Book Reviews: ‘Human Natures’, & ‘The People of the Abyss’

Human behaviour

‘Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect’. By Paul R. Ehrlich. Island Press.

This is the same Paul Ehrlich who, thirty years ago, irritated Socialists by his shrill claims that it was “overpopulation”, rather than capitalism’s production for profit, that caused environmental deterioration and other ecological problems. However this, his latest book, will go a long way to restoring his reputation.

He sets out his intention without ambiguity in the preface. It is to refute

“the erroneous notion that people possess a common set of rigid, genetically specified behavioral predilections that are unlikely to be altered by circumstances. ‘After all’, we’re often told, ‘you can’t change human nature’. The notion that there is one such nature to change allows us to be painted in the popular mind as instinctively aggressive, greedy, selfish, duplicitous, sex-crazed, cruel, and generally brutish creatures with a veneer of social responsibility. Our better selves are seen to be in constant battle with a universal set of unchanging, primitives ‘drives’, which frequently break through the veneer and create many of the serious ills that afflict humanity. It is a view as dismal as it is wrong, considering what is actually known about our behavior”.

The basic answer he gives to the “human nature argument” is that there is no such thing as a single, unchanging human nature but, insofar as behaviour is the public display of our nature, there are and have been many different human natures (hence the book’s title) which change over time. This is a different approach from ours which distinguishes between a more or less unchanging biologically-determined human nature and human behaviour which is socially and culturally determined and which can, has and does vary depending on the type of society people were brought up in or live in. But this is essentially only a different of terminology to arrive at the same conclusion that our behaviour is not narrowly determined by our genes but that, on the contrary, one of our biologically-inherited characteristics is precisely the capacity, as a species, for behavioral flexibility and adaptability.

Ehrlich sets out the current state of scientific understanding of the issue which confirms that our behaviour is predominantly determined not by our genes but by our cultures (“socially transmitted behaviors, beliefs, institutions, arts, and so on”). Culture is transmitted by non-genetic means, basically by learning (which assumes of course a genetically-inherited capacity to learn), and is different at different times and in different places. Hence the great variety of behaviors exhibited by humans. Such complicated and changing behaviours, says Ehrlich, could not possibly be governed by our genes since aren’t enough of them. Writing before the first results of the human genome project Ehrlich quotes a figure of 100,000 for the number of human genes. The human genome project suggests a figure less than half this, so reinforcing Ehrlich’s “gene shortage” shortage argument against biological determinism.

Ehrlich writes as a member of the American school of “cultural evolutionists” which is not too far from Marx’s materialist conception of history. In fact, he refers at one point to “the great political economist Karl Marx”. He also takes a materialist approach to the mind: “consciousness, thinking, reasoning – activities of the ‘mind’ – are all centred in the brain and are phenomena as natural (and as material) as the legs’ actions of standing, walking, running, and kicking”.

So, a very useful book, even if Ehrlich does ramble on a bit in the last few chapters.


London a hundred years ago

‘The People of the Abyss’, by Jack London. Pluto Press, Centenary edition, £10.99 paperback, 192 pages.

Those vaguely familiar with Jack London know him as a skilled writer, basing many of his stories on experiences from his rich, colourful and often dangerous life. Few remember him as the skilled political commentator and social critic who exposed many of the inequalities of his day. The People of the Abyss is Jack London the investigative reporter giving an impassioned account of the degradation and squalor endured by the people of the East End of London in 1902, and this year marks the centenary of his visit to this part of London.

Living in the East End doss houses, London posed as a stranded American sailor, down on his luck. He mingled with the poorest of the poor, worked alongside them, ate with them, drank with them and slept amongst them in the workhouses. His observations are documented in full; and this is no work of fiction. This is the London in the days when the Socialist Party of Great Britain was about to be formed, and reading Jack London’s account of the privation endured by millions of his fellow workers, one can’t help but ask why the clamour for an end to capitalism was not being screamed from every rooftop. He attempts an answer himself:

“Unhealthy working and living engenders unhealthy appetites and desires. Man cannot be worked worse than a horse is worked, and be fed and housed as a pig is fed and housed, and at the same time have clean and wholesome ideals and aspirations.”

And who could blame them? For many in the East End of London in 1902, the daily struggle to live absorbed all their energies. Their life expectancy was 30 years; 55 percent of children died before the age of five. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished men and women yearned only the public houses and alcohol in a pathetic attempt to “express their gregariousness” and because intoxication finally “brings the oblivion that nothing else can bring”. This is the England “where a constant army of 8 million lives on the border of starvation”; where hundreds of thousands of families inhabit one room, and where “children take turn about in sitting up and drive the rats away from the sleepers; where the lucky go insane and the courageous commit suicide. And all of this when Britain had the largest empire ever know and milked the world

The Socialist Party was not alone in the formative years of the 20th Century in pointing out that we live in the world of potential abundance. Lamenting the widespread starvation of the day, the “hunger wail” that echoed across the British Isles, London comments:

“And this in face of the fact that five men can produce bread for a thousand; that one workman can produce cotton cloth for 250 people, woollens for 300 and boots and shoes for 1000 . . . and who dares to say that it is not mismanaged, this big house, when five men can produce bread for a thousand, and yet millions have not enough to eat?”

The People of the Abyss is a masterly recording of the lives of the masses in 1902, and a poignant indictment on the capitalist system, and London is to be commended. However he affords us no solution to the ills of the system he lambasts, but rather finishes with a lengthy note about how it is being mismanaged by its rulers, before ending:

“There can be no mistake. Civilisation has increased man’s producing powers an hundred-fold, and through mismanagement the men of Civilisation live worse than the beasts, and have less to eat and wear and protect them from the elements than the savage Inuit in a frigid climate who lives today as he lived in the stone age ten thousand years ago.”

The People of the Abyss deserves to be read, for a century after this book was written it is still possible to record the same, in spite of all the scientific and technological breakthroughs that have occurred since 1902 and which should be benefiting humanity.


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