Re: [OPE-L] marx's conception of labour

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Sun Nov 19 2006 - 16:39:36 EST

>Quoting Rakesh Bhandari <bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU>:
>>  Can a non human animal distinguish between a movement which is also an
>>  action and one which is not? If not, then how would a non human animal
>>  know it has lost the capacity for action?
>I am not sure I understand what you mean, or what point
>you are making here. Could you give an example that would
>clarify it?

If through electrical stimulation we could be made to point to a
specific object, we would
not think we had acted as if we had intentionally pointed to that
object about whose location a friend
had just asked, would we?

>I gave the example of caging an animal as an example of depriving
>the animal of its capacity for the actions of freely moving about
>and seeking food, mates etc.

There seems to be something implicit in the concept of action or at
least certain kinds of it
that only humans capable of it. This may not be true; this may be a
more a semantic debate than an empirical one.

If I remember correctly, a most careful exegetical study of Marx's
ideas about the teleological nature of human behavior is John
McMurty's Structure of Marx's World View. I'll look for the book

>I also dont understand why you see these points as germane to
>Marx original distinction between architects and bees and spiders.

Well this distinction raises the question of how and how we are not
like other  non human animals. Is there a way in which we act
uniquely, uniquely have a self or a world or culture or goals or
intentions? As I said,  I wish I could think about these questions.

Here is one answer from Jonathan Marks.

Yours, Rakesh

Jonathan Marks

Culture, Evolution, and Human Biology

Theme:  Humans are uniquely bio-cultural animals.  Everything we do is rendered
meaningful within a contextualizing environment of economy, social
relations, and ideas.
That environment changes rapidly, and not only do we change to fit
it, but the practice of
science, and especially of biological anthropology, changes with it as well.

Adaptability and the Human Condition
The hallmark of the human condition is not
so much our particular adaptations, but the extent
to which our intelligence and long periods of
growth and immaturity allow us to be adaptable.
Natural selection molds the gene pool of species
to conform to the stresses of the environment;
but the adaptations wrought by natural selection
are long-term and largely irreversible.  That is
what we generally mean by "adaptation" in an
evolutionary sense.
Human populations have adapted in this
evolutionary sense mostly in fairly subtle ways.
The least subtle is of course the depigmentation
of human skin in non-tropical latitudes, allowing
ultraviolet light to stimulate the production of
Vitamin D and folic acid (Essay 13).  But those
examples seem to be quite rare.  We find
geographical regularities in body build across
mammalian species, and these seem to hold as
well for human populations.  Short, stocky
bodies retain heat more efficiently than lean,
lanky bodies, and consequently you tend to find
lean animals in the tropics and fat ones in the
arctic.  Interestingly, this generalization (known
as Bergmann's Rule) also seems to hold for
human populations, at least in the extremes.  One
finds lean, lanky people in East Africa, and short,
stocky people in Greenland.  (Obviously other
factors are also at work, since the officially
tallest population today is the Dutch.)  Similarly,
Allen's Rule relates limb length to climate
among vertebrates, with cold-adapted species
having shorter limbs; and again we tend to find
the longest-limbed peoples in hot areas, and the
shortest-limbed in the coldest.
Another well-known, but subtle, genetic
adaptation is lactose tolerance, the ability to
digest milk beyond childhood.  This ability does
not exist in most people - at least 70% of the
people in the world.  Far from being a "disease,"
lactose intolerance is polymorphic everywhere,
and is the majority condition among everybody
except Europeans and other people with a history
of cattle herding, like some East Africans.  The
mutation permits people to metabolize lactose,
the sugar in milk, and thus to derive sustenance
from a food that would otherwise give them gas
and diarrhea.  This mutation, then, seems to be
an adaptation to the availability of an available
source of nutrition - milk - that ordinarily
requires fermentation into cheese or yogurt to be
And even more subtle are the adaptations of
the human gene pool to the environmental
pressure of infectious disease.  The gene pools of
peoples in malarial environments have developed
elevated proportions of certain alleles that afford
some measure of protection from that
debilitating disease (Essay 5).  Other diseases
have been suggested as pressures (such as
cholera, bubonic plague, and tuberculosis),
having corresponding effects on the gene pools
of certain populations, but with far less
convincing evidence.  Presumably the ravages of
historical pandemics, like the bubonic plague in
Europe from 1348-1350, have an effect on the
gene pool at least in the genes governing
immune responses or assisting in disease
resistance, but the specifics are unknown; or
even whether other alleles may have been
"carried along" under the intense selection for
disease resistance.  It is certainly not terribly
difficult, however, to imagine the mutations that
may confer resistance to AIDS infection having a
subtle effect on the human gene pool over the
next several generations.
The diverse other ways in which humans
come to respond to environmental pressures, and
form a "fit" with their surroundings, comprise
the study of adaptability.  After all, there is also
genetic control of physiology, as first explored in
depth by the biologist C. H. Waddington (Essay
6).  Human bodies are characterized by
developmental plasticity, that is, they are
sensitive to the conditions of growth, so the adult
form of the body can be affected by long-term
stresses quite strikingly and regularly, without
being directly a consequence of the genetic
program.  In this sense, the body is adapting to
an environmental stress, but it is not doing so
through the gene pool in geological time, but
rather, over the course of a single lifetime by
virtue of the body's reactive properties.  While
these physical modifications are not passed on
per se, the persistence of the stressor across
generations causes the bodies of ancestors and
descendants to develop in a consistent and
similar fashion.
In this category we can place the changes in
head form and body that occur as a result of
immigration, described in the last Essay.  A
major environmental stressor is hypoxia, or
reduced air: people who live at high altitudes, or
whose mothers smoked heavily while pregnant,
commonly have "stunted growth" - their bodies
have physiologically adapted to the lower
oxygen levels and have altered their growth
trajectories accordingly.
These physiological adaptations are non-
genetic, since they are direct responses to
specific environmental pressures.  But they are
also permanent; once the bones grow in a certain
way, over a certain period of time, they are stuck
with that form within very narrow limits.  Thus,
the practice of cradle-boarding (tying the infant's
head to a cradle with a flat surface) results in a
very flat rear of the head.  This is such a regular
feature of some populations, that it had once
been classified as a racial type - the "Dinaric"
skull form.  But it is due simply to a cultural
Similarly, the binding of women's feet by
traditional Chinese society, or the lifetime of
repetitive motion by women grinding grain in
agricultural societies, affect the skeleton in very
characteristic ways.
In addition to adapting genetically and
developmentally, humans adapt facultatively to
short-term stresses. These adaptive physiological
responses are generally reversible, such as
tanning, callousing, or increasing the blood flow
to cold parts of the body.  Athletes preparing for
competition at high altitudes will commonly
train at high altitudes for precisely that reason, to
acclimate their bodies to the new stressor.  These
short term physiological responses are another
aspect of the adaptability of the human
A third kind of non-genetic adaptation, also
widely shared with other animal species, is
behavioral adaptation.  Many animals -
especially mammals - learn what to eat, how to
hunt, how to hide from predators, how to act
around other members of their social group, and
even how to use tools to accomplish specific
tasks.  The key element here is the transmission
of information. (Ethologists sometimes refer to
this as "cultural," but that reflects a different use
of the term than in anthropology.)
Obviously humans also learn things, and use
objects to help them survive.  But in humans, as
we noted in the last Essay, these objects take on
an evolutionary trajectory of their own.  They
comprise an extra-somatic (external to the body)
adaptation and super-organic mode of evolution.
There is certainly nothing mystical about this:
after all, you use things, but how many of those
things have you actually made yourself?  Mostly
they were made by others, independently of your
organic existence, and quite possibly before you
were even born.  You read English, but you
didn't invent it; you were born into it.
To the extent that people invent new things
or coin new words, those are minor
perturbations, roughly analogous to mutations;
cultures change through the large-scale social
process of adoption, which is often difficult to
predict.  Cellular phones and the internet, now
impossible to imagine being without, were
almost inconceivable a generation ago; so was an
alliance with Russia in a global and domestic
war against an enemy called terrorism.
The point is that human culture is not merely
a response to environmental problems, but
comprises a complex environment in and of
itself, which necessarily entails its own set of
responses.  And those responses come partly
from you as an individual - learning how to act
appropriately in your own time and place - but
also from us as a social collectivity.  I have
"written" this book, for example, only in the very
narrow sense of having composed it; but I didn't
chop down the trees, make the pulp, press and
cut the paper, blend the ink, cast and set the type,
print it and bind it!  Clearly, even the most basic
things we take for granted are formed and exist
within a complex network of economic, political,
and social forces; and are well beyond the
capabilities of any individual person.
This is what anthropologists mean by
culture.  It is not the learned behaviors
themselves, but the invisible matrix of social
relations, meanings, technologies, and histories
within which those behaviors are embedded, as
well as their visible products.  That is the
difference between a beaver dam and Hoover
Dam; and it is presently the most powerful force
in our own adaptation and survival, without
precedent in the history of life.

>>  Are these even empirical
>>  questions? If not, should we move them on positivist grounds?
>>  I wish I knew more about the philosophy of action and Donald Davidson's
>>  writings. I have also tried a couple of times to understand Husserl's and
>>  Merleau Ponty's ideas about the special intentionality of human
>>  consciousness but have never felt satisfied. Just marking these
>>  ideas/questions which I just can't pursue now.But I read you, Dogan, Ian
>>  and Howard with interest
>>  Rakesh
>>  >>  >
>>  >> > So Bees and Spiders too, have goals for their labour, which goals
>>  >> > they must presumably store in their heads.
>>  >>
>>  >> Are our goals stored in our head; is that where the self is, simply
>>  >> localized as a neural object? I thought the integrative biologists had
>>  >> provided good reasons for skepticism. See for example Denis Noble, The
>>  >> Music of Life: Biology beyond the Genome.
>>  >>
>>  > Whether the intentions are stored in the head is not vital, the issue
>>  > is whether they are internal to the organism or can be externalised
>  > > in the form of spoken or written instructions. Internal intentions
>>  > are commonplace among animals, written instructions, are as far as I
>>  > know unique to civilised humanity.
>>  >
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