Engels on matriarchy: modern science agrees
Henry Noble
volume 38
issue 3
June 2017

Henry Noble

Since retiring as FSP National Secretary, I’ve been auditing classes at nearby University of Washington in order to learn what science has uncovered in the half-century since my student days. I especially want to satisfy an itch to understand the origins of human behaviors.

Last quarter, in a class on evolutionary psychology, I was astounded and delighted to come across a contemporary scientific exposition of the origins of patriarchy. This was based on studies that use DNA analysis and clever techniques of historic linguistic research that were unavailable to our socialist forebears. It further validates their discoveries, and FSP’s own principles. Much of the research flows from the rationale that our genetic structure was honed over tens of thousands of years of evolutionary changes that enabled humans to survive as hunters and gatherers — the longest period of human existence.

Frederick Engels and Karl Marx applied historical materialism to the revolutionary anthropological insights of Charles Darwin and Lewis Henry Morgan to reveal that hunter gatherer societies were matriarchal with specific duties assigned by gender. They asserted that this changed when the technological advent of herding cattle freed men from having to hunt and bestowed property ownership on them. In turn, this necessitated having a social system that assured their inheritance would be passed on to the men’s own children. Most leftists are very familiar with this and understand the attendant subjugation of women as described in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State that Frederick Engels published in 1884.

The paper in my evolutionary psychology class had the tantalizing title “Spread of cattle led to the loss of Matrilineal descent in Africa.” The authors, Clare Janaki Holden and Ruth Mace, observed 68 Bantu-speaking African populations and found that those with domesticated herds are agricultural and patrilineal whereas those without herds are matrilineal. The two anthropologists thus found that the presence of cows was linked with patriarchy. They then demonstrated that male dominance was the result of domesticated herds, and not the other way around. Their results validate that “acquiring cattle led formerly matrilineal cultures to change to patrilineal descent.”

Before Engels published his and Marx’s work it was widely accepted that human relations were static and unchanging. The two geniuses showed that social institutions are not unchanging but come into existence because of specific socio-economic conditions. Their research, spurred by Darwin’s breakthrough disclosures, was based on the knowledge that human cultures are historically related and cultural traits tend to be transmitted from older to newer generations within populations.

This is widely accepted now and the current authors used it to locate common roots of the peoples they studied. The paper has lots of academic jargon and mathematics but meaty quotes such as: “Bantu-speaking societies ... that are mostly patrilineal today, were originally matrilineal, as shown in their feminine metaphors for kin lineage, which include ‘belly’ and ‘house’, both items are associated with women.”

In addition to observations from data, the authors argue from the viewpoint of genetic adaptation. Lasting changes in genes arise rarely, when random gene mutations cause recipients to pass on their genetic material more successfully than organisms without the changed gene. For instance, an opposable thumb allowed primate ancestors to outperform other creatures for resources and hence, have more offspring carrying their genes. Such changes can be behavioral as well as physical.

Beneficial changes are said to make the recipients more “fit” to pass on their genes than others. In early horticultural farming societies paternity was uncertain so property was passed to daughters. This led to matriarchy. But parents in cow-based societies had more descendants when sons inherited. Such societies tended to use cattle as marriage payments. Sons bought multiple wives and had more children, providing more genetic and social success. This perpetuated patriarchy.

The article allowed me to introduce my classmates to Morgan and Engels. Some asked to borrow Origins from me, and of course, I gave them the book, along with copies of the FS newspaper. With my revolutionary advice, of course, that socialist feminism is most capable of overcoming ancient genetic adaptations, which favor patriarchy, with a rational, egalitarian society.

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