Workers' Liberty #68


The limits of nature?

A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation, by Peter Singer, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Reviewed by Ross West.

Ideologies from across the political spectrum have been unified in their admiration of science. From anarchism to Nazism, leaders of political thought have emphasised the position that science plays in promoting the kind of society that they want. The parts of science that are usually most emphasised are the derivatives of the 'hard sciences' such as physics, chemistry and material science.

Darwinism has not always had such bipartisan support. Peter Singer's slim volume addresses the relationship that has held between ideology and the sciences of humanity (biology and evolutionary theory as applied to humans), and has some suggestions as to how that relationship should change.

When Darwin's theory was first promoted, the emphasis lay largely on the competition between species, and between individuals of a species. Some people on the right would claim that Darwin's theory justified institutional racism or economic inequality by proving them to be 'natural'. On the left, there was a muted if not openly hostile reaction to Darwin's theory. Of those on the left who supported Darwinism (including Engels), there is evidence to show that many simply misunderstood it.

The main misunderstanding Singer describes the left as making is thinking that biological evolution stops at humankind, and cultural evolution takes over: 'Marx's inquiry begins precisely where Darwin's inquiry ends' (Plekhanov). This is simply wrong - our biological inheritance underlies and moulds the possibilities inherent in any cultural analysis. Two related assumptions Singer singles out as inconsistent with Darwinist thinking are the 'perfectibility of Man' and the 'malleability of Man'. Human nature is not simply the 'ensemble of the social relations' as Marx once claimed - our biological inheritance plays a powerful and interacting role with our 'social relations'.

Singer investigates the opposition that appears to exist between some of the historical ideals of the left, and what contemporary evolutionary theory suggests about our inherited nature and biological and social functioning. He suggests that if push comes to shove, it is the ideology that should change.

Modern evolutionary theory, however, has increasingly seen the importance of co-operation as well as competition in the struggle for survival. Singer talks us through some of the work that is revealing the mechanisms of altruism (in its genetic and common sense form) in social organisms like ourselves. He seems to suggest that a well thought-out left-wing ideology should acknowledge the evolutionary sciences so as not to propose changes that are counter to the possibilities inherent in human nature.

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