Sex and the human revolution

Socialist Worker has begun a series of articles by Sally Campbell. They purport to explain the origins of women's oppression. However, there exists an obvious lacuna in her account. If women became unfree, when and how did they become free? Camilla Power of the Radical Anthropology Group insists that sex played a big role in the human revolution - a taboo subject for the SWP

Modern-day scientific work on the human revolution and the emergence of Homo sapiens owes a lot to Fredrick Engels's great text, The origins of the family, private property and the state.

I am an evolutionary anthropologist, which means I attempt to apply Darwinian theory in its modern, 'selfish-gene' form to human behaviour. I would maintain that Lewis Henry Morgan, who provided Engels with the main sources of data for The origins of the family, and Engels himself, were the original evolutionary anthropologists. They were trying to do the same thing in their time as Darwinian anthropologists are trying to do today. They used an evolutionary framework to argue that changes in the form of family, kinship and marriage were due to changes in the material relations of production and the economic forms underlying subsistence.

They lacked data in terms of primatology, fossils and evolution. Nevertheless, they were able to make critical breakthroughs, which have stood the test of time. Their work caused a huge ruckus in anthropology. It is not going too far to say that the fieldwork anthropology of the British school, founded by Bronislaw Malinowski, was really set up in direct opposition to that of Engels and Morgan.

Before I come back to them, I will look more generally at the influence of Charles Darwin on Marx and Engels. In their time we know Marx and Engels were fascinated by his work. They were fully aware that it was based in Malthusian political economy. The origin of species was an ideological work, used to justify Victorian imperialist capital in its advances through the mid-19th century.

Just after its publication in 1859 Marx wrote: "Darwin, whom I have looked up again, amuses when he says he is applying the Malthusian theory also to plants and animals, as if to Mr Malthus the whole point were not that he does not apply the theory to plants and animals, but only to human beings, as opposed to plants and animals. It is remarkable how Darwin recognises among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, inventions, the Malthusian struggle for existence. It is Hobbes's bellum omnium contra omnes [war of all against all]. I am at once reminded of Hegel's phenomenology, where civil society is described as a spiritual animal kingdom, while in Darwin the animal kingdom figures as civil society."

Darwin projected the natural behaviour of animals back onto human society. He did not realise how bitterly ironical was his argument that 'free competition', which bourgeois economists regarded as the highest historical achievement, was in fact the normal state of affairs in the animal kingdom. So for Victorian high capitalist ideology men regard themselves as the supreme masters of the universe when they are most like animals - they are recognising the Malthusian logic of the struggle for existence: nature red in tooth and claw, Darwinism as ideology.

Nevertheless Marx and Engels never forgot that Darwin's work was also science. Marx sent a volume of Das Kapital to Darwin with "From a sincere admirer" inscribed upon it, asking if it could be dedicated to him. (Darwin replied self-deprecatingly that he was not really worthy of the gift because he did not know enough about political economy.)

There can be no doubting the attitude of Marx and Engels. Yes, on the one hand, this was an ideology, but, on the other hand, it was a fully materialist and atheist explanation of the history of all life on earth through natural selection - individuals bear unique variations, some of which prove better suited to particular environments. These reproduce more successfully, passing down the variations to their offspring.

When Darwin died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. That is pretty good going for an atheist, but the bourgeois elite were by then scared of the irreligious implications of his theory. This was an attempt to ceremoniously coopt science for the church and state. We have to remember that evolutionary theory from the early 19th century had been a revolutionary force - Lamarkianism had been associated with the French Revolution. By the 1880s the bourgeoisie were worried and needed to put a lid on the implications for morality and religion of natural selection.

In The descent of man, Darwin tried to grapple honestly with the seeming contradiction between morality and 'nature red in tooth in claw'. He sought an evolutionary explanation for morality, asking how an individual who acts in a moral way could enjoy better reproductive success and win out in the game of natural selection. He attempted to find ways around the contradiction, but never really succeeded.

In the years following Darwin's death a veil of hypocrisy descended on the real implications of his theory for social behaviour, both in animals and humans, and this is where social Darwinism takes off. With the social Darwinians, there arose an implicit and vague understanding that selection works for the benefit of groups. This seemed to solve the contradiction of man as a 'moral' animal and a competitor under Malthusian selection. Cooperating within one's group and competing for one's group appeared moral. That animals cooperate with their fellow group members became an unproblematic assumption - nobody questioned it, nobody really discussed it, nobody theorised it.

The neo-Darwinian biologists of the first half of the 20th century, who combined Darwinian theory with Mendelian genetics, worked in areas where the distinction between individual and group interests was not brought out. They avoided addressing issues of social conflict. But if behaviour for the benefit of 'the group' is paramount, the question is, 'What group?' For the Victorian and Edwardian imperialist elite, groups meant class and race - eugenics was about stopping those people of lower classes or with the wrong skin colour from breeding too much, by comparison with the educated, gentlemanly class. Eugenics was the natural extension of social Darwinian 'group benefit' thinking.

None of this was confronted or dealt with until the 1950s and 60s, when finally Wynne-Edwards proposed a closely argued theory about group selection. He suggested that animals needed to restrict their own population growth to keep in line with available resources. This contradicted the Malthusian view that the poor always overbreed and some inevitably die for lack of resources, which is simply nature's way of killing off the weak.

By contrast Wynne-Edwards believed that animals reacted collectively to their own numbers. What are those starlings doing in such great flocks in the sky? They are checking out their numbers and using that information to decide whether to lay two eggs or three. His arguments were convincing and fine-grained with many detailed observations of animal behaviour. He believed that animals had 'laws', morality and conventions, just like humans.

But what happens when one individual decides to cheat the system by laying an extra egg? That cheat immediately gains an advantage, which is passed down the generations. Thanks to Wynne-Edwards, the selfish-gene thinkers finally got their act together to try to understand altruistic behaviour in animals. How can we explain animals acting for the benefit of other individuals even to their own disadvantage, when natural selection says they should act to maximise their reproductive success?

By the 1960s, with the work of George Williams, William Hamilton and EO Wilson, it was becoming clear selection worked at the level of genes. Because related individuals, such as siblings, will carry on average 50% of the same genetic material, it will pay in genetic terms for, say, a brother to help out his sister, even at some detriment to himself. In the words of the biologist JBS Haldane, "I will jump into the water to save three of my brothers or nine of my cousins." Why? Because, without needing to make mechanical calculations, we instinctively understand that helping close relatives is going to pay genetically at the end of the day.

Selfish gene

Hamilton's 'inclusive fitness' rule was the initial formulation in selfish-gene theory that explained animal cooperative strategies. In the Radical Anthropology Group, we have had several run-ins with the Socialist Workers Party, whose leaders regard it as virtually fascistic to apply Darwinian theory to human behaviour and consider it outrageous that any Marxist could base their arguments on the selfish gene.

But what does gene selfishness mean? It means the replication of a string of information coded on DNA molecules. There are no nasty Machiavellian 'thoughts' in the back of the gene's mind about doing down other genes. The only thing that a gene does is replicate itself as best as it can - otherwise it would not be there. In other words, we are simply talking about the replication of information.

If Marx and Engels were alive today, they would recognise selfish-gene theory as the modern form of Darwinism, of understanding social strategies and behaviour amongst animals. The science of cooperation requires an understanding of the degree of conflict between genes, since out of conflict emerge higher levels of cooperation. By problematising the very fact of animal altruism, selfish-gene scientists were able to understand the higher organisation of levels of cooperation - from single cells, through individual organisms and into complex social animals, such as primates. Eventually there emerged human forms of cooperation to quite new, cultural levels of replication, such as language (which are very distinct from DNA replication, of course).

The best account of evolutionary theory based on a dialectical materialist point of view is put forward by the outstanding evolutionary biologists, John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, in their book Major transitions in evolution. The authors make no bones about it - as selfish-gene scientists, they took selection at a gene level as a given. They ask how natural selection, acting on entities at low levels, was able to avoid disrupting integration at higher levels, so that genes could combine into chromosomes, eukaryotic cells, multicellular organisms and ultimately societies - groups of individuals cooperating and working together.

Early Darwinism was about tiny incremental changes producing vast change over time, to which Maynard Smith and Szathmáry add the understanding of dialectical transformation. These tiny changes can build up to a transcendence and take that conflict to a level where there is cooperation of entities. They write: "There is an onwards and upwards advance to complexity in evolution. There is no theoretical reason to expect that has to be so, but it is nevertheless true. Eukaryotic cells are more complex than prokaryotic cells, animals and plant are more complex than single cell organisms and so on." This increase in complexity has been achieved as a result of major evolutionary transitions, which involve changes in the way information is stored and transmitted. These are the revolutions in life on earth, punctuating gradualist changes.

Selfish-gene scientists look for conflict in animal or human social behaviour - and the conflict that will dialectically produce cooperation is sex: the means of transmitting genes to the next generation. We know that for complex social mammals, females have to put much more energy into reproduction than males, because of the length of gestation and lactation. All a male need do is produce the sperm, which, compared to female eggs and reproductive processes, is cheap and plentiful. This applies generally to sexually reproducing species, but is most acute for mammals, primates and our hominin ancestors. Sex is the arena in which the transcendence of conflict into higher levels of cooperation occurs.

In the Pleistocene there were, of course, no classes, so the main division was sexual. In The origin of the family Engels identified the issue of sex, and conflict over sex, as the point where revolutionary transcendence had to happen. Even with the poor primatological knowledge of his day, he was able to get right to the core of the problem: "So far as our evidence goes, the higher vertebrates know only two forms of family: polygyny or separate couples. Each form allows only one adult male, which both consolidates and isolates the family and sets it in opposition to the herd. The jealousy of the male prevents the herd, the higher social form, coming into existence, weakens its cohesion and breaks it up during the mating period. This alone is sufficient proof that animal families and primitive human society are incompatible and that, when primitive men were working their way up from animal creation, either they had no family at all or a form which does not occur among animals."

Engels goes on: "To explain the transition to humanity from conditions such as those in which the anthropoid apes live today would be quite impossible. It looks more as if the apes have strayed off the line of evolution and were gradually dying out or degenerating. That alone is sufficient grounds for rejecting all attempts to draw parallels between the form of family of apes and primitive man. Mutual toleration amongst adult males, freedom from jealousy, was the first condition for the formation of those larger, permanent groups, in which alone animals could become men. What do we find to be the oldest, most primitive form of family, whose historic existence we can indisputably prove and we can still study in one or two parts of the world, is group marriage. A form of family in which whole groups of men and whole groups of women mutually possess one another and which leaves little room for jealousy."

Here Engels is drawing on the work of Lewis Henry Morgan, whose studies of kinship and marriage in ancient societies remain founding texts of anthropology. A large part of The origins of the family derives from Morgan, but, in terms of the understanding of the revolutionary, qualitative change between primate ancestors and humans, Engels was adding his own Marxist insight of dialectical materialism. Morgan was a gradualist Darwinian, seeing an onwards and upwards progression from ape to human societies, yet Engels did not underestimate the importance of his contribution. He wrote: "This rediscovery of the primitive matriarchal gens as the earliest stage of the patriarchal gens of civilised people has the same importance for anthropology as Darwin's theory of evolution has for biology and Marx's theory of surplus value has for political economy."

Engels is not wrong. British social anthropology reacted to the argument that human society was founded on matrilineal clan organisation with horror. They knew only too well the revolutionary implications of this - which proves that Engels knew what he was talking about: this really does matter that much.

Let us examine how Engels understood this clan to operate, in order to compare that with our modern scientific version of the emergence of human society. He quoted missionary Arthur Wright, who worked amongst the Iroquois people, and described their family system based on "communistic households" which comprised several families: "It is probable that one clan predominated, the women however taking in husbands from other clans. The women of these households therefore related to each other through the mother line. Usually the female portion ruled the house. Woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing. No matter how many children or how many goods he has in the house, he might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge. After such orders it would not be healthful for him to disobey: the house would be too hot for him and he would have to retreat to his home clan and go and start a new matrimonial alliance."


Engels comments: "The communistic household in which most or all of the women belong to the same gens, while the men come from various gens, is the material foundation of the supremacy of the women, which was general in primitive times." It is the fact that women are with their kin relations which gives them the power to kick the men out if they want to.

I can read that passage and recognise from my work in Africa the sort of relationships that still survive. For example, Hadza hunter-gatherer women in Tanzania live with their female relatives. Each camp has a core of matriarchs - perhaps older sisters - related through the female line. Through kinship, women have leverage to dump uncooperative husbands. The men are at the periphery, while the women are in the middle, organising the camp. The important thing which Engels observed is the material foundation in the shape of stores held in common. There can be no such thing as one man providing for one women and her children. Big game comes back to the whole camp and everybody gets a share.

What was the attitude of the founders of British social anthropology towards these arguments about the origin of human society in collectivised households, where women through their common relationship keep the men under control? Malinowski, one of the founders of fieldwork social anthropology in the 20th century, said in a radio debate in the early 1930s: "A whole school of anthropologists "¦ have maintained that the maternal clan was the primitive domestic institution. In my opinion, as you know, this idea is incorrect. An idea like that, when it is taken seriously and applied to modern conditions, becomes positively dangerous.

"I believe the most disruptive element in the modern revolutionary tendencies is the idea that parenthood can be made collective. If once we came to the point of doing away with the individual family as the pivotal element of our society, we should be faced with a social catastrophe, compared with which the political upheaval of the French Revolution and the economic changes of Bolshevism are insignificant.

"The question therefore as to whether group motherhood is an institution which ever existed, whether it is an arrangement which is compatible with human nature and social order, is of considerable practical interest. I would rather discount any speculation about the origins of marriage or anything else which contribute to them, even indirectly."

Thus Malinowski wanted to establish a social anthropology which completely disowned the evolutionary origins of different forms of human society, and different forms of marriage, family and kinship systems. For him this was just armchair speculation that should not be indulged in. You should only do fieldwork and examine the real evidence of actual people.

The great irony in all of this was that Malinowski's own fieldwork was among a matrilineal group, the Trobriand islanders, who enjoyed enormous sexual freedom, which he recounted in his superb ethnography, The sexual life of savages. For him, though, British anthropology was a colonial enterprise. He wanted to "prove to the best of my ability that marriage and the family, have been, are and will remain the foundations of human society. Marriage in single pairs "¦ is primeval."10  Malinowski denounced the whole area of origins research, claiming to know all the answers already.

The effect of such a position was to completely divorce the social side of anthropology, dealing with cultural forms and symbolic aspects, from the evolutionary side - the study of fossils, primates, etc. For any social scientist interested in how we came to be human, it is simply not possible to work without bringing those areas together. When I was researching for my PhD, University College London had departments of both physical and social anthropology and it was very difficult to get people from the two departments to talk to each other. Both sides suspected I was in the 'other camp' - the social anthropologists above all, because for them it was a taboo to discuss evolution, let alone selfish-gene theory.

Meanwhile many evolutionary anthropologists just blithely carry on as gradualist Darwinians, applying their understandings of selfish-gene strategies, using cost and benefit analysis for individuals, and assuming that humans are little different from other animals in this respect. They lack any understanding of cultural forms, and take 'onwards and upwards' progress as a given: humans start using tools, we get better at killing animals, our brains get bigger. There is no investigation of the conflicts endemic in human evolution that would have produced revolutionary outcomes for the organisation of society. How do we overcome the jealously of the male to create the wider social form where many males and females may live together in social groups?

What does modern-day evolutionary anthropology say in support of Morgan and Engels? There is now an argument on the emergence of Homo erectus known as the 'grandmother hypothesis'.11  Around two million years ago there was a shift in life history, selecting for longer life spans in females, and eventually the human pattern of the menopause. The first social division of labour emerged, as older females began to help younger women with childcare and so on. In other words, the first division of labour was not between males and females, but between an older female - the grandmother of the children - and her daughter.

Natural selection did not favour older women who helped their sons with children, because of the problem of paternity uncertainty. From a Darwinian perspective, if an older woman wants to be sure she is helping to pass on her own genes, she will help her daughter's children, as happens among the Hadza to this day.12  The implications of the grandmother hypothesis, which is gaining acceptance, are that from the origin of genus Homo our ancestors were living in female-related groupings. Mothers would stick to daughters and males would intervene as mates rather than living there with their own relatives. This was the precursor of a cultural classificatory kinship system based on matrilineal clans.

Hunter-gatherer provisioning is not nuclear family-based; sharing of any sizeable catch acts as a fundamental egalitarian mechanism. Furthermore, recent work in Amazonian cultures has demonstrated a regular strategy of shared fatherhood, or 'partible paternity'13 . According to this common ideology, it takes more than one sex act to get a woman pregnant, which means two or more men may share in the task; children with more than one father have better survival chances. These recent evolutionary studies have undermined Malinowski's old propaganda about nuclear families as "primeval".

There is another aspect of Engels' theory that has been vindicated by modern evolutionary anthropology. Engels described the "world historic defeat of the female sex" - the transition from what he called 'mother-right' to 'father-right'. Agriculture and pastoralism ultimately sowed the seeds for patrilineal society: the cow was the enemy of matriliny. Modern phylogenetic methods have shown that a switch from horticultural to pastoralist subsistence is indeed likely to cause changes to patriliny from prior matriliny14 .

Selfish-gene strategies dictate inheritance down the generations: in economies where significant property accumulation enables men to increase their reproductive success - for instance, by marrying several wives through cattle wealth - property will pass from father to son. Where economies lack such wealth differentials, as in horticultural groups, land is more likely to pass from mother to daughter, since paternity uncertainty does not favour male inheritance15 . These are the underlying Darwinian factors in what Engels saw as the first class antagonism, coinciding with men's possession of women in 'monogamous' marriage - monogamous only for women, of course.

How much of the modern story of the human revolution did Engels prefigure and what would he have learnt from today? The major material factor in human evolution, from australopithecines over three million years ago through genus Homo, is encephalisation (the increase in brain size in relation to body size). This is because brain tissue is extraordinarily expensive - only about 2% of body weight in a modern human, but using 20% of basal metabolism. And, when it comes to raising large-brained offspring, it is females who have to find this energy.

Australopithecines have a similar brain volume to chimpanzees. Among chimps, females do all the work to raise their own offspring, getting no help whatsoever from males, who are frequently an active hindrance, especially if the female has as oestrus signal. We have no reason to think australopithecines - basically bipedal apes - were very different.

There were two key stages of encephalisation. About two million years ago there was a doubling of brain size for adult hominins with the beginning of genus Homo. Then, from about half a million years ago to the time of the emergence of modern Homo sapiens, brain size sharply increased, adding the equivalent of a whole chimpanzee brain and more. What that means is that from half a million years ago females had to find huge amounts of extra energy from somewhere in order to raise their offspring.

While grandmothers may have given enough support for Homo erectus females, when it came to the second big spurt of encephalisation, male involvement must have increased considerably, particularly in the form of big-game hunting. The archaeological evidence associated with Homo heidelbergensis, the ancestor of both the Neanderthals and ourselves, indicates that they were adept at hunting mammals as large as rhino and mammoth. Food was presumably going back into the camps in something like the manner of modern hunter-gatherers, rather than provisioning on a family basis.

How were females able to influence males to change their behaviour? The way that women today, as in the past, can get males interested in doing anything is through the use of sexual signals. This is true of primates; it is true of ourselves. Our bodies today provide evidence of what has worked in terms of natural selection.

Sexual signals

From a selfish-gene point of view, if a male aims to find as many fertile females and produce as many offspring as possible, he would like to know accurately when a female is fertile so he can do the business and move on. The human female strategy is one of time-wasting. She conceals any sign of ovulation, so that a male who sticks around and keeps at it is going to have more success than a male who tries to 'kiss and run'. But there is a flaw in the system: menstruation.

Because of the strange way we live in developed countries, using contraception and breast-feeding for very short periods, menstruation is associated in our culture with infertility. For hunter-gatherer societies, however, where women spend large parts of their lives in pregnancy and lactation, it is quite a different story. The number of menstrual cycles a woman experiences in natural fertility populations would be perhaps a third or a quarter, compared to women living in Britain today, for example. Menstruation does not give males accurate information about the precise moment of fertility, but it does flag up imminent fertility. When it comes to picking out a female more likely to be fertile soon, is it going to be the one who is heavily pregnant or is breast-feeding? Or is it going to be the one who is menstruating?

Generally, in a hunter-gatherer demographic, more females would be pregnant and lactating than those actually cycling. And they are the females who need the energy - 25% extra when pregnant, 50% extra when breast-feeding. But menstruating females are potentially a threat to the interests of non-cycling females. They may distract the attention of males, diverting investment away from the females who most need it. In the early Homo ergaster/erectus stage this may not have been such a problem, but at the later stage, as brains evolved to a modern human size, this contradiction of sexual conflict had to be transcended to produce novel cultural forms of cooperation.

What can the non-cycling females do about the threat of menstrual females? The first option is to hide the signal from males - the same thing in principle as hiding signs of ovulation, so males have no accurate information about fertility. This is what has developed historically under patriarchal religious systems, where women expect to marry a single male for life, and this persists within bourgeois morality. But evolving human ancestors had a different solution. Their alternative led to the morality of primitive communism. Because the menstrual signal had economic value and power to influence male behaviour, motivating males to get to work, those females who were not cycling said to those who were, 'If you have some menstrual blood, then I want some too.'

Faking it together, female coalitions signalling solidarity in blood performed the first symbolic rituals. With ritual and body art emerged morality and kinship. Cosmetic ritual signalling marks the boundary of a kinship group of mothers and sisters, including their brothers. The hunters and potential mates are outsiders to the coalition. This formation now resembles Engels's matrilineal clan.

Even if some males were sceptical or could pick out women who were really menstrual, and not pregnant or breastfeeding, what the women, along with their brothers, are saying is that they are united: 'Don't even think about it - if you want anything to do with us, go and hunt and we'll talk about it when you come back.' The women in effect form a picket line around the economically valuable menstruating female; no hunter can cross the line until meat has been brought back for everybody in the coalition.

This is a scientific theory, because it provides us with testable hypotheses, bringing together different fields of evidence: archaeology, fossils and hunter-gatherer ethnography16 . The first prediction of the model is that the earliest evidence of symbolic behaviour will be a cosmetics industry, where people valued, sought out and utilised blood-red pigments. Secondly, this should be quite tightly correlated to the window of encephalisation, roughly between 500,000 and 150,000 years ago.

The archaeological record, particularly the Middle Stone Age in southern Africa from around 140,000-150,000 years ago, shows the widespread use of ochre. What we can see in southern Africa is almost surely the edge of a rippling 'wave' from East and Central Africa, where modern humans evolved, and where sites containing ample red ochre go back over 300,000 years. On many African archaeological sites ochre - for example, heavily worn 'crayons' - is found, chosen for its blood-red colour and used to make designs on bodies or skins. Recently announced sites in the Middle East have ochred shell beads dating to a 100,000 years ago.

What is our conclusion and how does it link to Engels's work? Engels recognised that it was only through female alliances that male competitive sexual dominance could be overthrown. He understood the absolute necessity of primitive communism, where everybody shares and stores in common, but this had to be based on sharing between sisters and related females. I think he and Marx would have been quite astonished - and delighted - that their revolutionary theory has been vindicated by Darwinian selfish-gene science.

The very first symbol of human solidarity was indeed the red flag.