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on 20 December 2011
"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.

Social Darwinism is dead. Outside of a marginal fringe of neo-fascists and self-styled Satanists, the theory that the weak must perish to facilitate human evolution and progress survives only as a straw man sometimes invoked by creationists and leftists in order to discredit their opponents.

However, despite the attachment of some American conservatives to creationism, there remains a perception that Darwinism is more compatible with conservatism than socialism.

After all, research in evolutionary psychology suggests that at least some aspects of traditional gender roles (e.g. women's responsibility child-care) can be justified by reference to innate psychological differences between the sexes. Similarly, the theory of kin selection seems to reinforce conservatives' traditional faith in the family unit.

Meanwhile, the view that humans have evolved to be fundamentally self-interested seems to confirm the underlying assumptions of classical economics - while making a classless utopia of the sort envisaged by Marx wholly impracticable.

These observations and others have led figures such as political scientist Larry Arnhart to champion a new "Darwinian Conservatism".

Against this, 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 such morally questionable behaviours as infanticide, rape and infidelity without being seen to condone them.

Singer accepts and reiterates this principle. However, this merely begs the question - if moral and political values cannot be derived from scientific facts, then how are they 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.

In the current work, rather than seeking to justify leftist political ideals such as egalitarianism on the basis of evolution, Singer instead simply accepts these ideals as a priori assumptions and implicitly presumes that the reader shares his convictions.

However, accepting the naturalistic fallacy does not, Singer observes, mean that the facts of human nature are irrelevant politics.

On the contrary, while Darwinism may not be able to prescribe which ultimate political objectives are desirable, Singer rightly recognises that "an understanding of human nature in the light of evolutionary theory can help us to identify the means by which we may achieve some of our social and political goals... as well as assessing the possible costs and benefits of doing so". (See also Darwinism Applied: Evolutionary Paths to Social Goals.)

Marxist Utopia Reconsidered

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 simply unattainable - at least in the absence of a wholesale eugenic re-engineering of human nature itself.

In watering down the utopian aspirations of previous generations of leftists, Singer seems to implicitly concede this much.

Although evolutionary psychologists emphasise that altruism and even morality itself may represent an aspect of our evolved psychology, evolutionary theory also suggests we are innately predisposed to care more about ourselves and our families than about strangers. Thus, selfishness and nepotism are, to some extent, innate and universal.

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;

A further factor precluding the sustainment of socialism is that equality of outcome removes the incentive of self-advancement that lies behind the production of goods and services (not to mention of works of art and scientific advances) which benefit society as a whole. And, again, the only alternative means of ensuring goods and services are produced is state coercion, which, given human nature, will inevitably be exercised corruptly.

Thus, Singer laments, "What egalitarian revolution has not been betrayed by its leaders?" - or, as H.L. Mencken more eloquently put it, the "one undoubted effect [of revolutions] is simply to throw out one gang of thieves and put in another".

Nepotism and Equality of Opportunity

Selfish Gene Theory suggests that human's are not entirely selfish. On the contrary, inclusive fitness theory (or the theory of kin selection) suggests that humans care also about those biological relatives with whom they share genes in common.

However, this is not necessarily a boon to egalitarians. On the contrary, the fact that human selfishness is therefore tempered by a healthy dose of nepotism likely means that 'equality of opportunity' is as unattainable as 'equality of outcome'. This is because individuals will seek to aid the social, educational and economic advancement of their kin, especially their offspring, at the expense of others - and those individuals better placed to aid their biological relatives in these endeavours will inevitably be more successful at doing so.

However, given that many conservatives and libertarians are as committed to 'equality of opportunity' as Marxists are to 'equality of outcome', this conclusion may be even less welcome among conservatives than it is among socialists. Indeed, to some extent, this conclusion simply complements the leftist claim that 'equality of opportunity' is an illusion.

The human proclivity towards nepotism has even been interpreted to suggest that racism and ethnocentrism may be innate and universal - making the achievement of racial equality problematic.

Unfortunately, however, Singer does not explore any of these issues.

Animal Liberation

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 frequently have different effects on humans to that which they exert on other species. However, 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. In other words, 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 better 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. In fact, extreme examples of altruism often occur in the context extreme competition.

For example, some of the most remarkable acts of self-sacrifice are those performed by soldiers in wartime (e.g. kamikaze pilots, suicide bombers and soldiers who throw themselves on grenades). Yet wars constitute perhaps the most extreme form of competition known to man.

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). Therefore, while open to manipulation, especially in evolutionarily-novel societies, they are necessarily limited in scope.


In response to the claim that welfare encourages the unemployed to have children and thereby promotes dysgenic fertility patterns, 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".

However, although viewing traits as desirable or undesirable certainly does involve extra-scientific value judgements, virtually everyone would accept some traits (e.g. generosity, conscientiousness) as more desirable than others (e.g. selfishness, laziness). The desirability of these traits can therefore surely be taken as given in the same way Singer himself accepts the desirability of his own leftist social ideals without providing any ultimate justification for them.

Moreover, although it may not be meaningful to talk of unemployment itself as heritable, twin and adoption studies of the sort pioneered by behavioural geneticists have demonstrated a heritable component to personality traits of the sort that may underlie unemployment (e.g. intelligence and conscientiousness).

At any rate, even if children from deprived backgrounds have worse outcomes because of environmental deprivation rather than because of inherited personality traits, a case can still be made for restricting the reproductive rights of the parents. After all, children generally get their genes and their parenting from the same set of parents - and will continue to do so in the absence of a massive illiberal programme of forced adoptions. Therefore, so long as an association between parentage and social outcomes is established, the question of whether this association is biologically- or environmentally-mediated is simply beside the point.

As for eugenics, if we accept Singer's contention that Darwinism can help show us how achieve, but not select, social goals, then surely it can be argued that eugenics could provide a useful means of achieving the goal of producing the more altruistic and cooperative people and societies. Indeed, given that Singer appears to concede that human nature and a classless society are fundamentally incompatible, perhaps the only way to rescue the socialist dream of building a utopian society is to genetically-reengineer human nature itself.

It is therefore perhaps no accident that, prior to World War Two, eugenics was typically identified as a 'progressive' cause. Early twentieth century socialist eugenicists such as HG Wells, Sidney Webb, Margeret Sanger and George Bernard Shaw may have tentatively grasped what eludes contemporary leftists - namely that reengineering society requires reengineering man himself.

However, there is a problem with this case for a 'New Socialist Eugenics'. Before the eugenic programme is complete, the individuals controlling eugenic programmes (be they governments or corporations) will still possess a more traditional human nature, and may therefore have less than altruistic motivations themselves. This seems to suggest that, as philosopher John Gray concludes, if human nature is "scientifically remodelled... it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of the struggles in the murky world where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control" (Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals: p6).

What's Left?

Singer defines 'the Left' in unusually broad terms, namely as "on the side of the weak, not the powerful; of the oppressed, not the oppressor".

However, few conservatives would admit to being on the side of the oppressor.

Rather, conservatives reject the dichotomous subdivision of persons into 'oppressor' and 'oppressed' classes, arguing that the real world is more complex and that mutually beneficial cooperation rather than exploitation and oppression is at the heart of the capitalist system. Conservatives usually claim that their policies benefit society as a whole, and often contend that socialist reforms frequently hurt those whom they naïvely aspire to help (e.g. by encouraging welfare dependency).

Indeed, many conservatives would share Singer's aspiration to create a more altruistic culture. Indeed, this aspiration seems more compatible with the libertarian notion of voluntary charitable donations replacing taxation than with the coercively extracted progressive taxation typically championed by the Left.

Interestingly, Singer's broad conception of the Left has been criticised by some of his fellow leftists, both those sceptical of the claims of evolutionary psychology (e.g. The First Darwinian Left: Socialism and Darwinism 1859-1914) as well as some broadly receptive to this emerging field (e.g. As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind).

Among Singer's controversial concessions to conservatism are the recognition that hierarchy is "a near-universal human tendency" and therefore presumably innate in origin and that not "all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning".

In claiming that not "all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning", he seems to envisage instead that innate differences between individuals and groups in abilities and temperament may underlie at least some some disparities in achievement.

Interestingly, in contrast to modern Leftists, Marx himself, in advocating "from each according to his ability", seemed to implicitly recognise the reality of innate differences in ability - differences which, given the equalisation of social conditions envisaged under communism, he presumably envisaged as innate in origin.

With regard to group differences, Singer wisely avoids any discussion of the possibility that innate racial differences may underlie differences in achievement. Instead, he illustrates the possibility that not "all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning" with the marginally less incendiary issue of sex differences in psychology and behaviour.

"If achieving high status increases access to women," Singer observes, "then we can expect men to have a stronger drive for status than women" and that this, rather than any supposed discrimination, may explain the disproportionate number of men in high status positions.

Singer neglects to mention the related factor that women are also innately programmed to invest more heavily in their offspring, a factor that will further impede their career advancement.

[For a more detailed discussion of the biological and psychological factors underlying the gender pay gap, see Kingsley Brown's excellent Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality.]

Progressing beyond Progressivism?

This all certainly represents uncharacteristic progress in the thought of a self-styled 'progressive'. However, one wonders whether Singer, like so many before him, is on the verge of progressing beyond facile progressivism altogether.

After all, if there is nothing left in Singer's 'Darwinian Left' recognisably of the Left, perhaps it is time for the Left is to be left behind altogether.



Trivers, R 'The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism' Quarterly Review of Biology 1971

Vining, DR 'Social Versus Reproductive Success' Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1986
11 comment|4 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
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.
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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.
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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.)
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