Science, religion, and language

What does it mean to be human? This is an edited version of the speech given by Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group to Communist University 2008

I would like to start by saying something about science in general, before going on to address the work of Marx and Engels as anthropologists. Finally, I will talk about the origin of language and religion.


I sometimes hear it said that Marxism is a science - and when I hear those words I always shudder. There is an article in the Weekly Worker called ‘The science of Marxism’; I wrote the piece, but completely disagree with the title it was given. I do not think that Marxism is at all a science. That is an entirely incorrect way of putting things; it has nothing to do with what Marx or Engels ever said.

In my view - and I think in Marx’s and Engels’ view - there are two types of knowledge: science on the one hand and ideology on the other. Both are knowledge and all knowledge confers power. So what is the difference between science and ideology? It is quite simple. Ideology confers power on some people, at the expense of others; but science is empowering for everybody. If you are a human being, you can get power from science. Engels put it beautifully when he wrote: “The more ruthlessly and disinterestedly science proceeds, the more it finds itself in harmony with the interests of the workers.”

So science has to be autonomous, working for itself, with a community of scientists putting science first and not any political agenda. Putting a political agenda first would obviously be at the expense of science and would damage the revolutionary potential of autonomous science. There is no form of knowledge more revolutionary than science.

Why do I think it is so wrong to say that Marxism is a science? Why do I think it is so dangerous to play that trick on what Marx and Engels stood for, as was done throughout the period of Stalinism? When I hear it said that Marxism is a science, I think of Lysenko and all those attempts to cut off Marxism from science and make a science of Marxism. It is dangerous because it can lead Marxists to think that they do not have to know anything about the real sciences, because, after all, they are Marxists and Marxism is itself a science.

This is the exact opposite of what Marx and Engels themselves actually thought. They believed it was essential to keep abreast of every scientific development. We too have to put science first and wage a political battle to maintain and defend the political autonomy of science itself.

In the present period no task could be more urgent, especially in view of what capitalism is doing to the planet. It is no good having a ‘position’ on climate if you are not engaged in the science of climate. Of course, there are controversies about this subject, but they actually fall within a very narrow band - the scientific community is broadly in agreement that if the global temperature goes up by more than two degrees, that is probably the tipping-point beyond which the future of life on earth is put in doubt.

Science matters, and what we in the Radical Anthropology Group do is try to put the big picture together. Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human, but that question cannot be addressed without asking lots of other questions. For example, what it means to be almost but not quite human, such as chimpanzees - intelligent, politically organised creatures. There is no better way of getting to grips with what it means to be human than by experiencing life with creatures that are so close to being human.

Primitive communism

Sometimes I encounter comrades who do not quite get what Marx and Engels meant when they described hunter-gatherer, pre-capitalist, egalitarian societies as “communist”. There is a view which says, ‘It’s sort of communism, but it’s a bit primitive’ - on the basis that such societies have so little wealth that they could not be anything other than communist. This view also maintains that we cannot understand the meaning of communism by living with contemporary hunters and gatherers.

But that is not at all the message I get from reading Engels in The origin of the family, private property and the state. It is not just that hunter-gatherers are egalitarian, that they share and they do not have private property. The key thing for Marxists and communists is that there can be no communism without abundance - in fact without super-abundance. Scarcity of any kind leads to conflict, which itself leads to inequality.

I sometimes meet comrades who think that hunter-gatherers lived in poverty and scarcity. They are so, so wrong. That misconception was put right long ago - for example, by Marshall Sahlins in his brilliant book Stone Age economics. One chapter is about “the original affluent society”. The crucial point is that hunter-gatherers live in abundance. Yet too many comrades conceptualise everything through western ideology, leading them to conclude, for instance, that if people do not have televisions they must be living in poverty.

Some of the tribes we have been living with and studying have access to both worlds - they can go to the flesh pots and get a taste of western life. They tire of it and go back home. All I can say is that they have the world’s best diet, the most healthy possible nutrition and plenty of spare time to enjoy all the pleasures of life. The world’s wealthiest people spend a fortune to enjoy a week’s safari and hunting. But the Hazda of Tanzania and others like them have this all the year round and, once you live with them, you can understand why they have no desire at all to go down the road of so-called ‘development’, any more than in the distant past, our hunter-gatherer ancestors actively wanted to get involved in agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry and eventually class society.

So these people have an experience of real abundance. Of course, they do not have televisions and so on. If you or I personally cannot do without a television I can understand that. But the Hazda would see it as a reflection of the vacuum in our own lives, a vacuum drawing us to all this fantasy stuff in the absence of the real thing.

Marxists in any case are not supposed to see wealth in these ridiculous, absolutist terms - wealth is relative; it is social. By any standard, hunter-gatherers are up there, living in an economy of abundance, where they cannot be corrupted by honey, berries or game animals. But they can be and are corrupted by money - very easily. Give some money to the Hazda and they will immediately fall for it and spend it on drink. But in their own environment the things that they value cannot be used to corrupt or divide their egalitarian social structure.


I saw an anarchist sticker on a lamp post the other day, proclaiming that religion is stupid, murderous, bigoted, sexist crap. I feel an immediate, instinctive solidarity with the people who wrote that. The most important scientist conveying that view these days is, of course, Richard Dawkins, who thinks that religion is a kind of cultural virus which infects our brains.

Dawkins says that, the more absurd the belief, the more valuable it seems, because if you can believe something patently absurd it shows your commitment to the group far more convincingly than if you believe something credible and obvious. So, for example, anyone can believe that a piece of bread can be symbolic of Jesus’s flesh. However, if you believe that the bread and wine taken at communion are actually Jesus’s body and blood, that is so stupid that believing it carries an enormous cost, which demonstrates beyond doubt the Christian’s commitment. I have to say that, when I look around at some of today’s leftwing groups, that rings bells. The more absurd the belief, the more it proves your commitment to the sect.

That is not Dawkins’s main argument, however - though I personally would buy it. His main argument is that religion is a parasite, which replicates itself in the way that a computer virus does.

Marx puts it rather more cleverly: religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its moral sanction. Marx goes on to say that there is no way of abolishing religion without realising it. And that there is no way of realising religion without abolishing it. Those two formulae to me just sum up everything. If you go back in history, it seems that society gets more religious. Hunter-gatherers are the most religious and yet they are the most emancipated, the most communist. If you think religion is stupid, then, as a Marxist, you have a paradox, because you say that hunter-gatherers are communist and they are stupid. The paradox is resolved when you realise that, the more you practise your religion, every day of the week, the more you regard everything as sacred, the less it is religion. In a way, the more it is religion, the less it is religion.

So when Marxists talk about abolishing religion, we mean abolishing the illusory communism which religion is. But you cannot abolish the illusory communism without realising communism. The argument we put forward in the Radical Anthropology Group is that the human revolution - the process of becoming human, with the establishment of communism - involved the idea of the sanctity of things as an essential component. The ultimate idea of religion and the point about it which perhaps all of us could accept is simple: some things are sacred. For capitalism, nothing is sacred. Everything has a price.

For hunter-gatherers some things are sacred and that part of religion is, if you like, essential for Marxists, because for Marxists too some things are sacred. For example, never cross a picket line. For RAG, that principle is the foundation of culture, language and religion - never cross a picket line.

Engels explains it beautifully when he says that the first form of class oppression was sexual oppression: the female sex was the productive class or proto-class. By contrast, the leisured sex - the sex that does not have to do the work of producing the next generation - was the male of the species. Following Engels, our argument is that, with the emergence of humans living in larger groups with more complex social demands, brain size had to increase. With babies requiring an enormous amount of investment in terms of childcare and so on, females could no longer afford the costs of males who behave badly by getting them pregnant and then running off.

Increasingly the females had to ensure that males did not have that option. The strategies which led to religion and language were strategies designed to seduce, reward and tempt males into doing their share of investing in the future generations, evolving into what we call the sex strike (although that is an inadequate term for what we are talking about). This sex strike was more than just resistance: it turned into a general strike which could be repeated. This female resistance against male exploitation culminated in a revolution. The logic of strike action established the principle that some things are sacred. If the body is not recognised as sacred, then nothing else can be sacred either. This was a fundamental principle, especially for women, simply because males would always be a little bit better at violence than the other sex.


It is impossible to discuss the origins of language without referring to Noam Chomsky, because he is a giant and everybody seems to thinks that he is a scientific revolutionary on a par with Einstein, Darwin and Galileo.

Briefly, Chomsky is a Cartesian. Descartes believed that language was located in the pineal gland, through which the soul communicated with the body. Of course, Chomsky does not quite put it that way, but he has a Cartesian outlook and sees language as the product of a tiny organ in the brain. His theory of the origin of language is that, in a sudden, random mutation in one individual maybe 100,000 years ago, the ‘language organ’  universe who has it”, and this was useful because the person concerned could at last think, articulate ideas, plan and so on through inner speech (which is most of speech). This is essentially Cartesianism - ‘I think, therefore I am’. Everything happens in the individual. Chomsky absolutely insists that language is not for communication, just for thinking in private, with communication only an optional side effect.

I think that is completely ridiculous. My view is that Engels got it right when he wrote about the development of cooperative labour. When people began needing each other in this new way, they eventually “arrived”, as Engels puts it, “at the point where they had something to say to one another”. If Engels is right, then pre-modern humans lacked language not just because they lacked the requisite organ. The more fundamental point was that in the absence of labour - in the absence of joint action toward a common goal - they had nothing to say to one another.

Of course, animals communicate with one another and cooperate in all sorts of ways. But Chomsky is right about one thing: language is right off the scale from the standpoint of animal communication. You cannot make an argument that language evolved gradually from some sort of vocal signalling system employed by our ape-like ancestors.

The principle of Darwinism is ‘descent with modification’. That means there must be something to start with - fins becoming legs, for example. But the problem with the origin of language is that we do not have a precursor. Language is utterly different. First of all, the format. The phonology of language is digital, with about six articulators in the human vocal apparatus. All animal communication is analogue, where the point of interest is the quality of the signal, the loudness, the size of the animal which must be making that signal, where each of the animals involved is sizing up the other’s strength on an analogue scale. With language, not just the phonology is digital, but so too are the semantics - and that just cannot happen in animal communication, with the possible exception of honey bees and some other social insects.

With language there is also duality of patterning - where one level can organise another. And there is displaced reference, which is very important. As we speak, we are making interventions which do not produce physical changes, but changes in virtual reality. The language we hear and read can take us to new places; it means moving around in a virtual world.

Language and religion

Which brings us back to religion. We humans inhabit symbolic culture, and symbolic culture produces a very weird world of objective facts, which depend entirely on subjective belief. There are two kinds of facts: institutional or social facts, and then, on the other hand, brute facts, which do not rely on belief. The global currency system is built entirely on faith or belief: the moment that faith collapses, the insurance companies vanish into thin air. But brute facts are different. They are true whatever you believe or do not believe. Faith has nothing to do with it. Even if you do not believe in gravity, walk off the edge of a cliff and you will fall. So there are a whole lot of facts that have nothing to do with faith - ‘brute facts’. But there are also a whole lot of other facts that are entirely dependent on subjective belief.

As soon as you realise that, you understand something very important about religion: that it is something more than what you do on Sundays or in a certain building called a church. Imagine that religion has been abolished and that its principles of brotherhood or whatever are practised not just in sermons or prayers, but as central to what we do every day, as communists living as hunter-gatherers.

Our world is then a world of institutional facts, a world of interconnecting meanings and relationships, which can be experienced as magical, but are absolutely real, not hallucinations. They are real for the people that believe them and it would be foolish to say that these beliefs are irrational fantasy or superstition.

In the same sense that I said that hunter-gatherers live in a world of abundance, not feeling scarcity, in the same sense, with a dialectical shift, these beliefs are science because they are empowering. Any person in this environment will be empowered by this way of looking at the world. We do not know everything in science down to the last quantum detail and we do not really need to know everything in order to get things done.

At any stage science is information which confers power and it goes as deep as it needs to go. Let me give you one example, which confirms Engels. His theory about the early forms of human kinship was that they were matrilineal and he also argued that the first form of marriage was group marriage. Early human kinship involved a concept which we nowadays call ‘partible paternity’ - a belief system found in many parts of South America, whereby a pregnant woman who wants to do well by her baby has sex with a number of different men.

The question about this belief is whether it is scientifically true - does a woman who has sex with a number of men, adding to the number of ‘fathers’ her child has, increase the chance of her child surviving to adulthood? Yes, it is true. Women who have sex with extra men, giving their babies extra ‘fathers’, do better. There can be all kinds of reasons for this, but it does not alter the fact that the women who believe this about partible paternity do have more and healthier children. Western scientific ideas about a single sperm fertilising a single egg would actually be damaging to the women we are talking about in their particular society.

So we live in a world of institutional facts as well as brute facts. Only a creature that has to navigate within this virtual landscape either needs language or can possibly have language. All institutional facts are digital. There is no such thing as a more or less institutional fact. If you ask who is that person who is sticking a penalty notice on your badly parked car, you will not be satisfied if he answers that he is ‘more or less’ a traffic warden. Either he does have that right or he does not. Because institutional facts rely on agreement and agreement cannot be reached on a slippery slope, they have to be cut and dried - either/or. As soon as there is any doubt, then the fact starts to collapse.

Because language relates fundamentally to institutional facts, semantics is also concerned with institutional facts, not with brute facts. So that only a creature that has become immersed in a world of shared fantasy - in a sense only a religious creature - can have language. As we became human, as we turned the world upside down through revolution, that communist world was a world of fantasy in a sense, but shared fantasy. When fantasies are shared, when they are generalised in the power that they can give, then that is a very different thing from fiction, from lying or hallucination. Children learn language and the use of words fundamentally through fantasy. If a young child does not get into fantasy worlds, if it cannot get the idea of ‘let’s pretend’, then that is some cause for concern. Lack of pretend-play capacity is one of the diagnostic features of autism.

I will end with this - Jerome Lewis has shown in his study of the Mbendjele that religion is actually play. The point about this play is that, as with all children’s games, it is quite serious. When you are in the playground, the most important thing about a person you are fond of is that they let you play with them. Likewise, the rules of the various games that the forest people play are very important. They are sacred.

Play, ritual, collective work and religion are the same thing for the forest people that Jerome is studying. The point is that they play in a way that allows them to continue playing through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. When they play the same games as adults, that is religion. It does not matter what you call it. If you think religion is stupid, then that is fine. You can then call what the forest people do something else - maybe magic or whatever.

The crucial point is that monkeys and apes do not do this. They do play. When they play at fighting, taking turns to chase each other, that is about as near as they get to symbolism or language or religion. It is an imaginary fight. However, as primates become sexually active, something happens, and the play-fight ends up in a real fight. The playfulness of earlier years does not survive that transition into adulthood and therefore life as a whole is no longer governed by play.

Our ancestors won the human revolution by turning the relationship between sexual violence and play on its head. They managed to become human by extending the joys and the shared fantasy of play into adulthood. And they did this by incorporating sex itself into the game.

For further reading, see C Knight, M Studdert-Kennedy and JR Hurford (eds) The evolutionary emergence of language Cambridge 2000.

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