1990s >> 1993 >> no-1065-may-1993

Biology and Behaviour

It is clear that the biological characteristics of human beings have a great effect on the things we can and cannot do. For instance, the fact that we walk upright, can focus on the same object with both eyes, and have an opposable thumb determines various aspects of the way we interact with the world. If we had wings to fly or could breathe in water or survive by eating sand, we would behave and live very differently from the way we actually do. But how much of human behaviour is determined by our biological make- up? Are we the prisoners of our genes and of our animal forebears, or can we learn from experience, adapt to our surroundings and act in a manner that is not purely ordained by our biological inheritance?


A few moments’ reflection probably suggests that human beings are very different from other animals, that we can learn and invent and discover and develop in ways that no non-human can. Language gives the ability to pass on knowledge to the next generation, so that they can build on the expertise of those who have gone before, and do not need to start all over again at solving the problems they encounter. Some other animals have rudimentary languages, or make some elementary use of tools in obtaining food, but none of these is any way as sophisticated as humanity. While human beings are related to other members of the animal kingdom via the workings of evolution, we seem on the face of it to be animals with so many extra powers and abilities that we are quite un- like even our nearest non-human relatives.

Nevertheless, in spite of what common sense appears to tell us, it has often been argued that many aspects of human social behaviour are directly due to our animal inheritance. This implies that such behaviour is innate and unchangeable, and is as much part of being a human as upright gait and binocular vision. If it is claimed that aggression and genocide are an unalterable part of human nature, a challenge is thrown out to the socialist view that a society of harmony and co-operation is not just possible but is the sole answer to working-class problems.

For instance, back in the 1960s, writers such as Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz wrote best-selling books in which they argued that our instincts made us violent, just as the instincts of many animals make them. Human beings have access to far more powerful weapons, thus rendering our ingrained capacity to violence all the more lethal. Ardrey even argued that it was hunting which made proper humans out of our closest ape ancestors; hunting and killing, then, is not just part of being human, it is what made us human in the first place. Socialists pointed out that these accounts were sheer fantasy, not supported by any evidence and totally ignored the fact that so much human behaviour is learned behaviour. Moreover, these views have a clear political role:

The lie of innate depravity is a weapon in the hands of the capitalist class: it pre- vents criticism of capitalism, since there is supposed to be no possible alternative. (Socialist Standard, June 1969).

The Ardrey-Lorenz view tends not to be heard in quite such a blatant form today.

However, comparable ideas can be encountered in a more sophisticated form, even among those who take pains to criticize Ardrey’s distortions. A recent example of this is the book The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond (Vintage £6.99). The author presents a synthesis of a great deal of research in anthropology, biology and archaeology, aiming to show how human beings changed from being just another large mammal into a species that has an unprecedented geographical spread and impact on the world, and yet by its pollution and violence may well be responsible for its own destruction. The title refers to the fact that the closest relative to humanity is the chimpanzee, and that we share over 98 percent of our genes with chimps. We are thus the third chimpanzee species (alongside the common chimp and pygmy chimp).

Are We Chimps?

Diamond’s essential technique in explaining human development is a materialist one, in that he argues the need to survive and reproduce drives our various responses to our surroundings. Unfortunately, he has not managed to rid himself of all the influence of biological determinism. While he acknowledges that our uniqueness as a species lies in the cultural traits (language, technology, etc) that rest on our genetic foundations he can still appeal to our genetic inheritance to explain certain aspects of human behaviour. Specifically, he provides an appalling catalogue of historical instances of genocide, and concludes:

of all our human hallmarks …the one that has been derived most straightforwardly from animal precursors is genocide. ..Chimpanzee behaviour suggests that a major reason for our human hallmark of group living was defence against other human groups, especially once we acquired weapons and a large enough brain to plan am- bushes. If this reasoning is correct, then anthropologists’ traditional emphasis’ on “man the hunter” as a driving force of human evolution might be valid after all – with the difference that we ourselves, not mammoths, were our own prey and the predator that forced us into group living.

Let us look at the evidence behind this. It used to be argued that our nearest animal relations were essentially peaceful, and that there was therefore no reason in terms of evolution to consider humanity as innately aggressive. This exact argument can no longer be maintained, though: evidence cited by Diamond, and mentioned by a correspondent in the January Socialist Standard, shows that chimpanzees certainly can act aggressively, and ambush and kill each other. But what follows from this? Very little, since there is no evidence that chimp aggression is built-in to them. Furthermore, it is simply not possible to draw conclusions about human behaviour or human nature from observations about non-humans. One could pick and choose almost any aspect of animal behaviour, and point to it as a precursor of some similar human trait, but clearly this would prove nothing.


In any event, the case for innateness of genocidal instincts is non-existent. Only a tiny percentage of human beings have committed acts of genocide, and, as Diamond shows, they need to convince themselves that their victims are “sub-human”, or at least different from themselves, before they can bring themselves to undertake these acts. Moreover, they do so in certain specific conditions, usually when they are under the orders of rulers or leaders who think they see some political or economic gain. If genocide was a part of being human, it would surely be far more prevalent and far easier to people to commit. The whole point, which the biological determinists ignore, is the fact that humans can learn and change our behaviour drastically. Diamond himself points out that New Guineans whose parents lived virtually in the Stone Age now drive cars and fly planes; plainly they have learned to do this, not undergone some sudden genetic modification. No matter how genetically close we are to chimps, our unique ability to modify our behaviour makes all the difference in the world.

In conclusion, it can be said that the combination of our genetic and cultural characteristics makes humanity a superbly adaptable being, well-equipped to deal with the problems that the natural and social worlds throw at us. Not even human ingenuity, however, can make capitalism an acceptable social system. In a socialist society, all our abilities will be exploited (in the good sense) to the full, and claims that humans are born to fight rather than co-operate will be seen as truly laughable.

Leave a Reply