Genetic evidence

Anthropology and women: Genetic evidence is richer than the stale party line

Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group investigates the SWP’s impoverished debate on the Marxist theory of women’s oppression

A recent article by Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale in the Socialist Workers Party’s theoretical journal, International Socialism, argues that no Marxist should pay serious attention to Engels’ celebrated book, The origin of the family, private property and the state.1 Engels’ text, according to Lindisfarne and Neale, is correct to deny that family forms are biologically determined, but is “deeply flawed” in just about every other respect. The authors list “a hundred mistakes” made by Engels - concluding that just about everything he said in the book is plain wrong.

Another article in the same issue - this time by Colin Wilson - endorses the anti-Engels theme.2 Wilson slams into a previous piece by the SWP’s leading spokesperson on gender, Sheila McGregor.3 I am no fan of McGregor, who devoted passionate energy some years ago to vilifying the Radical Anthropology Group in a campaign which eventually provoked virtually all the party’s anthropologists to resign in disgust.4 But, strange as it may seem, I now feel an impulse to defend McGregor against her detractors.

Lindisfarne and Neale dismiss Engels in much the same way as would any bourgeois cultural theorist. On the other hand, Wilson and McGregor claim to be inspired by his argument that gender equality was the norm for humanity everywhere for thousands of years, before cattle and agriculture led to the establishment of the patriarchal family.

McGregor defends that general position, although in an unconvincing way, since she relies mainly on Chris Harman, ignoring debates on such topics among professional anthropologists. You get the feeling McGregor defends Engels not because she understands or believes any of it, but only because it is the party line. But at least McGregor sympathises with Engels’ ultimate aim - to explode the myth that sexual oppression is natural and inevitable. Women’s oppression, according to Engels, emerged when early hunter-gatherer egalitarianism/communism was overthrown with the first establishment of class society. Wilson explicitly attacks McGregor for supporting this idea. McGregor’s key claim, complains Wilson, is that “human sexual behaviour developed in an egalitarian and cooperative environment”. “In fact,” objects Wilson, “there is no evidence for such claims”.

So if humans did not evolve in a cooperative environment, under what circumstances did we evolve? The obvious work to cite, for Wilson as for McGregor, is the “extremely valuable” research of Chris Harman. Harman, we are reminded, argued that attempts to reconstruct early social relations must always be unreliable, because they rest “on findings of odd fragments of bone, occasional teeth, and small bits of rock which may or may not once have been tools”. Invoking extant hunter-gatherers does not support McGregor’s case either, continues Wilson. He quotes Eleanor Leacock on the Naskapi hunter-gatherers of northern Canada: “Naskapi women joined in the protracted torture of Iroquois prisoners with even more fury than the men.” As for sex, Wilson cites Engels to the effect that “sexual practices in hunter-gatherer and horticulturalist societies include parents having sex with their children, and the capture and gang-rape of women by groups of young men, one of whom she is then forced to marry…” So much for that other, better-known Engels, who so passionately argued that women once enjoyed solidarity, autonomy and power!

Dismissing McGregor’s attempts to support Engels with modern biology and primatology, Wilson identifies with the core claim of the French philosopher, Michel Foucault. The idea here is that everything we imagine to be a biological or other scientific fact is actually a social construction. Wilson claims that Marx and Engels had basically the same idea, citing as evidence Engels’ insistence that family forms change over historical time. But Wilson’s postmodernist version of Engels is an ‘anything goes’ one - changes in sexual ‘constructions’ keep happening, but they are random, based on whoever happens to have power at the time, and devoid of any underlying logic or reason. This, needless to say, is about as far removed from the real Marx and Engels as it is possible to get.


All this is tragic for what is left of Marxism in the revolutionary movement today. Almost equally tragic, in my view, are Sheila McGregor’s minimalist, slipshod attempts at defending Engels. In a well-meaning way, she insists that contemporary evidence shows that humanity lived in “egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies with non-hierarchical, non-oppressive relations between men and women … until relatively recently”. But unfortunately, McGregor fails to discuss or even to mention any of Engels’ substantive arguments in favour of this idea. This might make sense if she merely wanted to argue that sexism is not genetically determined - that human family arrangements are culturally variable. But, as Marxists, we are surely trying to do more. Engels’ own motivation was to discover within history the scientific basis for communists’ revolutionary optimism that a victory for our class might lead to society’s “return, on a higher level” to the egalitarianism of our hunter-gatherer past.

McGregor is technically correct to remind us that “there is no way back to some ‘golden age’ hunter-gatherer society”. But what about the dialectic? There is little trace of dialectical thinking in McGregor’s view of history. Marx died before he could write up his anthropological research. However, in his famous unsent letter to the Russian revolutionary, Vera Zasulich, he was explicit that “the vitality of primitive communities was incomparably greater than that of … modern capitalist societies”, and that capitalism’s “fatal crisis” would lead to “the return of modern society to a higher form of the most archaic type”. Aware of how radical this argument might sound, Marx also insisted that “we must not allow ourselves to be alarmed at the word ‘archaic’”.5

Rosa Luxemburg was certainly not “alarmed” at any ideas of the “archaic”. In her last book, Einfuhrung in die Nationalökonomie, she argued that “primitive communism, with its corresponding democracy and social equality [was] … the cradle of social development”. She went on to claim that “the whole of modern civilisation, with its private property, its class domination, its male domination, its compulsory state and compulsory marriage [is] merely a brief passing phase, which, because they first formed from the dissolution of primitive communist society, in future will become higher social forms .… A communist and democratic society, even if in different and more primitive forms, embraced the whole long past of cultural history prior to present-day civilisation. In this way, the noble tradition of the ancient past, thus holds out a hand to the revolutionary aspirations of the future, the circle of knowledge closes harmoniously, and the present world of class domination and exploitation … becomes merely a minuscule transient stage in the great cultural advance of humanity.”6

Readers may recall an article I wrote last year on Engels and his view that early human kinship was matrilineal.7 Right or wrong, for Engels it was no small matter: “This rediscovery of the primitive matriarchal gens [clan] as the earlier stage of the patriarchal gens of civilised peoples has the same importance for anthropology as Darwin’s theory of evolution has for biology and Marx’s theory of surplus value for political economy. It enabled [Lewis] Morgan to outline for the first time a history of the family in which for the present, so far as the material now available permits, at least the classic stages of development in their main outlines are now determined. That this opens a new epoch in the treatment of primitive history must be clear to everyone. The matriarchal gens has become the pivot on which the whole science turns; since its discovery we know where to look and what to look for in our research, and how to arrange the results” (Origin of the family).

McGregor cannot bear to mention any of this, presumably on the grounds that notions of matrilineal kinship or sisterhood might foster illusions in distinctively female strategies of early human solidarity, these in turn dangerously reminiscent of ‘feminism’. So, if it was not women’s solidarity which underpinned early human gender egalitarianism, what was it? According to McGregor it was the fact that both sexes do useful stuff, combined with the fact it is women who get pregnant and give birth - ‘explanations’ which, if true, would lead us to expect women’s liberation everywhere on earth.

McGregor goes on to observe that among hunter-gatherers, “childcare is a shared responsibility of the band, not uniquely of the biological parents”. But why not discuss how shared parenting might have worked? In fact, across currently known hunter-gatherer societies, a mother’s first choice of reliable helper in childcare is likely to be her own mother, the children’s maternal grandmother. Now consider the fact that such help is only available if you happen to be residing with your mother - that is, if residence is matrilocal, not patrilocal. Finally, note that wherever residence is matrilocal, this must inevitably tip the scales toward matrilineal (as opposed to patrilineal) descent, so that mothers will typically have sisters living nearby.

Aren’t Marxists interested in science? Don’t they care about the impressive body of genuine scholarship which now exists on these topics? Readers of this paper will not need reminding of the central claim made by Engels in The origin of the family, private property and the state. Engels argued that the fundamental institution of early human society was not the patriarchal family. He argued that a woman would give birth and raise her children with the support of reliable kinsfolk, including her own mother, with whom she would normally reside after marriage. For a woman, there was a huge advantage in such ‘matrilocal’ (as opposed to ‘patrilocal’) residence. It meant that a woman could rely on her sisters and other relatives - including male cousins and brothers - for support in the event of a dispute with her husband. Residing matrilocally is a good way of maximising childcare support. It is also a good way of minimising the risks of getting raped.

Engels was right

Readers of the Weekly Worker might be interested to know that Engels, as it turns out, got it right. And the evidence comes from that dreaded science - genetics. Having recently got back from the 10th Conference of Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS) at Liverpool University, I can report that a mounting number of genetic studies now prove that Engels was essentially correct.8-12 It turns out that over tens of thousands of years, hunter-gatherer women in Africa were consistently living after marriage with their own mother instead of moving out to live with their husband and his relatives. In other words, residence was matrilocal rather than patrilocal, as it tends to be with pastoralists and farming peoples.13 And, if residence was originally matrilocal, then descent - as Engels argued - would have been biased toward matriliny, too.

Of course, Engels took his ideas largely from the American radical lawyer, Lewis Henry Morgan. It is theoretically possible that Morgan was wrong. But in that case, why not do a little up-to-date scientific research and explain on what grounds and in which particular respects you think Engels/Morgan erred? I can think of all kinds of recent scholarship on these topics, not least of which is a volume published a few years ago by the Royal Anthropological Institute and entitled Early human kinship.14 Many of the contributors to this volume conclude that in one respect, at least, Engels got it right - early human kinship was indeed matrilineal. Another marvellous book is biological anthropologist Sarah Hrdy’s Mothers and others, which argues persuasively that collective childcare was the fundamental development which made us psychologically and emotionally ‘human’ in the sense of being self-aware, capable of seeing ourselves as others see us, morally conscious and so forth.15 Something strikingly similar was central to Engels’ thought.

Yes, Engels got lots of things wrong. Maybe even a hundred things. But that is the nature of science. What Engels’ SWP critics will not tell you is that he seems to have got the main things 100% correct.

Engels’ insights concerning women’s solidarity and sisterhood - fundamental conditions of communism in domestic life - also give us clues as to how to humanity might be able to end women’s oppression. McGregor quite rightly says that the solution to the problem of domestic labour and women’s oppression requires “the socialisation of reproduction”. But what exactly is meant by this? Communal canteens and creches were attempted experimentally many times in the 20th century - for instance, in the Israeli kibbutzim. But these experiments failed to fully transform human relations. The reproduction of the next generation, the most important form of production in any society, was still given secondary importance compared to the production of material goods in fields and factories. Engels’ point was that prior to “the family, private property and the state”, humans placed childcare centre-stage rather than at the periphery.

Again, quite rightly, McGregor says that “women must look to their collective strength as workers alongside male workers to bring down a society which both exploits and oppresses women”. But the history of past revolutions shows how, again and again, women go further than this. From the women’s march to Versailles during the French Revolution, to the women workers who started the Russian Revolution in February 1917, proletarian women have repeatedly done more than just stand “alongside male workers”: they have been the leaders at the most crucial times.16

Of course, all these ideas need further consideration and debate. But if we are to play any role in the revolutionary struggles of the 21st century, our starting point, surely, must be to develop rather than dismiss the most radical insights of the Marxist tradition.


1. N Lindisfarne and J Neale, ‘What gender doesInternational Socialism No139, July 2013.

2. C Wilson, ‘Sexuality in pre-class society: a response to Sheila McGregorInternational Socialism No139, July 2013.

3. S McGregor, ‘Marxism and women’s oppression todayInternational Socialism No138, April 2013.

4. http://libcom.org/history/swp-expulsions-discussing-rape-not-first-time.

5. MECW Vol 24, pp357, 350.

6. www.jpmarat.de/deutsch/rl/lu05_593.html.

7. C Knight, ‘Early human kinship was matrilineal’, supplement Weekly Worker September 20 2012.

8. CM Schlebusch Genetic variation in Khoisan-speaking populations from southern Africa. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 2010.

9. G Destro-Bisol et al, ‘Variation of female and male lineages in sub-Saharan populations: the importance of sociocultural factors’ Molecular Biology and Evolution No21, pp1673-82, 2004.

10. MF Hammer et al, ‘Hierarchical patterns of global human Y-chromosome diversity’ Molecular Biology and Evolution No18, pp1189-203, 2001.

11. ET Wood et al, ‘Contrasting patterns of Y chromosome and mtDNA variation in Africa: evidence for sex-biased demographic processes’ European Journal of Human Genetics No13: pp867-76, 2005.

12. P Verdu et al, ‘Sociocultural behaviour, sex-biased admixture and effective population sizes in Central African Pygmies and non-Pygmies’: paper given at the Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies, Liverpool, June 25-28 2013.

13. MT Seielstad et al, ‘Construction of human Y-chromosomal haplotypes using a new polymorphic A to G transition’ Human Molecular Genetics No3, pp2159-61, 1994.

14. NJ Allen, H Callan, R Dunbar and W James (eds) Early human kinship Oxford 2008.

15. SB Hrdy Mothers and others: the evolutionary origins of mutual understanding London 2009.

16. For more on revolutionary history see M Kosman, ‘Putting revolution back on the agendaWeekly Worker July 14 2011.