Unravelling human history: the rise of class society and women’s oppression

Issue: 181

Sheila McGregor

A review of Why Men? A Human History of Violence and Inequality, Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale (Oxford University Press, 2023), £25

Anthropology, since its inception, has been an ideologically contested ­discipline, and the same is true of both primatology and zoology when they have been used to explain human evolution.1 Today, there is a new current in ­anthropology and zoology that opposes the sociobiology put forward by the likes of E O Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, though this new school is also distinct from earlier refutations by scientists such as Steven Rose and Stephen Jay Gould.2 Among many others, primatologists such as Sarah Hrdy and Frans De Waal, and zoologists such as Lucy Cooke, study the females of animal species, rather than just the males. They are anti-racist, anti-colonial and egalitarian. Their new studies sometimes make fascinating reading and extend our understanding of the world of nature of which we are one part. Nonetheless, I see this new approach as in fact a feminised ­version of sociobiology, which too often transposes behaviour observed in other species onto our own. There is also a trend towards rejecting a focus on tool making and other aspects of how we interact with nature as the basis for understanding human evolution.3 Sadly, works such as Lewis Henry Morgan’s The Ancient Society and Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and The Role of Labour In the Evolution from Ape to Man are out of fashion—as is the work of Australian Marxist archaeologist Gordon Vere Childe.4 Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale’s new book, Why Men? A Human History of Violence and Inequality, is shaped by just such a “feminist sociobiology” and a rejection of Morgan and Engels, even though it tries to retain a focus on the importance of class.5

Why Men? seeks to provide an alternative view of human nature from that of sociobiologists who argue evolution took place through aggressive men fighting over access to women. However, the book’s central argument is that, even though we “became equal as we became human”, “the tendency to create dominance hierarchies was also part of our primate inheritance”:

It did not disappear, but it was suppressed. Creating and submitting to hierarchy remained part of our human nature. Understanding this apparent contradiction—our simultaneous disposition to both equality and inequality—is basic to understanding ourselves as human beings.6

This clearly does not mark a break with sociobiology. From this starting point, Lindisfarne and Neale make three further claims. First, class and gender oppression are always linked: “The central question then becomes ‘why men?’, and the answers to it, are to be found between our primate heritage and the character of class society.” Second, “Hierarchies and the violent domination they produced have been challenged and subverted again and again.” Third, since the rise of class society, “Elites have constantly had to reconfigure class relations—starting with gender inequality—in an effort to suppress dissent and secure their privileges”.7

The book is organised into four parts. The first three sections are based on the three arguments outlined above; a fourth part, ­entitled “Apologists for Inequality”, contains the authors’ main arguments against Morgan and Engels. The book has its strengths; it is well researched, easy to read and rich in ­histories of various kinds. It reviews some of the ­examples recently used by David Graeber and David Wengrow in their The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity to argue that some hunter-gatherer societies were marked by ­inequality. Throughout their presentations, Lindisfarne and Neale are at pains to write histories “from below”, pointing out how the prejudices of ­anthropologists have led them to overlook what is in plain sight as well as failing to research female behaviour. Despite these positives, it is nonetheless ­important to rebut their account of the evolution of human nature and their dismissal of Morgan and Engels.

We are aggressive and warlike—it’s just the way it is

The Yąnomamö people of the Amazon Rainforest and Aboriginal peoples of Australia have long been used to challenge accounts of the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer societies. Lindisfarne and Neale provide a devastating response to just such a set of arguments put forward by ­anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose Yanomamö: The Fierce People served to oppose the pacifist counterculture of the 1960s.8 They summarise Chagnon’s views:

The isolated Yąnomamö lived much as our Stone Age ancestors had lived. Chagnon’s data on their customs, he said, showed that Stone Age men had also evolved to be violent, aggressive and competitive. Sexual selection moulded such men.9

The notion that sexual selection moulded the aggression and violence of men echoes Charles Darwin’s account of evolutionary mechanisms in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.10 Lindisfarne and Neale make reference to the research into the Yąnomamö people conducted by ­anthropologist Richard Brian Ferguson:

Ferguson found that warfare exploded when missionaries—or indeed any group of white people with steel axes, shotguns and other tools—moved into the region. Moreover, warfare radiated outward along the trade routes. The people upriver were raiding to get axes, and the people downriver were deterring anyone who tried to interfere with their control of the new trade.11

The Yąnomamö were neither “Stone Age hunter-gatherers” nor gratuitously violent. Furthermore, the men involved in warfare did not have more children than those who did not, demonstrating the falsehood of ideas about sexual selection for male violence.12

Many years ago, Eleanor Burke Leacock, a Marxist anthropologist and social theorist, also pointed to the possible impact of colonialism on the ways of life of Aboriginal peoples in Australia, who are also sometimes cited as an example of violent hunter-gatherers.13 In fact, however, violence was a product of the colonial massacres of these indigenous people. Moreover, the research of female anthropologists has revealed that women played a more egalitarian role in Aboriginal tribes prior to the colonisation of Australia by the Europeans.14

Lindisfarne and Neale describe a kingdom called Cahokia, a class ­society that existed between 1050 and 1200 in what is called the Midwestern region of the United States. Research on Cahokia demonstrates the similarities between the urban centres that developed in pre-Columbian North America and ancient city states of Mesoamerica, which include human sacrifice, particularly of women, as part of burial ceremonies. After the economic and social collapse of Cahokia, Lindisfarne and Neale argue, societies emerged that were based on the egalitarian ways of living and pluralistic understandings of gender with which we are more familiar from the accounts of Morgan, Leacock, Laura Miles and Leslie Feinberg (as well as other theorists of human history and gender who are too numerous to mention).15

Why Men? reviews some of the examples used by Graeber and Wengrow to argue that there were hunter-gatherer societies with social ­stratification and “big chiefs”.16 These are often characterised, somewhat ­misleadingly, as “complex” hunter-gatherer societies. Lindisfarne and Neale show that the emergence of classes did in fact result from a minority of men taking control over production. For example, the Chumash people, who were sedentary hunter-gatherers living in the coastal areas near the Santa Barbara Channel in California, resided in villages with minor chiefs. Larger villages acted as regional centres that were dominated by key chiefs who had armed guards and depended on “the common people” to provide them with food. The fishing of huge quantities of salmon by the Chumash people was dependent on the invention of the plank canoe (“tomolo”) in about 500 CE. These canoes were owned by the chiefs, who ­mobilised a specialist workforce to make them.17 Up and down the coast, other areas with rich sources of salmon saw the emergence of a division of labour, with men doing the open sea fishing and hunting of marine animals, which gave them control over the surplus of goods that this produced.18 According to Lindisfarne and Neale, the greater the fish stocks, the greater the ­inequality.19 This bears out an important a­rgument that is central to Marxist theories of human prehistory—that ­control over the forces of ­production is the ­determining factor in the ­emergence of inequality between men and women. This is, however, precisely the conclusion that the authors of Why Men? reject.

Such examples support the Marxist view that the production of a social surplus—a quantity of goods that is greater than what is necessary to meet the immediate needs of the human beings in a given society—leads to class differentiation. The central question is about social relations and who ­controls the production of the surplus. Unfortunately, Lindisfarne and Neale confuse the issue by insisting that a definition of class must not be based on ownership of the means of production, justifying this on the grounds that “ownership is a very special ideological construct within modern capitalism”.20 Instead, they argue, “We understand ‘class’ as those ­relationships between people that are culturally elaborate and systematic, and in which some people use violence to get and control more than their fair share of food”.21 This shifts the focus away from ways of producing and gendered divisions of labour in hunter-gatherer societies, obscuring how changes in these ways of producing—for the ­collective or for the market—drove the rise of class society and the subordination of women. Marxists such as Leacock attribute the autonomy of women in hunter-gatherer societies to their crucial role in provisioning for the collective.22 Lindisfarne and Neale’s stress on who gets “more than their fair share of food” is accompanied by a focus on the role of violence in ­determining the rise of class divisions and gender inequality.23 They write:

The die was probably cast when elites began to organise violence to control a social surplus. At that point, they sought out men who were bigger, stronger and more belligerent than others to become enforcers and subordinate other men and women.24

Elsewhere they write that the subordination of women to men occurred because “small differences in strength and stature made men the most likely enforcers—as bodyguards, soldiers or domestically—in any unequal society”.25 They rightly point out that gender inequality also plays an ideological role: “Sexism is how the system works, and it distracts us from the inequalities in the system between the ruling class and the rest of a society”.26 Sexism, racism and transphobia are indeed weaponised today to divide the working class.

From inequality to equality—then inequality once more

Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, thereby establishing the theory of evolution. He extended his evolutionary ideas to “man” himself in 1871 with The Descent of Man. However, Darwin insisted on the pre-eminence of the brain, which initially led to a mistaken search for a big-brained ape as the ancestor of Homo genus.27 The development of sociobiology emphasised a different aspect of Darwin’s theory: sexual selection. Whereas Darwin put the emphasis on female choice of mate, sociobiologists insist on male ­competition over access to females. The feminist version of sociobiology researches how the females of different species behave, particularly looking at female members of the Great Ape family, and then relate this to human behaviour. Alternatively, they carry out this process the other way round—for example, Sarah Hrdy contrasts chimp “mothering” with human “mothering” as part of her argument for viewing the collectivisation of childcare as central to our evolution.

Human beings are one of the five Great Ape species. Our ancestors split off from the ancestors of chimpanzees and bonobos, our nearest extant ­relatives, around 6 to 7 million years ago. It took approximately a million years to attain full bipedalism, which was a crucial step in our evolution. As ­anthropologist Craig Stanford points out, “We are human in large part by virtue of our technology, and if our ancestors had not stood up and walked, tool use would not have reached this extraordinary level”.28 This development was followed by millions of years that saw a whole variety of ape and Homo species flourish and disappear, including Denisovans and Neanderthals, who seemed to have attained almost the same level of skills as Homo sapiens.29 It is now thought that Homo sapiens emerged in the latter part of the African Middle Stone Age, approximately 200-300,000 years ago, before spreading out of Africa and across the rest of the world.30 There are varying explanations for what occurred in the millions of years in between the development of apes and humans. In The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, written by Engels in 1876 to counter Darwin’s idealism, he argued that “labour is the source of all wealth”:

It really is the source—next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth. Yet, it is even infinitely more than this. It is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.31

Some anthropologists and archaeologists do focus on how our interaction with nature through the making and use of tools both reflected and shaped a collective and sharing way of living.32

Lindisfarne and Neale adopt the evolutionary outline of anthropologists Steven Kuhn and Mary Stiner, who argue that cooperation with a division of labour between male and female gender roles only emerged approximately 200,000 years ago.33 So, Lindisfarne and Neale appear to be assuming that until this time, we were evolving in unequal and uncooperative relationships. This stage spanned at least five million years prior to the all too brief moment of ­egalitarian and cooperative ­relationships, which lasted until the rise of class society, ­approximately 12,000 years ago. The implication is that our evolution from the time of the split with ­chimpanzees and bonobos did not entail a ­distinct path based on the development of cooperation and the use of tools over millions of years. Rather, we are an ­amalgam of “aggressive” chimpanzees, which are dominated by males, and bonobos, who are dominated by females and for whom sexual ­interactions are ­important.34

Lindisfarne and Neal propose that there were four crucial steps in humans becoming equal: sharing meat, sharing childcare, sharing orgasms and overthrowing the dominance of bullies. Lindisfarne and Neale rely heavily on anthropologist Christopher Boehm’s arguments about the suppression of dominance, which were comprehensively dealt with by Rosemarie Nünning in the previous issue of this journal. Nünning refutes Boehm’s so-called evidence of systematic suppression of tendencies towards dominance in modern hunter-gatherer societies. She concludes that “his approach is reactionary to the core”.35

The argument about shared childcare is based on Hrdy’s account of how social cooperation developed.36 In Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, Hrdy argues that our uniqueness lies neither in our tool use (since chimpanzees also use tools) nor our bipedalism, but rather in our ­“hypersocial attributes”.37 She argues, “This trait, along with our ­extra-large brains and capacity for language, marks the…dividing line separating our natures from those of other apes”.38 Hrdy’s stated aim is to understand how ­“other-regarding ­tendencies could have evolved in creatures as self-serving as apes”.39 Her account is based on the premise that the vulnerability of the human baby and its long maturation process entailed collective care that ensured the child was looked after and fed. Hrdy’s presentation of the way babies interact with their mothers and others—facilitating the forms of collective childcare known as ­“alloparenting”—is based on careful observations that range across a wide range of different societies. Much of this is interesting, but it fails to answer the ­question of why there was a need for sharing childcare in the first place.40 In contrast, philosopher of biology Kim Sterelny promotes the view that ­hunter-gatherer life is dependent on deep and extensive social learning: “Cooperative foraging (of the hominim variety) depends on technology and expertise and hence selects for information sharing at and across generations”.41 This implies a need for cooperation.

Morgan and Engels must go

Why Men? is not a Marxist account of the rise of class society and the ­oppression of women, even if the authors do talk about class and elites.42 They attack both Morgan and Engels, arguing that Morgan, “the father of North American archaeology and anthropology”, was “a racist”.43 According to Lindisfarne and Neale, Morgan’s analysis of successive stages of development based on changing technology was elitist and fitted the white supremacist views of his own day and those since.44 These arguments against Morgan are not new; Leacock devoted an essay, “Introduction to Ancient Society”, to defending Morgan’s decisive contribution to understanding the relationship between “the arts of subsistence” and social relationships—and how changes in one underpin changes in the other.45 Morgan made a huge breakthrough with his understanding of classless, egalitarian societies based on kinship systems and collective control over land. Leacock did acknowledge that some of Morgan’s views “led him at times into a seeming support of racial inequalities”.46 However, Leacock argued that the overall thrust of Morgan’s attitudes was towards the underlying equality of humanity across time and place as well as respect for the contributions to human development made by our ancestors.47

Lindisfarne and Neale condemn The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State as an “awful book”.48 They write:

Unfortunately, this book is deeply flawed. It is not just the racism, sexism and homophobia, none of which are to be found in Engels’s other books. It is also the method. Engels set out to explain the oppression of women in terms of the ­physical and sexual differences between men and women. He argued that the origins of gendered inequality derived from the institution of the family.49

Lindisfarne and Neale make an extraordinary inference about the impact of Engels’s book: “Since its publication, the notion of ‘the family’ has been a stalking horse for conservative ideas”.50 In fact, Engels’s text, by showing that the family is not eternal but changes its form throughout history, runs completely counter to the ­conservative view. Far from leading us astray, as Lindisfarne and Neale would suggest, Engels’s book was a ­pathbreaking work for the socialist movement. Marxists have rightly understood the central importance of Engels’s text, unlike Lindisfarne and Neale, who dismiss the idea of the family structuring women’s oppression. Engels linked the development of women’s oppression to the rise of class society, which ended the ­pre-existing collective clan-based societies and led to production taking place within the patriarchal family.

The form of the family changes as the mode of production changes. Marx and Engels were too optimistic about the potential dissolution of the family with the drawing of women into social labour under capitalism.51 However, they did clearly identify the social weight women would acquire as workers participating in the workforce.52 Engels observed the role reversal between men and women resulting from women taking up jobs in the cotton mills, concluding: “If the reign of the wife over the husband, as inevitably brought about by the factory system, is ­inhuman, the pristine rule of the husband over the wife must have been inhuman too”.53

Since this new book kicks away any analysis of how oppression is structured by the relationship between class society and the family, it is perhaps unsurprising that the reader is left without any clear strategy of how to fight for a society without violence, gender oppression and class. We need Marx and Engels’s insistence on the potential of working-class emancipation to overthrow capitalist social relations more than ever. This too is absent from Why Men?

Sheila McGregor is a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and sits on the International Socialism editorial board.


1 Thanks to Joseph Choonara and Rosemarie Nünning for their comments on an earlier draft of this review.

2 See Rose, Lewontin and Kamin, 1984; Gould, 1981. Wilson, Dawkins and Pinker have all presented crude views of human nature that are polarised between men and women, aggression and passivity. Their sociobiological approach is based on relating human behaviour to the animal kingdom, particularly primates.

3 A constant refrain is that the use of tools cannot be a distinguishing feature of human evolution since chimps also engage in this behaviour. The obvious rejoinder is that there seems to have been very little change in the kind of tools that chimps make and the way of life these tools make possible. A characteristic feature of human history is that we have passed down knowledge of previous technological innovations through the generations and have the ability to develop new tools. This has allowed the accumulation of such technologies, thus enabling transformations in our ways of working on the world to meet our needs as well as corresponding changes in the social relations between human beings.

4 Morgan, 1877; Engels, 1962; Engels, 1934. Childe, who was a fellow traveller of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1930s, became highly influential in the field of archaeology. In particular, he introduced the term “urban revolution”, which describes the process whereby Neolithic village settlements developed into complex, city-based civilisations—see Childe, 1942.

5 A much earlier version of the analysis presented in Why Men? can be found in “What Gender Does”, a 2013 article written by Lindisfarne and Neale for this journal—see Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013.

6 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, pp1-2.

7 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p3.

8 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, pp347-357.

9 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p348.

10 Darwin, 1889. This text laid the foundations for the development of the racist, sexist and white supremacist ideas about evolution promoted by the eugenicist Francis Galton, who was Darwin’s half-cousin. See Gould, 1981, chapter 3.

11 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p353. See also Ferguson, 1995.

12 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p351.

13 Leacock, 1981, pp142-145.

14 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, pp179-194.

15 Morgan, 1877; Leacock, 1981; Miles, 2020; Feinberg, 1997.

16 Graeber and Wengrow, 2021.

17 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, chapter 10.

18 Open sea fishing tended to be done by men rather than women because it entailed a longer absence from home.

19 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, chapter 10.

20 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p178.

21 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p108.

22 Leacock, 1981, chapter 7. Leacock prefers the word “autonomy” to equality. See also Harman, 1994.

23 For a detailed account of how the gendered division of labour in egalitarian society could, in certain circumstances, be transformed into gender inequality through the rise of class society, see Harman, 1999.

24 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p146. This is more than ironic, since the book denounces Engels because he supposedly “set out to explain the oppression of women in terms of the ­physical and sexual differences between men and women”, which is precisely what the authors seem to be doing here—see Lindisfarne and Neale, p334.

25 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p125.

26 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p134.

27 See Harman, 1994.

28 Stanford, 2003, p173. See Engels, 1934, p354.

29 Judgements about Neanderthals and their relationship to Homo sapiens have been subject to a great deal of revision and change over the years. Descriptions of Neanderthals have moved from categorising them as a distinctly inferior version of Homo sapiens to being an equivalent species. We know from genetic studies that non-Africans share DNA with Neanderthals, so there was presumably a significant amount of social interaction between Neanderthal populations and early modern humans in Europe. The website of the Natural History Museum in London has a reasonably detailed presentation by British anthropologist Chris Stringer about Neanderthals, which can be found at www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/who-were-the-neanderthals.html

30 For an excellent presentation of what is known about our evolution, see Humphries and Stringer, 2018.

31 Engels, 1934, p354. Engels wrote The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man between May and June 1876. However, it was first published in Die Neue Zeit, the theoretical journal of the German Social Democratic Party, in 1895-6.

32 For a carefully argued account of the correlation between the development of the brain and changes in habitat and tool making, see Coolidge and Wynn, 2018.

33 Kuhn and Stiner, 2006, pp959-961; Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p55.

34 De Waal’s portrayal of the extent and context of male chimpanzees’ aggression and their dominance over females is much more complex than Lindisfarne and Neale seem to suggest—see De Waal, 2022.

35 Nünning, 2023.

36 Lucy Cooke refers to Sarah Hrdy as one of “The Broads”, a group of women professors who meet regularly “discuss fresh ideas and generally keep the course of evolutionary biology evolving on an even path”—see Cooke, 2022, pxxxiii.

37 Hrdy, 2009, p9.

38 Hrdy, 2009, p9.

39 Hrdy, 2009, p11.

40 The same is true of the argument about shared orgasms, which is developed by Cormier and Jones, 2015.

41 Sterelny, 2012, p76. For alternative accounts, see Harman, 1994; Coolidge and Wynn, 2018; and Parrington, 2021.

42 Marx is mentioned only in relation to his research on the different kinds of societies that informed Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. The extent to which Marx valued Morgan’s research is clear from the former’s Ethnological Notebooks—see Marx, 1974.

43 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p261.

44 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, pp261-263. Angela Saini makes similar objections—see Saini, 2023.

45 See “Introduction to Ancient Society” in Leacock, 1981. This essay first appeared as the introduction to the 1963 edition of Morgan’s Ancient Society. Lise Vogel provides a clear summary of Morgan’s contribution to understanding pre-class societies, although she disagrees with his focus on the “arts of subsistence”—Vogel, 2013, chapter 6.

46 Leacock, 1981, p104.

47 Leacock, 1981, p94.

48 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p335.

49 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p334.

50 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p334.

51 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2023, p340. This lacuna in Marx has been dealt with by later Marxists, who have provided accounts of women’s continued oppression based on the fundamental role played by the working-class family in the reproduction of the entire class—see German, 1989; Orr, 2015; and McGregor, 2018. For a series of essays on social reproduction theory, see Bhattacharya, 2017.

52 This was of decisive importance in debates in the 19th century about whether women should work. The measures undertaken by Alexandra Kollontai, founder of the women’s department (Zhenotdel) of the Soviet government, and others after the 1917 Russian Revolution were aimed at socialising the functions of the family. This was a product of their analysis of women’s oppression being rooted in the structure of the family.

53 Engels, 1969.


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