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ARE humans “natural?” The answer is, as so often, “yes” and “no.”
Notwithstanding the 38 per cent of adults in the US who still believe that humans were created 4,000 years ago — and Eve merely a spare rib — most people accept that humans have evolved over time from pre-human primates who in turn evolved from more primitive vertebrates who came, probably, from something allied to sea squirts and so on back to when and wherever life first began.
Since earliest times humans have been aware of their biological nature – that we are conceived, live and die as do all other species.
And since Darwin, at least, we have been aware also that we are — or were once — part of the natural world, in relation both to our evolutionary origins and to the conditions of our survival today.
Yet we are in many ways different from other species. Some other species may use tools, grow food, construct shelters or clothe themselves for camouflage, defence or to attract mates.
Some primates in particular appear to have the ability for conceptual thought, to think — to foresee in advance the likely consequences of their actions rather than to have those actions determined entirely by instinctive responses to environmental stimuli.
And ethologists and philosophers argue about whether beliefs, intentions and values are unique to humankind.
But, importantly, only humans have, as far as we know, an evolving society — a social and an economic, let alone an environmental, history which changes over time while our biological essence remains largely unchanged.
That produces a paradox. We are part of nature and at the same time differentiated from nature.
As Marx expressed it, “Man lives from nature, ie nature is his body and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature”
Well before Marx, thinkers had pondered that relationship.
What Marx added was the observation that the relationship is a dialectical one, comprising sets of complex, dynamic interactions which change over time.
In his 6th Thesis on Feuerbach Marx insisted that the “human essence” — elsewhere he calls it our “species essence” — is not an abstraction, something fixed, to be found in every individual, but rather “the ensemble of the social relations,” including those related to our biology, which are determined by history.
Central to that history is the changing way in which humans depend on and exploit the natural world through work, effort or labour.
In Capital Marx argues that “Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both humans and nature participate and in which humans of their own accord start, regulate, and control the material reactions between themselves and Nature … By thus acting on the external world and changing it, we at the same time change our own nature … A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”
Later, and following Darwin’s publication of The Descent of Man in 1871, Engels developed this theme in an evolutionary context, arguing, in his essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1883) that human brains are not inherently different from the brains of other mammals, but that particular features of primates, such as the opposable thumb and forefinger, essential in the making of tools, facilitated the relatively rapid intellectual, social and biological development of our species.
Today the evolutionary processes which separate humans from our primate ancestors are a matter of research rather than speculation. One of these seems to be neoteny — "retaining to adulthood the originally juvenile features of our ancestors" — effectively a major change in what we are — our “phenotype” — with relatively little change in our genotype. We share around 99 per cent of our DNA with bonobo chimpanzees, our closest living ape relatives.
The evolutionary emergence of humans is as much to do with developmental processes as with genetic change. A large brain capacity in relation to body weight, nakedness and lack of natural defensive capacity, a long gestation and an extended infant and juvenile dependency on adults, extended lifespan and several other features, are characteristic of juvenile rather than adult primates.
All place a premium on, and capacity for, learning, co-operation and technology to compensate for what would otherwise be a huge disadvantage for surviving in the wild. Ironically, one explanation for human ascendancy is that, as a species, we never grow up. Interestingly, bonobos also have neotenic features and appear to have some human traits — not least, empathy with others.
Whatever the detail of our emergence as a species, which is a matter for research rather than speculation, it is clear that our historical development has produced a major change in our relationship to nature. Other species change their environment — corals produce rock from what was sea, grazing animals convert forests to grassland and sometimes to desert. But only humans do so in ways that are specific to stages in their own social history.
There is no such thing as a single human ecology. Rather there are ecologies characteristic of different stages of human social development – from hunter-gathering primitive communism to the varied historical and geographical — mercantile, colonial, industrial, state monopoly/ financial — formations of capitalism.
It is these human capacities and the uniquely human phenomenon of historic social development that produced what Marx called a “metabolic rift” in the relations of humans to the rest of the natural world. Metabolism, for Marx, signified the whole of nature and its interdependent processes of which humans were necessarily a part. For Marx, capitalism produced “conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of the social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.” Capitalism is inherently exploitative, alienating of the environment as well as of people, and, as we now know, it threatens the destruction of both.
One of the more speculative elements of communism is the possibility of a reconciliation of humans to nature. The form that this might take is a matter for discussion, reflection and inspiration in the struggle to secure a world free from exploitation.
In the meantime, we need to be clear that humans are not simply naked apes, which we examined in an earlier answer on human nature. While we retain many features of our ancestral and evolutionary origins, we are not totally subject to them. We have, if you like, free will, but that freedom is not something mystical or individual. It is founded in our collective understanding of our origins, our relationship to the rest of the natural world and our collective ability to change it.
So the answer to the question is not a simple one. Yes, we came from and still are part of nature and we remain and probably will always remain dependent on nature. But at the same time we are distinct from other living species in a quite different way from the way that all other species are different. The answer is “yes” and at the same time it is “no.” The relationship between humans and nature is a dialectical one, which places an enormous moral and ethical responsibility on us, individually and as a species, to have regard to the way we interact with nature and with each other and to work to build a better society for our own species and for the other species with which we share this planet.
‘MML – joint with the Working Class Movement Library – host the first Engels Memorial Lecture on November 28 at 7pm at Marx House with Professor Terrell Carver. Tickets here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/engels-before-marx-with-professor-terrell...’
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