Engels, Labour and the Human Hand

In his book, “SAPIENS:A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND” (2017), Yuual Noah Harari, begins his account of human kind with a chapter, The Cognitive Revolution; that is, with the primacy of thoughts and ideas over all other human attributes.

To illustrate the first part of his book, Harari reproduces a photograph of a human hand-print made about 30,000 years ago, on the wall of the Chauret-Pont-d’Arc cave in Southern France. Superficially, the author remarks that somebody tried to say: “I was here!

From a materialist perspective, the hand illustrated something far more profound; something Frederich Engels discussed in his unfinished pamphlet “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”, written in 1876 but not published until 1896.

One of the most important points made by Engels in his pamphlet was that labour and the making of tools were primary in driving human evolution forward not intelligence per se. It was the early human manufacture of tools and their development that was important. The hand in the cave at Chauret-Pont-d’Arc signified this fact.

The insights provided by Engels in his pamphlet were not lost on some biologists. In his book: “EVER SINCE DARWIN” (1977), the geologist and evolutionist, S. J. Gould pointed out that Engels had identified three features of human evolution; speech, a large brain and an upright posture.

Engels had surmised that the upright posture freed the human hand for using tools. Engels wrote:

These apes when moving on level ground began to drop the habit of using their hands and to adopt a more erect gait. This was the decisive step in the transition from ape to man” (DIALECTICS OF NATURE, 1954 ed., Moscow Foreign Languages Publishing House)

Although there is an interrelationship between being and thought necessary for making and using tools; Gould states that, following Engels’s remarks about up-right posture freeing the human hand for tool-making: “increased intelligence and speech came later” (p. 211). And when Homo Habilis was discovered in Joohi Fora, Kenya, between 1962 and 1964, Dr L Leakey called these 1.8 million year fossils; “Hand or Skilful Man” to highlight the tool-making characteristics of this branch of early human being (see http://www.nature.com/news/human-evolution-fifty-years-after-homo-habilis-1.14957).

For Gould, Engels’s essay is important, among other things, because it questions the belief of “cerebral primacy”. Cerebral primacy is associated with the ruling class and its representatives. In his essay, Engels makes the valid point that as wealth from co-operative labour acting on material nature to make useful things accumulated, small groups of men seized power for themselves to the detriment of the rest of society by forcing others to work for them.

For the ruling class, labour and tool making were seen as a low status activity – it still is. A ruling class was not only backed by force but also by the production and dissemination of ruling class ideas provided by theologians, philosophers and lawyers. State patronage allowed these groups to produce ideas without having to labour. It led to the belief that ideas and the production of ideas was a specialised human activity which increasingly took place in the rarefied atmosphere of the university.

Gould went on to say:

This idealistic tradition dominated philosophy right through to Darwin’s day. Its influence was so subtle and pervasive that even scientific, but apolitical materialists like Darwin fell under its sway. A bias must be recognised before it can be challenged. Cerebral primacy seemed so obvious and natural that it was accepted as given, rather than recognised as a deep-seated social prejudice related to the class position of professional thinkers and their patrons” (p. 212).

He also quoted Engels on this point:

All merit for the swift advance of civilisation was ascribed to the mind, to the development and activity of the brain. Men became accustomed to explain their actions from their thoughts, instead from their needs…And so there arose in the course of time that idealistic outlook on the world which, especially since the downfall of the ancient world, has dominated men’s minds. It still rules hem to such a degree that even the most materialistic natural sciences of the Darwinian school are still unable to form any clear idea of the origin of man, because under the ideological influence they do not recognise the part that has been played therein by labour” (DIALECTICS OF NATURE, 1954 ed., Moscow Foreign Languages Publishing House)

And this ideological strain still runs through the history of what is claimed to be a “science of human nature”; first, Social Darwinianism (“the survival of the fittest”), then socio-biology and genetic determinism with its IQ and selfish genes, and more recently in the crass pronouncements of Evolutionary Psychology.

Evolutionary psychology, for example, with its “just-so” stories plays out a deterministic and reductionist view of human beings which finds a popular outlet in the media where we are frequently told that women are “hard-wired” to have affairs (DAILY MAIL, 21st August 2017), the human species has innate religious and racist beliefs (DAILY MAIL 27th June 2012), that rich men give women more orgasms (SUNDAY TIMES January 18th 2009) while signalling the convenient albeit fictional belief that there is no predisposition for human kind towards equality and a world without exploitation, war, conflict and violence.

For this popular view of human nature we only have to look at writers such as the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker (THE BLANK SLATE: THE MODERN DENIAL OF HUMAN NATURE, 2002) who claims that inequality and conflict are inevitable features of human society. According to Pinker:

The standard Marxist theory of human nature has probably been refuted by many sources of evidence, including the anthropological record and Darwinian Theory” (Quoted in John Horgan, DARWIN ON HIS MIND,” Lingua Franca, November 1997)

Pinker gives no evidence for his assertion. And just what is “The standard Marxist theory of human nature” anyway? And if a Marxist view of human nature has been “probably” refuted it might also be probably true. The logical form “If…then” can be adapted to state the socialist proposition that: “If Evolutionary Darwinism is true then socialism is still possible”.

In other words, there is nothing within Evolutionary Darwinianism, as a developing theory supported by evidence that can scientifically preclude for the human species the formation of a conscious and political socialist majority necessary to establish socialism – the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

And we should note too, that social co-operation has been a more important factor in the survival of human beings than conflict and war while inequality within class societies has only been a recent occurrence in human history. Conflict and inequality are social consequences of particular social systems based on class relationships not innate natural ones. We are not locked by our genes or our ancestry into a system of commodity production and exchange for profit forever.

Whereas socialists do read books written by evolutionary psychologists, it is doubtful if Professor Pinker has ever read Marx’s works in depth or any Marxist theory come to that. Yet, it is not “Marxists” who pay his salary cheque each and every month. It is just that his pronouncement against the possibility of a peaceful co-operative existence of global equality, merely reflects, as Gould noted, the prejudice of the ruling class and their kept intellectuals.

Human beings, however, are not just vehicles for our genes. As natural and social organisms we can select and change our environment through the interaction of our brains and hands and the tools we make in order to survive from one generation to the next. As a species we have survived in co-operation with our fellow human kind and we have been doing so for thousands of years; changing our environment and thereby changing ourselves. The symbol of the hand on the wall of the Chauret-Pont-d’Arc cave in Southern France signifies this fact only too well.

As Gould concluded:

The importance of Engels’s essay does not lie in the happy result that Australopithecus confirmed a specific theory proposed by him – via Haeckel – but rather in his perceptive analysis of the political role of science and the social biases that must effect all thought” (p212).

Evolutionary Psychology is more politics than science.

Back to top

Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.