Marxism and Neurochemistry

Attention all Marxists! If you thought class struggle was the motive force of history, as certain manifesto writers have claimed, you are sadly mistaken. A new book by Daniel Lord Smail (On Deep History and the Brain, California, 2007) has come up with the true motive force. This book is reviewed by Steven Mithen (“When We Were Nicer,” London Review of Books, 23 January, 2008)and he informs us that Smail says the motive force of history is “the manipulation of human chemistry by the substances we consume” willingly or unwillingly.

Smail’s thesis is that our actions are based on the long ago evolutionary development of our neurochemistry. Smail also reverses the biology-culture relationship that holds that culture is derivative from biology. At least this is what Mithen says. We will see that this is not the case since it is going to be neurochemistry (biology) which shapes culture and history.

History doesn’t really begin at Sumer. It begins way back in the Old Stone Age (the Palaeolithic) when the major neurochemical agents influencing our brain evolved. Many of these Palaeolithic chemicals are still at work today. Smail says: “What passes for progress in human civilisation is often nothing more than new developments in the art of changing body chemistry.”

Mithen tells us this is not just a rehash of the “crude evolutionary psychology” of Steven Pinker, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and others, but is a “far more sophisticated” theory. We shall see.

Smail says human history begins way before the advent of writing five thousand years ago and the view that there was an “unchanging prehistoric past” and then “history” is wrong. Mithen, who is an archaeologist, is in tune with this view. So, apparently, is everybody else these days.

This is a terminological problem (or non problem). Marxists use the term “history” to refer to the advent of class society basically about five thousand or so years ago in the Middle East and “gentile” or “clan” society for the non class societies of “prehistoric” times. They do not believe that prehistoric societies (and what is “historic” and “prehistoric” varies in different parts of the world) were “unchanging.” Rather they were dynamic and rapidly evolving, or stagnant, depending on the physical environments they found themselves in and that they had to adapt to to survive.

Homo sapiens arose from Homo erectus about 200,000 years ago, and Mithen thinks, as do many archaeologists, that there was a radical break in human prehistory about 70,000 years ago “when the first unambiguously symbolic artifacts and body adornments are known” (Blombos Cave, South Africa). Right after this time H. sapiens began to spread out of Africa into the rest of the world. Mithen thinks that this has something to do with the final evolution of language. He also thinks, because of the “radical break” that Smail may be wrong to deny some period of historylessness to the period prior to 200,000 years ago. Mithen says, “… ‘the myth of Palaeolithic stasis’ may, in fact, be the reality prior to Homo sapiens.” By the tenor of his own argument, it might be the reality prior to the “radical break” as well.

Using the word “history” in a greatly expanded, and I think unhelpful manner, he says that Smail is right about “history” itself going farther back than H. sapiens. Mithin agrees that even chimpanzees and baboons “have history.” This is because their current social reality is based on their past social reality. So almost everything is historical. Why stop at baboons? Why not include the birds and the bees? It is far more useful to apply the term “history” to the written or remembered record and keep the term “prehistory” for the deep past. If your group has no consciousness of “history,” you probably don’t have a history to be conscious of.

New problems spring up when we leave the Old Stone Age for the New — for the period called by Vere Gordon Childe, the great Marxist archaeologist of the first half of the 20th century, the time of the “Neolithic Revolution.” This is the period of about 8000 to 3000 B.C. (at least for Europe and its immediate neighbors). The previous “mode of production” had been hunting and gathering. Now we settled down to farming and soon to building towns and cities, classes, and the first state structures. So, I think, history does begin at Sumer after all. This doesn’t mean prehistory is a blank. Childe call the Neolithic a Revolution because, as a good Marxist, he saw the new mode of production, large scale agriculture, as a qualitative leap and change from the hunting and gathering of the past.

This was due, as Mithen points out, to H. sapiens reaction “to the start of the Holocene some 11,600 years ago, with its warmer and wetter climate than the preceding Pleistocene.” Smail calls this period “the fulcrum of the great transformation” of human history. This is exactly what Childe thought as well.

Now we come to Smails’ special theory. As a result of the Neolithic’s new living conditions — humans began to settle down and give up the hunting gathering life style. At this time, says Mithin, Smail says “our Palaeolithic-evolved neurophysiology” begins to assert itself. The primate social structure, as seen in chimpanzees and baboons and based on domination “often” brought about by “random acts of violence” to keep lower ranking members of the group fearful and stressed out, begins to reappear.

This argument does not seem to hold water. Mithen points out most hunter gathers have egalitarian societies. He says the evidence is that the “majority of Palaeolithic hunter-gathers were egalitarian” as suggested, by the way, by Engels in his discussion of “primitive communism” in “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.” So the neurophysiology that we evolved in the Palaeolithic would not have resembled the chimp-baboon model necessary for Smails’ theory.

Mithen, however, finds some of this new theory fairly persuasive. Smail says the new political elites that developed to control trade and agriculture “needed to control the brains and bodies of their subordinates by manipulating their neuro-chemistry.” So they ruled by relying on “random acts of violence” against their people to keep them down through fear and stress, via the head baboon, since “control of agricultural surpluses or trade routes was not enough to maintain their power base.”

This is just completely unscientific speculation worthy of a vision of the Neolithic conjured up out of reading too many Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. Of course, Smail holds that the rulers were not aware of what they were doing — Mithin says, “they were simply repeating what had seemed to work in gaining them power. Random violence is a winner every time.”

There is no evidence that the political elite in the Neolithic period used random violence against their people to maintain power. This is just speculation and guess work. Mithin however says that it wasn’t just physical violence. People who know about the Neolithic site of Chatalhoyuk (Anatolia: 7000 BC) will find Smail’s views “particularly striking and persuasive.” Why is this?

Because, at this site “we find horrendous wall paintings and sculptures showing decapitated people and monstrous animals.” This is very emotive. Lets give a more scientific formulation. Here “we find strange (to us) wall paintings and sculptures showing headless people and large unknown mythological animals. We do not know what the purpose of these images was. Perhaps it was religious.” This is not the conclusion of Mithin.

He simply asserts that these images show “a culture of suppression through terror, with– no doubt– a priestly caste benefiting from these visions of a Neolithic hell.” Terror was used to “attack the body chemistry” of the people (evolved during the baboon Reign of Terror)to make them fearful and afraid of those “intent on maintaining power.” These speculations are completely without merit.

From the Neolithic we advance into the historical period proper. Since our neural states “are plastic and thus manipulable” we find that “new forms of economic, political and social behaviour emerge during the course of history.” The six most important vis a vis our neurochemistry have become also the most important for human culture. The six are “religion, sport, monumental architecture, alcohol, legitimised violence — and sex for fun.” At least random violence is not on the list. These six are the “most effective in moulding and manipulating our body chemistry.”

So the Romans had it down with bread and circuses. First put the subject population under stress, then provide relief which advantages the ruling class. “What better way,” Mithen notes, “for elites to build and maintain their power than to create stress within a population by a culture of terror and then very kindly to offer the means for its alleviation by arranging such events.” Examples today would be professional sports, movies, and especially great events such as the Olympics. Mithin quotes Etienne de la Boetie who in 1548 referred to sporting and theatrical extravaganzas as “tools of tyranny” and “drugs for the people.”

Methods used by others to influence or control our brain and body chemistry Smail calls “teletropic mechanisms.” Those we use on ourselves are “autotropic.” Mithin points out that it “is far better for those in power to be in control of their subordinates’ body chemistry than to leave it to the subordinates themselves.” This is why many religions, for example, as ruling class tools, reject such autotropic mechanisms as masturbation, sex for fun, alcohol, and recreational drugs. The state, in fact, seeks to regulate and control autotropic mechanisms as far as possible.

The plot thickens. The world historical change from the Middle Ages to our modern world may be better explained by the manipulation of neurochemistry than by Marxist theory. The European discovery and use of tea, chocolate, coffee, and tobacco allowed people to regulate their own brain chemistry, for these items are all autotropic. The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of the struggle between autotropic and teletropic mechanisms. Smail is credited with Mithin’s comment that the: “Making of the Palaeolithic relevant to the drinking of tea is no mean feat.”

Two quotes from On Deep History and the Brain sum up the argument and bring us to the book’s grand conclusion. “We can finally dispense with the idea, once favored by some historians, that biology gave way to culture with the advent of civilisation. This has it all backward. Civilisation did not bring an end to biology. Civilisation ENABLED important aspects of human biology, and the drama of the past five thousand years lies in the fact that it did so in ways that were largely unanticipated in the Palaeolithic era.” The second quote is “we need not dig only in the dusty topsoil of the strata that form the history of humanity. The deep past is also our present and future.”

What Marxist would disagree with this first comment. It only says that human potential has been increased by the inventions of civilization and that these inventions were not foreseen in the Old Stone Age. What Smail means is that the brain chemistry that evolved in the Old Stone Age was not adapted for the changes that lay ahead, it being oriented towards the teletropic. But we have already seen that H. sapiens in the Palaeolithic was largely egalitarian (primitively communistic) and so autotropic. The evolution of our brain chemistry fits into any type of society it would seem. As for the notion of the “deep past”: it is of course true that we are the product of evolution, of animal ancestors and that this heritage remains with us today and forms part of our nature. Who, since Darwin, would deny that.

The question remains, how are we best to understand history, the rise of capitalism, the contradictions of imperialism and the way to overcome them and proceed on the road to socialism? Historical Materialism, the theories of Marx, Engels and Lenin are still to my mind the best methods to use to answer these questions. It is true that candy is dandy, and that chocolate, masturbation, and alcohol are handy autotropic devices, but they won’t replace class struggle and the analysis of the means and modes of production as ways to change the world. Political power does not grow out of a Hershey bar.

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Donald Hawkins said on September 27th, 2008 at 9:44am #

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The world pumped up its pollution of the chief man-made global warming gas last year, setting a course that could push beyond leading scientists’ projected worst-case scenario, international researchers said Thursday.

    The new numbers, called “scary” by some, were a surprise because scientists thought an economic downturn would slow energy use. Instead, carbon dioxide output jumped 3 percent from 2006 to 2007.

    That’s an amount that exceeds the most dire outlook for emissions from burning coal and oil and related activities as projected by a Nobel Prize-winning group of international scientists in 2007.

    Meanwhile, forests and oceans, which suck up carbon dioxide, are doing so at lower rates than in the 20th century, scientists said. If those trends continue, it puts the world on track for the highest predicted rises in temperature and sea level.

    An important point to note is the rate of these natural processes. The typical imbalance
    between tectonic sources and sinks of atmospheric CO2 is about one ten-thousandths of a ppm of
    atmospheric CO2 per year. In one million years this would be a CO2 change of 100 ppm, which
    would cause large climate change. This natural rate of change should be compared with the
    present human-made increase of atmospheric CO2, which is about 2 ppm per year.
    So, yes, it is clear that natural climate changes are huge over long time scales,
    encompassing even an ice free planet. But now the human-made rate of change of atmospheric
    CO2 is ten thousand times larger than the natural rate that drove the huge climate changes.
    Humans are now in charge of atmospheric CO2 amount and global climate, for better or worse. James Hansen

    With this present trend I did the math that is no longer ten thousand times larger but fifteen thousand times larger.

    After all these thousands of years and the knowledge in those thousands of years and the end of the human race because it’s the economy stupid it’s the money stupid and of course power it just feels so good. That new way of thinking Einstein spoke of probably TIME

  2. Anthony said on September 27th, 2008 at 5:18pm #

    In its conclusion the author explained it all. As a complementary I suggest this interesting article:

  3. James Keye said on September 28th, 2008 at 8:35am #

    It is heartening to see the biological history of the human species being considered in the understanding of human history. There is much that I think is wrong with the analysis presented here, but it is in details and not because it leaves out more than half of the important influences typical of ordinary historical analysis. My one real objection is looking at these processes in Marxist terms; these are derivative ideas just like other “competing” notions and serve, not to enlighten the discussion, but to muddy it.

  4. Donald Hawkins said on September 28th, 2008 at 9:36am #

    * Annual mean growth rate of atmospheric CO2 was 2.2 parts per million per year in 2007, up from 1.8 ppm in 2006, and above the 2.0 ppm average for the period 2000-2007. The average annual mean growth rate for the previous 20 years was about 1.5 ppm per year.

    * Atmospheric CO2 concentration rose to 383 ppm in 2007, which is 37 per cent above the concentration at the start of the industrial revolution of about 280 ppm in 1750.

    The present concentration is the highest during the past 650,000 years and probably during the past 20 million years.

    * The growth rate of emissions was 3.5 per cent per year for the period of 2000-2007, an almost four-fold increase from 0.9 per cent per year in 1990-1999

    The shock rise in emissions means that the atmosphere is likely to warm quicker than previously thought and that disastrous changes in the climate predicted by scientists may now be unavoidable. Telegraph

    Now what are we seeing on the hill right now? What we are seeing is put off today for the people of tomorrow. It sure looks like the decision has been made by some to go out in style if you can call that style. There is still time but will now require draconian measures. What we now see on the hill is 180 degrees in the other direction. I will be very interested in seeing what James Hansen has to say on these new numbers. This will not be easy far from it but to go out without a fight well there is something very wrong with that. Any preparations being made for what we can’t stop, no it’s the economy stupid. Sorry stupid doesn’t begin to explain it.

  5. Anonymous said on September 28th, 2008 at 9:53am #

    “This was due, as Mithen points out, to H. sapiens reaction “to the start of the Holocene some 11,600 years ago, with its warmer and wetter climate than the preceding Pleistocene.” Smail calls this period “the fulcrum of the great transformation” of human history. This is exactly what Childe thought as well.”

    Odd that you say this, because I just finished reading a book that said quite the opposite–that this was just a theory that was proven incorrect not too long ago.

  6. Donald Hawkins said on September 28th, 2008 at 9:54am #

    That new way of thinking just how do we do that? Well it sure seems to me that working together is still the hardest part. How do we get people on the same page one goal save our ass. Admit the problem face it and start telling people the truth. I know a radical concept but just might work.

  7. Donald Hawkins said on September 28th, 2008 at 1:25pm #

    Anonymous what is the name of the book you just finished?

  8. Donald Hawkins said on September 28th, 2008 at 4:23pm #

    And of course there is this:

    Thus, the Treasury plan is a disgrace: a bailout of reckless bankers, lenders and investors that provides little direct debt relief to borrowers and financially stressed households and that will come at a very high cost to the US taxpayer. And the plan does nothing to resolve the severe stress in money markets and interbank markets that are now close to a systemic meltdown. It is pathetic that Congress did not consult any of the many professional economists that have presented – many on the RGE Monitor Finance blog forum – alternative plans that were more fair and efficient and less costly ways to resolve this crisis. This is again a case of privatizing the gains and socializing the losses; a bailout and socialism for the rich, the well-connected and Wall Street. And it is a scandal that even Congressional Democrats have fallen for this Treasury scam that does little to resolve the debt burden of millions of distressed home owners. Nouriel Roubini

    Nouriel is one of the best and unlike some or unlike most tells the truth as best he can

  9. Poilu said on September 28th, 2008 at 7:33pm #

    “socialism for the rich”

    Just to throw in my own two cents on this, the above phrase has virtually swamped the Internet as a shorthand description of this bailout’s implications.

    While it’s not exactly “inaccurate” to thus describe these furtive machintions, the phrase is nevertheless misleading and constitutes a hopelessly “politically correct” euphemism.

    The “short and sweet” term for such unholy collaboration between government and big business, resulting in the generalized disenfranchisement of the people at large, is rightly “Fascism”!

    It walks like a duck, and it’s long been talking like a duck. Shall we therefore plainly CALL it a “duck”?

  10. Poilu said on September 28th, 2008 at 7:56pm #

    Donald Hawkins:

    Mind you, I think Roubini’s essential “take” above is pretty flawlessly correct.

    It’s merely that phrase — “socialism for the rich” — which has cropped up like “mushrooms in manure” ACROSS the web’s political spectrum that I find to be an unfortunate obfuscation.

    Socialism, aside from perhaps the atrociously misnamed “National Socialism” of Nazi Germany, is CLEARLY not what we’re witnessing in the USA today. “Socialism” automatically implies a MORE, not less, equitable distribution of wealth. And this Corporatist (i.e., Fascist) bailout manipulation constitutes QUITE the opposite philosophy.

  11. James Keye said on September 28th, 2008 at 8:41pm #

    ‘Socialism for the rich’ is simply a disorienting lie and a defamation of socialism; it cannot be. What is being described is Fascism.
    Equivalent expressions: love for the narcissist, honor for the psychopath.

  12. Donald Hawkins said on September 29th, 2008 at 6:42am #

    A new way of thinking and I am very sure working together will be part of that new way of thinking. What we see now is insanity. Same page total focus and let’s see what system works. Can that happen I don’t know.

  13. Doug Tarnopol said on September 29th, 2008 at 7:10am #

    Here’s my no-doubt annoying take on any attempt to justify any current-day political argument in these terms: we simply do not know enough about human evolutionary history. And perhaps never will. Some things are simply logically unknowable: we can’t recover much of the past, biological or historical. We ought to realize that.

    This is not to say that it’s impossible that we’ll ever have new data on human evolutionary history that could be relevant; far from it. But it’s important for all of us to resist the temptation to reach into a very sketchily known evolutionary past to justify current ethical, political, social or cultural preferences. Even when we agree.

    “They” have their “killer ape” types; “we” have our Kropoktins and Childes.

    I think it’s pretty clear that human beings are capable of selfish, destructive behavior. I think it’s pretty clear that human beings are capable of altruistic — or even just enlightened-self-interested, reciprocally altruistic — and constructive behavior. One need not search for some “natural” justification for a preferred one-sided view of human nature.

    For example: what if it were somehow proven that human psychology just so happens to be more negative and selfish than positive? What are we supposed to do — declare the war of all against all to be Nature’s Way and have at it? Of course not. We’d organize ourselves in such a way that encourages the better angels, etc., and holds down the devils. Since it is very likely that people will never figure out what The Answer about our origins is, it seems like we ought to encourage our more constructive and loving side regardless of what The Reality, in some biological-evolutionary sense, may be.

    We don’t like it when conservatives reach for some simplified biologically tarted-up argument to justify their more proximate social goals. We shouldn’t do the same. We should consider that it is possible that human beings are not somehow innately good and that it’s simply our social structure that holds us back. We don’t know. We may be nonviable. But I, for one, would like to see us try something new, socially and politically — such as, say, truly democratic, bottom up, socialism — before we kill ourselves off. Clearly, the capitalist way will kill us all sooner rather than later. It is possible that another structure would be better — I happen to think so — but it’s also possible that nothing will save us in the short run.

    I guess I have a problem with biological arguments because they are really just statements of faith, not knowledge. We should operate on the warranted assumption that we can do better, but without any certainty that better will be good enough. There are no guarantees. We may simply be nonviable — in the short term. All species are nonviable in the long term, of course.

    Optimism of the will, pessimism (or at least agnosticism) of the intellect on this score, as on so many others!