The social gradient

Mike Belbin completes his series of articles on genetics, racism and human character

If we reject the discrimination of racism and psycho-geneticism - the idea that character is determined by biology - what are we left with? A human being that is ‘blank’ at birth, one who acquires a personality by their own struggle and decision-making, one who makes their life through their own efforts, no matter where they are born, the example of a self-sufficient individualism?

But this would lead us back to focusing on the individual’s personal weaknesses and strengths? If the individual is weak, their weakness belongs to their body or mind and is not dependent on other influences - social and familial. These characteristics must therefore be somehow physically inherited. We would not be ‘blank’, but strongly ‘wired’. So individualism does not get us beyond heritability: if you fail and cannot ‘hack it’, it must be something in you.

Disabled activists for one have long since rejected such physical fatalism and instead talk of the ‘social model’. Because someone is blind or in a wheelchair does not mean there are lots of things they cannot achieve - only that they are not being allowed to do so because of bad design. It is the inadequacies of social provision which limit their capability: society is what disables. Until quite recently you never saw a wheelchair user on a bus; then, because of a policy achieved through struggle, it became an everyday occurrence.

According to Michael Marmot, there is one determinant of bodily health that is definitely not genetic. He calls it the “social gradient”. Working as a GP, Marmot came to the conclusion that “in general, the lower the social position, the higher the risk of heart disease, stroke, diseases of the digestive tract, HIV-related disease, tuberculosis, suicide, other ‘accidental’ and violent deaths”.1

This is not just a general observation that being poor make you poorly; his book illustrates the small and greater differences in illness among all classes with graphs and statistics, often comparing populations over decades. In fact he not only shows that there is a difference with regard to the very rich and very poor, or between people in the developed and developing world, but that there are variations in health and life expectancy within the spectrum of the middle classes. For example, mortality from coronary heart disease is still greater in people occupied in clerical positions than at the administrative and professional levels. “Who you are,” he declares with precision, “leads to where you end.”

Marmot argues that this is not just due to material conditions of living, but of the varying lack of control over one’s life and how this leads to unhealthy lifestyle choices through ignorance or emotional compensation. Lack of autonomy is unhealthy and leads to overeating: the confined get fat. Poor health then reinforces lack of social mobility.

A study by Michael Wadsworth of people born in 1946 showed that it was sick children in the sample who were less likely to be upwardly mobile - and they may be made sick, or sicker, by their living conditions, It is the fitter than average that tend to rise. “If your father had little education,” comments Marmot, “and you had a PhD from Harvard, the chances are your health will [have been] better than someone from a similar background …”2 Factors all through life, from where you are born to that locality’s lack of educational provision, reinforce one another.

That said, Marmot does not want to give in to stereotypes. For example, the majority of children born to parents of deprived social position do not end up in crime. Only about 30% of young black men in Washington DC will in fact be arrested and then only for drug-dealing, not gun violence.

Marmot concludes:

What happens during a critical period has an enduring effect on disease risk in subsequent life. Second, there may be accumulation of advantage and disadvantage throughout life. Third, where you start out does affect where you end up … early life experiences may be vital not because they affect health directly, but because they change the child’s chance of ending up in a favourable social [and health] situation in later life.3

These post-natal social influences are not unalterable, but they are a strong force. Class is what counts for your wellbeing over a lifetime - anyone who claims to believe in human equality will seek to act on this arbitrary influence. Alternatively, the consequence of adopting psycho-geneticism is that technology - often in this case, pharmaceuticals - is promoted as the cure that can solve our social problems, especially when these are other angry people. Chemistry replaces politics and we have a new racism, a new discrimination against those categorised as genetically inferior.

The creative animal

Speaking of class, what of Marx or Engels? Did they believe in a blank slate, an ‘empty’ being, which is then totally conditioned by society’s requirements? Or did they favour the existence of an original human nature, which is essentially good and cooperative, but perverted by civilisation? Are we robots or are we angels (albeit fallen)?

As materialists, Marx and Engels did not forget the body - that legacy of the animal state. The human being is an entity constituted by biology. Like other animals, it seeks survival, shelter and pleasure, pursuing safety and satisfaction. Unlike other species, however, it has developed a ‘second-nature’ - society and culture - with its variety of tools and institutions. From early on in his writings, Marx recognised both of humanity’s aspects: the satisfaction-seeking biology and the mind’s invention.

Incidentally, there is a difference of emphasis between Marx’s view of the human being and Sigmund Freud’s. While Marx’s stresses satisfaction, or pleasure-seeking, Freud sees the organism as pain-avoiding, which often means control or mastery of external stimuli, a state one might call comfort. But Freud acknowledges the risk of comfort-seeking - it can be destructive and selfish, power-driven for the sake of attaining imperviousness: an ambition Freud calls the death instinct. For example, in seeking to master nature, it can wear away at sustainability. In this way, exploitation can make a tragedy out of comfort and mastery, the destruction of the very natural and human basis of our world.

To pinpoint Marx’s view of the human essence, our starting point is those preliminary notes for his research programme called the Economic and philosophic manuscripts. In this Marx presents the difference between animal and human - our ‘species-being’ - as the ability to labour, another word for which is creativity: that is, an action which makes retainable objects, whether tools or the format of an institution.

Marx comments:

In creating a world of objects by his practical activity, in work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being … Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. They produce only under dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.4

Seeking security - humans developed clans, structures that gained them greater safety, but involved a certain loss of their creativity, especially for women. In making the human world, for survival and comfort, societies created ideas and institutions that were no longer recognised as human products, so that the creative powers of the species were denied. Marx further comments: “An immediate consequence of the fact that we are estranged from the product of our labour, from our life activity, from our species-being, is the estrangement of the individual from others.”5

Separated from the satisfaction of human creativity and control, the human being is put into antagonism with other people: we are each in competition with others. Socialism, or real communism, is the opposite of this. This does not mean that there will then be no conflicts, but these will not be fundamental to a system of livelihood that is a zero-sum game - many people losing so that some can win.

At first, these constructed roles were inherited, passed down as traditions (though often modified surreptitiously), but, with the rise of science and social revolution over the 17th and 18th centuries, the concept of conscious change emerged. These were revolutions that would mean not the liberation of a particular human character - our original personality - but the freeing of human labour to create a better world, deliberately and mutually. It is not that there is some prehistoric simplicity which must be reclaimed - one which existed before we were ‘corrupted’: rather we must give space to what distinguishes all humans - this creativity, including moral judgements, which can make a satisfying and sustainable world; a talent which is the distinctiveness of our being.

Human inventiveness, even if in improvisation, is useful for any working society. In fact we are required much of the time, however cowed, to be ‘flexible’, adaptable and innovative as workers and consumers. In Capital volume 1, Marx comments that workers’ needs - their natural wants, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing - vary according to the climatic and other physical conditions of the country:

… the number and extent of [the worker’s] so-called necessary wants, and also the modes of satisfying them, are themselves the product of historical development, and depend therefore to a great extent on the degree of civilisation of a country - more particularly on the conditions under which, and consequently the habits and degree of comfort in which, the class of free labourers has been formed.

Human desires and expectations are not static, but depend on a particular stage of social organisation and culture. Therefore, Marx continues: “there enters into the determination of the value of labour-power a historical and moral element”.6

By being the creative/labouring animal, we are good at learning: we are not fixed to certain skills and preferences. In any social arrangement we do what we perceive is best for us, choosing from the options. We also learn new skills, through experience and education; we negotiate the milieu we are presented with. We can rebel, sometimes with ferocity or in madness: we are ready to search out survival strategies and compensatory satisfactions.

If we perceive the social network as unsatisfactory we can develop different approaches to cope with it - we may make war on others or seek some kind of cooperation, become psychopaths or seek help. The anthropologist and primatologist, Sarah B Hrdy, has observed how mothers - animal and human - may kill or abandon those offspring they do not have the resources to rear. There is no ‘maternal instinct’ or for that matter, an ‘infanticide gene’ - just “trade-offs between quality and quantity” in particular situations.7 Just as we are not programmed to speak particular sentences, we are not programmed to behave like a robot or an angel/demon, ‘born good or evil’.

Recent research has shown what it is that is valued by those who get to be creative people today. In fact, monetary reward is quite low as an incentive; rather, qualities like autonomy, mastery and purpose are sought: that is, deciding on tasks, becoming more adept at them and having clear aims. Daniel H Pink found that a high monetary reward only works with boring jobs and can in fact, at the highest levels, make for skimpy performance: the job suffers when money is the thing.8


We are ‘wild cards’: that is, granted our value and power by class position, family interaction and other enabling conditions or disturbances. The economy rises and falls, people feel good or frustrated. No institution intends to produce serial killers, but they still emerge and they can also change with help. What distinguishes Marxism is the idea ofa collective movement against social fate, just as experimental science, according to Francis Bacon, is collaborative. We are certainly part of a situation, but because we are not fixed we can judge it and change it.

In the early 19th century the bourgeois believed in a revolution - the freedom and power that came from science under capitalism. That version of modernity was challenged by another kind - the idea of socialism - and, as the European empires expanded (for example, in Africa), bourgeois optimism gave way to ‘scientific’ racism: the conservative notion that grades of people have a fixed nature or character.

But people always say it is a mix of nature and nurture. This is a dialectical-sounding formulation, but not sufficient. A certain physical capacity is inherited genetically, but culture and experience are also needed - even when chemicals and physical bias contribute to character, they are not a straightjacket. Life is a drama, not a diagram - the cast includes parents and the economic system; it is not a monologue by chromosomes.

No intellectually respectable person blatantly espouses a fixed idea of racial character, but ideas of fixed character by genes come close. While racism arose from the requirement to justify unequal treatment of ‘heathens’ during slavery and colonialism, psycho-geneticism discriminates between individuals as ‘natural’ winners and losers, in our global society of widening social differences. A residual concept of the soul, of an inborn and inherent personality, still lingers from traditional belief and provides support for the notion that character and not just physique is inherited. Total notions of heritability are also useful for pharmaceutical profits: a pill for every pyscho-biological ill.

Humanity is historical: biological disparities are indeed genetic, but character is psychological and often due to the existence of social inequalities. Human beings are shaped by their context, but not irrevocably attached to it. Therefore we can change it. We are not reducible to structures, but informed by them and often in contradictory ways. People are not instinctual like most animals, yet neither are we objects of programming: that is, robots. The same person could turn out to be a serial killer or a Damien Hirst, depending on the way their life goes. If human beings do not have to do the worst thing, then there is a flexibility to them being, in the circumstances, brave, rational and committed to the public good, depending on their recognition of the benefits and their own self-image and morale.

If capitalism is now at a dead end, the only alternative is the human ability to go down a different road with the knowledge of the ages. The greatest opportunity for all of us is to be enabled by society to be the best we can and, because we are all able to grow, all of us have an equal ‘human right’ to this gift. To be human is to develop, one way or another.


1. A Marmot Status syndrome London 2015, p23.

2. Ibid pp60-61.

3. Ibid p241.

4. K Marx Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844 London 1977, pp73-74.

5. Ibid pp74-75.

6. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1954, part 2, chapter 6, p168.

7. SB Hrdy Mother nature: natural selection and the female of the species London 1999.

8. DH Pink Drive New York 2009.