A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation

Article excerpt

Dr. Jekyll would not be famous were it not for his connection with Mr. Hyde. Perhaps one reason that Peter Singer's name is well known, both to students of philosophy and to lay people, is that he is a Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of person.

As Dr. Jekyll, Singer is a leading figure in the campaign against cruelty, to animals. Qua Mr. Hyde, he insists that there is nothing wrong with killing human infants if they are either (a) severely deformed or brain-damaged or (b) simply not wanted by parents or adopters.

As Dr. Jekyll, Singer deplores the despoliation of Planet Earth. Qua Mr. Hyde, he has no wish to condemn governments that control their human populations by encouraging abortion and infanticide.

As Dr. Jekyll, Singer discovered that he would rather spend money on nursing care for his aged mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, than on the various left-wing or pro-animal projects demanded by his utilitarian philosophy. Qua Mr. Hyde, he continues to tell physicians, and conferences, that the low quality of life of senile patients and patients in coma means that it is okay to allow them to die and even to take positive steps to destroy them. Peter Singer, speaking as Hyde, said, in my hearing, in December 1999, that the organs of people in persistent coma should be harvested for transplants and research. He believes that coma patients are already dead in a sense, hence the re-use of their organs is ethically required on utilitarian principles.

One of Singer's latest publications is a slim volume called A Darwinian Left.(1) In it he says that "the genuine left" is always on the side of the weak and the poor against the rich and the mighty. Plainly Dr. Jekyll is speaking here, but let's not forget that Mr. Hyde opposes old-fashioned right-wing folk (Christians for example) who try to protect human fetuses and unwanted human infants from destruction. Before the Catholic Church was thrown out of Communist China, its nuns saved the lives of very weak people, namely, infants targeted by the centuries-old Chinese addiction to female infanticide. Mr. Hyde, though, is contemptuous of religious ways of thinking and defends infanticide anyway--just as long as no adult feelings get hurt by it.

But let us return to the little book about Darwinism.

As a utilitarian, says Singer, he has to condemn the economic arrangements which mean that the 400 richest men in the United States own just as much between them as 45 percent of the poorest people in the rest of the world. And I think lots of other people, including lots of non-utilitarians, feel exactly the same way.

Singer believes that Darwinism has been taken over by the right and as a result has been rejected by the left. According to the right-wing view, Darwin proved that mankind is subject to the rule of the survival of the fittest and from that it was deduced that a perpetual increase in the wealth and power of the top beneficiaries of capitalism cannot be avoided because it follows an ineluctable law of nature. Singer claims that Darwin's work can be interpreted in a different way. Left-wing Darwinism accepts the theory of evolution, of course, but also allows that men are somewhat more malleable than the other animals. Unlike Marxists, however, "genuine" left-wingers do not say that human beings can be made to give up self-interest or conform to a completely egalitarian way of living.

Singer argues that the limits of human malleability, can be observed by observing different social groups. Human societies vary a great deal in respect of some features--e.g., in the way food is prepared. In respect of other features they vary a little but not a lot; Singer suggests this is true of sexual arrangements and also of xenophobia and feelings of ethnicity. He notes, thirdly, that societies vary hardly at all in respect to the presence of hierarchy.

A "genuine" left-wing program would not try to alter what seems to be invariable, but that doesn't mean hierarchies have to be brutal or greedy; they don't have to be based on guns and avarice. …