Alan Woods, editor of marxist.com and leading member of the International Marxist Tendency appeared on a well known Venezuelan programme last week, to discuss Friedrich Engels’ work “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.”
The programme Woods appeared on, called Escuela de Cuadros – cadre school – is regularly broadcast on ViveTV in Venezuela. The program discusses political topics, providing theoretical and political education to its viewers.
Woods discussed Engels’ work, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man,” breaking down how the philosophy of Marxism – dialectical materialism – can be applied to human evolution.
When Engels wrote this short piece in 1876, he intended for it to be an introduction to a larger work that was never completed. And although the text from “The Part Played by Labour…” is relatively short, it has monumental lessons, helping us understand dialectical materialism and the historical trajectory of the evolution of mankind. As Woods explains on Escuela de Cuadros, “In these short pages, there is a revolution in humankind’s understanding, in respect to such an important topic – the origin of humanity and evolution.”
Woods begins the conversation by explaining that philosophy cannot be separated from science. Philosophy, although many may not recognise it, has a strong grip on science. But for centuries, much of science has been motivated by idealist philosophy, rather than materialist philosophy, mostly thanks to the influence of religion.
Although Engels was not an anthropologist, he was able to apply a dialectical materialist philosophy to the study of human evolution. This placed him above and beyond many scientists of the day, to properly address the nature of human development.
Much like the development of history, the transition from ape to man took place through qualitative leaps. There may be periods of lull, but there are also periods in which development takes place at rapid speed.
As Woods explains in the Escuela de Cuadros, in the development of humanity, the brain did not grow and evolve first, leading to the physical evolution of humans. Rather, the need for humans to labour – based on environmental factors – led to the growth and development of the brain.
Human labour is the motivating force behind all human progress. By primates engaging in labor, they moved towards bipedalism, allowing them to master their environment. And being able to manipulate and master the environment, Engels explains, is what distinguishes humans from other animals. These transitions did not take place through slow, gradual progression. Rather, they took place through explosive, qualitative, and revolutionary leaps.
You can watch the entirety of Woods’ discussion in Spanish in the Escuela de Cuadros on ViveTv here:
Further reading on the application of dialectical materialism to science can be found in the book Reason in Revolt, co-authored by Alan Woods and Ted Grant. Not only do Grant and Woods discuss human evolution, but they apply dialectical materialism to physics, cosmology, geology, and more. You can find the book here.