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A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation

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ISBN-13: 978-0300083231
ISBN-10: 0300083238
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Editorial Reviews Review

Philosophers don't have to be arcane and out of touch. Princeton's Peter Singer gives 21st-century liberals and radicals something to think about with the slim but powerful volume of Darwinism Today titled A Darwinian Left. Long noted for holding controversial bioethical beliefs related to animal rights, abortion, and euthanasia, Singer tends to quickly polarize his readers. This time, he chooses to antagonize those most sympathetic with his positions, arguing that the political left should re-evaluate its dependence on Marxism and its shunning of Darwinism. His writing is lucid and pulls no punches in examining the consequences of 20th-century answers to poverty; fans of the welfare state are in for some discomfort.

But Singer sees making a few liberals squirm as crucial to stealing Darwinism from the right and combining the noble desire to help the helpless with a realistic view of human nature and evolution. He builds a compelling line of thought, peppered with examples, that shows how our competitive "survival of the fittest" conception of evolution falls far short of modern scientific thinking. Instead, Singer suggests we incorporate a Darwinian ethic of cooperation into our political thought and reflect carefully on the consequences of our remedies for the evils of the world. --Rob Lightner

From Scientific American

Any intrusion of ideology into science is an invitation to wishful thinking. In his powerfully argued A Darwinian Left, Peter Singer takes the opposite tack: How can science make ideology realistic rather than a pipe dream? Ideologies claim to be realistic, and by selectively picking what fits and ignoring whatever doesn't fit they commonly give themselves a veneer of intellectual respectability. Social Darwinism (always a misnomer) used to provide such a veneer for the socioeconomic Right, which has more recently adopted competitive efficiency for maximal growth in our too finite world. In either case, might makes Right. To Singer, and to me, the core of the Left is a set of values, most notably that worth is intrinsic and doesn't depend on success or power. Traditionally, various factual beliefs have been accreted to these values, such as the homogeneity of human nature and its perfectibility by social change. Because they are matters of fact, they can be empirically investigated. Indeed, on strong current evidence both these beliefs appear to be false. Singer devotes a substantial part of his 70-page book to setting the background for such revisions. The gist of his subsequent argument goes something like this: It is quixotic to try to eliminate features that are pretty much universal among cultures, such as self-interest, a system of social rank, or even sexual jealousy. Among such quasi-invariants, though, is a readiness to form cooperative relationships and to recognize reciprocal obligations. Although the relative importance of cooperation and competition varies appreciably among cultures, it is by using cooperation as a focus that we may have our best chance for a real foundation for social change. With cooperation, Singer argues, always comes the problem of cheaters, who take but don't give. Less inequality can probably reduce their number but not remove the problem: self-interest is powerful. To harness self-interest so that it promotes cooperation, it is probably necessary to make cheating unprofitable. Thus, we have jails and other sanctions (although Singer fails to make these explicit) for when cheaters aren't personally accessible. For cooperation is valued by more than the Left. So what does all this have to do with the processes of biological evolution? I confess to being somewhat mystified, apart from its help with the cleansing of factual beliefs. A sophisticated treatment of cooperation, and its problems, exists in sociology. That treatment is more readily adapted than what we see in evolution. In the natural world, cooperation can in fact come from diverse evolutionary processes. A species of bacterium may produce a waste product that inhibits its expansion if not removed. A second bacterium uses this waste as its own food, thereby benefiting both. Or when times get tough, some amoebae gather together and produce a stalked fruiting body from which spores have a chance to reach some fresh amoeba-size pasture. Or an alga and a fungus may form a lichen that can live where neither component can survive by itself. Or some fish are less likely to be found and eaten if they are in a school. Or a pack of wolves can overcome a caribou that would be dangerous to one alone. Or a beetle may eat pollen and transfer some to the next flower it visits. Or a subordinate female of a paper wasp that gets uppity and lays an egg of her own may have it eaten by the dominant female to enforce cooperation. Or a soil fungus that helps plants absorb nutrients and gains energy from them in return may transfer nutrients from a more successful plant to a weakling, thus imposing cooperation. Or a honeybee that stings usually then dies in the process, for the sake of its relatives. Various other causes of cooperation are found in nature, some less easy to visualize. Some of these processes apply in human societies, too. Family members tend to cooperate with one another more than with nonrelatives, drafted soldiers form an army unit by coercion, and so on. Singer quite ignores this background diversity and reasonably so. It isn't what our societies are built from, mostly. In the biological world, cooperation is almost always merely a mechanism of competition. The only class of exceptions I know is when cooperation permits use of resources that would otherwise go unused, as with a lichen on a bare rock. Every species and population expands until something stops it. If cooperation permits more expansion, then it is automatically selected for. Otherwise it isn't. As Singer points out, Karl Marx and others have noted that Darwin's theory has important resemblances to English society of the time, with such phenomena as competition, division of labor, and expansion of successful novelties. The theory has been maligned because of this resemblance, yet it has been magnificently vindicated and survives unchanged in its basic form. So we can turn the critique on its head: rather than the resemblance impugning what we know of evolution, it was probably important in locating the initial discovery in England at that time. Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, was English, too, and both he and Darwin had their basic insight when reading On Population, by Englishman Thomas Malthus. Does the primacy of competition over cooperation in nature mean that the Right is right? Not at all. A study of evolution is useful in debunking factual beliefs of the Right as well as of the Left. In addition, we can exert our dominion over fish and fowl not literally but by transcending the automatic processes of the biological world. We don't need to use the natural world as a model for our actions, still less as a model for our values. We are superior only because of the brains that permit us to make general choices as well as specific ones. If we jointly prefer a cooperative approach to a competitive one, we have the ability to modify our society for the good of all. Thus, we can choose to transcend our heritage; is never justifies ought. It is a truism that we don't own the earth but borrow it from our children, a truism that embodies the spirit of cooperation and resonates deeply with the Left. EXCERPT_A DARWINIAN LEFT "A Darwinian left would not: • Deny the existence of a human nature, nor insist that human nature is inherently good, nor that it is infinitely malleable; • Expect to end all conflict and strife between human beings, whether by political revolution, social change, or better education; • Assume that all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning. Some will be, but this cannot be assumed in every case; A Darwinian left would: • Accept that there is such a thing as human nature, and seek to find out more about it, so that policies can be grounded on the best available evidence of what human beings are like; • Reject any inference from what is "natural" to what is "right"; • Expect that, under different social and economic systems, many people will act competitively in order to enhance their own status, gain a position of power, and/or advance their interests and those of their kin; • Expect that, regardless of the social and economic system in which they live, most people will respond positively to genuine opportunities to enter into mutually beneficial forms of cooperation; • Promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition, and attempt to channel competition into socially desirable ends; • Recognise that the way in which we exploit nonhuman animals is a legacy of a pre-Darwinian past that exaggerated the gulf between humans and other animals, and therefore work towards a higher moral status for nonhuman animals, and a less anthropocentric view of our dominance over nature; • Stand by the traditional values of the left by being on the side of the weak, poor and oppressed, but think very carefully about what social and economic changes will really work to benefit them."

LEIGH VAN VALEN is professor of ecology and evolution and of the conceptual foundations of science at the University of Chicago.


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Product Details

  • Series: Darwinism Today series
  • Hardcover: 64 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (April 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300083238
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300083231
  • Product Dimensions: 7.2 x 4.7 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #205,354 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a difficult book to rate in a five star system. Very short (63 pages) it is essentially a political pamphlet or manifesto. To this reader it does this job well. The author starts by identifying what is essential to the Left: being on the side of the weak not the powerful. He then goes on to sift through what remains, discarding and assembling ideas based on evolutionary biology not received political theory. By the time Singer, in the last chapter, lists his principles for a new "Darwinian Left" as opposed to the old Left, he has convinced me. However, I was familiar with much of the biology before.
In attempting to cover three areas, Politics, Evolution and Cooperation, the book is uneven. It is particularly interesting and convincing on some of the political and intellectual history of Marx's relationship to Darwinism and Marx's critics. This is also true when it brings evolutionary evidence to bear in arguing against the perfectibility and the "infinite malleability" of human nature.
On the other hand his discussion of altruism and cooperation, a key part of the book, is sketchy and weak. Sketchy is understandable given the size of the book but his paradigm example of altruism, anonymous blood donation, strikes me as particularly weak. Wouldn't adding a pint of blood to the blood supply, increase the probability of me and my genetic offspring getting a needed transfusion, and thus be in my own self-interest and not altruistic? Singer may be correct but a more detailed explanation is needed to be convincing and for this we must go elsewhere.
Overall the value of this book will be found in the application of its principles and methods of analysis to specific problems. Another book in the Darwinism Today series attempts to do this: Divided Labours: An Evolutionary View of Women at Work by Kingsley Browne. I have also reviewed this book.
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38 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Steve Barney on April 21, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In Singer's own words, this book is "a sketch of the waysin which a Darwinian left would differ from the traditional left thatwe have come to know over the past two hundred years" [60]. This is a very heavy little book which people who hold the values of the political left will be well advised to read very carefully for it's very constructive and sympathetic criticism.
"The left needs a new paradigm," writes Singer, as he proceeds to argue that the Darwinian theory of evolution should be the basis of that new paradigm [6]. In a nutshell, we should "swap Marx for Darwin."
Singer explains how the left has been all too influenced by Herbert Spencer's arguments that Darwin's principle of natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, implies an ethical imperative which justifies laissez-faire capitalism, and the principle of "might makes right." Darwin's principle of natural selection, which says that generally only the strong survive, was transformed by Spencer into a moral principle, "only the strong SHOULD survive," which became popularly known as "Social Darwinism." This Social Darwinism was enthusiastically embraced by the right, in defense of ruthlessly unregulated capitalism as a natural and just eugenics program [10-11].
Spencer's Social Darwinism, Singer points out, is not a necessary implication of Darwinism, and, most importantly, it overlooks the role of cooperative behavior in Darwinian evolution, as if competition is all there is to it [19].
Marx himself embraced Darwinism as an explanation for the origin of the human species and the behavior of nonhuman animals, but drew the line between human and nonhuman behavior, rejecting Darwinian implications regarding human nature.
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47 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Theodore A. Rushton on May 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
After reading this book, it's easy to see why some editors of The Wall Street Journal detest Peter Singer. He's a bold new thinker who is not afraid of new ideas. This book offers the first new idea in socialism since the start of the Industrial Revolution -- one new idea in 200 years certainly isn't going to overload any socialist's neural circuits.
From Canada to Zambia, and all little lands inbetween, socialism collapsed because it operated on the same basis as unregulated capitalism -- Greed is Enough. Greed is the heart of free enterprise, as Marx said, but it accomplished more in its first century than mankind did in all previous human history. Socialists didn't question this principle; capitalists got rich, socialists wanted the riches of the capitalists. Samuel Gompers summed it up nicely, workers wanted "More, more, more." Leftists spent 200 years trying to get more from the capitalists, and usually failed miserably.
Singer uses the first half of his book to demolish old socialist assumptions, pointing out that even in the 1870's the anarchists (today's Libertarians) proved communism could not work. But, anarchists got a bad name. Instead of heeding their ideas, half of the world experimented with various degrees of socialism while the other half tried naked greed.
The second half calls for altruism to humanize the opportunism of the "Greed is enough" idea. Will it work? Only 6 percent of people donate to blood banks -- a truly altruistic action since donors do not know the recipients -- yet, this is a valuable part of our society. Charitable gifts often go to unknown recipients, such gift s are to "help others" rather than a specific person.
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