Engels on Human Evolution

Engels followed the impact of Darwin’s ideas more closely than Marx. He may even have read Darwin “The Descent of Man”.

Unlike Marx, Engels continued his interest in Darwin and things Darwinian beyond the initial general public furore created by the publication of Origin. Apart from references to Darwin in his correspondence with Marx and others, the first major piece of work Engels produced was the notes for the unfinished The Rô…le of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, written between May and June 1876, over five years after the publication of the Descent.

This speculative, but interesting, work which includes a strong element of Lamarckism (but even Darwin had to resort to a version of Lamarck), can be seen as a Marxian response to the “Man’s place in nature” debate in at least two important ways. First of all, it attempts to show in what way humans are different from other animals. Unlike Darwin, who was eager to point to the similarities across species, to indicate the origins of typical human behaviour in a simpler form in other species, and that humans were only quantitatively different from animals, Engels was adamant in showing both the difference and similarities between humans and other animals. Whilst speculating in how human labour activity had evolved from earlier forms along with the evolution of physical organisation, and therefore within the Darwinian explanatory framework, he was also wanted to show how human labour differed from that of lower animals. Following the same line of argument he and Marx had arrived at thirty years previously in The German Ideology, he wrote:

“Animals…change the environment by their activities in the same way, even if not to the same extent, as man does, and these changes, as we have seen, in turn react upon and change those who made them…But animals exert a lasting effect on their environment unintentionally and, as far as the animals themselves are concerned, accidentally. The further removed men are from animals, however, the more their effect on nature assumes the character of premeditated, planned action directed towards preconceived ends” (Marx and Engels Collected Works, volume 25, p.459).

“In short, the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction” (ibid., p.460).

In addition to this evolutionary explanation of the difference between human and animal labour, Engels’s argument can also be seen as a materialist response to Wallace’s “unseen spirit” explanation of the difference between humans and animal. Furthermore, Engels also opposed the mental materialism of Darwin, who based the difference between humans and other animals in the more developed and complex mentality of humans; a form of idealism that had dominated Western philosophy since the rise of Christianity:

“All merit for the swift advance of civilisation was ascribed to the mind, to the brain. Man became accustomed to explain their actions as arising out of thought instead of their needs (which in any case are reflected and perceived in the mind); and so in the course of time there emerged that idealistic world outlook which, especially since the fall of the world of antiquity, has dominated men’s minds. It still rules them to such a degree that even the most materialistic natural scientists of the Darwinian school are still unable to form any clear idea of the origin of man, because under this ideological influence they do not recognize the part that has been played therein by labour.”

Did Engels Read The Descent?
Engels seems to have kept up with the Darwinian literature on human evolution, making reference to T.H. Huxley, Ernst Haeckel, John Lubbock Charles Lyell and Alfred Russel Wallace, although it is not always clear which of their works he is referring to. So it is somewhat surprising that there is no explicit reference to The Descent or to what Darwin wrote on the matter. But seeing that he had read all these other authors, who had made their contribution before 1871, and that Darwin was the most important figure in this group, it would seem unusual that Engels would not read The Descent. Also, he had five years to read him before he started work on The Rôle of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man in May 1876.

There is, however, some textual evidence that Engels did read The Descent. In the second paragraph of his pamphlet, Engels writes:

“Darwin has given us an approximate description of these ancestors of ours. They were completely covered with hair, they had beards and pointed ears, and they lived in bands in trees.”

This description attributed to Darwin comes in part from The Descent. In Chapter 6, “On the Affinities and Genealogy of Man,” Darwin writes:

“The early progenitors of man must have been once covered with hair, both sexes having beards; their ears were probably pointed, and capable of movement; and their bodies were provided with a tail, having proper muscles”
(Darwin The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871; Penguin edition 2004, p.188).

The reference to “they lived in bands in trees“ too seems to have come from The Descent, as Darwin writes:    

 “We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World.” (p. 678)

Therefore, unless Engels got these from another author, these two separate references provide adequate justification for thinking that Engels did read The Descent.

From Darwin to Marx: From Biology to History
Human beings possess a dual character, as both biological and historical beings, in a radically different way from any other animal.

For non-human animals, the biological, structural determination of their activity is dominant. As they get more biologically complex, they acquire the capacity for their activity to be modified by previous interactions with the world, but they live in the “now”; their activity is concerned with adjusting to the immediate circumstances they are interacting with. They have a blind past, as a species and as individual organism, but not a history.

Only humans have history. Through their linguistic ability and social co-operation, human beings have over centuries achieved (it is not nature-given) a greater degree of purpose and agency than any other species. As a result, they not only have a history, but can make history. But making history requires that the impersonal, law-like relations of the capital relationship, of production for profit, be destroyed and replaced by a free association of producers who create a world in their own interests and their own purpose. Only then will humanity shift from a determined pre-history to a determining history.


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