Why Marxists Need Darwin

Evolutionary Mismatches Challenge the Darwinian Unconscious


Most people who call themselves Marxists will tip their hat to Darwin and then move on. They laude his theory of natural selection for why species go extinct. They will support his gradualist theory that change is slow in the biological world. Of course, they will celebrate how humans evolved from the ape line rather than descended from the heavens. But once this is acknowledged and socio-cultural evolution for humans  begins, Darwin seems not to be needed. In present time, Marxists are fine when they hear Darwinian explanations for other species (Stephen Jay Gould). But when it comes to applying Darwin to the human species in the present, Marxists become suspicious. Why? Because they say we are now socio-historical creatures. The argument in this article is that Darwinism, in the form of evolutionary psychology, explains a great deal about human conflict as it exists today as well as in the future.

The Social and Psychological Impact of Darwin Over the last 100 years

As many of you know, the period between 1880 to the end of World War II was a rough time for Darwinism. Social Darwinism began in the 1870s, then was joined by the eugenics movement at the turn of the century. The rise of fascism in the 20th century had a biological basis for its ideology. Then two world wars in which fascism played a major part, not just in Germany but also in Italy, Japan and Spain. By the end of World War II, and for the next thirty years you couldn’t make a biological argument for any social problems without being called racist or sexist. Even in the fields of personality, biological arguments were isolated into one school of personality (Hans Eysenck).

In 1975, E.O. Wilson threw down the gauntlet. Wilson’s specialty was the study of animal societies and he tried to explain how much of human behavior was not very different from the behavior of other animals in their own societies. Wilson emphasized genes as the major causal variable while limiting human culture to a secondary factor. He founded a new field called sociobiology. The attacks on Wilson came fast and furious and Marxists were right in the thick of things, calling Wilson a reductionist. Others implied there were racist, sexist, and class implications for what Wilson was saying. Wilson held on and over the years adapted and qualified his views, giving culture a more prominent role.

In the middle of the 1980s a new field developed called evolutionary psychology.

Among other things, evolutionary psychology was more sensitive than sociobiology to social evolution, explaining that there were different types of society. Different social formations interact with natural selection in different ways depending on whether the societies were hunter-gathering, horticulturalists, agricultural states, herding societies or industrial capitalist societies. In addition, evolutionary psychology was about how psychological conflict arises when biological evolution and social evolution clash. About one third of my article is about these conflicts which are called by evolutionary psychologists “evolutionary mismatches”.

Common Misunderstandings of Evolutionary Psychology

  • Human behavior is genetically determined

Genes are a necessary but not sufficient condition for determining human behavior. Biology and social life together interact all the way back in the mammalian kingdom. Together they concreate strategies of adaption. Genes are far from being the sole determinate of what people do.

  • If it is evolutionary, we can’t change it

Evolutionary adaptations set the framework for what can or can’t happen. But within that framework there is lots of room for bio-social creativity. However, the adaptations we developed as hunter-gatherers are at least 90% of our history. What we have learned over these 100,000 years won’t be easy to change.

  • Evolutionary theories require improbable mathematical computational abilities to weigh the pros and cons of different adaptation choices

    Most of the decisions evolutionary organisms make in adaptation occurs through unconscious processes. Being conscious of how they work is not necessary. In fact, in some cases this knowledge would get in the way. Evolutionary processes only become conscious when there is a problem at the lower level.

    • Current mechanisms of adaptation are optimally designed

    This is a common misunderstanding of religious creationists who imagine Darwinists have to explain how every adaptation is a perfect solution. Darwinians, however, recognize that adaptations are often imperfect compromises which are only satisfactory or just good enough. An example is the skin coloring of mammalian males. On one hand, males’ coloring must blend enough into the environment to act as camouflage so as to not be eaten by other animals. Yet they cannot be so blended that they are not sexually attractive to females. One the other hand males aspiring to look like peacocks to attract females cannot be so brilliant that they turn into dead meat.

    • Evolutionary theory implies a motivation to maximize gene reproduction

    As we know, males and females do not look at each other consciously with the intention of maximizing their genes. Males and females do this without knowing anything about Darwin, adaptation or sexual selection. Males and females have different mating strategies and these strategies play out unconsciously. For example, men will be attracted to women with a bust-waist-hip ration of 3-2-3 of 4-6-4 because these ratios are a good bet that women will be fertile. This preference is hard-wired into men whether or not they consciously want to have children. On the other hand, women will be drawn to men with wide-shoulders and narrow hips because that appears as a way for men to offer women protection and strength against threat. Men go to the gym to strive for this, whether or not they want to have children. Good genes for men and woman translate as “beautiful” or “handsome”. Bad genetic bets translate as “ugly”.

    What is Human Nature?

    As soon as Marxists hear the word “human nature” being thrown around they think the explanation will be both a) biological, and b) static and impossible to change. Often, they will counter this by saying human nature is social rather than biological, dynamic rather than static. The problem with Marxist explanations are that human nature is bio-social not just social. Also, when Marx says human nature is the ensemble of social relations, he ignores the fact that in some societies biology has more influence on others, as we will see.

    Human societies are said to be between 100,000 – 150,000 years old. 90-95% of that time has been spent as hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gathering societies have been the cauldron in which human nature was formed. Whatever adaptation skills or sexual selection strategies were learned during this time, they have gone deep into our plumbing and aren’t about to change quickly or easily.

    The following have been our biological social predispositions for most of 100,000 years:

    • Preference for groups of 50-150 in number
    • Ethnocentrism (belief in the superiority of one’s group)
    • A division of labor between men and women (men big-game hunting, woman gathering)
    • The propensity to cooperate and share within the group
    • Egalitarian political relations with no institutional leadership
    • No political hierarchies or social classes
    • Economics based on generalized reciprocity
    • Presence of social property, not private property
    • A tension between polygamy and monogamy
    • Men marrying younger women
    • Life expectancy of between ages 28-35
    • Apprenticeship-type education
    • Belief in earth spirits, ancestor spirits and totems rather than gods or goddesses
    • Loyalty to local groups (no nationalism)

    It is only due to the propaganda of state civilizations and capitalist societies that so much of our biological social predispositions has been reversed.

    The Darwinian Unconscious

    Western Marxists bet on the wrong horse and nominate Freud

    When “western Marxists” became enthralled with the Frankfurt School, they were all aflutter with psychology.  But instead of maintaining a materialist framework and looking into Vygotsky and sociohistorical psychology in the Soviet Union, they went elsewhere. Even within western bourgeois psychological schools of psychology they could have explored behaviorism or the cognitive schools which had a good reputation for doing good scientific follow-up. Did they try to integrate them with Marxism? No. Instead they selected the most unscientific school of all: Freudian. A few books came out attempting  to synthesize Marx and Freud. One problem was that Freudians (and all of western societies)  had a liberal social contract epistemology that is fundamentally opposed to a Marxian social materialist framework.

    Additionally, the content of the Freudian unconscious is filled with far-fetched sexual motivations about babies wanting to murder their parents. Try explaining the workings of the Freudian unconscious to the working class. They would dismiss Marxists even more than they do now. Does this mean Marxists should abandon explaining unconscious motivation completely because Freud engaged in such far-fetched fantasies about it?  No. We think instead that a Darwinian theory of the unconscious has a lot more to offer, as I will explain.

    History of human societies: from bio-social beings to socio-historical biological  beings

    As we said, in the history of human societies we humans spent at least 100,000 years as hunter-gatherers. About 8,000 BCE we began to live in simple and complex horticultural villages. Complex horticultural societies (chiefdoms) had the first hierarchies. Around three thousand BCE, the first agricultural states emerged in Mesopotamia and Egypt. About 1000 years later, the same archaic state system irrupted in China and India. Alongside these planting societies there emerged herding societies using camels, sheep and goats.  Beginning with the Phoenicians and Greeks  in the ancient world and the Carthaginians, maritime states dotted the some of the global sea coasts. Then in the 14th century, the first of four forms of capitalism emerged. The first was in mercantile capitalism of Venice and Genoa; then with the seafaring Dutch in the 17thcentury; then agricultural slave capitalism in the United States and Britain; and finally the industrial and finance capital of the British and the United States in the 18th to 20th centuries. Why am I telling you this? Because the later in time we go, the more people become social-historical beings and the less we are determined by biology.

    Driving Darwin into our social unconscious

    Furthermore, as different as these societies were from each other, there is a general trend that reversed most of our biological social predispositions in which we formed our human nature. Our novel socio-historical institutions included:

    • Societies that grew from 150 people to thousands and eventually millions of people
    • The state emerged from camps and villages
    • Hierarchical political class relations grew out of egalitarian relations
    • Capitalism arose – a movement away from economic generalized reciprocity to surplus appropriation and exploitation
    • The existence of private property out of social property
    • Harnessing of animate and inanimate sources of energy as opposed to human energy
    • Life expectancy rose from 40 to 72 by the last third of the 20th century
    • Polytheism and monotheism replaced animism
    • Nationalism became the basis of politics and overrode identification with the local

    In hunting and gathering societies, we were primarily bio-social beings and consciously followed biological adaptations. At the other extreme, in industrial capitalist societies, we are primarily socio-historical beingsand we consciously follow new needs and desires that grew out of social institutions that were formed away from the conditions of our human nature. These include the nine bullet points above. Our biological adaptations are no longer consciously pursued and are now in our social Darwinian unconscious which is ready to spring up. Please see the table below for a summary.

    Evolutionary Mismatches and the Darwinian Unconscious

    Hunter-gatherersType of SocietyIndustrial Capitalist Societies
    Bio-socialType of BeingPrimarily sociohistorical, biological
    Consciously pursued

    Formation of human nature

    Biological AdaptationsLive on as a Darwinian unconscious
    Conflicts over survival between humanity and biophysical natureRealm in which Conflicts Take PlaceEvolutionary mismatches between our Darwinian unconscious and the new needs and desires created by industrial capitalist societies

    Defining evolutionary mismatches

    Evolutionary psychologists claim that there is a fundamental contradiction between how we lived our lives as hunter-gatherers and how we have lived today in industrial capitalist societies. Our hard wiring as hunter-gatherers is like our Darwinian unconscious. What we consciously pursue today are the needs and desires that emerge as a result of the emergence of the state, capitalism, nationalism, industrialization, social classes and private property.

    Examples of Evolutionary Mismatches

    Attraction to fat and sugar

    Countless dieticians and health educators tell us fat and sugar are bad for us – yet we keep eating them. Why is this? Why hasn’t natural selection eliminated the attraction after over 100,000 years? What does fat and sugar give us? Quick energy. In the era of hunter-gatherers fat and sugar was scarce and finding some might come in handy against large animals during a hunt. Besides that, fat and sugar could not accumulate on bodies that walked and ran numerous miles in a single day. But between 8,000 and 2,000 BCE, life became more sedentary for the middle and upper classes in state civilizations as these classes grew heavier. Peasants working on a farm certainly maintained a rich physical life but they often lacked protein (which was monopolized by the upper classes) and loaded up on carbohydrates, gaining weight. Then the slave trade began in Europe. While sugar was once a delicacy of the upper classes, in the 20th century sugar in large quantities has been made available to the working class and even poor people. The result is an epidemic of diabetes.

    Here is a case where are Darwinian unconscious is still firing — craving fat and sugar. However current social conditions are far from the conditions in which we formed our human nature and are operating to undermine our health. At the same time, capitalists have also organized the production globally so that of a great deal of healthy food can be had from all over the world in far greater variety than in hunting and gathering days.

    Sedentary work requires a need for exercise

    Today middle and upper-middle class citizens in Mordor struggle mightily to stay physically fit because of being locked into desk work. Gyms spring up along with personal trainers to keep people physically healthy. Doctors ask us how much exercise during the day we get. During the hunting and gathering period, there was no such thing as exercise. Both women and men were constantly moving. Neither did they have low back pain from too much sitting. Sitting in chairs was not something people did. They squatted, stood up or lay down. Leg weights, arm weights and all that gyms have to offer was unnecessary during our hunting-gathering period.

    Loneliness: living among millions of strangers

    The psychological experience of loneliness is for the most part unique to the last century or so. Hunter-gathers of up to 150 people were grouped to families where everyone mostly knew everyone else. In horticulture societies, kin groups and clans locked people into social networks. In agricultural states people lived in intergenerational families where elders passed on ways of life. It wasn’t until the breakup of communities at the end of the 19th century and rise of mass society — movies, mass transit and radios that people began to be feel cut off. So today we hire professionals comfort us in our loneliness: professional therapists for our minds and  cuddlers to give us body contact.

    On the positive side, the presence of large groups of strangers frees us from what could be the stifling conformity that life in smaller group can perpetuate. We can try new things — new forms of music, art or invention — that we might hesitate to try among tribes’ clan members or nosey extended family members.

    Explosion of occupational opportunities

    During the hunting and gathering period and, in fact up until about 1500 CE, no relative or neighbor ever asked children what they wanted to be when they grew up. It was understood that whatever work your parents did was the work you did. But with the rise of the modern state, bureaucratic positions opened up for middle class people as translators, scribes and civil servants. The industrial revolution opened up a variety of jobs for the working class, middle class and upper middle class, including those of doctors, lawyers, architects. This was an advance for humanity as people could pursue talents and skills that would lay dormant in a hunting and gathering society.

    Advanced technology dissolves dependence on human muscle power

    During the hunting and gathering times, it was necessary for men to do the big-game hunting and women to the gathering because of what big-game hunting requires.

    Running, tumbling, sphere-throwing and wrestling with dead carcasses requires upper body strength that women didn’t have. This division stayed in place when the plow was invented during the agricultural era because pulling a plow and working with large draft animals also required upper body muscles. But along with the industrial revolution came tractors. This was a boon for women, because women could more actively participate in farming activities since the tractor made upper body strength  irrelevant. Here is an evolutionary mismatch that contributed (unconsciously) to feminism.

    The intensification of ethnocentrism

    As I mentioned earlier, ethnocentrism goes all the way back to hunter-gatherers. However, the only time hunter-gatherers mixed outside their group were in exceptional circumstances such as war. Those agricultural states that developed empires brought in subjugated populations with whom the natives had to mix.  On the whole, cultures did pretty well with each other. The evolutionary mismatch came about with the slave trade which created much harder boundaries between groups, especially between whites and the subjugated slaves. So, in one sense ethnocentrism was made worse within modern people by turning ethnocentrism into racism.

    On the other hand, race relations in the United States were improved through the interaction of Blacks and whites in the music of blues, country music and jazz. Furthermore, thanks to the emergence of socialism in integrated unions like the IWW negative race relations were challenged. However, the modern ideology of racism has tenaciously hung on, as any look at structural racism in Yankeedom today in the area of wages, housing, or education can attest to.

    From voluptuous to skinny women

    As stated earlier, men are naturally attracted to women with large breasts, narrow waists and large hips because these are signs that a woman is fertile and healthy. But if that is the case then why do we see so many magazines with 12-year-old girls with makeup dressed up  to look about 17 and held up as icons of femineity and attraction? Why would women be interested in becoming skinny if it goes against evolutionary psychology? Why wouldn’t sexual selection filter this aspiration out? The answer is that in the 20th century advertisers have created cultural institutions that override sexual selection preferences, at least for some classes and races of women.

    If advertisers for diet programs simply appealed to women’s existing bodies there is a limit in how much money they could make. This is because women’s bodies are naturally voluptuous, especially after they have children. This means that diet programs might be limited to losing fat around the belly. But if you advertise that the ideal woman has small breasts and narrow hips in addition to a slim waste, you might be able to sell three times the products. Few women over 20 can compete with a 17-year-old in terms of the skinny woman ideal, and this is exactly what advertisers want.

    If you can convince women they need to be skinny, they will buy your products for very long time. There is no anorexia or bulimia in hunting and gathering societies. This is the result of insecure teenage girls who get sucked into this trend. Thankfully most working-class women have not caught the “thin is in” contagion. Neither have black or Hispanic women. Essentially it is white upper middle-class women who have become successful targets. Many have actually successfully become slim because they are more likely to have time to go to a gym and cook or pay for healthy meals which are the result of slow cooking.

    Expectations of better looks

    Speaking of appearances, in hunting-gathering societies there were slim pickings when it came to finding a partner. In societies of 50-150 people, marriage partners were found either within their societies or as a result of sacred ceremonies or trading opportunities with other societies. That meant that for most men and women their partners had average looks and that was good enough. However, in the 20th century with the rise of advertising, movie stars and fashion magazines, the men and women who bought them began to compare local prospects to movie stars, musicians and models they found in mass media. Of course, this did not mean their chances of finding some “hunks” were any better. What it did was destabilize the psychology of males and females by raising their expectations while never really fulfilling them.

    Timing and age range of marriages

    During the hunting-gathering period men and women bonded when young. Unconsciously, people were following the sexual selection probability that 15-year-old boys and girls are less likely to have contracted any diseases, so their children would be likely to be fit. While girls would choose boys that were a little older, there was little to gain in holding out for an older guy because hunter-gatherers had no private property and did not accumulate wealth. As chiefdoms developed rank societies, chiefs could marry more than one woman. To be a chief’s wife was a step up for women because of chief’s accumulated wealth. In agricultural civilizations, the same pattern expanded. Women who were captured as slaves could actually improve their situation by being chosen as a member of the harem.

    At the end of the 19th century, the life expectancy began to climb. In marriage dynamics the gap in age between men and woman began to grow. Working class women strove to marry outside their social class and held out for older men because chances of these men accumulating more wealth was greater. With the rise of the sexual revolution in the late 1960s, the tendency for men to marry younger women was challenged. Having lived through that age, I can say that my life choices were counter to Darwinian sexual selection dictates. My current partner is six years older than I and I had no desire to have children. These choices were much easier to make because the counter-culture was like a womb which made it safe to buck the evolutionary trends without feeling like an outcast.

    Increase in the rate of divorce

    The extent to which women are willing to consider divorce has a great deal to do with whether the work they do could support an independent life. In hunting and gathering societies men and women practiced serial monogamy and gender relations were relatively equal. In horticultural societies women were in charge of gardening and worked in public. When horticultural societies switched to agriculture, the men took over the cultivation of fields. Women lost control over working in public and began canning and weaving indoors. There was constant pressure on women to have more children, especially boys, to assist their fathers in the fields. There was also a rise in domestic violence because women were isolated from other women and could not rely on them for protection (as they could in foraging and horticulture societies). Peasant women (90% of the population of agricultural civilizations) put up with abusive marriages because they couldn’t afford to leave. This was the beginning of patriarchy. This martial abuse continued in industrial capitalist societies for the working class and to a lesser extent middle class women.

    However, in the early 1970s things began to change for the better for women. Yankee capitalists decided the way to combat competition from Japan and Germany was to relocate factories overseas where land and labor were cheaper. The union jobs in US manufacturing dried up for men. Working class women began to go from working part-time to full time. Meanwhile middle-class jobs were created in corporations which middle class women flocked to. A natural expression for the women’s movement was for women to work full time professionally as middle or senior managers, lawyers, or college teachers. All this work paid enough money that if a woman wanted to leave a bad marriage she could. The divorce rate rose in the 1970s because middle class and upper-middle class women could afford to leave bad marriages or they could insist that men go to therapy with them.


    This article began by stating that Marxists are generally aware of the value of Darwin when it came to the origin of species as well as how other species operate today. But Marxists are usually less aware of how much Darwin’s ideas are relevant today as they apply to the human species. The reason for this lack of awareness is because right-wing conservatives have used Darwin’s ideas over the last 100 years from Social Darwinism to eugenics to fascist ideology. By the time sociobiology emerged in the 1970s, Marxists remained skeptical of any Darwinian application to the human species today. It was only Stephen Jay Gould and a few others who bridged the gap between Darwin and Marx.

    The bulk of this article is about what happened to Darwinism after sociobiology. A new field of Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, emerged in the middle of the 1980s. After explaining the differences between sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, I take the reader through five of the most common misunderstandings of Darwinism. I point out that evolutionary psychologists claim that there is such a thing as human nature and it was formed over a 100,000-year period with human as hunter-gatherers. I identify fourteen social predispositions that were rooted in this 100,000-year period.

    Evolutionary psychology does not advocate that biology is destiny. I describe how, as human beings moved away from our hunting and gathering origins where we formed our human nature, a tension was created. This tension was between what we learned as hunter-gatherers and what was expected by social institutions of later societies, especially industrial capitalist societies. This tension resulted in evolutionary mismatches.I illustrated these tensions in ten areas: attraction to fat and sugar; the need for exercise; loneliness; explosion of occupational opportunities; advanced technology; ethnic relations; body shape preferences; expectations of better looks; the timing of and age range of marriages; and the increase in divorce rates.

    These evolutionary psychological mismatches explain many conflicts that people living in industrial capitalist societies must grapple with. These do not compete or replace Marxian explanations for conflict within the individual. Conflicts due to capitalist crisis, to the alienation of labor, class humiliation, exploitation of labor, overwork and other Marxian explanations are still in place. Evolutionary psychology is meant to fill in the crevices where Marxism is incomplete or left unexplored. Darwin and Marx should be understood as complementing each other in how we understand the alienated individual of industrial capitalist societies as well as the tools in creating the foundation for a realistic socialist human nature in the future.


    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.