A Darwinian Left for Today and Beyond, by Peter Singer

This short book has been a sketch of the ways in which a Darwinian left would differ from the traditional left that we have come to know over the past two hundred years. In closing, I shall first draw together, in point form, some of the features that I think would distinguish a Darwinian left from previous versions of the left, both old and new; these are features that I think a Darwinian left should embrace today. Then I will cast a glance at more distant prospects.

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.

In some ways, this is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its Utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved. That is, I think, the best we can do today — and it is still a much more positive view than that which many on the left have assumed to be implied in a Darwinian understanding of human nature.

If we take a much longer-term perspective, there may be a prospect for restoring more far-reaching ambitions of change. We do not know to what extent our capacity to reason can, in the long run, take us beyond the conventional Darwinian constraints on the degree of altruism that a society may be able to foster. We are reasoning beings. In other works I have likened reason to an escalator, in that, once we start reasoning, we may be compelled to follow a chain of argument to a conclusion that we did not anticipate when we began. Reason provides us with the capacity to recognise that each of us is simply one being among others, all of whom have wants and needs that matter to them, as our needs and wants matter to us. Can that insight ever overcome the pull of other elements in our evolved nature that act against the idea of an impartial concern for all of our fellow humans, or, better still, for all sentient beings?

No less a champion of Darwinian thought than Richard Dawkins holds out the prospect of ‘deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism -something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world’. Although ‘We are built as gene machines,’ he tells us, ‘we have the power to turn against our creators’. There is an important truth here. We are the first generation to understand not only that we have evolved, but also the mechanisms by which we have evolved and how this evolutionary heritage influences our behaviour. In his philosophical epic, The Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel portrayed the culmination of history as a state of Absolute Knowledge, in which Mind knows itself for what it is, and hence achieves its own freedom. We don’t have to buy Hegel’s metaphysics to see that something similar really has happened in the last fifty years. For the first time since life emerged from the primeval soup, there are beings who understand how they have come to be what they are. To those who fear adding to the power of government and the scientific establishment, this seems more of a danger than a source of freedom. In a more distant future that we can still barely glimpse, it may turn out to be the prerequisite for a new kind of freedom.

A Darwinian Left for Today and Beyond, by Peter Singer.


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