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How did human beings evolve?

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Do Charles Darwin’s ideas really leave us at the mercy of a savage human nature? John Parrington takes a fresh look at evolution
Issue 2313
Charles Darwin in 1854
Charles Darwin in 1854

Karl Marx himself said that Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, “is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view”.

But Darwin’s argument that the fight to survive our environment is a competition between different adaptations has often been transferred across and misapplied to human society. His theories have been used to justify racism, imperialism, greed and capitalism as things that are “natural”.

The archetypal robber-baron capitalist of the 19th century John D Rockefeller said, “The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest. This is not an evil tendency of business. It is merely a working out of a law of nature and a law of God.”

But do Darwin’s ideas really mean that we’re at the mercy of our greedy “human nature”? His theories developed under capitalism and have many distortions that only a Marxist approach can resolve.

Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels argued that “the Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to nature of the bourgeois economic theory of competition”.


However, the reason that Darwin’s theory is so revolutionary is because it cuts against the idea that the world is predetermined. It’s still controversial today because it argues that life can evolve through blind chance, without any god or creator to govern it.

The theologian William Paley had developed the “watchmaker analogy” to prove the existence of such a god. He argued that a watch is so intricate that it must have a watchmaker—but an eye is even more intricate, so it must have a creator too.

Darwin turned this argument on its head. He asked how, when you look at how complex an eye is, can you think that it came into the world fully formed?

Darwin developed his theories from his trips around the world, especially to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. On each different island there were similar looking birds with differently shaped beaks.

He realised that the different beak shapes seemed to suit their particular food source. He came up with the idea that they came from a common original bird but had changed to suit their environment.

At first Darwin couldn’t explain how this happened. It was only after reading a pamphlet by the reactionary economist Thomas Malthus that he theorised how this could have taken place.

Malthus argued that human population will grow rapidly but food production will grow at a much slower rate. This idea was used to justify poverty and the exploitation that took places in workhouses.

He was wrong about humans, who have the capacity to develop birth control and new food sources. But Darwin took the idea that organisms struggled against their environment and came up with the theory of natural selection.

This idea argued that there are variations within all species. These variations are passed down the generations, and depending on the environment can give one variant an advantage in the struggle to survive and reproduce. This then becomes the norm as other variations die out.


Darwin explained this by drawing a diagram showing different species branching off from each other. This was very controversial because it suggested that evolution was not linear—and didn’t need a god or creator.

Because of the controversial implications of his ideas, Darwin did not publish his book The Origin of Species for around 20 years. Darwin was a man of the higher class of society and publishing such radical ideas could have had a serious effect on his social standing.

In fact, Darwin might never have published his work if it wasn’t for a letter from Alfred Wallace, a socialist and campaigner against capitalism and imperialism. Wallace had also come up with a theory of natural selection, and this pushed Darwin to publish his own work.

In his later book The Descent of Man, Darwin theorised human evolution. The book put across the very revolutionary idea that the things that make us human—such as love and friendship—are really part of biology.

The idea that we can explain such things in terms of chemistry is a very important aspect of being a historical materialist, the Marxist method of looking at the world.

Marx locates human history and society in material things.Different methods of working on nature have influenced how human nature has developed.


Engels went further, examining what had allowed humans to evolve in the first place. He argued that the development of the brain came later and what had initially made us evolve from ape to human was when we started to walk upright.

This freed up our hands and gave some impetus for humans to start using tools. It was only after this that human brains began to grow in size.

The development of tools in turn propelled humans to develop language, because the work done in order to survive now had to be communal.

Engels’ account has stood up over time. All the archaeology since has backed up his ideas. It is now widely accepted that we started as apes and became human when we started to walk on two feet and then our brains started to grow.

We also now know that there were many different types of early humans which became extinct, so our evolution was certainly not the result of a linear process. It’s unlikely that we would have been able to survive during this time if we didn’t cooperate, for example in collecting food.

Those who argue that competitiveness and greed have always been aspects of human nature are wrong.


How struggling develops our consciousness

How do our brains and our consciousness develop? That’s one of the biggest conundrums in science, and one that Engels’ work on human evolution brings us on to.

Some of the most interesting arguments came from thinkers in revolutionary Russia, before it was crushed by Stalinist counter-revolution in the 1920s and 30s.

Lev Vygotsky helped develop a number of sophisticated views on how we develop consciousness. Building on Engels’ theory of how humans evolved, he argued that language can be understood as a tool that early humans used—a tool that then shaped their consciousness.

This is important in theories of teaching. A child’s ability to learn is not predetermined by some limit in their DNA. If children are nurtured they have the potential to achieve and to develop in ways that you couldn’t imagine.

Valentin Voloshinov took this further. He argued that our consciousness develops through struggle. There’s a constant dynamic tension between the ideas inside our head. Through struggle our ability to consider new ideas increases.


If we look at history we can see how this happens. New ideas have come into being during periods of high struggle. The acceptance of votes for women is one example.

We still have a lot of studying to do. The chances of us answering all these questions under the current system are unlikely. Studies to expand our knowledge of the world are rarely undertaken unless there is a financial incentive.

But we see Voloshinov’s ideas in practice in Egypt’s revolution. We saw women defying social norms and leading demonstrations, feeling and being treated as free and equal.

If you compared someone living 100,000 years ago to us today the physical changes would be slight. It now seems to be social evolution, not biological evolution, that is driving humanity forward.

Humanity has reached a point where we are just as likely to destroy ourselves as the planet is likely to wipe us out. This is why we need to fight against climate change, hunger and capitalism—not only to save the world, but to continue our own progress.


Read more

Articles to read online:


  • The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

  • The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism and Environment by Richard Lewontin


Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

John Parrington is a lecturer in molecular pharmacology at Oxford university. He was speaking at the Marxism 2012 festival

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