"In the 20th century the dream of the perfectibility of humankind turned into the nightmares of Stalinist Russia," Singer writes. In the course of this pamphlet, Singer exhorts the Left to wake up.
Although Social Darwinism survives only as a straw man and despite the attachment of some American conservatives to creationism, a Darwinian view of human nature is perceived as more compatible with conservatism than socialism. According to research in evolutionary psychology, women are naturally suited to child-care and men have greater status-orientation; the theory of kin selection seems to reinforce faith in the family; while viewing humans as self-interested confirms the underlying assumptions of classical economics (see Darwinian Conservatism
Peter Singer seeks to reclaim Darwin for the Left. Although he clarifies many misunderstandings regarding the political implications of evolutionary psychology and Darwinism, his attempt is not altogether successful.
Evolutionary Psychology, Ethics and Politics
Since David Hume, it has been an article of faith among many moral philosophers that one cannot derive values from facts - the so-called 'naturalistic fallacy'. Evolutionary psychologists have been among the keenest adherents of this principle, not least because it has provided them with a license to objectively investigate the evolutionary function of morally questionable behaviours, including infanticide, rape and infidelity, without being seen to condone them.
Singer accepts and reiterates this principle. However, if moral and political values cannot be derived from scientific facts, this begs the question of how they are to be arrived at. Singer's discussion implies that one's ultimate moral values must simply be taken on faith and there can be no ultimate justification for them. Instead, he takes the desirability Leftist political values as an a priori presumption.
The naturalistic fallacy has sometimes been misinterpreted to imply that scientific findings are irrelevant to politics. This is clearly mistaken. In particular, while Darwinism may not be able to prescribe which ultimate political objectives are desirable, Singer rightly observes that "an understanding of human nature in the light of evolutionary theory can help us to identify the means by which we can achieve... our social and political goals... as well as the possible costs and benefits of doing so". (See also Darwinism Applied: Evolutionary Paths to Social Goals
In addition to informing the means by which given social and political goals can be attained, an evolutionary understanding of human nature may also suggest that some political goals are unattainable (at least in the absence of a wholesale eugenic reengineering of human nature itself). In watering down the traditional utopian goals of the Left, Singer seems to implicitly concede as much.
Although evolutionary psychologists emphasise that altruism and even morality itself may represent an aspect of our evolved psychology, it also suggests that elements of selfishness and nepotism are innate and universal features of our psychology. In other words, we are innately predisposed to care more about ourselves and our families than unrelated third-parties.
This suggests the sort of egalitarian utopia envisaged by Marx and his followers (`from each according to his ability, to each according to their need' etc.) is unattainable for three main reasons:
1) Individuals inevitably strive to promote themselves and their kin above fellow citizens;
2) Only coercive state apparatus can prevent them so doing;
3) The individuals placed in control of this coercive apparatus themselves seek to promote the interests of themselves and their kin and will corruptly use this coercive apparatus to do so.
As Singer laments, "What egalitarian revolution has not been betrayed by its leaders?" Or, as HL Mencken commented, the "one undoubted effect [of revolutions] is simply to throw out one gang of thieves and put in another".
(While these reasons suggest that that egalitarian utopianism is unworkable and unattainable, humankind's innate selfishness also suggests that, even if it were achievable, it would be inefficient. This is because egalitarianism would remove the incentive of self-advancement that lies behind the production of goods and services which benefit everyone, not to mention of works of art and scientific advances.)
Singer argues our common evolutionary origin precludes a difference in kind between humans and animals (say, in the ability to suffer) sufficient to justify the different treatment accorded to each. "By knocking out the idea that we are a separate creation from the animals," he writes, "Darwinian thinking provided the basis for a revolution in our attitudes to non-human animals".
However, human-animal continuity cuts both ways. Anti-vivisectionists often contend that medical experiments conducted on non-human animals are worthless because treatments will frequently have different effects on humans to that which they exert on other species. Our evolutionary continuity with non-human species renders this argument implausible.
Moreover, if humans are subject to the same principles of natural selection as other species, this suggests, in some respects, not the elevation of non-human species to the status of humans, but rather the relegation of humans to that of animals. Like them, we are, in Richard Dawkins words, "survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes", there is no 'ghost in the machine' and free-will is an illusion.
Finally, acceptance of human nature, entails recognition of carnivory (or omnivory) as a part of this nature. Of course, the naturalistic fallacy, as usual, applies - although meat-eating is natural, this does not mean it is right. However, it does suggest vegetarianism is suboptimal in health terms. Moreover, given that Singer is an opponent of the view that there is a valid moral distinction between acts and omissions (see Writings on An Ethical Life
xv-xvi), if he believes it is wrong for us to eat animals, does he also believe we should take positive steps to prevent lions from eating gazelles?
Singer rightly observes that financial interest is not synonymous with Darwinian fitness. Indeed, in novel environments, the two may not even correlate (Vining 1986). Neither does wealth always lead to greater happiness. "Self-interest" Singer argues "is broader than economic self-interest".
In chapter 4 ("Competition or Cooperation?"), Singer argues that, although both competition and cooperation are natural to humans, it is possible to create a society that focuses more on cooperation and that this is more consistent with the values of the left. However, although it may be true that some societies foster altruism and cooperation more than ours, Singer is short on practical suggestions as to how a culture of altruism is to be fostered.
Changing the values of a culture is not easy. This is especially so for a liberal democratic government (let alone a solitary Australian moral philosopher!) - and Singer's condemnation of "the nightmares of Stalinist Russia" suggests that he would not defend the sort of totalitarian interference with human freedoms to which the Left has so often resorted in the past.
More fundamentally, Singer is wrong to see competition as in conflict with cooperation. Extreme altruism often occurs in the context extreme competition (e.g. acts of self-sacrifice by soldiers during war).
Moreover, trade - a form of cooperation - is as fundamental to capitalism as is competition. Far from disparaging cooperation, neo-liberal economists since Adam Smith have viewed voluntary exchange and economic specialization as central to capitalist prosperity.
It is therefore ironic that Matt Ridley, who, like Singer, seeks to draw political lessons from evolutionary psychology, also focuses on humans' innate capacity for cooperation (see The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation
). However, in Ridley's hands, this trait provides a rationale, not for socialism, but rather for unregulated lassez faire free markets - because, according to Ridley, humans, as natural traders, produce efficient systems of exchange which central planning can only distort.
Whereas economic trade is motivated by self-interested calculation, Singer seems to envisage a form of reciprocity mediated by emotions such as compassion and guilt. However, these emotions have themselves evolved through the rational calculation of natural selection (Trivers 1971) and, while open to manipulation, especially in evolutionarily-novel societies, are limited in scope.
In response to the claim that welfare encourages the unemployed to have children and thereby promotes dysgenic fertility patterns (see Dysgenics: Genetic Deterioration in Modern Populations
), Singer argues, "even if there were a genetic component to something as nebulous as unemployment, to say that these genes are 'deleterious' would involve value judgements that go way beyond what the science alone can tell us". Read more ›