Evolutionary Worker's Party

Peter Singer

This article originally appeared in the Time Higher Education Supplement|, 15 May 1998

The tragic irony of the history of the past century is that the record of governments that claimed to be Marxist shows Marx got it wrong. The collapse of communism and the abandonment by democratic socialist parties of the traditional socialist objective of national ownership of the means of production have deprived the left of the goals it once cherished.

But there is a source of new ideas that could revitalise this demoralised left - an approach to people's social, political and economic behaviour based on a modern understanding of human nature. In short, it is time the left took seriously the fact that we have evolved from other animals, and that we bear  the evidence of this inheritance, not only in our anatomy and our DNA, but in what we want and how we are likely to try to get it. It is time to develop a Darwinian left. 

Can the left swap Marx for Darwin and still remain left? Well what are the essential ingredients of a left-wing philosophy? I recently completed a television documentary about Henry Spira. When he was 12 his family lived in Panama. His father ran a clothing store. To save money the family accepted an offer from a wealthy friend to stay in his house - a mansion that took up the entire city block. One day two men who worked for the owner asked Henry if he wanted to come with them when they collected rents. They went into the slums, where poor people were menaced by the armed rent collectors. From that day on Henry was part of 'the left'.

He moved to the United States, became a Trotskyist, worked as a merchant seaman, opposed corrupt bosses of the maritime union, went to the south to support blacks, left the Trotskyists because they had lost touch with reality and taught ghetto kids in New York. In 1973 he read an essay of mine called 'Animal liberation', decided here was another group of exploited beings that. needed help and became the most effective activist of the American animal rights movement.

Why did he spend 50 years on these causes? Because he is on the side of the weak, not the powerful: of the oppressed not the oppressor. That is what the left is all about. In a world in which the 400 richest people have a combined net worth greater than the bottom 45 per cent and a billion people live on less than $1 a day, it is easy to find many different principles of equity, justice or utility in agreement that we should work towards a more equal distribution of resources. But a political philosophy that incorporates them must be based on a truthful understanding of human nature.

Marxists have generally been enthusiastic about Darwin's account of the origin of species, as long as its implications for humans are confined to anatomy and physiology. Engels, in his speech at Marx's graveside, paid Darwin the compliment of comparing Marx's discovery of the law of human development with Darwin's discovery of the law of development of organic nature. In that characterisation, however, lurks the idea that Darwinian evolution stops at the dawn of human history, and the materialist theory of history takes over thereafter.

The materialist theory of history implies that there is no fixed human nature. Human nature changes with every change in the mode of production. It has already changed in the past - between feudalism and capitalism, for example - and it can change again in the future. But to anyone who sees a continuity between human beings and our non-human ancestors, it seems implausible that Darwinism gives us the laws of evolution for natural history, but stops at the dawn of human history.

Belief in the malleability of human nature has been important for the left because it has provided grounds for hoping that a very different kind of human society is possible. Here is the real reason the left has rejected Darwinian thought. It dashed the left's great dream: the perfectibility of man. For as long as the left has existed, it has sought a society in which human beings live cooperatively with one another. For Darwin, on the other hand, the struggle for existence, or at least for the existence of one's offspring, is unending. This is a long way from the dream of perfecting mankind.

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. If there were no private property and the means of production were communally owned, 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. So ran the left's argument.

But in the 20th century the dream of the perfectibility of humankind turned into the nightmares of Stalinist Russia, China under the Cultural Revolution, and Cambodia under Pol Pot. From these nightmares the left awoke in turmoil. There have been attempts to create a new society that had less terrible results Castro's Cuba, the Israeli kibbutzim - but none has been an unqualified success. If we put the dream of perfectibility behind us, a key barrier to a Darwinian left is removed.

Beliefs about the malleability or otherwise of human nature are beliefs about a matter of fact and should be open to revision in the light of evidence. That evidence can come from history, anthropology, ethology and evolutionary theory. But it is not easy to look at this evidence without ideological blinkers. The suggestion that there are relatively fixed aspects of human nature may not be as controversial today as it was 25 years ago, when E O Wilson published Sociobiology: The new synthesis. Since then many books have outlined universal aspects of human nature, and they have had less stormy births. While some areas of human life show great diversity, in others, human behaviour is constant across the range of human cultures and is shared with our closest nonhuman relatives.

We can sort areas of human life into three categories: behaviour that shows great variation across culture, behaviour that shows some variation across culture and behaviour that shows little or no variation across culture.

In the first category I would put the way we produce our food - by gathering and hunting. by grazing domesticated animals or by growing crops. With this would go nomadic or settled lifestyles and the kinds of food we eat, as well as economic structures. religious practices, and forms of government. but not the existence of some form of government. which seems to be universal.

In the second category I would put sexual relationships. Victorian anthropologists were most impressed by the differences between attitudes to sexuality in their own society and those in the societies they studied, and as a result we tend to think of sexual morality as totally relative to culture. There are, of course. important differences between societies that allow men to have only one wife, and those that allow men to have more than one, but virtually every society has a system of marriage that implies restrictions on sexual intercourse outside the marriage. Moreover while men may be allowed one wife or more, according to the culture, systems of marriage in which women are allowed to have more than one husband are extremely rare. Whatever the rules of marriage may be, and no matter how severe the sanctions, infidelity and sexual jealousy also seem to be universal elements of human sexual behaviour. Into this category of behaviour that shows some variation across culture I would also place ethnic identification and its converse, xenophobia and racism. I live in a multicultural society with a relatively low level of racism; but I know that racist feelings exist among a significant number of Australians, and they can be stirred up by demagogues.

In the third category - behaviour that is universal to all humans - I would place the fact that we are social beings (very few humans live alone) 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 a near-universal human tendency. There are very few human societies without differences in social status, and when attempts are made to abolish such differences, they re-emerge quite rapidly. Gender roles, too, show relatively little variation. Women almost always have the major 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.

My rough classification of human behaviour carries no evaluative overtones. I am not saying that because something like hierarchy, or male dominance, is characteristic of almost all human societies, that therefore it is good or that we should not attempt to change it. My point is not about deducing an 'ought' from an 'is': but about estimating the price we may have to pay for achieving the goals we seek.

To be blind to the facts about human nature is to risk disaster. Consider hierarchy. To say that human beings under a wide range of conditions have a tendency to form hierarchies is to issue a warning that we should not expect to abolish hierarchy in our society by eliminating the particular hierarchy we live within. If we live in a society with a hierarchy based on a hereditary aristocracy and we abolish the hereditary aristocracy we are likely to find that a new hierarchy emerges based on something else, perhaps military power, or wealth. When the Bolshevik revolution in Russia abolished the hereditary aristocracy and private wealth, a hierarchy soon developed on the basis of rank and influence within the Communist Party, and this became the basis for all sorts of privileges. Position in a hierarchy even appears to have an impact on health and longevity.

Wood carvers presented with a piece of timber and a request to make wooden bowls from it do not simply begin carving according to a design drawn up before they have seen the wood. Instead they examine the wood and modify their design to suit its grain. Political philosophers, and the revolutionaries who have followed them, have all too often worked out their reforms and sought to apply them, without knowing much about the human beings who must carry out, and live with, their plans. Then, when the plans do not work, they blame traitors within their ranks, or sinister external agents, for the failure. Instead, those seeking to reshape society must understand the tendencies inherent in human beings, and modify their abstract ideals to suit them.

Reproduced by kind permission of the THES. The author has given his permission for use of his work free of charge.