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An animal with a backbone does not seem strange to us today. But at the time that the first fish appeared upon earth, which we know from geological records to have been roughly five hundred million years ago, he must have seemed a miraculous thing. He was the very latest model in animal design, a radical, one might almost say a reckless experiment of that force which we find it convenient to personify as Mother Nature.
What did its “radicalism” consist of?
For up to that time no creature had ever been made with the hard parts inside instead of outside … Nature might be said to have had a brainstorm, abandoned all the earlier methods and turned out overnight something absolutely new and unheard of.
Although the fish retained some of the old external armour, what was decisive from the standpoint of evolution was its acquisition of the backbone. This converted the fish into a creature basically different from anything living before. Thus, the new backboned type both grew out of the old and outgrew it. But that is not all. It then went on to conquer new realms of existence and activity. The most revolutionary feature of the fish was the fact that it became the starting point for the entire hierarchy of backboned creatures that has culminated in ourselves.
These first vertebrates subsequently advanced from the fish through the amphibians (which lived both in water and on land), through the reptiles, and finally branched off into the warmblooded creatures: birds and mammals. Mankind is the culminating point of mammalian development. This much of animal evolution is accepted by all scientific authorities.
But these ideas and facts, so commonplace today, were the subversive thoughts of yesterday. We readily adopt this scientific view of organic evolution without realising that this very act of acceptance is part of a reversal in human thinking about the world and the creatures in it, which has taken place on a mass scale only during the past century. Recall, for example, the prevalence of the Biblical myth of creation in the Western world up to a few generations ago.
Two aspects of the facts about the vertebrates deserve special discussion. First, the transfer of the bony parts of the fish from the outside to the inside embodied a qualitatively new form of organic structure, a break in the continuity of development up to that time, a jump onto a higher level of life. Every biologist acknowledges this fact. But this fact has a more profound significance, which tells us much about the methods of evolutionary change in general. It demonstrates how, at the critical point in the accumulation of changes outside and inside an organism, the conflicting elements that compose it break up the old form of its existence, and the progressive formation passes over, by way of a leap, to a qualitatively new and historically higher state of development. This is true not only of organic species but of social formations and systems of thought as well.
This radical overturn is undeniable in the case of the birth and evolution of the fish and its ultimate surpassing by higher species. But it is much harder for many people to accept such a conclusion when it comes to the transformation of a lower social organisation into a higher social organisation. This reluctance to apply the teachings of evolution consistently to all things, and above all to the social system in which we live, is rooted in the determination to defend powerful but obsolete and narrow class interests against opposing forces and rival ideas that aim to create a genuinely new order of things.
The second point to be stressed is the fact that the fish, as the first vertebrate, occupies a specific place in the sequence of the evolution of organisms. It is one link in a chain of the manifestations of life extending from one-celled protozoa to the most complex organisms. This first creature with a backbone came out of and after a host of creatures which never had such a skeletal structure and in turn gave rise to superior orders which had that and much more.
Contradictory as it is, many scholars and scientists who take the order of evolution of organic species for granted, stubbornly resist the extension of the same lawfulness to the changing species of social organisations. They will not admit that there has been, or can be, any definite and discernible sequence in the social development of mankind analogous to the steps in the progress from the invertebrates to the fish, through the reptile and mammalian creatures, up to the advent of mankind.
This scepticism in sociology is especially pronounced in the present century, and in our own country and its colleges. Thinkers of this type, of course, know that there have been many changes in history, that many diverse formations are found in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, history, sociology, and politics.
What they deny is that these typical manifestations of social life can — or even should — be arranged in any determinate order of historical development in which each has its given place from the beginning to the end, from the lower to the higher. They teach that all the various forms of culture and ways of life are merely dissimilar to one another and that it is impossible or unnecessary to try to discover any regular sequence or lawful affiliation in their emergence into social reality.
This view and method is thoroughly anti-evolutionary, antiscientific, and essentially reactionary. But it is explainable. The denial of the possibility of finding out the order of advancement in social structures springs — if you will permit the analogy — from the resistance by today’s invertebrates to the oncoming vertebrates who represent a superior form of organisation and are destined to supplant them in the struggle for social survival.
The evolutionary record itself, starting with the upward climb of the fish, most effectively refutes this tenacious conservatism. The first vertebrate was followed by six further progressive types of fish in the next hundred million years. The most advanced was a freshwater, medium-sized carnivorous species whose fossils have been found in Canada. Although this specimen spent much of its life in the water, it had acquired many of the functions required for living on land. Fish, as you know, are customarily at home in water, breathe through gills, and have fins. It was unbecoming to established fish-nature for the first amphibians to get up out of the water and crawl onto land, breathe through lungs, and move about on legs.
Let us imagine a fish (if you will go along with the fancy) who looked backward rather than forward, as some fish do. This backward-looking fish could exclaim to the forward-moving amphibians: “We fish, the oldest inhabitants, have never before done such things; they can’t be done; they shouldn’t be done!” And, when the amphibians persisted, could shriek: “These things mustn’t be done; it’s subversive of the good old order to do them!” However, the resistance of inertia did not prevent some water dwellers from turning into land animals.
Animal life continued to move forward as species were modified and transmuted in response to decisive changes in their genetic constitutions and natural habitats. Amphibians turned into reptiles, which had better developed brains, were rib-breathing, egg-laying, had limbs for locomotion, and well-developed eyes. The reptile kingdom evolved gradually toward the mammal, with transitional types that had features belonging to both, until once again a full-fledged new order stepped into the world.
About 135 million years ago, the animal prototype that gave rise to our own tree-living ancestor emerged. This was a rodentlike creature which took another big leap in evolutionary adaptation and activity by quitting the land for the trees. Arboreal existence over six hundred thousand years so altered our animal ancestors from head to toe, from grasping functions to teeth changes, that they elevated themselves to monkey and ape forms. The kinship of the latter with our own kind is so close that it is difficult to distinguish an embryo of the highest apes from that of a human.
The natural conditions had at last been created for the emergence of mankind. It seems likely that changes in climate and geographical conditions connected with the first Ice Age drove certain species of primates down from the trees, out of the forests and onto the plains. A series of important anatomical developments paved the way for the making of the human race. The shortening of the pelvic bone made it possible for the primate to stand erect, to differentiate forelimbs from hindlimbs and emancipate the hands. The brain became enlarged. Binocular vision and vocal organs made human sight and speech possible.
The central biological organ for the making of mankind was the hand. The hands became opposed to the legs, and the thumb became opposed to the four fingers. This opposition between the thumb and the other fingers has been one of the most fruitful and dynamic of all the unions of opposites in the evolution of humanity. The thumb’s ability to counterpose itself to each of the other fingers gave the hand exceptional powers of grasping and manipulating objects and endowed it with extreme flexibility and sensitivity. This acquisition made possible the biological combination of hand-eye-brain. Combined with the prolonged period of care by the mother for her offspring, the natural prerequisites for social life were at hand.
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At this point something should be said about the most common argument against socialism: “You can’t change human nature!” How much substance is there to this contention?
Once the record of organic evolution is accepted, one proposition, at least, inevitably flows from it: Fish nature can be changed! It has been changed into amphibian, reptile, bird, mammalian, and, ultimately, into human natures. The salt in our bodies is one reminder, among many, of our descent from great-grandfather fish in the oceans of ages ago.
This poses the following pertinent questions to the resisters to social change: If fish can change, or be changed so much, on what grounds can narrow restrictions be imposed upon the changeability of mankind? Did our species lose its plasticity, its potentialities for radical alteration somewhere along the line from the transition of the primate to the human?
The contrary is the case. In the passage to humanity, our species not only retained all the capacities for progressive change inherent in animality but multiplied them to an infinitely higher degree, lifting them onto an entirely new dimension by creating previously unknown ways and means of evolutionary progress.
It required four to five hundred million years to create the biological conditions necessary for the generation of the first subhumans. This was not brought about through anyone’s forethought or foresight, or in accord with any plan, or with the aim of realising some preconceived goal. It happened, we may say, as the lawful outcome of a series of blind and accidental developments in the forms of natural life, spurred forward in the struggle for survival, which eventually culminated in the production of a special kind of primate equipped with the capacities for acquiring more than animal powers.
At this juncture, about a million or so years ago, the most radical of all the transmutations of life on this planet took place. The emergence of mankind embodied something totally different which became the root of a unique line of development. What was this? It was the passage from animal separatism to human collectivism, from purely biological modes of behaviour to the use of acquired social powers.
Where did these added artificial powers come from that have marked off emerging mankind from all other animal species, elevated our species above the other primates, and made mankind into the dominant order of life? Our dominance is indisputable because we command the power to destroy ourselves and all other forms of life, not to speak of changing them.
The fundamentally new powers mankind acquired were the powers of production, of securing the means of sustenance through the use of tools and joint labour, and sharing the results with one another. I can do no more than single out four of the most important factors in this process.
The first was associated activities in getting food and dividing it. The second was the use, and later the manufacture, of implements for that purpose. The third was the development of speech and of reasoning, which arose from and was promoted by living and working together. The fourth was the use, the domestication, and the production of fire. Fire was the first natural force, the first chemical process, put to socially productive use by ascending humanity.
Thanks to these new powers, emerging mankind enormously speeded up the changes in our own species and later in the world around us. The record of history for the past million years is essentially one of the formation of humanity and its continual transformation. This in turn has promoted the transformation of the world around us.
What has enabled mankind to effect such colossal changes in himself and his environment? All the biological changes in our stock over the past million years, taken together, have not been a prominent factor in the advancement of the human species. Yet during that time humanity has taken the raw material inherited from our animal past, socialised it, humanised it, and partially, though not completely, civilised it. The axis of human development, contrasted to animality, revolves around these social rather than biological processes.
The mainspring of this progress comes from the improvement of the powers of production, acquired along the way and expanded in accordance with man’s growing needs. By discovering and utilising the diverse properties and resources of the world around him, man has gradually added to his abilities of producing the means of life. As these have developed, all his other social powers — the power of speech, of thought, of art, and of science, etc. — have been enhanced.
The decisive difference between the highest animals and ourselves is to be found in our development of the means and forces of production and destruction (two aspects of one and the same phenomenon). This accounts not only for the qualitative difference between man and the other animals but also for the specific differences between one level of human development and another. What demarcates the peoples of the Stone Age from those of the Iron Age, and savage life from civilised societies, is the difference in the total powers of production at their disposal.
What happens when two different levels of productive and destructive power measure strength was dramatically illustrated when the Spanish conquerors invaded the Western Hemisphere. The Indians were armed with bows and arrows and slings; the newcomers had muskets and gunpowder. The Indians had canoes and paddles; the Spaniards had big sailing ships. The Indians wore leather or padded jackets for protection in warfare; the Spaniards had steel armour. The Indians had no domesticated draught animals but went on foot; the Spaniards rode horses. Their superior equipment inspired terror and enabled the conquistadores to defeat their antagonists with inferior manpower.
This basic proposition of historical materialism should be easier for us to grasp because we are privileged to witness the first stage of a technological revolution comparable in importance to the taming of fire a half million years ago. That is the acquisition of control over the processes of nuclear fission and fusion. This new source of power has already revolutionised the relations among governments and the art of warfare; it is about to transform industry, agriculture, medicine, and many other departments of social activity.a
What brought this technological revolution about? Mankind underwent no biological changes in the preceding period. Nor were there any sudden alterations in human modes of thinking, in their sentiments, or their moral ideas. This incalculably powerful force of production and destruction issued from the entire previous development of society’s productive forces and all the scientific knowledge and instruments connected with them. Atomic power is the latest link in the chain of acquired powers that can be traced back to the earliest elements of social production: associated labour in securing the necessities of life, tool using and making, speech, thought, and fire. Atomic energy is the latest fruit of the seeds planted back in ancient society, which have been cultivated and improved by humanity in its upward climb.
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Let us come back to that remarkable organ of ours, the hand. The hand, which among the primates originally conveyed food to the mouth, was converted by humanity into an organ for grasping and guiding the materials used and then shaped for tools. The hand is the biological prototype of the tool and the handle; it is the prerequisite and parent of labouring activity. The passage from the hand to the tool coincides with the creation of society and the progressive development of mankind and its latent powers.
The connection between the most rudimentary tools and the complex material instruments of production in today’s industrial system has been graphically illustrated in a chart prepared for the Do-All Corporation, of Des Plaines, Illinois, sponsor of a travelling exhibit on “How Basic Tools Created Civilisation”. This exhibit, which claims to be “the first attempt ever made to assemble the complete history of man’s tools”, documents the stages in the progress of technology.
The first known tools formed by man, called eoliths, date back, some scientists say, to one and a half million years ago. These were sections of broken stone with edges useful for cutting meat, scraping hides, or digging for roots. They were little more than simple extensions of the hand. They were not designed for specific functions but were adaptable for pounding, throwing, scraping, drilling, cutting, etc.
In the next stage, tools underwent improvement along two main lines: their cutting edges were made more efficient; and they became fashioned for special purposes. Men learned to chip stone to a predetermined shape, thereby producing a sharper cutting edge. A wider variety of working tools, such as axes, sharp-pointed drills, thin-edged blades, chisels, and other forerunners of today’s hand tools, came into existence.
These tools reduced the time needed to produce sustenance and shelter, thereby raising the social level of production and improving living conditions. Moreover, these new productive activities enhanced man’s mental capacities. The complexity of special-purpose tools indicates the development of a mentality capable of understanding the necessity of producing the
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