Violent Genes

Sociobiology is a new science, a hybrid of sociology and biology. Harvard zoologist Edward Wilson in his latest work On Human Nature claims that man is endowed with behavioural genes and that these genes “hold culture on a leash”. He attacks Marxism for arguing that human behaviour is conditioned by social environment and asserts that “the mind will always create morality, religion and mythology . . . the predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature”.

Any argument based on a view of “human nature” as something defined and unchanging is seized on with enthusiasm by those who assert that humans are, by nature, greedy, selfish and violent. Without fear of prison or Hell- fire, social or divine retribution, society would inevitably disintegrate. What evidence, if any, is there to support such claims?

In the slow cold dawn of pre-history, humans — like other hunter-gatherer primates struggling for biological survival — evolved the capacity to react aggressively both against intruders if they posed a threat, and against individuals in the group whose behaviour violated its social code, thereby endangering the group’s survival. However, humans could never have survived as a species without learning to co-operate. The ability to cooperate was a prerequisite for making stone tools and hunting animals for food, which bipeds were doing three million years ago. Co-operation is at the root of all human culture. While close social bonding is a feature of all primate species, co-operation is carried furthest in humans.

Language and Religion
Wilson’s argument that language is “pre-programmed” does not hold water. For instance, a wolf child found in the forest in India “could not talk or utter any very articulate sound” (Sunday Times, 30 July 1978). A child’s innate potential for learning language is useless if he is not in contact with people who use language as a social skill. Like aggression, language-learning results from the interaction between inherited potential and actual life-experience.

The assertion that humans are born with some sort of genetically transmitted religious instinct does not explain how it is that religion is normally learned, like language or science. As part of human culture, religion has developed in different forms under changing social conditions. Now, all beliefs in the supernatural are decaying in the light of science. yet our “religious genes” are not causing this change in our outlook. “It is not religion which makes man, but man who makes religion”, wrote Marx. In rejecting religion, we do not cease to be human..

Since the human species has adapted successfully to almost every conceivable environment — from popular regions to the tropics, from hunter-gatherer bands of 30-50 people to conurbations of more than 10 million, from nomadic herding to city commuting — it seems clear that an outstanding characteristic of human beings is their adaptability. As Marx pointed out. “by acting on nature outside himself and changing it, man simultaneously changes his own nature”.

Above all, man is a learning animal whose progress is not restrained by the slow pace of biological evolution but moves at the rapid pace of “cultural evolution”. Culture combined with mankind’s inherent adaptability mean that Wilson’s thesis of genes controlling our behaviour-patterns is unsound.

The effect of environment on the genetic endowment of the individual is incalculable. Already in the womb, the embryo is exposed to environmental influences. Also, the penetrance of genes varies greatly. “Behaviorally the human being is highly flexible, and the penetrance of any ‘behavioral’ gene would be subject to strong environmental and cultural modification” (Alexander Allend, Evolution and Human Behaviour).

Thus a clearer understanding of what is meant by “environment” diminishes the heredity factor, so that all traits are products of a complex interaction process. We all have the potential for aggression and like other primates, we tend to become violent when under stress.

The capitalist system forces us to live in overcrowded slums, competing against one another for the necessities of life, fearful of shortage. In the worst city slums, all forms of violence are endemic — mugging, wife-beating, baby-bashing, murder and mindless vandalism. Social, not biological, factors are responsible for the problem of violence.

Mercenaries and other paid armed forces can only exist in a property society where nation states compete for resources, with expensively-armed forces manned by wage-workers. These are easier to recruit in times of bad unemployment. In such a context, genetic factors are hardly perceptible. If army recruiting relied on humanity’s “innate aggressiveness”, there would be few wars. Since men are apparently not sufficiently aggressive, conscription was used in both World Wars, and the USSR like South Africa has permanent conscription, forcing men to do what Wilson claims they have a natural tendency to do anyway.

Human behaviour can only be understood in terms of social relationships. Our ability to learn and to conceptualize make us uniquely able to transmit what is learned in one generation to the next, and it is this factor which has made man’s social, cultural and technical development over the last 10.000 years increasingly rapid. It is our unique flexibility which enables us to adapt to the changes in the physical and social environment which we ourselves create.

The causes of violence in human society, are overcrowding, inequality and scarcity. These can only be eliminated by ending capitalism, since the profit system creates and aggravates these conditions. Socialism, with its common ownership and free access, in a world of abundance, is in harmony with “human nature”.


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