2000s >> 2005 >> no-1207-march-2005

Book Reviews: ‘What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee’, & ‘Che Guevara Reader – Writings on Politics and Revolution’

‘What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People and Their Genes’, by Jonathan Marks. (University of California Press. Paperback)

Marks’s answer to the finding that humans share 98 percent of so of their DNA with chimps is that it doesn’t mean much more than we already knew and certainly not what some read into it. It confirms that millions of year ago (7 million is the generally accepted estimate) humans and chimps had a common ancestor. More generally, since all life-forms are built up of DNA, it confirms Darwin’s view that all those that exist and have existed on Earth evolved from a single original form. On the other hand, it does not mean that humans are 98 percent chimpanzee (any more than the fact that we share 35 percent of our DNA with daffodils means that we are 35 percent daffodil) and that therefore the study of chimpanzee behaviour is relevant to the study of human behaviour. As Marks puts it succinctly, “you can’t get at human nature from chimpanzees. They’re not human.” We are not naked apes, but clothed humans; which makes all the difference.

Marks goes for those who think that genes are the most important factor in human behaviour (the Social Darwinists and the eugenicists in the past and the behavioural geneticists, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists today), making the simple, but often ignored, point that we don’t actually know how any gene works. We know that genes produce proteins for the cells that constitute the body but not yet how this translates into a person’s physical attributes let alone (if it does) into any mental traits. What we know at the moment is that certain defects in certain genes result in certain abnormal conditions (such as cystic fibrosis), but not how a non-defective gene produces a normal condition.

This is why, Marks insists, when someone makes a claim to have discovered a gene for something, for instance homosexuality, they can’t just point to statistical correlations or even similar brain structures, they would need to produce a verifiable and verified causal explanation of precisely how the gene in question translates into the particular behaviour pattern. As he puts it, “what is widespread is not necessarily innate” and “genetic conclusions require genetic data”:

“The fact that something is consistently observed does not imply that it has a genetic cause. We know that. If you want to argue about science and about genetics, you need controlled data and genetic data.”

He warns modern geneticists about the dangers of making claims that go well beyond the existing (genetic) evidence, by pointing to the dominant view amongst geneticists in the 1920s which was racist and justified the forced sterilisation of “mental defectives” (not just in Nazi Germany but in America and even in Sweden). They were wrong and the practical consequences were disastrous. Seeing that we don’t yet know how normal genes translate into physical attributes, modern geneticists should, he suggests, show a little more humility before propagating their speculations about human behaviour being genetically determined as if it were an established scientific fact.

Marks is also good on the myth of race. “Race”, he says, “turns out to be an optical illusion”:

“[W]e can, of course, make comparisons between groups of people and study their differences. The problem is invariably what meaning to assign to those differences. If we know that there are gradients, not boundaries; that human variation is patterned locally, not transcontinentally; that the extremes are not the purest representatives of anything, but simply the most divergent; that populations are invariably mixed with their neighbors, and in the last half-millennium with people from far away; and that clustering populations into larger units is a cultural act that values some differences as important and submerges others – then race evaporates as a natural unit.”

We have to record, however, that in the last five of the book’s twelve chapters Marks embraces some strange positions, such as defending the right of a North American Indian tribe to veto research on a 9,000-year old skeleton found on their former tribal territory as this conflicted with their “spiritual” values (much as the Mediaeval Church had “spiritual” reasons for frowning on the dissection of human bodies).  Similarly, he defends the refusal of certain indigenous people in other parts of the world to have their DNA recorded. Here, if it true, they may have a legitimate point about it being patented and used by others to make money, but this is a distortion due to the existence of capitalism. In principle, there is nothing wrong with recording the DNA of peoples who have been relatively isolated from the rest of humanity.



Guevarian Ideology

‘Che Guevara Reader: Writings on Politics and Revolution’. Edited by David Deutschmann. (Ocean Press. £15.95) 

The reader comprises speeches and articles that trace the development and implementation of Guevara’s theories from 1956 to a time shortly before his death in October 1967. The book falls into four sections covering the period prior to the Cuban Revolution, Guevara’s work in the Cuban government, international issues and selected letters.

Guevara’s ideology combined romanticism with elitism. He passionately believed that an enlightened conspiratorial minority could establish ‘socialism’ and use political power to free the ideas of the uneducated masses – a theory where mass political consciousness emerges after a revolution initiated by a small minority or vanguard. In this struggle, the vanguard is the “the catalysing agent that create[d] the subjective conditions necessary for victory” as well as the “generator of revolutionary consciousness.”

Guevara was essentially a guerrilla leader engaged in a war of national liberation. He believed that only violent revolution, waged in the countryside, could end colonial exploitation and introduce ‘socialism’ into Latin America. Urban areas were to remain essentially passive being vulnerable to betrayal and superior military force. The basis of this struggle was the peasantry, but his attitude is ambivalent, fearing that peasant ignorance, isolation and hunger for land makes them unreliable and in need of direction from “revolutionary intellectuals.”

In the second section on the ‘Cuba Years 1959-65’, we gain an insight into the difficulties of ‘Democratic Centralism’ and the organisation of the state-run capitalism that followed the Cuban insurrection. The economy is based on commodity production where imports are dependent on maximising exports at competitive market prices. As with the rest of Latin America the central problem is the “one crop economy,” with Cuba “slaves to sugarcane.” His speeches call for diversification and increased output prompting the introduction of ‘emulation,’ involving setting factory and individual output targets to maximise industrial output. His theories were greatly influenced by Lenin, who is quoted throughout his works. In the article entitled, ‘On the Budgetary Finance System’ Guevara uses a quotation from Lenin in an attempt to explain how state capitalism is a step towards an eventual ‘socialist’ society, necessitating the introduction of capitalist accounting methods, price setting, money, factory profit, bonuses and formal contracts with monetary penalties.

But increasing output means greater incentives and this conflicts with Guevara’s image of ‘socialist morality’ where work and achieving output targets is the workers moral obligation, his “social duty.” Cuba, he claims, is ‘on the road’ to ‘socialism’ while the transition to ‘communism’ a distant vision in the future. At the same time he is compelled to accept that trading with world capitalism necessarily imposed severe limitations on his action, in short acknowledging that the economic conditions dictate the country’s direction. National defence, nationalisation, industrialisation, agrarian reform and the development of foreign trade, particularly with Russia, are all urgent issues that have to be addressed if Cuba is to survive.

In the years following the Cuban Revolution his speeches impart increasing frustration as the vanguard attempts to impose ‘socialism’ on the ignorant masses that neither understood nor wanted it. In passionate speeches to students, cadres and trade unionists he repeatedly stresses the need for education to strive for the ‘socialist ideal’ and eradicate the bad habits from the “previous epoch.”

The third part of the book is a collection of Guevara’s speeches and articles on international issues. Not unexpectedly, the rhetoric is anti-Americanism and anti-colonialist and the message to the people of Latin America is to follow Cuba’s example and create “many Vietnams” to expel US imperialism and achieve economic independence. Other speeches demand fairness in trade and an end to dumping, price fixing, foreign debt and foreign bases – in fact all the things you might expect from a leader struggling to administer capitalism in an underdeveloped country surrounded by a hostile world.

A book of limited historical interest carrying a bankrupt anachronistic prescription for violent revolution to be orchestrated by a vanguard and leading inevitably to state-controlled capitalism.


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