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  • Published in Opinion
Base and Superstructure Relationship. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Base and Superstructure Relationship. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Mainstream conceptions of human nature are rooted in the historical development of capitalism.  Elaine Graham-Leigh argues that we can only understand nature through the dialectic method

It will be a familiar experience to many Marxists. An older, right-wing relative sits you down and explains, kindly, that communism sounds like a nice idea in theory, but will never work because people are just naturally greedy and competitive. Marx’s ideas are doomed in practice by the reality what humans are inescapably like. This stands-to-reason view of human nature may find modern expression in places like the pages of the Daily Mail, but it has its roots in the fundamentals of bourgeois ideology. From the seventeenth-century Hobbes’ characterisation of a natural ‘war of all against all’ or Descartes’ vision of machine-like human bodies, to modern arguments that poor, black people are genetically inferior to rich whites, questions of human nature have profound political consequences.  

Descartes’ dualism

One of the main dimensions of bourgeois thought is idealism; the separation of the realm of ideas from the material world. (Consider, for example, the histories which attribute change to the movement of ideas alone, like those which put the 1917 Russian Revolution down to a failure of liberal confidence.) In considerations of human nature, this is a Cartesian dualist position, which sees consciousness – ourselves – as separate from the body that houses it. For Descartes, this separation was a necessary resolution to a contradiction between his view of human nature and his Catholicism. His description of human bodies as if they were fleshy machines was expressive of an emerging capitalist view of workers as reducible to interchangeable moving parts. On its own, however, it presented a difficulty from a religious point of view, as it left no room for a soul. Descartes’ solution was to posit the soul as an immortal part located intangibly within the body but not of it; the ghost in the machine.

Descartes’ separation of our material bodies and our consciousness has proved durable. Even among those who do not share his religious need to include the soul, there can be a view of the body as not part of ourselves but as simply a container allocated to our consciousness. In contrast, a materialist understanding of human nature recognises that there is no ‘we’ separate from our physical selves. Individuals’ consciousness and their physical selves must be seen as a totality.

This is also true for human societies. The way that human cultures have developed is clearly not unrelated to the physical realities of human existence. If, for example, humans had wings, like birds, or photosynthesised, like plants, our societies and the environment we built would look very different.[i] An attempt to save the bourgeois idealist view of ideas as the prime driver of human culture and development here might acknowledge that of course, there are universal human needs which proscribe a certain unity across human cultures. This, however, the argument might go, is at such a basic level that it can tell us little of importance about human nature. The physical human needs provide the base for human culture, but the superstructure, the realm of ideas, then takes over.

This sort of hierarchical view of human needs has a long pedigree – witness psychologist Abraham Maslow’s 1943 pyramid of needs, with physiological needs at the base and self-actualisation at the top – but just because we are encouraged to order characteristics in this way does not make it helpful. Indeed, it would be possible to use Maslow’s understanding of needs, in which fulfilling lower-order needs gives rise to the higher-order ones, to argue that only people who have food, shelter and a satisfactory social position can aim for self-actualisation. In other words, if you’re poor and hungry, you don’t need culture. This is of course untrue; every time you see a homeless person reading a book disproves it. A better alternative to this mechanical view of a base and superstructure for human needs would be to appreciate how, while human universals like our need to eat are part of every culture, they are mediated through those cultures. In every culture, if we don’t get enough to eat we will be hungry, but our experience of hunger, how we conceptualise it and react to it, will be different in different societies. Basic human needs are socially experienced and expressed.[ii] In order to understand human nature, we have to think not hierarchically, but dialectically.

Genetic determinism

A dialectical understanding of the relation between human bodies and human culture shows the fallacy of the dualist position, but that is far from the only ideological misconception about human nature. Rejecting the dualist conception of a consciousness separate and theoretically divisible from the body raises the question of how far we are determined by our bodies. Perhaps our bodies are all we are? This is in essence the nature versus nurture question: is human nature innate or is it the product of socialisation? This is, of course, a simplification of a range of more nuanced positions; no one serious posits that human traits are either entirely or not at all influenced by culture. As left-wing biologist Stephen Jay Gould puts it, the question is really about ‘the degree, intensity, and nature of the constraint exerted by biology upon the possible forms of social organisation’.[iii]

The genetic-determinist view on this (also called sociobiological) is that genes determine our reality. While our socialisation can have some effect on our genetic predispositions, fundamentally, human traits from aggression to altruism arise from our genetic inheritance. We are the vehicles for our genes, through which they compete by natural selection to propagate themselves in forthcoming generations, and everything we are is shaped by that genetic imperative. The concomitant conclusions are first that differences between individuals and, as importantly, between groups must be genetic, if genes are the basis for our behaviour. The second conclusion is that innate traits could only be changed through natural selection: if your genes make you prone to aggression there is nothing you or anyone else can do about it except make it more difficult for your aggressive genes to pass themselves on. The political implications of this position should be clear, as described by Gould in a passage discussing arguments about differences between the sexes:

the socio-political line of the pop argument now leaps from the page: males are aggressive, assertive, promiscuous, overbearing; females are coy, discriminating, loyal, caring - and these differences are adaptive, Darwinian, genetic, proper, good, inevitable, unchangeable…[iv]

The sociobiological view of humans as essentially nothing but our genes has a pedigree all the way back to the German materialist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, who coined the phrase ‘you are what you eat.’ Feuerbach meant this literally, as an expression of his view that humans are nothing more than material inputs and outputs. For some modern sociobiologists like Daniel Dennett, in fact, consciousness itself is nothing but ‘a metaphysical delusion on which we should stop wasting time’.[v] Human activity may seem purposeful and directed, but we only think that we are making decisions and shaping our world ourselves. In reality, we are only vehicles for actions prompted by our genes. As Dennett recently argued about Alan Turing’s development of the computer, ‘his artefacts, concrete and abstract, are indirectly products of the blind Darwinian processes in the same way spider webs and beaver dams are.’[vi]

Marx, while also a materialist, pointed out in his Theses on Feuerbach that a problem with Feuerbach’s conception of human nature was that he saw it only in terms of static objects. For Marx, in contrast, of key importance were human social relations; rather than on the abstract, isolated human individual, the focus should be on human activity.[vii] Human nature cannot be understood in a non-moving, fixed form, as Feuerbach and other materialists tried to do. Activity does not simply arise from human nature; it is human nature. As Marxist pre-historian V Gordon Childe put it, ‘man makes himself.’ Human labour changes the world, but through changing the world, we also change ourselves.

Marx describes in Capital how humans are the only creatures to undertake planned, purposeful work on the world around us:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of the bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will.[viii

The key to understanding human nature is thus understanding that, contrary to the sociobiological arguments, human constructions are not just like spiders’ webs or beavers’ dams. They are not the results of instinctual, genetically determined behaviour but are planned and conceptualised in a way that, over human history, has developed human social relations and human capacities.

Marxist biologists and human development

This dialectical understanding of human nature and human development has been borne out since Marx’s day by subsequent generations of Marxist biologists and palaeontologists. As Engels explained, dialectics are not imposed on the natural world in Marx’s thought, but arise from it. ‘Nature is the test of dialectics, and it must be said for modern natural science that it has furnished extremely rich and daily increasing materials for this test, and has thus proved that in the last analysis Nature's process is dialectical and not metaphysical.’[ix] Viewing the nature/nurture question dialectically enables us to see that these are not opposites, but that genes and environment are always in an active relationship with each other.

In human development, for example, a genetic determinist model would have the template for the individual being set by their genetic make-up, with culture then allowed some secondary effects on top of this genetic base. A Marxist view does not simply invert this; Marx, contrary to some views,[x] did not believe that humans are born as tabula rasa for society to mould. Rather, a dialectical understanding of development sees a process between genes and environment (including not just the environment external to the body but the environment for each cell) which is both relational and contingent. One of the fallacies of genetic determinism is the idea that genes are analogous to a computer program. However many times you re-run the program, barring code corruption, you would expect to get the same result each time. In human development, even starting from the same genes and the same environment, each result would be different, precisely because it is a relational process and not a program. This is, incidentally, why cloning would never be able to produce the same person twice.

Viewing human development dialectically also places humans as active participants in rather than passive recipients of our own development. In the genetic determinist model, we – the finished human organisms – are simply the end result of the genetic program and the social decorative flourishes. In fact, new developments in epigenetics reveal that genes can be turned on and off by environmental factors.[xi] The genetic determinist model has been shown to be scientifically bankrupt. In contrast, a dialectical understanding shows not only that genes and environment are constantly developing in relation to each other, but that as we develop, we are actively involved in shaping this process. Thus, for example, babies’ brains develop not simply according to a genetic programme or environmental effects, but also according to how the brain is used. In other words, we shape the pathways of our brains by thinking.[xii]

Marx’s understanding of human development is also borne out in modern views of the evolution of our species, homo sapiens. It is generally agreed that the hominids were bipedal before they developed large brains.[xiii] Bipedalism then freed the hands for making and using tools; carrying out the purposeful labour which Marx identified as the key to human nature. This was the driver for the growth of the large hominid brains, which then drove more and complex tool use, and so on in a dialectical process. As Engels explained, ‘thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour.’[xiv] This dialectical process shows how humans make themselves, not purely on a social level but through the interaction of genes and environment. The answer to the genetic determinists is not to deny the importance of our biology for the development of human society, but to understand ourselves as active participants in our own development on an individual and a societal level. As a modern summary of Marx’s position puts it,

‘By virtue of our large brains…humans have created societies, invented technologies and cultures, and in doing so have changed themselves, their states of consciousness and, in effect, their genes. We are the inheritors of not merely the genes, but also the cultures and technologies of our forebears.’[xv]

The problems of reification

The genetic determinist view of human nature sets out to be an answer to the idealism of the Cartesian dualist position, but ironically ends up relying on its own idealist conceptions to make its arguments. The view that what we are – our personalities, tendencies, intelligence etc – is genetically determined relies on there being genes, or combinations of genes, for these genetically determined traits. These traits, therefore, have to have some objective existence. If our genetic inheritance gives us a tendency towards a particular behaviour, then that behaviour must be naturally delimited in some way. If we can inherit, for example, aggression in the same way as we can inherit, say, Huntingdon’s disease,[xvi] then aggression must in some way be as definable a condition as Huntingdon’s. It must, in other words, be a thing. It is however a thing which is at the same time no more than an abstraction; an ideal which has no existence outside the world of ideas.

The difficulty for the genetic-determinist view is that reifying behavioural traits like aggression merely obfuscates the way in which these are socially determined. Aggression is not an objective trait, but a value judgment on a range of behaviours which, in other contexts or from other groups, would be deemed entirely appropriate. Women in the workplace, for example, will be condemned for being aggressive when men exhibiting exactly the same behaviour will have been showing drive and forthrightness.[xvii] Just as when black protestors are accused of aggression towards white police, or unarmed Gazan protestors towards armed Israeli soldiers, what is going on here is social condemnation of resistance to the powerful by the powerless. Despite racist arguments to the contrary, we are not dealing here with a greater genetic predisposition on the part of black people in the USA or Palestinians in Gaza to aggression. It would make as much sense, after all, to ask if there is a genetic predisposition on the part of white US cops or Israeli soldiers to keep on shooting unarmed people dead.

The difficulty of isolating an objective condition called aggression is true even in laboratory settings. There are a number of studies on aggression in rats and mice, but what these are really measuring is how long they take to attack another animal in the same cage (which could of course be due to many different factors aside from a tendency to prefer to fight) or a propensity to bite the lab assistant. Even in rodents, it seems, fighting back against your captors is liable to be labelled as pathological behaviour. This does not make reifying aggression legitimate.

Reification is also the basis of one of the most resilient of the racist applications of genetic determinism: the idea that intelligence differs by race. The argument that black people are innately less intelligent than white people goes back to the nineteenth century, with scientists like Paul Broca diligently stuffing seeds into skulls to calculate brain volume to rank human races into ‘a linear scale of mental worth.’[xviii] At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, it shifted from craniometry to IQ, using IQ tests developed to identify French schoolchildren at need of extra help as a way of ranking whole populations. The validity of IQ for measuring individual and population-level intelligence found champions throughout the twentieth century, despite setbacks such as when one of its proponents, Sir Cyril Burt, was found to have falsified much of his key data. It came to prominence again in 1994 with the publication of The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which reasserted the old argument that black people had on average lower IQs than whites. In the twenty-first century it hit headlines recently with the argument that Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQs, championed by academics like Richard Lynn, Nicholas Wade and Steven Pinker.[xix]

Critics of IQ testing have long pointed out the tendency of the tests to measure, specifically, proficiency in taking IQ tests, and more generally, education and familiarity with the sorts of questions the IQ tests include. It is obvious that famous early IQ tests, like those administered to immigrants arriving at Ellis Island or illiterate US army conscripts in the First World War, would have done little to measure any sort of intelligence. Full of questions requiring familiarity with US culture, administered in crowded conditions with lots of pointing and shouting, it’s not surprising that results were often poor. It’s more surprising that anyone scored anything at all.

Beyond this, it’s also important to recognise the extent to which any IQ test inevitably measures how used the test subjects are to abstract questions, which is itself a cultural measure rather than evidence of innate intelligence. As Russian neuro-psychologist Alexander Luria found in the 1970s when he interviewed peasants in remote regions of the USSR, abstract reasoning has a different value in different cultures. He also found, perhaps, that peasants may not take kindly to big-city scientists and their stupid questions. Trying to extract a simple example of deductive reasoning from one interviewee, Luria asked ‘All bears are white where there is always snow. In Novaya Zemlya there is always snow; what colour are the bears there?’ The interviewee was having none of it: ‘If a person has not been there, he cannot say anything on the basis of words. If a man is 60 or 80 and he had seen a white bear there and told me about it, he could be believed.’[xx]

It is obvious how these sorts of issues would lead to lower average scores for groups who disproportionately suffer from poor access to education and are less likely to have had extensive practice in IQ tests than middle and upper class white people. This is corroborated by the way in which IQ scores increased in general worldwide in parallel to more generally widespread schooling. Tests had repeatedly to be made more difficult throughout the twentieth century to keep the overall average mark at 100.

Enthusiasts for IQ testing could still try to argue that these are flaws in the tests, rather than in the concept. It could be that IQ is still innate and heritable, even if we have not found a good enough way to measure it separately from education and cultural familiarity. The difficulty for the hereditarian argument here though is in showing that IQ – a reification of intelligence – actually exists. As Gould explains in his classic The Mismeasure of Man, IQ is conceptualised as a measure of Spearman’s g, which is itself the product of a factor analysis between a tendency to do well in verbal reasoning tests and in mathematical tests. In essence, g is simply a mathematical expression of the assumption that if there is a correlation between achievement in different sorts of academic tests, that correlation must reveal a causal factor which must be innate intelligence. There is, of course, no must about it. Correlation does not equal causation (Gould points out that there is a perfect correlation between his age and the expansion of the universe, but there is unlikely to be a causal relationship between them), and the correlation further does not help us identify what any such causal factor might be. The maths does not require us to conclude that it must be an innate, reified intelligence as opposed, for example, to good, all-round schooling.

The continued appearance of genetic determinist ideas to make racist arguments about intelligence shows the political uses to which these can be put, and the importance of countering the view that we are nothing more than expressions of our genes. Genetic determinism may purport to provide an alternative to a dualist view of human nature but ultimately it is reliant on the same idealism. Richard Dawkins’ humans as ‘lumbering robots’[xxi] would be very familiar to Descartes; the only real difference is that Descartes required the soul floating around in there somewhere, whereas Dawkins the atheist can only see it as a delusion. Both the Cartesian dualist and the genetic-determinist views of human nature have us as the passive vehicles of some other force’s creation, whether that be a divine creator or our genes. Only the Marxist understanding of human nature has us as active participants, making ourselves through the interaction of our genes, our environment and our history.

Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach is one of his most quoted lines: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.’[xxii] It is usually quoted outside the context of the rest of the Theses, but it is a necessary conclusion to the argument against Feuerbach’s form of materialism which they set out. Genetic determinism, like dualism, does not give us any hope of changing the world. Its central argument is that our natures are fixed by our genes, which are often suspiciously like capitalists in their selfish, winner-take-all behaviour. Any attempts to make society fairer, in this view, is fighting against our natures and may well be doomed to failure. Against this, a dialectical understanding of human nature shows that on the contrary, what we are is adaptable. We make ourselves and the world. It is this insight that tells us that, despite supposed common sense about human nature, we can change it.


[i] Steven Rose, Leon J Kamin, R C Lewontin, Not in our Genes. Biology, Ideology and Human Nature, (London 1984), p.13.

[ii] Sean Sayers, Marxism and Human Nature, (London 1998), p.153.

[iii] Stephen Jay Gould, An Urchin in the Storm. Essays about books and ideas, (London 1990), p.113.

[iv] Ibid., p.36.

[v] Daniel Dennett, quoted in Richard Lewontin, It Ain't Necessarily So. The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions, (London 2001), p.105.

[vi] Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, quoted in Thomas Nagel, ‘Is Consciousness an Illusion?’, New York Review of Books, 9th March 2017, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/03/09/is-consciousness-an-illusion-dennett-evolution/

[vii] Karl Marx, 'Theses on Feuerbach', Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, (London 1981), pp.421-423.

[viii] Karl Marx, Capital. A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, vol.1, trans Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, (Moscow 1961), p.178.

[ix] Frederick Engels, Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science, (London 1934), p.29.

[x] Althusser’s, for example. Sayers, Marxism and Human Nature, p.150.

[xi] For an accessible account of these developments, see Nessa Carey, The Epigenetics Revolution. How modern biology is rewriting our understanding of genetics, disease and inheritance, (London 2012).

[xii] Steven Rose, The 21st Century Brain. Explaining, mending and manipulating the mind, (London 2006), pp.113-136.

[xiii] On the development of hominid intelligence, see the recent useful summary in Gavin Evans, Black Brain, White Brain, (London 2014), pp.25-39.

[xiv] Frederick Engels, The Dialectics of Nature, (London 2007), p.174.

[xv] Rose, 21st Century Brain, p.105.

[xvi] Huntingdon’s is a particularly clear example of genetic inheritance as it arises from a defect in a single gene. Ibid., p.83. Its inheritance or not is therefore determined by genetic rather than social or environmental factors, although even with such a predictable and deadly disease, the experience of Huntingdon’s will to a degree be socially determined.

[xvii] Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender. The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, (London 2010), pp.82-3.

[xviii] Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 2nd ed., (London 1996), p.118.

[xix] Evans, Black Brain, pp.423-477

[xx] A R Luria, Cognitive Development: its Cultural and Social Foundations, (Cambridge Mass. 1976), pp.108-9, quoted in Evans, Black Brain, p.390.

[xxi] See Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, (Oxford 1976).

[xxii] Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, p.423.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade, focusing on issues of climate change and social justice. She speaks and writes widely on green issues and is a member of Counterfire. Her book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, will be published in April 2015 by Zero Books.


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