Where we came from

Issue: 119

Peter Wearden

Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007), £14.99

After three decades of debates on human evolution dominated by Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, it is a great relief to read a synthesis of the current knowledge and understanding of human evolution that avoids biological reductionism and recognises the importance of theory in understanding our human past. Colin (Lord) Renfrew, until 2004 Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge, might not appear immediately as someone the left would look to for new insights into human evolution. It is interesting, therefore, that he gives Gordon Childe, Lewis Henry Morgan, and indeed Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, as well as many academics, due credit for their contribution to the theoretical interpretations of the nature of humanity and human evolution.

Renfrew traces the development of the idea of prehistory as reflected by the developing techniques (radio carbon dating, DNA analysis, etc) and knowledge base in archaeology. However, the key issues are developed in chapter five, “The Sapient Paradox”. The principal aspect of the paradox is that in the past 60,000 years (and quite possibly 100,000 or 150,000 years) no significant changes have taken place in the human genotype, while massive social and behavioural transformations are obvious.

Renfrew concludes, “The changes in human behaviour and life that have taken place since that time…sedentism (settled villages), cities, writing, warfare—are not in any way determined by the very limited genetic changes.” Renfrew does not dismiss genetics but argues that human capacities, for example for language, pre-exist, and are common to all cultural homo sapiens. The capacity does not determine the use of that capacity.

Renfrew divides human development into two key phases. In the “speciation” phase the emergence of different branches of the hominid family is dominated by processes of natural selection. He does not ignore cultural aspects, and he recognises that aspects of learned behaviour are retained and passed on culturally in many species, particularly, but not exclusively, primates. However, they are secondary processes.

After this phase the relationship is reversed. While the processes of natural selection may still be apparent, human development can only be explained by understanding economic, political and cultural development. This takes place in the “tectonic” phase. In his only reference to Richard Dawkins, he rejects Dawkins’s explanation of human cultural development. He argues that the analogy between the cultural “meme” and the “gene” is “a misguided one”. He rejects the idea that cultural and biological “evolution” can be seen as essentially comparable as “just not appropriate”.

Here he confronts the second part of the paradox. If all currently existing human capacities existed 60,000 years ago, why did it take another 50,000 years for agriculture, cities, states, written language, etc to emerge? Renfrew argues that it is the “material engagement” of human societies with their environment that is the starting point for the understanding of human cultural development (similar to the starting point of Marx and Engels in The German Ideology). He then explains the development of “institutional facts”, comparable to the “definite social relations” of Marx and Engels. These institutional facts are just as real as material facts but are dependent on “material engagement” of human societies with their world. However, the reason why such relationships are so apparently unchanging across the millennia is not clear.

The second half of the book tracks the various “developmental trajectories” of prehistoric societies and early civilisations. His analysis ranges from stone tool production in homo erectus finds to the shift from transient hunter gatherers, to sedentary village societies, to the civilisation of China, Mesoamerica, Sumer, Egypt and the Indus, from egalitarian hunter gatherers to hierarchical class based states. While he considers rise of villages and towns, agriculture and the state (consistent with many of the ideas in Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State), he demonstrates that particular directions of development are neither universal nor inevitable.

In considering the rise of symbolic representation Renfrew develops the idea that the “mind” develops an external dimension in the customs, rules and “religious” ideas that are given concrete form. But there is no single form of such “institutional facts” that is higher or better. Indeed he argues that the “ideographic script” of China has been just as effective in extending theoretical and conceptual capacities as the “alphabetic script” of Western Asia and Europe. Again Renfrew deals with these issues with brevity, clarity and a keen sense of the need for and relationship between theory and evidence.

Renfrew’s account is far more satisfying than the contorted attempts to reduce human society to a genetic imperative. He recognises two key contributions of genetics to evolutionary theory: first, in explaining how variations between organisms occur, which can then be worked on by natural selection; second, in how the analysis of Y-chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA can illuminate the genealogy of human (and pre-human) populations.

The key weakness in his analysis is the failure to adequately address the transition from the speciation to the tectonic phase. However, that he sees this as a qualitative transition, resulting from the gradual development of social, cultural and cognitive capacities, allows us a basis for better understanding. Marx’s proposition of human production, involving the separation of production from consumption through a process of exchange governed by customary rule, may constitute one of the founding “institutional facts” of human cultural society, and might be of value in unlocking this qualitative transformation.

This book is eminently readable and a genuine synthesis of current knowledge of the transition to cultural humanity and of the key developments of prehistory. It avoids crude empiricism and is a brilliant example of the effective combination of theory and evidence to provide real explanatory power. It is also a good antidote to postmodernist obfuscation.

Renfrew’s demands for a more complete “cognitive archaeology” recognise that “new approaches to investigate the concept of mind…lie in the domain of philosophy as much as of neuroscience”. Renfrew points us in the direction of a materialist analysis of the origins of humanity and of ancient societies in their economic, institutional/political and ideological content and meaning. This seems vastly more productive than the search for a gene for every aspect of human behaviour.