinking. Capitalism is not the final frontier of human ability, but a mere stage in a much bigger picture. To move on in a progressive manner as a species we must first overthrow capitalism and put an end to the misery that it causes. That means moving forward to socialism!