Evolution, human nature and social change

What can human evolution tell us about human nature and the possibility of social change, asks Penny Howard

THERE IS a common-sense belief that it is impossible to have a society based on cooperation, socialism, because humans are “naturally” selfish. Yet humans do not “naturally” hold any particular beliefs or mode of behaviour. There are literally thousands of different ways that humans have organised our societies over time and an equally diverse set of beliefs associated with these different kinds of social organisation.

The idea of natural selfishness stands in contrast to what we can learn about human behaviour by studying our own history. For the vast majority of human history we have lived in societies without competition or classes. In fact, the very evolution of humanity as we know it today was based on human cooperation.

This idea seems antithetical. It is common-sense to assume that the competitive nature of modern capitalism shows that human beings have competitive, individualistic instincts, and to assume this has been the case throughout history. But it is the capitalist system itself which has generated this assumption.

Consider the kinds of ideas that are encouraged in late capitalism. The people who get the most material rewards are those who behave ruthlessly to each other—the Gina Rineharts, the banking CEOs, and other bosses. These people are richly rewarded for exploiting other humans, destroying the planet’s resources, constantly threatening to deprive other humans of their livelihood (otherwise known as “cost cutting” and “outsourcing”), and by developing complex mechanisms to swindle (“derivatives” anyone?). They do not produce any wealth or value themselves, they just get rich by exploiting the hard work of others.

Ordinary people not only have to watch this spectacle, but we are also forced to participate in it. Our everyday experience is of competing against others to try and meet our needs. But by examining the history of human evolution, we can begin to see there is nothing “natural” about this situation at all.

Humans and labour

In his book Karl Marx, Anthropologist, Thomas Patterson summarises Karl Marx’s view of what makes human beings human. He says that human beings are a both part of nature and that they distinguish themselves from nature through the process of their own labour.

That is, what makes us human is our unique capacity to work together and systematically produce the means to subsist through the process of labour. Unlike the labour of animals, human labour is creative, dynamic and transformative, not simply reactive. It is “conscious” labour.

Not only has human labour shaped our own development, it is the defining aspect of what it is to be human—or as Patterson says, it “is the condition for human existence and the self-realisation of human beings”.

Importantly, our labour has a social character. Humans have always lived and laboured in groups, never as individuals. Human consciousness developed historically, through our experience of transforming the world we live in with our labour, but also through our relations with others. As Patterson says, humans are social individuals who are “actualised in their relations with other individuals”.

Even our bodies are shaped by our collective social history. Almost 140 years ago, Engels made a hypothesis about the central role of human labour and tool making in the evolutionary transition from ape to human, in his pamphlet, The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. Despite the lack of scientific information available at that time, newer evidence has shown that this hypothesis was basically correct.

Understanding human history means understanding the way human societies have met our basic needs through the processes of production and reproduction. Anthropologists have documented many of the different ways that these problems have been solved in different societies.

Human evolution

The most recent common ancestor that humans share with other primates lived about 5 to 10 million years ago. Their hands were very different from ours, their brains were much smaller, and they could not speak.  It took several million years for our human ancestors that to develop the abilities that mark us as human today.

Early humans lived in eastern central Africa and soon started walking upright, a key development which allowed human hands to develop much greater sensitivity and be able to make and manipulate new kinds of tools. The oldest known human stone tool is 2.5 million years old and was found in Ethiopia. The ability of the hand to do more complex tasks with tools meant the brain had to solve more complex problems. This spurred the development of the brain and other sensory organs. By 100,000 years ago human brains had tripled in size.

Humans developed the ability for language at the same time as they developed more complex tools and forms of communication and cooperation for using them. There is no single organ responsible for our ability to speak to each other, but it seems to be an emergent phenomenon associated with developments in the brain and body as human societies became more complex.

The development of human language, in turn, meant that more challenging cooperative tasks and tools could be undertaken. The unique aspect of human language is the ability to talk about things which are not directly present: such as discussing the past and making plans for the future. This new ability had a huge impact on human imagination, culture, and social organisation.

As human brains became more complex, it took much longer for babies to develop into fully functioning adults. For example, it takes a baby ape one year to develop a brain the same size as an adult, but it takes a baby human at least 10 years. The fact that children needed care for longer periods reinforced the need for more developed social organisation to care for children, which led to more collective food sharing and more complex group living.

Humans started migrating from Africa about two million years ago, and this also meant developing new techniques and forms of social organisation for surviving in the cold and through different seasons.

One significant aspect that held back the development of human societies during this early period was the fact that most people did not live for more than 25 or 30 years. This meant that most living humans were teenagers and mothers did not live to see their children become more than about 12 years old.

About 50,000 years ago, significant developments in tools, food preparation, and social organisation that humans used extended our lives much longer. This tipped the balance of the population from being mainly teenagers to mainly adults. There was a far greater ability for adults to learn from experience, from each other, and to pass on what they had learned to the next generation. This led to an extraordinary burst of cultural, social, and technical developments. This key development had social, not biological, origins in collective human social organisation.


The systematic sharing of food is recognised as a key aspect of human evolution, and something that distinguishes us from other primates. For the most of human history, our societies were organised on the basis of this sharing, without an entrenched structural difference between producers and non-producers as we have in today’s class society. Everyone contributed at different times and in different ways.

There are many interesting examples of forms of egalitarian social organisation. Archaeologist James Patterson studied a highly organised society that existed around 1000 BC in Peru with irrigation systems, large monuments, a division of labour, and links with other societies. Previous archaeologists had spent years searching for a larger house and more elaborate belongings of the ruler. Patterson showed that there was no such thing—this was an egalitarian society.

Amongst the Nuer of Sudan, society is organised so that every Nuer is equal and no one can monopolise organised force. Similarly, a Bedouin Amir can only rule by persuasion but not by threat of force. The North American Iroquois had elaborate consultative structures and political offices. Each person had to personally agree with public policies in order to be bound by them.  If they disagreed, they were free to leave and set up their own group. There were similar political structures in places in Brazil and Burma.

Amongst the San of Southern Africa, a system of gossip and witchcraft protected a strict egalitarianism and acted as a form of social control in the absence of a state. Amongst the Iñupiat of Alaska there is no such thing as a nuclear family or even a distinct role for blood relatives—very young children are free to choose who they live with and where.

Far from being ‘naturally’ selfish, our very existence, for the vast majority of our history, and even our hands and brains and languages reflect the collective social history of our own development. It is the CEOs and those who preach the virtues of individualism who demonstrate their complete lack of understanding of human history and societies. They are anti-human in both a practical and scientific sense.


The development of early class societies meant that some humans developed the ability to exploit and benefit from the labour of others, usually backed up by laws of the local state and the threat of force.

The development of capitalism over the past few hundred years has created a qualitatively new form of social organisation. Instead of the mass of ordinary people being isolated in small farms and villages and forced to pay some kind of tribute to a ruler, now people are brought together in massive numbers in cities and in workplaces with thousands of workers.

Work processes are highly coordinated across massive companies that span the world. This working class is larger than it has ever been in human history. There is an extraordinary level of wealth and technical development.

It is ordinary working class people who actually do all the work to create this wealth and keep the system going. In doing so, we co-operate on a mass scale on a day-to-day basis. But this massive system and the wealth we create in it is controlled and exploited by a tiny minority. Unlike all the people who contributed to human development over millions of years, this minority will do everything they can to accumulate wealth for themselves, and avoid sharing.

But the weakness of this small ruling class is that they are completely dependant on the labour of the working class who actually produces this wealth. We have the skills, we just don’t own the means of production—the factories, the workplaces, technology and machines—nor are we allowed to decide how they are used. We could take control of these means of production to use them for the benefit of humanity—to build hospitals and schools and provide health care and child care for all, instead of building war machines.

This would take revolutionary change. It would require removing the control that the tiny minority have over what we produce and how, and allowing the workers who do all this work to collectively decide what needs to be made, and how to organise society in the interests of the vast majority. This would require a huge amount of organisation, struggle, and discipline. But it is not impossible—and it certainly is not against our human nature.

The very experience of struggling against capitalism proves this. Look at the bravery of the Egyptian revolutionaries who took to Tahrir Square to topple Mubarak, many losing their lives in the process. Or the support for public hospitals, schools, and services for the disabled and elderly. Or the numbers of people who, despite  constant racist rhetoric from the mainstream media, are prepared to take a stand for refugees, Aboriginal people and other minorities. A million marched in Australia against a war tens of thousands of kilometres away in Iraq. Even the huge outpouring of support for people following the last few summers of floods, fires and extreme weather events, shows that human solidarity is possible even in circumstances where everything stands opposed to it.

Every time we organise together through social movements or go on strike or act in solidarity with each other we challenge the ideology of capitalism and test new forms of collective organisation and get a taste of what is possible. Fixed pessimistic ideas of who we are as humans, what we can do, and how we can change can crumble in the process of organising these struggles.

The existence of a massive and internationally connected and collectively organised working class means we have the potential to seize the tools that the bosses own and use our skills and talents to organise a much better way of living—to transform a society based on selfishness, greed and fear into a world based on collectivity, solidarity, creativity and mutual respect.

Further reading:

Karl Marx, Anthropologist, by Thomas Patterson (2009)

The Incredible Human Journey (2009 BBC TV series)

Is human nature a barrier to socialism? By John Molyneux (available from Solidarity)

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