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Book Reviews


Human capacity

Becoming Human. Evolution and Human Uniqueness by Ian Tattershall, OUP, 2001.

Like all the other life-forms on this planet, we humans are the product of a process of evolution from earlier life-forms. Our immediate ancestors will have been ape-like animals which had evolved to walk upright. The fossil record suggests that there will have been many species of such animals, from one line of which we are descended. All the other lines not only became extinct but left no descendants either. The last of these other types of Homo to go extinct were the Neanderthals, a mere (in evolutionary time) 27,000 years ago.

All this is described by Tattersall, who is the curator of the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in this paperback edition of a book that was first published in 1998. According to him, although there was no predetermined course of evolution leading to us as the "highest form" of life, there is a feature that distinguishes us from all other life-forms—the capacity for symbolic thought, i.e. the ability to generate and manipulate complex abstract symbols (words naming parts of our environment and relationships between them). This allows us not just to react to the external world but to refashion it. This of course is tied up with language and it is what makes us unique. It has enabled us to develop technologies that have changed both the rest of nature and the societies in which we live.

Tattersall speaks of "human capacity" (as opposed to "human nature") and clashes with those, such as the sociobiologists and the evolutionary psychologists, who have a very narrow view of this capacity, seeing it as being severely limited by our genes. But, Tattersall points out, while our genes can't be ignored "they only intervene in our behaviours in an indirect way, by programming the development of our brains". Therefore, "if we are to understand the complexities of our behaviour, it is to our brains, not directly to our genes, that we have to look".

When we do this then, we can add, we find that our brains allow us, as a species, to adopt – and, as prehistory and history bear out, we have in fact adopted – a great variety of different behaviours depending on the natural, economic and social environments we have found ourselves in. So, contrary to the biological determinists of various hues, "human nature" is not a barrier to socialism. On the contrary, our biologically evolved and inherited "human capacity" will allow us to live in a socialist society.

Tattersall has his own particular theory of how our brains developed, which is not accepted by all anthropologists and palaeontologists. He suggests that the ability to think abstractly, and to express such thoughts vocally, arose for other reasons than directly to be able to do these, for instance perhaps as a result of the mental images involved in fashioning tools, in one line of Homo which only later exploited this capacity. Hence his view that the Neanderthals did not use symbolic language.

This is a neat refutation of the views of those who claim that our brains only evolved for life on the open grasslands of East Africa and that therefore we have "stone age minds" which make it difficult for us to live under capitalism let alone in a socialist society. In any event, Tattersall points out, the idea that the brains of us modern humans (Homo sapiens) evolved out of living in a single environment has been overstated. During the time that the various different species of Homo evolved, and all except the line that led to us became extinct, the natural environment was unstable. The Earth cooled and warmed and cooled again, shifting patterns of vegetation even in East Africa. "It is out of this ecologically and geographically unstable world that our ancestors ultimately arose," concludes Tattersall. "The widely cited notion of a monolithic 'ancestral environment' that, through our genetic heritage, still conditions our behavior today is simply untenable".



A Socialist reads the koran

A socialist reads the Koran

Apparently there's been a run on the koran. Everybody, including Tony Blair, seems to have been reading it. So what does it say? Like the bible it's a boring but revealing read.

Unlike Jesus, for whose existence there is no historical evidence, Mohamet actually existed, some 1400 years ago in what is now Saudi Arabia. His claim was that the words of the koran were dictated to him by the angel Gabriel on behalf of the god Allah (the Zeus of the pre-Mohametan Arab pantheon). Of course they weren't, since neither the angel Gabriel nor Allah exist; they are mythological figures. So Mohamet was either making it up or hallucinating.

Religions have two alternative ways of ensuring compliance with their precepts in the interest of the dominant class, what might be called the Eastern and the Western ways.

Eastern religions go in for the doctrine of reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. What sort of bodily life you have after this one depends on how you behave this time. If you are bad, in your next life you'll be a worm, handicapped or a member of a lower caste. If you are good, you can expect a better life, for instance, to move up a caste or not be born blind or crippled.

At least this gives people more than one chance. In the Western version you just get the one. If you blow it and are bad, you go to Hell—for ever. If you are good, you go to Heaven for eternity. This of course is what the Christians teach. So do the Mohammedans.

Like Christianity, the koran teaches that life down here is not all that important; it's only temporary. Far more important is the life to come:

[3:185] Every person tastes death, then you receive your recompense on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever misses Hell, barely, and makes it to Paradise, has attained a great triumph. The life of this world is no more than an illusion.

[6:32] The life of this world is no more than illusion and vanity, while the abode of the Hereafter is far better for the righteous. Do you not understand?!

[9:38] O you who believe, when you are told, "Mobilize in the cause of God," why do you become heavily attached to the ground? Have you chosen this worldly life in place of the Hereafter? The materials of this world, compared to the Hereafter, are nil.

[40:39] "O my people, this first life is a temporary illusion, while the Hereafter is the eternal abode."

This is one of the reasons why Socialists oppose religion. It leads people to accept things down here as they are, since any suffering is seen as only going to be temporary and as nothing compared to eternity. Socialists insist that "the life of this world" is not an illusion; it is the only life we are going to get and so we should direct all our efforts to making it the best possible.

Mohamet also inherited from Christianity the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. To anyone thinking about this seriously, this is an absurd proposition. And so it seemed to many of those who heard Mohamet preaching. He records their (eminently reasonable) reactions:

[6:29] They say (subconsciously), "We live only this life; we will not be resurrected."

[23:37] "We only live this life - we live and die - and we will never be resurrected."

[23:38] "He is just a man who fabricated lies and attributed them to God. We will never believe him."
[44:34] The present generations say,

[44:35] "We only die the first death; we will never be resurrected!"

This is how Socialists would have reacted, and do react when we hear the same nonsense about the resurrection of the dead today. The koran tells us what will happen (or rather what devout Mohammedans would like to happen) to us for this:

[13:5] If you ever wonder, the real wonder is their saying: "After we turn into dust, do we get recreated anew?" These are the ones who have disbelieved in their Lord. These are the ones who have incurred shackles around their necks. These are the ones who have incurred Hell, wherein they abide forever.

[17:97] Whomever God guides is the truly guided one. And whomever He sends astray, you will never find for them any lords and masters beside Him. We will summon them on the Day of Resurrection forcibly; blind, dumb, and deaf. Their destination is Hell; whenever it cools down, we will increase their fire.

[17:98] Such is their just retribution, since they rejected our revelations. They said, "After we turn into bones and fragments, do we get resurrected into a new creation?"

Of course ordinary Mohammedans don't really believe in everything in the koran any more than Christians do everything in the bible, as they both show by their everyday, materialist practice which they share with the rest of us who are not religious of giving priority to "the life of this world". It's only the priests that do. In putting forward the views they do about what life "down here" should be like—for instance, in proposing that the so-called sharia law should be adopted—they have entered the political fray with a reformist political programme. We therefore oppose them in the same way that we oppose all other reformist political parties and groups.

The Mohammedan priests call their religion "islam" which means "submission" and their followers "muslims", i.e. those who submit. As the names of religions go—catholic, orthodox, protestant—this is by far the worst, but at least it is honest in bringing out the essence of all religions: humans attributing their potential collective power to a figment of their imagination which they then bow down to and worship. Just as Mohammedans prostrate themselves before their god saying "Allah is Great", so Christians kneel before theirs singing "Oh God, How Great Thou Art". What in fact both are saying is "How Weak We Are". Religion is the ultimate in human self-denigration and self-abasement. Which is why Socialists reject it entirely. Humans are not weak. We can change the world to make life here better, much better.