Darwin’s natural laws, physiology laws, DNA-gene laws, and ecological laws are the central organizing principles of Modern Biology. The laws of symbolically constituted language and culture as the defining characteristics of humans are the central organizing principles of anthropology. Symbolic communication and behavior give humans a way of adapting (in the Darwinian sense) that is more efficient than adapting based on random genetic mutation, because cultural adaptations are caused by the adaptive problem (problems in the struggle for existence); the adaptive problem causes humans to invent in symbolic thought (imagination) a solution to the adaptive problem.
With language and culture, necessity is the mother of invention: which is a materialist philosophical, not idealist, explanation, because the material survival necessity changes the ideas of the human inventor, changes her culture. Culture allows non-random Darwinian adaptation. Unlike genetic adaptations, the adaptive solution does not arise only coincidentally with the problem it solves. For example, we might hypothesize that Homo Erectuses invented clothes or controlled fire in response to moving into colder regions North of Africa. The acts of invention were caused by the problem in the struggle for existence of cold body temperature. The adaptive problem caused its own solution. Relying on the adaptation by way of genetic changes (maybe growing fur) would mean waiting on a genetic mutation, a mutation not caused by the adaptive problem, but arising coincidentally with the problem it solves. In this hypothetical thought experiment, survival in the struggle for existence, material necessity, and changes the cultural ideas of the inventors, adds a custom of clothes, costumes to their customs, their traditions, their culture. Non-randomly arising solutions to adaptive problems are La Marckian.
In LaMarck’s famous thought experiment as to “how the giraffe got its long neck”, the adaptive problem of food only available high up causes the giraffe to solve the problem by stretching its neck (this is a fictional account). The solution does not arise randomly relative to the problem it solves. More adaptive problems are solved if the problem tends to cause its own solution than if the solutions just happen luckily to occur as with random genetic mutations solving adaptive problems. Thus, with culture and language (symbolic inheritance, symbolic imagination and symbolic communication) humans have a more efficient adaptive process than all other life forms. Humans have both cultural (non-random adaptation) and random genetic mutation adaptation. Whereas other life forms and species only have random genetic mutation adaptation. Thus cultural adaptation was selected for in that it caused the population to grow. Population growth is the Darwinian definition of fitness!
How does symbolic thinking allow humans to invent solutions to adaptive problems in response to the problem arising? Symbolic thinking allows imaginative thinking or imagination is a form of symbolic thinking and imagination empowers invention. Furthermore, symbolic thinking allows symbolic inheritance of adaptive inventions by future generations! Genes and culture/words are inherited in different ways. For example, almost all the words in the vocabulary of a living generation were invented by dead past generations.
The difference between humans and all other species is that through symbolic communication, words and culture, the dead generations have a certain immortality and are part of the society of living generations. Living generations share the experiences of dead generations through symbolic inheritance, thereby knowledge accumulates. All humans stand on the shoulders of giants, as the scientist Issac Newton put it. Accumulated knowledge gives a growing ability to adapt, in Darwin’s sense, to problems in the struggle for existence.
Symbolic Inheritance is the unique species characteristic of Homo Sapiens. In a sense, culture-language-Symbolic Inheritance is another word for "wisdom", from the notion that humans are the species “homo wise”. It is humans' socially learned practices, customs, language, traditions, beliefs, religion, spirituality that make us "wise" in so many ways, certainly clever and winners as a species (not just as a few "fit" Individuals) in the struggles to survive as a species. Since the advent of so-called civilization, sometimes it's not so clear how wise our culture makes us. Greed, slavery, war, male supremacy, and egoism originate with Civilization (cities)! It is better termed “Savagery and Barbarism”. Therein lies the central drama of the history of the human species.
Nonetheless, clearly in the Stone Age, our having culture-language-Symbolic Inheritance was a highly adaptive advantage over species that did not have culture, stone tools, and scientific knowledge! Standing on the shoulders of dead generations, raised our species' fitness. This is evidenced by genus homo (starting with Homo Erectus and including homo sapiens) expanding in population and therefore migrating to an expanded area of living space across the earth, out of what is now Africa to the other continents. Stone Age foraging and kinship organized, peaceful, and sharing societies were the mode of life for the vast majority of time of human species' existence. The Differentia specifica of human species is symbolic communication and behavior- language and culture.
I write here a critique of Engels’ essay “The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” in part based on Marx’s claim that human labor is differentiated from all other species “labor by the role of imagination”! Otherwise, in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Engels is profoundly correct on the difference between the Stone Age and Civilization and other issues!
My critique of Engels on this point is informed by the current biological and anthropological facts on the origin of tool use, stone tool use, and the nature of language and culture as symbolic communication and behavior. The origin of tool use, language, and culture is the issue Engels speculates concerning in “The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”. My basic difference with him is that language and culture allowed the invention of labor (Darwinian struggle for existence) with stone tools created by imagination; not labor (practice in the struggle for existence/ struggle for self-preservation and snuggles for reproduction) created language and culture. I plead not guilty to the charge of philosophical idealism. I speculate culture and language were invented by mothers in the snuggles for reproduction, childcare, naming children to care for them more efficiently, singing to them, etc.
Engels never finished Dialectics of Nature. Haldane, in his preface to the 1939 publication of Dialectics of Nature, regrets that it remained unpublished for a long time, and writes, “Had his remarks on Darwinism been generally known, I for one would have been saved a certain amount of muddled thinking.” One of its unfinished fragments is on the role of labor in human evolution, more specifically the evolution of the hand. It is the evolution of the hand through the process of labor—creating tools—that distinguishes
The following is my blog item critiquing Engels‘ essay.
More leisure (than our ancestral primate species had) is our species’s essence. Foraging is a mode of direct appropriation from nature, not a mode of production. The origin of humans is the origin of language and culture, not the origin of bipedalism and hands freed from walking on all fours. It was not that bi-pedalism and the origin of hands originated a new labor that caused the invention of tradition, names, and words.
The invention of culture and language in childcare by mothers (I’m saying mothers invented names, words, symbolic communication to improve childcare, reproductive labor) was extended to making a living (the Darwinian struggle for existence).
Language and culture revolutionized the human struggle for existence by making it smarter and wiser, because of accumulation of knowledge over many generations. Language gives humans the capacity for dead generations to leave communications about their experiences to future living generations.
Symbolic communication allows ancestor veneration. The difference between humans and all other species is that through symbolic communication, words and culture, dead generations have a certain immortality and are part of the society of living generations. Living generations share the experiences of dead generations. Thereby knowledge accumulates.
All humans stand on the shoulders of giants, as the scientist Issac Newton put it concerning his scientific ancestors. Engels is wrong in "The Role of Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man" when he says "First labour, after it and then with it speech ...". First long childcare, then names and speech invented by mothers to care for children better, and then a transition to less toil in the struggle for existence, to smarter struggle for existence informed by ancestral experience, and more leisure as compared with primate species ancestral to homo habilis and the origin of the Stone Age.
Stone tools were invented to allow making a living less toilsome and more efficient. Perhaps the topic would be better named The Transition in the Struggle for Existence in the Transition From Ape to Man: The Origin of Imagination. Stone Age society is Societas beginning 2.5 million years ago; to circa 6,000 years ago with the beginning of Civitas private property, greed, slavery and heavy labor. Slavery is the origin of hard work and the work ethic. With so-called civilization, hard work ethic comes to dominate cultural ideas. So, hard labour is not our Stone Age species-being, but our civilization-being, which is a small fraction of the full time of our species history.
I think Engels anachronistically projects the determining role of labor on ideas (the historical materialist principle) back onto the Stone Age origins of language and culture. In fact the invention of language and culture revolutionized the bipedal primates’ struggle for existence by making it less of a struggle. Toilsome struggle was introduced with slave labor in so-called civilization where historical materialist determination originates.
Nonetheless, Marx and Engels do propose transition from the Kingdom of Necessity to the Kingdom of Freedom. Freedom is leisure and smart work through technology. Jobs lost to technological invention should be translated into more leisure time for the masses.
This essay uses "labor" in the sense that it is something that apes do; it is their struggle for existence, for survival in the Darwinian sense. So, it is not the same "labor" (or is it work?) that produces capitalist surplus value in Capital I, but the “labor “ is more general to all animals that Marx describes in Chapter Seven, where he says the difference between the labor of spiders and bees and that of man is imagining the project as a plan first (this implies that spiders and bees labor). “Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We presuppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many architects in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of 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 affects 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. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.”
So, Marx’s implication (contra Engels in “The Role of Labor “) is that in the transition from ape to man, labor transitioned in part by taking on more mental labor, imagination and planning, as a component. Imagination is a form of symbolic thinking. Symbolic thinking defines humans and differentiates humans from all other species despite the false and exaggerated claims for chimps and gorillas by some primatologists. In Engels’s The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man “The decisive step had been taken, the hand had become free and could henceforth attain ever greater dexterity; the greater flexibility thus acquired was inherited and increased from generation to generation.” How did the experience of repetition of the use of a hand by one individual get transferred to the brains of the next generation and the next, become the experience of the hand? If Matriarch/Patriarch uses her hands thousands of times his increasing dexterity is based on accumulated experience in that one individual's brain. The next generation's brains go back to "square one" at birth and childhood. The only way to accumulate knowledge across generations is by mediating the learning experience with language, imagination, and symbolic communication. The only way to "stand on the shoulders of giants" is to receive messages from them through a system of symbols, words. The hand is not the hand of an individual, but the hand, as a concept, an organ of the species.
Charles Brown is a political activist in Detroit, Michigan. He has degrees in anthropology and is a member of the bar. He teaches anthropology at Community College. His favorite slogan is "What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Special thanks to N.C. Cai for editing and alignment.