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Turning Left at Darwin

In search of civic evolution

Heritage Images/Getty

A while back I purchased a little book by Princeton philosophy professor Peter Singer titled A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation. Later that day, I was reading through the volume while dining at a neighborhood bar, when the woman next to me leaned over and said, “Excuse me, but I must ask: What is a Darwinian Left?”

What, indeed? Singer’s book opens with a dialogue between the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx, drawn from Marx’s written responses to passages from Bakunin’s book Statism and Anarchy. To Bakunin’s assertion that Marx’s political program consisted of “lies behind which lurks the despotism of a governing minority, lies all the more dangerous in that this minority appears as the expression of the so-called people’s will,” Marx retorts, “Under collective property, the so-called will of the people disappears in order to make way for the real will of the cooperative.” Bakunin goes on to assert that those who doubt the dangers of rule by a small minority “know nothing at all about human nature.” Singer comments: “Marx got it wrong, and Bakunin’s ‘nightmares about authority’ were grimly prophetic.”

Marx’s views on the mutability of human nature, derived from Hegel, also conflicted with those of Charles Darwin, who judged humanity to be the end product of millions of years of evolution. But the defenders of laissez-faire capitalism, such as Andrew Carnegie and Herbert Spencer, most distorted Darwin’s work, deploying the phrase “survival of the fittest” to justify the gross economic disparities of the industrial age. Another Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, in his book Mutual Aid, contended on the basis of his own naturalist research in Siberia that cooperation was as much a part of animal and human behavior as conflict. Singer lauds Kropotkin for these observations, while also chastising him for implying that “individuals behave altruistically for the sake of a larger group,” a claim that Singer views as contrary to Darwinian orthodoxy.

Singer’s main question is: What is fixed and what is variable in human nature? He quotes ecologist Garrett Hardin’s “cardinal rule”: “Never ask a person to act against his own self-interest.” Hardin wrote a famous 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which argued that a common (shared) resource, such as a local water supply, if not centrally managed, would eventually be exhausted from overuse. Singer was apparently unaware of the extensive research conducted throughout the world by political scientist Elinor Ostrom, demonstrating that local communities—if able to achieve the requisite level of trust and cooperation among their members—were more than capable of evolving their own systems to prevent depletion of common-pool resources. The key to establishing such trust was ongoing face-to-face contact, which in turn required an extremely decentralized political system.

So what, in the end, does Singer prescribe for a “Darwinian Left”? He stipulates that it would not “deny the existence of a human nature, nor insist that human nature is inherently good, nor that it is infinitely malleable,” and would expect that “under different social and economic systems people will act competitively in order to enhance their own status, gain a position of power, and/or advance their interests and those of their kin.” Singer argued further that the practice of kin selection—the idea that an individual would altruistically sacrifice himself for a near-relative for the sake of preserving his own genetic legacy—stood out as a departure from the iron law that human affairs are dominated by the absolute selfishness of the individual. Eleven years after Singer’s book appeared in 1999, biologist E.O. Wilson published a blockbuster article with two leading mathematical biologists, decisively refuting the kin selection thesis as it applied in the context that first gave rise to it: the organization of insect colonies (which is also Wilson’s lifelong field of study). Wilson now propounds the theory of “dual selection,” which holds that natural selection operates at both the individual and group level.

The revolutionary theory of group selection is one of those ideas that, once it has been broached, seems obvious, and makes you wonder why it wasn’t more apparent all along. But what is the Left to do with this new twist on Darwinian thought, which posits both selfish and altruistic sides to human nature, equally potent and often, inevitably, in conflict? There are two main political traditions in America: liberalism, which exalts the liberty of the individual, and civic republicanism, which advocates what Benjamin Barber has called “communal liberty,” a tradition requiring citizen participation in the political life of the community.

These two philosophies match up well with the two sides of human nature described in Wilson’s amplified Darwinism. They also correspond to the paired philosophical elements that constituted early–twentieth-century Progressivism. That landmark movement of Left reform combined an attempt to update liberalism to include “positive” rights, such as the right to a decent wage, with a republican dedication to strengthen the public sector in the age of corporate capitalism. In his book The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion, Dan Kaufman cites Curt Meine’s biography of the legendary naturalist Aldo Leopold, who during the New Deal worked hand-in-glove with local landowners to restore the fertility of the ecologically devastated Coon Valley: “You have these deep channels of Wisconsin political culture,” Meine wrote. “There’s a tension ... between social responsibility and individual responsibility, government action and individual action. We’ve been able to use that tension in Wisconsin in a positive way for generations.”

That tension now resonates far beyond Coon Valley, and the now-embattled Progressive tradition and its legacy. It stands, indeed, as a mandate for a Darwinist-minded Left in search of a new—and group-selected—liberal-republican synthesis.