Left turn

Yale University Press Peter Singer, one of the country’s most influential and controversial contemporary philosophers, has produced a prescription upon which a political left should regroup, because in the wake of the collapse of Marxist regimes, “the left is in need of a new paradigm.” Though A Darwinian Left is a mere 60 pages, it is one of the few genuinely stimulating meditations on the topic, whose perspectives have implications far beyond considerations of a left politics.

As is typical of Singer, the subject is presented with a straightforward simplicity, an absence of jargon and an apparently self-evident logic. As Singer sees it, a corrective is needed because Marx got it exactly backwards.

Marx believed that the individual human emerges entirely from his or her social reality. Change the social reality, and you change the person. The social structure is the determining factor, while the human is entirely malleable.

The problem, says Singer, is that the opposite is closer to the truth: There is a bedrock biological human nature that contributes mightily to the structure of our social lives. “To be blind to the facts of human nature is to risk disaster,” says Singer, holding up Stalin’s gulag, Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s genocide as evidence.

The kernel of his corrective is that “It is time for the left to take seriously the fact that we are evolved animals, and that we bear the evidence of our inheritance, not only in our anatomy and our DNA, but in our behaviour, too.” The left’s continual rejection of this, even to the present day, emerges from the ideal of the perfectibility of the human, an assumption that Singer says Marxism ironically shares with Christianity. The aim of this assumption is the separation of the human from the animal, which Singer long ago rejected.

Singer does not reject Marx’s insights on the role that economic relations can play in shaping culture and ideas, but rather to “make it part of a much larger picture.” The failure of egalitarian revolutions does not mean “that hierarchy is good, or desirable, or even inevitable,” writes Singer, “but it does show that getting rid of it is not going to be nearly as easy as revolutionaries usually imagine.”

The “larger picture” includes that humans are biologically driven to act out of self-interest and should not be asked to act against their self-interest. But self-interest, as it has evolved, includes cooperative and even reciprocally altruistic drives as well as competitive ones. Through an increasingly specific understanding of how our human nature interacts with the environment, we may begin to systematically emphasize, build and reinforce those social programs that enhance our cooperative traits.

Singer is a “consequentialist,” guided by the idea that reasoning can determine which actions will result in the greatest happiness. His reason informs him that his own self-interest benefits most from this ethical approach, not only towards all people, but towards all sentient beings.

This, Singer claims, distinguishes his attempt at a Darwinian politics from earlier efforts, which sought to remove the “unfit” from society rather than helping them. It also means that when it comes to a scientifically based program of genetic improvement, we should be guided not by fear but by the consequences for the greatest happiness, holding out the prospects of “a new kind of freedom.” For it follows from his argument that if human nature is the major obstacle to a better society, the solution will ultimately lie in changing that nature.

Singer’s book is certainly not the last word on how we need to come to terms with the filling in of the blanks of our biological self-knowledge. But it serves provocatively as a place to start.