A Darwinian Left  

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"Let us divide human behaviour into three categories: that which shows great variation across culture; some variation across culture; and little or no variation across culture.

In the first category, showing great variation, I would include the way we produce our food-by gathering and hunting, by grazing domestic animals, or by growing crops. To these differences would correspond differences in lifestyles-nomadic or settled-as well as differences in the kinds of food we eat. This first category would also include economic structures, religious practices and forms of government-but not, significantly, the existence of some form of government, which seems to be nearly universal.

In the second category, showing some variation, I would include sexuality. Victorian anthropologists were very impressed by the differences between attitudes to sexuality in their own society and those in the societies they studied; as a result, we tend to exaggerate the extent to which sexual morality is relative to culture. There are, of course, important differences between societies that allow men to have one wife and those that allow men to have more than one wife; but almost every society has a system of marriage that implies restrictions on sexual intercourse outside marriage. Moreover, while men may be allowed one wife or more, according to the culture, systems of marriage in which women are allowed more than one husband are rare. Whatever the rules of marriage may be, and no matter how severe the sanctions, infidelity and sexual jealousy seem to be universal elements of human sexual behaviour.

In this second category I would also include ethnic identification and its opposite, xenophobia and racism. I live in a multicultural society with a relatively low level of racism; but I know that racist feelings do exist among Australians, and they can be stirred up by demagogues. The tragedy of Bosnia has shown how ethnic hatred can be revived among people who have lived peacefully with each other for decades. Racism can be learned and unlearned, but racist demagogues hold their torches over highly flammable material.

In the third category, showing little variation across cultures, I would include the fact that we are social beings and that we are concerned for the interests of our kin. Our readiness to form cooperative relationships and to recognise reciprocal obligations is another universal. More controversially, I would claim that the existence of a hierarchy or system of rank is an almost universal human tendency. There are very few human societies without differences in social status; when attempts are made to abolish such differences, they tend to re-emerge rapidly. Finally, gender roles also show relatively little variation. Women almost always play the main role in caring for young children, while men are much more likely than women to be involved in physical conflict, both within the social group and in warfare between groups. Men also tend to have a disproportionate role in the political leadership of the group." --A Darwinian Left (1999) by Peter Singer, p. 36-7

"What capitalists failed to accomplish by a century of repressive measures against trade union leaders, the World Trade Organization, enthusiastically endorsed by social democrat governments around the world, is doing for them. When barriers to imports are removed, nationally based trade unions are undermined. Now when workers in high-wage countries demand better conditions, the bosses can threaten to close the factory and import the goods from China, or some other country where wages are low and trade unionists will not cause trouble." --A Darwinian Left (1999) by Peter Singer, p. 5

"If (...) the materialist theory of history is correct, and social existence determines consciousness, then the greed, egoism, personal ambition and envy that a Darwinian might see as inevitable aspects of our nature can instead be seen as the consequence of living in a society with private property and private ownership of the means of production. Without these particular social arrangements, people would no longer be so concerned about their private interests. Their nature would change and they would find their happiness in working cooperatively with others for the communal good. That is how communism would overcome the antagonism between man and man." --A Darwinian Left (1999) by Peter Singer, p. 27

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A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation (1999) is a book by Peter Singer, in which the author argues that the view of human nature provided by evolution (e.g., evolutionary psychology) is compatible with and should be incorporated into the ideological framework of the Left.


Singer believes that the Left will be better able to achieve its social and economic goals if it incorporates the more accurate view of human nature provided by evolutionary science: "To be blind to the facts about human nature is to risk disaster". For example, Singer argues that the Left's view of human nature as highly malleable, which he identifies with Marxism and the standard social science model, is incorrect.

Singer argues that evolutionary psychology suggests that humans naturally tend to be self-interested. He further argues that the evidence that selfish tendencies are natural must not be taken as evidence that selfishness is right. He concludes that game theory (the mathematical study of strategy) and experiments in psychology offer hope that self-interested people will make short-term sacrifices for the good of others, if society provides the right conditions. Essentially Singer claims that although humans possess selfish, competitive tendencies naturally, they have a substantial capacity for cooperation that has also been selected for during human evolution.


The philosopher Philip Kitcher has criticised the book's handling of sociobiology, saying that it contains "credulous retailing of sociobiological speculations" while noting that "much of this book is admirable in its clarity, directness, and grasp of central points".

See also

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