Scaling the Heights and the Depths

Why Bio-Social Evolution and Futurology Should Matter to Socialists

Until now… men were living both dispersed and at the same time, closed in on themselves, like passengers in a ship who have met by chance below decks with no idea of its mobile character and its motion. They could, accordingly think of nothing to do… but to quarrel or amuse themselves… Hitherto, in spite of external forces whose influence is to bring them together, the relations between spiritual atoms seem to be governed by an inflexible internal repulsion…. The more planetary ties tend to force us together, the more do we feel the need to disengage ourselves from one another.

— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy, October 1970

The purpose of this article is to criticize the non-Leninist left in the United States for failing to provide its population with answers to three questions which every world religion provides answers: a) what are we? b) where did we come from? c) where are we going? This does not imply that the left must become religious. It only means that world religions have learned over thousands of years what draws people to them and, given the small numbers of people who are leftists, we could learn much from religion. I exclude the Leninist left because their theories are less susceptible to my reservations. I call the left in the United States “myopic” because right now it is not rooted in the past and it is afraid to project a vision of the future.

The Rise and Fall of Deep Futures on the Left

Today non-Leninist socialists are mired in the present. To them, only naïve liberals would dare to suggest that any futurist social life could be planned. Only naïve liberal educators, scientists, engineers and technocrats who sit on committees within the United Nations would actually produce such blueprints that never see the light of day. By the 1970’s it would seem that a major activity of left wing social scientists would have been to use the data in the field to construct models for a socialist future. This has not been the case. For 40 years leftist academics, acting as culture vultures, have drowned out any futurist planning schemes in a screeching cacophony of claims that projecting socialist futures was imperialist, oppressive, hopeless and out of date. David Schweickart, Michael Albert and Erik Olin Wright are three exceptions to the rule. Among non-socialists I still find that Buckminster Fuller and Oliver Reiser had breath-taking command of many disciplines and organized them in the service of a planetary civilization. Teilhard de Chardin is at his poetic best when describing the “noosphere” that the Russian Vernadsky coined.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the political left had a deep perspective about both the past and the future. Not only were the workers fighting capitalist owners of the factories in the contemporary world, but theorists like Fourier, St. Simon and Edward Bellamy projected possible socialist futures. Before Marx went on a tirade against socialist planning, it was at least a tolerated activity for intellectuals.

Rise and Fall of Deep Pasts on the Left

Theories of Progress

By the latter half of the 19th century, whether they identified with a liberal Enlightenment, Marxism or even anarchism, most theorists thought that the past was on their side. They speculated that human history did have a direction, and that direction was “progress.” Progress meant that human societies were gradually getting better using the criteria of material wealth, a more expansive morality, and less superstition. All social institutions would soon to be governed by collective reason. Many of the first wave of anthropologists in the 1870’s through 1900 categorized human societies as progressing in several areas. These include moving from savagery to barbarism to civilization (Morgan) and in the evolution of law from law based on status to law based on contract (Maine). According to Durkheim, societies were evolving from mechanical to organic solidarity. For Marx, human history could be organized as moving from primitive communism, to a descent into status and class societies and through crisis, possibly to advanced communism.

Cultural relativism

The second wave of anthropologists, led by Franz Boas, rightly challenged the theory of progress as racist because if the latest societies were the best, then European societies were like adults, agricultural civilizations (most of whom were not white) were like adolescents and the remaining tribal societies in Africa were like children. This scenario worked very well if you were an imperialist or a missionary in the Gilded Age.

The theory of cultural relativism weakened the comparative nature of science in anthropology. According to cultural relativists, no anthropologist could make scientific judgments about how societies evolved in relation to each other because each society was thought to be unique. Who are we to say that one society is better than another? This was the argument of the “Culture and Personality” theorists like Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. Two world wars, a major economic depression and fascism buried the idea that social evolution could be characterized as progress. Whatever the direction of human societies, they certainly were not getting better. Among the thinking of cultural relativists, societies, if anything, were getting worse.

Leninists hold-outs

Meanwhile, Old left Trotskyists and Stalinists continued to believe that there was something like progress going on in social evolution in spite of everything. However, after World War II, it became still harder to stand behind the theory for progress. What made things worse is that the Leninist left failed to update Marx and Engels’ theory. Instead of sensitively incorporating what anthropologists have found about pre-industrial societies in the past 130 years, they continued to hold as sacred a sketch Marx and Engels’ drafted while anthropology was still in its infancy.

New Left anarchists

As for the anarchists, with the exception of Murray Bookchin and maybe a few others, the rebirth of anarchism in the 1960’s was accompanied by a surrender of the idea that the material wealth produced by capitalism was a necessary condition for socialism. The rise of the ecology movement furthered the conviction that the expectation of abundance was a sin and we needed to make do with less. Greens, anarcho-primitivists and individualist-anarchists entertained degenerative romantic notions of social evolution. By the 1960’s when the New Left rejected the Old Left, they embraced cultural relativism and have, with rare exceptions, never questioned it.

3rd Wave of anthropology “Improvised Evolutionists”

At Darwin’s centennial in 1959, a number of anthropologists expressed dissatisfaction with cultural relativism because it lacked a comparative understanding of how human societies are linked to history, to population pressure, resource depletion and ecological crisis. Leslie White tried to understand the evolution of culture through increasingly complex methods of harnessing energy. Elman Service and Marshall Sahlins also argued that there were patterns of culture linked to harnessing energy. Julian Steward saw cultures as adaptations to ecological settings. Marvin Harris presented a theory of cultural materialism in which population pressure and resource depletion were the real driving forces behind cultural evolution. In his book Cannibals and Kings, Harris traced this recurring pattern as he moved from hunter-gatherers, to simple and complex horticultural societies, to agricultural states to industrial capitalist countries. The work of Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse) is only the latest version of this third school.

All these “improvised evolutionists” (my term) argued that while characterizing the evolution of human societies as “progress” is obsolete, neither are they satisfied with liberal, humanist, cultural relativist ideas, which describe societies as accidental configurations that have neither rhyme nor reason.

From Socio-biology to Evolutionary Psychology

After World War II, it was thirty years before any biological explanation of human behavior would be tolerated in the social sciences. These conditions were made worse by the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Socio-Biology. His initial effort was to study human societies as they are compared to other animal societies. The problem for socialists arose when he reduced the dynamics of human societies solely to biological explanations.

What most of the left paid no attention to was the growth of a Darwinian evolutionary psychology which was much more willing to consider the active role of human culture in understanding human behavior. Darwinian psychology suggests that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature was formed in hunting and gathering societies 100,000 years ago. Many new human problems have come about in the last 10,000 years as we moved into social configurations such as horticulture, agriculture and industry, which were far from the conditions under which our human nature formed. Today “evolutionary mismatches” can explain many current conflicts between males and female over mating strategies, obesity, anxiety and rise in divorces.

Furthermore, the bio-evolutionary theory David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson have argued that altruism has a basis in natural selection, which goes far beyond Hamilton’s original formulation of “reciprocal altruism”. Christopher Bohme has provided significant evidence for the egalitarian nature of chimp societies. If Marx and Engels were alive they would have been thrilled with these findings. So would the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, whose book, Mutual Aid, is a precursor to current evolutionary emphasis on the power of cooperation in natural selection. But for the relativist left, harnessing our biological and social evolutionary deep past is forbidden territory. Relativist leftist theories rob humanity of our deep social history and our connection to biological evolution.

The Human Need For A Theory of Origins

The overwhelming majority of people on this planet are religious. As I said at the beginning of this article, we need a story about what we are, where we have been, and where we are going. If we don’t provide one, the organized religions and cults will be more than happy to continue to oblige. Humanist academic leftists may be proud of their existential anguish and post-modern shift shaping, but no one outside liberal universities would be happy with this scenario. Improvised evolutionists and evolutionary psychologists provide a theory of social origins that has a scientific basis and provides hope. Here, then, is how I would put together a mythological story about our origins.

Prometheus Rising

If human beings stole fire from the gods, as the legend of Prometheus tells us, are we capable of taking that fire and lighting our own way or shall we give fire back to the gods?

For most of history this was not a choice for humanity. People in hunting and gathering and simple horticultural societies were content to work as little as possible and live off the land. Slowly their populations rose, their resources were depleted and they had to work harder and longer to support themselves.

With the rise of states, agriculture and the division of labor between mental and physical labor, there arose the first of a long series of contradictions. On one hand, there was a greater abundance of food, greater control over ecological uncertainties, and a specialization of knowledge. On the other hand, there arose the first social classes where life was good for about 10% of the population and very bad for 90%. These 90% produced enough food and other necessities to end the conditions of social scarcity for them. However, like a sleeping giant, they did not realize their own power.

Then, for the first time in history, the story of Prometheus became a pertinent issue for humanity. Between the rise of agriculture 5,000 years ago, to the dawn of capitalism in the 16th century, for the most part, the vast majority of humanity continued to renounce its own power and give it back to the gods through the form of kings, aristocrats, and ecclesiastical elites.

With the rise of capitalism, more and more of those in the galleys began to feel their own power. Some of those in the middle of the class hierarchy even turned on their masters. The results were mixed. To some extent working conditions got better, and for brief moments of rebellion those at the bottom felt their power. However, due to lack of material resources, lack of confidence and organizational skills, they continued to give the fire back to the gods.

At the same time capitalists themselves faced a unique set of problems. They wished to accumulate as much wealth as possible while enforcing submission on the lower classes. Yet they had to teach the lower classes the collective creativity necessary to problem-solve on the job. Capitalists have never been able to control how these workers used their creativity, especially when they used that creativity to organize against those same capitalists.

The 19th and 20th centuries were the first time that workers took fire from the gods and ran with it. The Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish revolution involved hundreds of thousands of people. They stole the fire and ran with it for weeks, months and even years.

Since the second half of the 19th century the capitalists have faced increasing economic instabilities. Like all ruling classes, they were incapable of managing the systemic crisis they created and like most people so far, they could not think beyond the next generation.

There is now raging an epic battle between the world capitalist class – incompetent, myopic, ignorant of their own system, incapable of ruling – and an erratic lower class caught between wanting the Promethean fire for itself on some occasions yet painfully renouncing their own power on the other.

To summarize, the history of humanity can be understood as a long spiral. The anarchist, Fredy Perlman, waxed poetically that humanity once was much and had little (tribal societies); then had much but was little (life in agricultural and capitalist societies). We have the possibility now of having much and being much. We aspire to be a flicker in the fire of Prometheus, which will take the fire from the gods and light our own world, having much and being much:

… and now, as the normal effect of growing older, we have just opened our eyes. The boldest of us have found our way to the deck. They have seen the vessel that was carrying us along… They have realized that there are boilers to be stroked and wheels to be manned…. they have savored the sweet scent of the Western Isles, over the curve of the horizon: it ceases to be the restless human to and from the same spot. It is no longer a drifting—it is a voyage.

___ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy, October 1970

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. He is a co-founder, organizer and writer for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.