Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Karl Kautsky vs Neanderthal Man; or: away with timelines and tidy categories!

On the wall of my standard three classroom at Drury School there was a poster called 'The Ascent of Man'. The poster was dominated by a painting which showed a succession of species of the homo genus walking across a piece of African savannah decorated with lions and wildebeast. Each succeeding species in the procession was taller, less hairy, and altogether more handsome than its predecessor, and each had been given a set of dates, which indicated when it first walked the earth and when it handed the baton of progress on to the next ancestor of modern humanity. 'Neanderthal man' was the penultimate figure in the procession, a no-longer-missing 'link' with dates that fitted snugly between the demise of homo heidelbergensis and the appearance of homo sapiens.

Even twenty years ago, when I was busy admiring that poster, the linear and teleological model of human evolution it represented was under siege, as pesky scientists discovered more and more fossils and bones that couldn't easily be fitted into tight little categories and a tidy timeline. Today the notion that one homo genus evolved out of another in an orderly evolutionary procession is widely discredited.

The latest issue of Nature magazine drives yet another nail into the coffin of the theory, by describing the discovery of evidence that Neanderthal man lived for 15,000 years longer than was previously believed. Investigation of sites in Gibraltar, the last known bastion of the genus that once roamed over all of Europe, reveal that Neanderthals lingered on until at least 25,000 BC, and that they almost certainly co-existed for some time with our homo sapiens ancestors. Commenting on these new findings at the Guardian website, Simon Jenkins notes the change in our understanding of the Neanderthals since the first discovery of their remains in a German valley one hundred and fifty years ago:

Neanderthals...are now recognised as one of many genetic blind alleys, stretching far back over half a million years yet surviving some 10,000 years after the arrival in northern climes of Homo sapiens from its African homeland.

Natural history is full of blind alleys. Ninety-nine per cent of the species that have ever existed are now extinct, and most of them failed to bequeath successors. The notion that natural history, and especially the natural history of the homo genus, is the history of steady progress towards 'higher' and more sophisticated forms belongs to the realm of religion, not science.

But it is not only natural history that has been widely imagined as teleology. For many people, including many historians, the history of human affairs is the story of an 'ascent' from 'primitive' to more 'advanced' societies. Generations of would-be Marxists have proven themselves particularly susceptible to this illusion. Karl Kautsky and other intellectual heavyweights of the Second International developed elaborate schemata that imagined human societies passing through ineluctable 'stages', on their way to a communist utopia. Tidy timelines marked with 'stages' like 'primitive communism', 'feudalism' and so on - completely abstract conceptual rubbish bins for masses of anomalous historical detail - were laid out in tomes like Kautsky's Materialist Conception of History.

Members of the Second International like Britain's Henry Hyndman and Germany's Eduard Bernstein soon found themselves advancing 'socialist' justifications for European imperialism in Africa and Asia: colonisation was a necessary 'stage' that these societies had to go through, on their way down the long road to communism. Stalin rehashed the stagist arguments of the Second International when he needed to justify collaboration with Chiang Kai-Shek in China, and similarly slippery bourgeois nationalist politicians in numerous other colonial and semi-colonial countries. Today Norm Geras, Christopher Hitchens, and the other denizens of the pro-war 'left' deploy the same arguments to justify the subjugation of Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States. Even lively and thoughtful Marxist publications like the Weekly Worker sometimes find themselves playing host to unconsciously but virulently racist stagist arguments.

The linear, teleological view of history was undoubtedly given a shot in the arm by the widespread misunderstanding of the new theory of evolution in the nineteenth century, but it existed long before Darwin. In The Anthropology of Marxism, his ambitious attempt to trace the roots of key Marxist and pseudo-Marxist ideas, Cedric Robinson tracks the model of history that encumbered thinkers like Kautsky back to early Christianity, and to the writings of Exiguous and St Augustine in particular. These pious men saw history as an anticipation of the second coming of Christ and the final defeat of evil. Rejecting cyclical and other non-linear models of time, they inverted the linear stories of decline from a golden era told by Greek thinkers like Hesiod and Plato and in doing so created an eschatological teleology of considerable power.

The young Karl Marx could sometimes lapse into a teleological view of history. He and Engels spend the first pages of The Communist Manifesto lauding the achievements of industrial capitalism, and celebrating its violent 'dragging' of 'barbarous' nations into the realms of 'civilisation'. Such rhetoric suggests a belief that there is only one mode of progress available to human societies, and that the rest of the world must imitate the experience of the 'advanced' countries of Western Europe if it is to take the road to communism.

The later Marx would strike a very different note, decrying the destruction of pre-capitalist social relations in Russia and insisting that Capital was intended as a model of economic and social development in Western Europe, not a prediction of the necessary path that the history of any society must take. The immense and seldom-studied body of writing Marx produced on pre-capitalist societies in his last decade bears out the argument of Franklin Rosemont's splendid essay 'Karl Marx and the Iroquois':

[Marx's] conclusion that revolutionary social transformation could proceed from different directions and in different (though not incompatible) ways was a logical extension of his multi-linear view of history into the present and future.

The linear, stagist view of human history is as devoid of explanatory value as the view of natural history expressed by that poster on the wall of my standard three classroom. It too deserves to die.

5 Comments:

Blogger steve heeren said...

sorry for being pedantic, but it is franklin rosemont, not stanley. you were probably thinking of stanley diamond, a marxist anthropologist.

4:14 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

These are always very enlightening essays Maps. Cheers. Eyelight.

12:23 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good god! What have you done to the look of your blog?

11:54 am  
Anonymous Robert said...

Nice post which The latest issue of Nature magazine drives yet another nail into the coffin of the theory, by describing the discovery of evidence that Neanderthal man lived for 15,000 years longer than was previously believed. Investigation of sites in Gibraltar, the last known bastion of the genus that once roamed over all of Europe, reveal that Neanderthals lingered on until at least 25,000 BC, and that they almost certainly co-existed for some time with our homo sapiens ancestors. Thanks a lot for posting.

5:03 am  
Anonymous Cindy said...

Nice post which Each succeeding species in the procession was taller, less hairy, and altogether more handsome than its predecessor, and each had been given a set of dates, which indicated when it first walked the earth and when it handed the baton of progress on to the next ancestor of modern humanity. Neanderthal man was the penultimate figure in the procession, a no-longer-missing link with dates that fitted snugly between the demise of homo heidelbergensis and the appearance of homo sapiens.Thanks a lot for posting.

2:21 am  

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