Darwin for Liberals

By Bloomberg, David | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Darwin for Liberals


Bloomberg, David, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


A Review of A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation by Peter Singer, Yale University Press, $9.95, hardcover, 64 pp.

DARWINISM in the form of Social Darwinism has historically been considered part of the political right. Supposedly Darwinian ideas--interpreted as "survival of the fittest"--were used to validate cutthroat competition and treading upon the "weak."

In his new book issued as part of the "Darwinism Today" series of short books from Yale University Press, bioethicist Peter Singer says it is the political left who should adopt Darwinism. While Darwin himself rejected the idea of using his theory in any ethical or political manner, others have suggested that "might is right...and every cheating tradesman is also right," as one newspaper review of his work said.

But Singer notes that, as science, Darwinism is apolitical. There can just as easily be a Darwinian left as a Darwinian right While the Darwinian right has emphasized competition, a Darwinian left would focus instead on the importance of cooperation and altruism, matters that were not widely understood as being part of evolution when Social Darwinism first gained favor. Furthermore, he wants the left to use a current understanding of human nature, based on Darwinism, rather than on idealistic notions about perfect societies and utopias.

The use of scientific principles in politics is a sticky area. But evolution, Singer notes, just happens. There is no moral path for it. People must use the scientific information along with their own morality to make decisions. So even if scientists discover a basis for what makes people happy or sad, that does not tell us what we should do. Certainly, Singer says, if we find there is a disposition to join in a group act of violence against outsiders, morally we should face it head on, but the science would just tell us about the disposition; we must use outside ethical input to conclude that it should be rejected.

Singer lists several ways in which Darwinian thinking can help in politics. One is to reject the idea, sometimes found in Social Darwinism, that social policies hurt the human species by helping the "less fit" survive. Darwinian thought can also help debunk non-Darwinian beliefs that have become influential in politics. For example, some cite biblical verses to "prove" humans have dominion over all other animals. But if humans are evolved animals instead of specially created by God, the question of how to treat other animals has a different impact

One reason given as to why the left should use Darwinism is the focus, starting in the 1960s, on cooperation as a factor in survival and genetic success. Cooperation, Singer says, is an important part of Darwinism and it is in keeping with the values of the left. Social Darwinism's focus on competition is one main reason the left has rejected Darwinism. Another reason, according to Singer, is because evolution says humans are not, and never will be, perfect, and many in the left previously stressed the goal of reaching a perfect society, a Marxist utopia. …

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