It is the right which has drawn most on Darwinian ideas. It is time for the left to take a closer look. It must abandon its dream of the perfectibility of man and build on the enlightened self-interest inherent in our natureby Peter Singer / June 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in June 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
The left needs a new paradigm. The collapse of communism and the abandonment by democratic socialist parties of the traditional socialist aim of public ownership have deprived the left of the goals it cherished over the two centuries in which it grew to a position of great political power and intellectual influence. My focus here is not so much with the left as a politically organised force, as with the left as a broad body of thought, a spectrum of ideas about achieving a better society. The left, in this sense, is urgently in need of new ideas. I want to suggest that one source of such ideas is an approach to human behaviour based firmly on a modern understanding of human nature. It is time for the left to take seriously the fact that we have evolved from other animals; 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. In other words, it is time to develop a Darwinian left.
Can the left adopt Darwin and still remain left? That depends on what it considers essential. Let me answer this in a personal way. During the past year, I have completed both a television documentary and a book about Henry Spira. This name will mean nothing to most people, but Spira is the most remarkable person I have ever worked with. When he was 12, his family lived in Panama. His father ran a small store, which was not doing well; to save money the family accepted an offer from a rich friend to stay in his house. The house was a mansion that took up an 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. He went and saw how the luxurious existence of his father’s benefactor was financed; they went into the slums, where poor people were menaced by the armed rent collectors. At the time, Henry had no concept of “the left,” but from that day on, he was part of it. Later Spira moved to the US, became a Trotskyist, worked as a seaman, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, went to the South to support black people, left the Trotskyists because they had lost touch with reality, and taught ghetto kids in New York. As if that wasn’t enough, in 1973 he read my essay “Animal Liberation” and decided that here was another group of exploited beings that needed help. He has subsequently become the single most effective activist of the US animal rights movement.