It was thought not too many years ago that the architects (so to speak) of the modern world were Marx, Darwin, Einstein and Freud. Now that the postmodern era is upon us, a reevaluation has been made and Marxist ideas have been largely discredited. Einstein has suffered a correction (from quantum mechanics), Freud has been reclassified as literature, and it is only Darwin's reputation that has survived unsullied.
Furthermore during this period the right has taken Darwin as its own, believing that the competitive biological nature of human beings as revealed by evolutionary biology is what leads to the inequalities that exist in human societies while justifying the war of one against all, etc.
But what Peter Singer is crowing about (and is the occasion for this lengthy essay/short book) is that the "red in tooth and claw" (Tennyson) interpretation of biological evolution that prevailed throughout the modern era is now coming under fire. No longer can biological evolution be seen as simply the strong taking advantage of the weak (a notion understandably obnoxious to the left). The larger truth now emerging from biology is that cooperation plays an important role in being fit and has, especially for humans, great adaptive value. It is becoming clear that Richard Dawkins's idea of the "selfish gene" is only part of the understanding, and that natural selection operates on groups through the individual, leading to an understanding that one (more cooperative) tribe may be selected over another, and that it is through cooperation within the tribe that Darwinian fittest may be most strongly expressed.
Now this is an idea that the left can appreciate. Consequently Singer's enthusiasm. Marx is dead, long live Darwin!
My problem with this intellectual enterprise is one that Singer points to on page 38, namely that we cannot form an argument from what IS to what SHOULD BE. Singer opines that we can instead through an appreciation of evolution gain "a better understanding of what it may take to achieve the goals we seek."
Beginning on page 31 with his second chapter, Singer compares behaviors across societies. This allows him to note which practices are universal or nearly so and which are highly diverse. The conclusion is that the more universal the behavior, the more it is a product of our biological nature and not a construct of society. To the extent that this process is valid, the information gotten is valuable. This is indeed one of the tools of evolutionary psychology that some people on the Darwinian left would like to discredit. They fear that an emphasis on our genetic endowment will work against our ability to nurture positive values and behaviors. They want nurture trumping nature.
However, in my opinion, the entire argument is passé and invalid. It is now generally understood in biology that nature gives us a predisposition to certain behaviors that develop in concert with our environmental experience so that our behaviors are an intimate product of both our nature and our nurture and cannot in any way be separated. The old "nature vs. nurture" debate is now seen as based on a false dilemma.
Also, it should be appreciated that today's scientific understanding of human nature as derived from biology, genetics and kindred disciplines, is just that, today's understanding, and as such is tentative. Consequently any oughts, shoulds, etc. drawn from such an understanding--even if such a practice were logically valid--would also be of a provisional nature.
Having said all this, I want to note that Singer's argument is well presented and his prescription for a Darwinian left in Chapter 5 well worth reading. If adopted it would work toward relieving the left from its fear of what evolutionary psychology is discovering about human beings. As Steven Pinker (not exactly a leftist) cheerfully notes, "Singer challenges the conventional wisdom that a recognition of human nature is incompatible with progressive ideals..."
He does, and indeed Singer demonstrates that the discoveries of evolutionary biology can be completely compatible with the traditional values of the left. This is an important understanding, since evolutionary biology is not going to go away, nor are its discoveries. We must learn to live with who and what we are without necessarily condoning our less attractive tendencies or attempting to sweep them under the rug.
Bottom line: the opening chapter which concentrates too much on the well-known Marxist delusions and the Soviet doublethink might well be skipped. The meat of Singer's essay begins with Chapter 2, and works very well by itself.
on 6 January 2001
As laudable an aim as Singer has, to reconcile Darwinian thinking and the left, he commits the same fallacy of equating natural processes with social processes that the right has so often been criticised for.
This is highlighted in his use of the Prisoner's Dilemma and the work of Axelrod to show that there will always be cheaters in a system of cooperation. Now as an evolutionary game the Prisoner's Dilemma will indeed always evolve cheaters to exploit suckers but in the social world we are not talking about evolution at all but behaviour. Will there always be people who become cheaters if there are suckers to exploit? That is an open question of human nature unrelated to evolution as the time frame doesn't allow any effect on reproduction to become apparant (if, indeed, humans are still evolving in a classical Darwinian way).
In his rejection of Marxist and sociological ideas of society being the primary determinant in human social behaviour Singer throws out the baby with the bath water. Human nature is certainly not a tabla rasa but nor is it 100% genetically predetermined, we have to be careful not to push the emphasis too far the other way.
There is no doubting that evoutionary processes have lead to the development of mankind and the human brain. However much of our morality and social rules are embodied in our brain through our interactions with the social world rather than being purely predetermined genetically.
on 11 September 2000
What Singer is proposing is this. We know what the left wants: social justice. We know what we are: evolved creatures (a type of ape!) with an evolved adapted mind. Therefore, if we want social justice, we should base our tactics on working around our adapted human nature (rather than Marxism or any other doomed fantasy).
It's that simple. Top marks for Singer.
(Note that Darwinism isn't any kind of social theory. Darwinism is a rock-solid scientific theory which explains what we are and where we came from. To base a social theory on Darwinism is as stupid as basing a social theory on Special Relativity or the Second Law of Thermodyamics.)