Origins of religion and the human revolution - pt1
Jack Conrad gives his assessment of some of the main theories and asks what apes can teach us
Human beings have been the product of essentially the same genetic toolkit since the first pre-modern Homo sapiens emerged in Africa around 500,000 years ago. Our own sub-species, modern Homo sapiens, also arose in Africa - some 200,000 years ago. In all likelihood our ability to acquire and transmit abstract ideas, including religious ideas, results from the rapid growth of brain size, not least in the frontal cortex, which is associated with pre-modern Homo sapiens, and which makes us capable of symbolic thought, furious creativity and “extraordinary” feats of deception.
Some geneticists go further. Much further. They claim to have located religious belief in our genes and the biological mechanisms of heredity. Dean Hamer, director of the gene structure and regulation unit of the US National Cancer Institute, stunningly revealed in his book, The god gene (2004), how he had finally cracked the age-old enigma of religion. At least that is what his canny publicity machine declared.
Vesicular Monoamine Transporter 2 (VMAT2) was confidently named the ‘god gene’ ... for pretty tenuous reasons. The VMAT2 protein is responsible for transmitting dopamines from one part of the brain to another and this induces feelings of pleasure, happiness and general harmony with the cosmos. Dopamines are released during trances and other such ecstatic religious experiences (and by psychotropic and hallucinogenic drugs).
There are two versions of VMAT2 and they “differ only in a single position”. People with one version apparently tend to score a little higher when it comes to what Hamer calls “self-transcendence”. But it hardly follows that belief in god is VMAT2-determined.
Doubleday, Hamer’s publisher, seems to have chosen the title of his book and with the same provocative certainty asserted in the subtitle that faith was “hardwired into our brains”. Good marketing, doubtless. But, frankly, both claims have as much scientific validity as the existence of ‘gay’, ‘criminal’ and ‘xenophobia’ genes. Not surprisingly, arguments used to back up such wafer-thin propositions remain unconvincing.
Hamer’s research conclusions mainly wrest on psychological questionnaires received from hundreds of siblings originally collected for a study on cigarette smoking. When it came to VMAT2 and “self-transcendence”, there was less than a 1% variation. Statistically inconclusive to the point of being irrelevant. There is, it would appear, no credible evidence of a direct, one-to-one correspondence between any of the estimated 20,000-25,000 genes inherited from one’s parents and “one’s height, weight, metabolic rate, sickness, health, or any other non-trivial organic characteristic”.
Hamer’s book was squarely aimed at a mass market and significantly he chose not to submit his findings to an authoritative, peer-reviewed academic journal before publishing. Nevertheless, under heavy fire from a wide variety of scientific critics and researchers, Hamer backtracked considerably. His book, let us note, actually made far more modest claims about VMAT2 than the publicity blurb promised. Despite that, showing how its editors rate the credulity of their readers, and greatly enhancing Hamer’s sales figures, Time magazine ran with the startling “god gene” news on the front page of its US edition. Not that this was connected in any way with the deal struck by Doubleday and Time Warner in 2000 which merged their two book clubs under a joint venture called Bookspan. A partnership which lasted until 2007, when Bertelsmann, the German owner of Doubleday, took over sole running.
The usual approach from members of the neo-Darwinist school is to explain religion - and much else besides - by extrapolating from the ways they imagine our ancestors were evolved to behave in their ‘garden of Eden’ on the African savannah hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Too often this simply means naturalising today’s common sense by projecting it back onto the distant past. Religion is considered innate, like war, private property, sexual inequality, social hierarchies and markets in goods, labour and services: an unmistakable ideological echo of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the philosopher of rising bourgeois society. In a world of finite resources, he confidently pronounced, the natural condition of humanity is the competitive striving for individual wealth and self-interest through lawful trade - something that relies on peace and an all-powerful state to enforce it. Without that, what follows is war, “and such a war, as is every man, against every man”, Hobbes bleakly warned in Leviathan. I am equally reminded of Edmund Burke (1729-97), the apostle of modern conservatism. “We know, and - what is better - we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society ... we know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by constitution a religious animal,” he bumptiously asserted.
Not that neo-Darwinists universally fawn before the market, advocate the strong state or extol the civic virtues of religion. A good number are militant atheists and would consider themselves to be on the left. More to the point, when it comes to explaining religion, while there is money-making charlatanry, vulgar materialism and sheer nonsense in spades, there is honest scholarship, worthwhile theorisation and genuine insight too. Wheat can be separated from chaff.
There are three main, often bitterly opposed, scientific schools. Religion as individually adaptive; religion as individually non-adaptive; and religion as benefiting the group. Not that a synthesis is impossible to achieve. After all, with the origins of religion, I am convinced that we are also dealing with the transition from nature to culture. A qualitative leap where we would expect laws to be superseded and yet continued.
Let us begin with religion as being individually adaptive.
Richard Klein and Blake Edgar reckon that a single, “fortuitous” genetic mutation occurred around 50,000 years ago - ie, in the Upper Palaeolithic/Late Stone Age - and that this completed the modern brain. A “revolution” akin to the mental changes wrought by the mysterious crystal monolith on Moon-Watcher and other apemen in the opening chapter of Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: a space odyssey. Klein and Edgar focus not on VMAT2, but Forkhead box protein P2 - a gene associated with vocalisation in extant human beings, apes, mice and song birds. A tiny mutation in FOXP2 - there is a two amino acid difference between humans and chimps - triggered, it is claimed, the capacity for language, symbolic culture and religion, along with the ability to fashion complex tools, execute sophisticated cave paintings and mount large-scale hunting expeditions. A remarkably advantageous package which rapidly spread the altered FOXP2 gene throughout the population and allowed humans to increase in leaps and bounds.
Rather foolishly Steven Pinker, the experimental psychologist and popular science writer, hitched his reputation to this ‘discovery’. However, what the Klein-Edgar 50,000 date meant for modern Homo sapiens who left Africa and possibly managed to reach Australia some 60,000 years ago is left unconsidered or brushed aside. Ditto the wacky, sci-fi idea that all scientists need do is introduce the human version of FOXP2 into a chimp and that this would produce speech. A far bigger problem exists for the Klein-Edgar theory, though. As it turns out, our version of FOXP2 first appeared not 50,000, but more like 1.8 million, years ago and with Homo habilis or ergaster.
More soundly, surely, Paul Bloom contends that children are “psychologically primed for religion” because it is advantageous in evolutionary terms to be gullible when listening to the stories (instructions) handed down to them by their parents: ‘Don’t stray into that forest because otherwise the jonjy wonjy who lives there will gobble you up’. Fear of imagined spirits keeps children obedient, out of trouble and alive.
In a similar vein, James McClenon argues that those possessing extra “suggestibility” had an evolutionary edge over the less suggestible. Eg, the risks of giving birth would be lessened if expectant mothers “accepted the efficacy” of the shaman’s potions, spells and spirit messages. Mortality and morbidity rates were thereby significantly reduced. In other words, religion adds to reproductive success - and therefore the propensity towards religion is passed on in our genes.
Scott Atran plausibly maintains that humans were “naturally selected” for their ability to respond quickly and emotionally to the array of dangers they faced: “The evolutionary imperative to rapidly detect and react to rapacious agents encourages the emergence of malevolent deities in every culture, just as the countervailing imperative attached to care-givers favours the apparition of benevolent deities.” Religion is seen by Atran as a beneficial by-product of biological development - what Stephen Jay Gould famously called a spandrel in an audacious borrowing from architectural terminology - a morphological, cognitive or behavioural contingent that acquires a rationale, momentum and consequences of its own.
Then there are those who consider religion maladaptive. Courting notoriety, as ever, Richard Dawkins goadingly likens religion to a dangerous virus. Smallpox. He also explains religion as a ‘meme’ - ideas are supposedly passed on in discrete parcels. Jokes, theories, rumours, religious doctrines, etc. Memes for him are the “new replicators”. Daniel C Dennett pugnaciously champions the exact same approach. Prepared to accept the role of folk religion as embodying practical knowledge, his main contention is that organised religion depends on “secrecy, deception and systemic invulnerability to disconfirmation”.
While harbouring a certain Pavlovian sympathy for the belligerent atheism of Dawkins and Dennett - doubtless due to a formative Church of England education - politically I recoil from their elitism. Eg, Dennett breezily names atheists “brights”, with the inescapable implication that believers are dull, uneducated and in urgent need of an emergency course of corrective scientific instruction by an enlightened educator such as himself. More, one has to ask, if it is mal-adaptive, why does religion appear throughout recorded history and in every culture, and why today are the ranks of devotees counted in their billions? The ubiquity of maladaptation and the prodigious numbers of the maladapted fails to add up in Darwinian terms.
Pascal Boyer does not necessarily accept that religion is maladaptive, but likewise explains religion through memes. Evolution gives us mental tools which serve a real purpose. However, these tools have been hijacked. Religion brilliantly connects with the brain’s inference system, which makes “recall and communication very easy”, triggers our mental programmes, connects with “our social mind” and even directs our “behaviour.” And, as such, religion spreads from one mind to another.
Other scientists, particularly those with a training in anthropology, take the human group as their starting point when dealing with religion. Ultra-Darwinists feel obliged to attack this as heresy. According to them, the gene and the gene alone is the unit of selection. David Sloan Wilson disagrees. He is one of those who advocate a multilevel theory of selection: clade, species, deme, group, organism and gene.
Equipped with a religious system of bonding, Wilson says, a group, can achieve miracles compared with one riven by chronic conflicts and exploited by freeloaders. Internal cohesion is markedly enhanced. Religious systems are passed down to succeeding generations not through genes, of course: rather stories told and retold around the campfire, adult example, childhood imitation, teenage initiation, collective dances and songs, and the thoroughly internalised habits, rhythms and tasks of daily life.
Richard Sosis sees religion as a costly signalling system. In its own way a phenomenon not unlike the fitness-displaying peacock’s tail or the gaudy constructions painstakingly put together by male bowerbirds. Individuals display their commitment to their fellows by being prepared to profess beliefs that are glaringly counterintuitive. The more opposed to everyday reality, the more effective. As is morally required, they also willingly undergo initiation - which can amount to torture - in order to become full insiders. Thereafter, as adults, they regularly give themselves over bodily to the collective. All in the name of the fantastic. A system of incentive and disincentive. Eg, on the one hand, only full insiders are considered acceptable when it comes to marriage, and, on the other hand, would-be freeloaders find cheating hard to pull off.
Signals demanded by the group are very real. Not to submit to the trials of initiation, not to join in drug-assisted, three- or four-day-long communing with ancestral spirits, not to partake in gruelling farces, not to pierce, scar or tattoo the body is to invite teasing, withering contempt, ostracism or worse. Such signals separate insiders from outsiders and therefore help reproduce social cohesion.
Robin Dunbar comes from a similar direction. Once again the crucial determinate is the group. Larger groups of hominids favoured larger brains to cope with the multiplying interactions and constantly shifting political alliances. Dunbar constructs an intriguing theory of higher-order intentionality - states of mind such as believing, hoping and intending, and recognising this in others (and their recognition of it in others, and so on to the fifth or sixth degree). In step with this expanding, higher-order intentionality, he thinks we ultimately arrive at language, culture and religion. Religion, in particular, enhances group cohesion and guards against freeloading. Dunbar argues that the decisive change ought to be dated back to pre-modern Homo sapiens. They abandoned the time-costly social grooming of other great apes and took the road towards culture. Around 500,000 years ago there was certainly a big increase in brain size. From an average of 900cc to a near modern 1,300cc.
Let us examine matters from another angle. We shall move from abstract, sometimes highly speculative, models, and instead turn to gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. The mental capabilities of our ancestors can surely be gleaned from scientific studies of our nearest living relatives.
Hominids are thought to have diverged from what are now gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos some five-eight million years ago (it should be emphasised that all four lineages continued to evolve, faster or slower, till the present). However, biologically this divergence is quite recent. We still have some 98% of our DNA in common.
Fascinatingly - though, with a moment’s due consideration, not too surprisingly - people find it possible to teach captive gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos to communicate using computer keyboards, postcard-sized pictures, plastic shapes or sign language. Other great apes lack the physical apparatus that enables us humans to speak the way we do. Their vocal cords are located higher in the throat and therefore cannot modulate sounds to the degree we humans can. Possibly the arrangement of the inner ear might also prevent them from hearing the full range of human speech. But obviously there is far more to language than physiology.
Humans regularly, almost effortlessly, deploy thousands and thousands of unique words simply by phonetically piecing together available vowel and consonant sound units (in English there are just 44 of them). A “digital system” and one which infant children instinctively soak up, master with alacrity and when necessary superbly modify. Furthermore, human speech is tokenistic because it has been decoupled from body language. True, we smile, frown, cry, laugh and sigh. Very important for inter-personal relationships. However, when it comes to communicating on an everyday level, getting over routine information, technical data, news items and in general participating in the socio-economic order, the main burden is carried by speech (and its spectacular augmentations - writing and print).
Vocalisation amongst gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos is typically spontaneous, energetically demanding and closely connected with display and emotion. An “acoustic system”. Because they have been studied in extraordinary detail chimps can be used for purposes of illustration (Jane Goodall’s books, above all The chimpanzees of Gombe, remain of unequalled importance).
Dominant males emit ‘copulation screams’ during or after mating. Often preceded by shaking nearby branches and foot-stamping. The ‘pant-hoot’ is the most commonly heard call and conveys food enjoyment, social excitement and sociability feelings. There is extensive body grooming, especially of those at the top of the hierarchy, close allies or potential sexual partners. Frequently accompanied by lip-smacking or tooth-clacking. Then there are the graded ‘pant grunts’ and ‘pant screams’ which submissive chimps direct towards those at the top of the pecking order in the hope of warding off hostile behaviour or eliciting friendship. Simultaneously ‘respect’ is shown by grovellingly presenting rear ends. In addition there are the excited ‘short barks’ made during hunts and the ‘tonal bark’ warning let out when sighting a large snake. Young chimps ‘whimper’ when nervous or separated from mothers. To reassure, mothers touch and embrace their offspring. Males collectively warn off other chimpanzees from the group’s territory with ‘turf screams’. At the edge of their home territory, or when raiding another group’s territory, ‘war parties’ will proceed silently. Male chimps have learnt to turn off aggression vocalisations because of well founded fears of detection. However, chimps cannot turn signals on without actually experiencing some underlying emotion.
Nevertheless, though restricted to some 15 distinct vocalisations and a similarly narrow range of facial gestures and body signals, chimps can problem-solve, learn to use crude tools, grasp symbols and have genuine, though rather trite, conversations with human trainers (however, and it needs to be stressed, rarely, if ever, with each other).
The Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Washington University has been working with a small collection of cross-fostered, carefully humanised chimps since 1980. Individuals such as Tatu, Washoe, Moja, Pili and Dar were raised along the lines of deaf children and they managed to learn a quite impressive number of reliably observed signs - it is said around 150 of them in total. Ranging from what might conceivably be expected - colours, personal names, foods and smells - they also include ‘please’, ‘hurt’ and ‘sorry’. The chimps communicate with their handlers at a level analogous to young children. Other such attempts, experiments and projects have been organised with generally positive results.
In the wild, in their natural environment, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos do not, of course, have benign teachers of American Sign Language available to them. Though, as we have seen, they do have an innate mental capacity for language - albeit embryonic - something blocks, discourages and diverts them from going in that direction through their own volition. So, instead of “looking for intimations” of human society amongst gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, we must “look for its negation”, because human society emerged out of the “consistent negation” of what existed previously.
Their brains are considerably smaller than humans - 400-500cc compared with 1,400cc on average. It hardly follows, however, that gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos should be dismissed as inherently stupid. What they need for reproductive success, what they are expert in, what they are driven by is defending territory, securing food, gaining mates, building alliances, avoiding dangers and protecting offspring ... and that most definitely necessitates a “highly developed” ability to deal with the Machiavellian politics of their own group. Crucially the politics of sex. In short, a part-instinctive, part-learnt combination of intimidating physical force, deception, friendship, supplication, appeasement, kinship, etc.
Gorillas are organised into female troops, or harems, along with infants and perhaps a few tolerated beta males, jealously guarded, directed and ruled over by a single silverback male; chimpanzees into much larger, mixed-sex groups, with polygamous mating patterns under a constantly shifting hierarchy of dominant males; bonobos are matriarchal, with male status stemming from their mothers and internal conflict attenuated or deflected by promiscuous male-female and most crucially female-female sexual intercourse. Female pair bonding produces a powerful double act which can face down individualised males.
Despite those marked differences, males constitute the leisured sex. More, with the exception of bonobos, males aggressively establish their rights over fertile females and that regularly produces chaos in the group. However, once the female is no longer in estrus, the philandering male will instantly move off in search of new conquests. He will certainly not supply food for pregnant or nursing females. Nor will he provide for his offspring either. To simplify somewhat, sperm is what the male invests in the “propagation of the species.” Females get pregnant, carry the growing foetus, give birth, breast-feed and care for the young till they are fully independent. In energy terms immensely costly. Females therefore constitute the productive sex.
Accumulated evidence clearly shows that the social organisation of the great apes is not an automatic product of genetic determination. Environmental factors play a big role - as they do with even the simplest organism. For instance, the Congo river geographically divides what evolved to become chimps and bonobos a million years ago - with a greater abundance of food being obtainable to the south of the river’s course compared with the north. There is also an absence of gorillas in the south. Evidently these two, surely related, factors had a profound effect, allowing a far more relaxed relationship between males and females in the south.
There is also well observed self-construction through sexual politics. That can certainly be said for bonobos. As a result females lead a far less stressed existence. Even with gorillas and chimpanzees, however, the explosive power struggles between alpha males is far from the be-all and end-all. Parties of females briefly form and align themselves with related, aspirant and dissatisfied males. Bullying, faltering or otherwise unacceptable dominant males can thereby be brought to heel, overthrown or driven away.
Despite sympathetically documenting - celebrating - such counter-dominant behaviour, Christopher Boehm, the evolutionary anthropologist, concludes that gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos are “notably hierarchical”. Not unreasonably, projecting back, he makes the same claim about the “common ancestor” of the four African-based great apes (and that, of course, includes hominids).
The strong amongst the common ancestors - especially alpha males, but including high-status females - would harass, abuse and cower the weak. Moreover, male competition over food, social standing and fertile females would constantly tip over into violence and thereby disrupt, cut short or dissolve cooperation. That is certainly the case with gorillas and chimpanzees. Fieldwork leaves no doubt about it.
Boehm tellingly comments that, when it comes to history - ie, since the invention and adoption of writing - human societies have been characterised by hierarchical systems that are by “mammalian standards” staggering in their “degrees of despotism”. Think Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors, feudal popes, Muslim caliphs, Inca god-kings, fascist dictators, Stalinite bureaucrats and billionaire capitalists. And yet, and yet ... Surviving hunter-gatherer societies show diametrically opposite features. There is what Marxists call primitive communism. Eg, African Bushmen, the San. Though global capitalism surrounds and pushes in on them from every side, though squeezed into ecologically marginal areas - where food, fuel and fresh water are hellishly scarce and life is as a consequence extraordinarily difficult - a fierce egalitarianism rules. Would-be despots are given short shrift. Humorous put downs, walk-outs, constantly repeated levelling campaigns and if need be collective force to counter individual force. Those whom we should no longer call the weak continuously combine together to subordinate the strong to the group. Boehm calls the result “anti-hierarchy”.
Everything tells us that the militant egalitarianism of the San and other such social fossils was once the universal human condition. And not just for some brief moment of time. But for many tens of thousands of years ... and under far better ecological conditions. Anthropologists, ethnographers, palaeontologists and other social scientists - or at least the fair-minded amongst them - increasingly share that opinion.
So we are presented with an inescapable conclusion. Put what we know about people like the San on the one side of the equation. On the other side Homo habilis and Homo ergaster and contemporary gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos. What follows? There must have been a breakdown, an overturn of the old hierarchy, a point of transition, a reorganisation that made us anti-hierarchical. What went before became something else. Boehm insists that egalitarianism had to be established in the first place through a revolution. The alpha male system was reversed. Subordinates, he reasons, rebelled against their subordination. And doubtless they had to do so in group after group and again and again till they were finally victorious. And from then on egalitarianism was maintained, or regularly re-established, through various culturally embedded mechanisms whereby the “weak combine forces to actively dominate the strong.”
Disappointingly, Boehm collapses into a technological determinism by way of explanation. Relying on teeth, kicks and fists is always going to be uncertain. Quite likely the weak would miserably fail against the strong and be humiliatingly seen off: that or they would suffer severe injuries on the road to a Pyrrhic victory. Even with overwhelming numbers it would take some 15-20 agonising, and hugely risky, minutes to finish off the group tyrant. But a well aimed spear or axe - say, while your enemy slept or was otherwise unsuspecting - is an entirely different matter. Palaeolithic weapons shifted the balance of power against the strong. Or so Boehm contends.
Again, another angle. In A people’s history of the world (1999), Chris Harman, editor of the Socialist Workers Party’s journal, International Socialism, till a tragically early death in November 2009, devotes his opening chapter to what he obviously considers to be the pivotal event in his epic account: the Neolithic ‘revolution’ which first happened in the Middle East, in the fertile crescent, some 10,000 years ago.
The quote marks are Harman’s and he inserts them for good reason. The Neolithic revolution - weaving cloth, breeding cattle and sheep, cultivation of crops and a sedentary lifestyle - was bound up with a social counterrevolution. Technical progress contributed to the surplus product needed for the construction of gigantic monuments, elaborate fortifications, sumptuous burials for chiefs, professional religion and institutionalised warfare, but all this coincided with widespread regression, suffering and oppression. The health and fitness of the population in general deteriorated. Human remains show signs of stunted growth, tooth decay and rickets. There was also the historic defeat of the female sex, as discussed by Engels in his Origin of the family, private property and the state (1884) and what we have seen Christopher Boehm call staggering “degrees of despotism”.
Not surprisingly then, the “big changes in people’s lives” brought about by the Neolithic and the first civilisations, are contrasted with primitive communism - a subject briefly treated within an 18-page prologue to Harman’s main text. To some considerable effect, he shows that capitalism and its warped values are a very recent phenomenon. Primitive communism is depicted as our natural condition. After all, as a mode of production, it spans at least 90% of human existence. During these many millennia there were, Harman says, no rulers, no bosses, no rich, no poor. People habitually cooperated, food was shared on the basis of reciprocity and there was very little, if anything, of what could be called warfare. So no “killer imperative.” Humans were not Cain’s children.
Nor was this egalitarianism the result of endemic scarcity, intellectual inferiority or wrenching dispossession by foreign invaders. In 1966 the American anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, rebranded primitive communism the “original affluent society”. Sahlins was, to his everlasting credit, responsible for bringing about a mind-changing paradigm shift. Old assumptions, including those held by Marxists, about a primitive communism of hardship, ignorance and so-called savages constantly being on the brink of starvation were overthrown. He collected, arranged and presented overwhelming counter-evidence.
Organised into small, flexible, loose, roving groups, hunter-gatherers have a lifestyle that is in many ways enviable. Necessary labour time is minimal. Say 20 hours a week. Admittedly, so too are material needs. And yet Sahlins showed that even today’s hard-pressed hunter-gatherers consume a marvellously varied, highly nutritious and well balanced diet. Above all, they have the individual challenges, sexual, kinship and friendship relationships and egalitarian disciplines that, when fused together, help make us human.
Hunter-gathering involves a broad division of labour between the sexes. Men do high-prestige, but sometimes dangerous, long-range tracking and killing of game animals (and the collection of honey). Meanwhile, women - because of their role in giving birth, breast-feeding and child-rearing - are mainly responsible for the short-range gathering of staples. Nevertheless, male supremacy is absent. Both men and women take part in making key decisions. On balance, however, women are probably the more influential sex, constituting as they do the functional and moral centre of the matrilineal family and therefore the group’s base encampments. Additionally there is collective child-rearing, cooking of food and special women’s knowledge. A multi-layered combination engendering a particularly strong female bonding.
Logically, if there was a Neolithic counterrevolutionary revolution, there must have been a revolution. And, of course, it is not just a matter of logic. A whole range of distinguished anthropologists, geneticists, archaeologists, palaeontologists, etc embrace the idea of the human revolution, according to their own academic speciality and social outlook. See, for example, the weighty volume edited by Paul Mellars, Katie Boyle, Ofer Bar-Yosef and Chris Stringer - Rethinking the human revolution: new behavioural and biological perspectives on the origin and dispersal of modern humans (2007). It provides a broad overview of human origins research and with perhaps only a single exception, its dozens of contributors are agreed: judged according to the relevant timescale, the appearance of human culture was a revolutionary event, not a gradualistic process.
So there is most definitely a missing chapter in Harman’s account. His first chapter ought really to be his second. After all, the primitive communism that still hangs on in the 21st century, albeit by its fingernails - especially given what we know about gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos and what we think we know about our own immediate ancestors - must have had a beginning. A passing away of the old and a coming into being of something that had never been seen before: humans with language, symbolic culture and religion.
Naively - neither anthropology nor biology was his field - Harman regurgitated a stale account of increasing “cooperation” over two million years and how this slowly led to bigger brains, language, fashioning better and better tools and eventually the “ability to conceptualise about things which are not immediately present.” Of course, many animals are cooperative: bees, termites, ants and wasps are what sociobiologist Edward Wilson calls ‘eusocial’. Added to which, they construct elaborate nests and possess displaced reference communication systems. So cooperation alone cannot provide an adequate explanation of what made pre-humans human. Nor can expanding brain size. After all, insect brains are tiny and there are relatively big-brained animals that are subsocial or semisocial. Eg, polar bears, rhinos, jaguars and leopards.
The fact of the matter is that Harman ignores, avoids, in effect denies the revolution that must surely have triggered what Engels called the “transition from ape to man”. Instead Harman echoes the conventional, prosaic and thoroughly bourgeois theory of slow, cumulative, evolutionary change and ever advancing tools. Not something one would expect from a writer who established an enviable reputation for himself as a Marxist thinker.
Part 2 >>