Darwin for the left

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 nature
June 19, 1998

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.

Spira has a knack for putting things plainly. When I asked him why he has spent his life working for these causes, he said simply that he is on the side of the weak, not the powerful, of the oppressed, not the oppressor, of the ridden, not the rider. He spoke of the huge quantity of pain and suffering that exists in our universe, and of his desire to do something to reduce it. This, I think, is what the left is about. If we shrug our shoulders at the avoidable suffering of the weak and the poor, of those who are getting exploited and ripped off, we are not of the left. The left wants to change this situation. There are many different ideas of equality which are compatible with this broad picture of the left. But in a world in which the 400 richest people have a combined net worth greater than the bottom 45 per cent of the world's population, it is not hard to find some common ground on working towards a more equal distribution of resources.

So much for the left. What about the politics of Darwinism? One way of answering the question is to invoke the fact-value distinction. Since to be "of the left" is to hold certain values, and Darwin's theory is a scientific one, the impossibility of deducing values from facts means that evolution has nothing to do with left or right. So there can be a Darwinian left as easily as there can be a Darwinian right.

It is, of course, the right which has drawn most on Darwinian thinking. Andrew Carnegie, for example, appealed to evolution to suggest that economic competition will lead to the "survival of the fittest," and so will make most people better off. Darwinian thinking is also invoked in the claim that social policies may be helping the "less fit" to survive, and thus have deleterious genetic consequences. This claim is highly speculative. Its factual basis is strongest in regard to the provision of life-saving medical treatment to people with genetically-linked diseases; without treatment, these people would die before they could reproduce. There are, no doubt, many more people with early-onset diabetes being born because of the discovery of insulin. But no one would seriously propose withholding insulin from children with diabetes in order to avoid the genetic consequences of providing insulin.

But there is a more general aspect of Darwinian thinking that does need to be taken seriously. That is the claim that an understanding of human nature in the light of evolutionary theory can help us to assess the price we will have to pay for achieving our social and political goals. This does not imply that any social policy is wrong because it is contrary to Darwinian ideas. Rather, it leaves the ethical decision up to us and merely provides information relevant to that decision.

the core of the left worldview is a set of values; but there is also a penumbra of factual beliefs that have typically been associated with the left. We need to ask whether these factual beliefs are at odds with Darwinian thinking; if they are, what would the left be like without them?

The intellectual left, and Marxists in particular, have generally been enthusiastic about Darwin's account of the origin of species, as long as its implications for human beings are confined to anatomy and physiology. Marx's materialist theory of history implies that there is no fixed human nature. It changes with each new mode of production. It has already changed in the past-between primitive communism and feudalism, and between feudalism and capitalism-and it could change again in the future.

Belief in the malleability of human nature has been important for the left because it has provided grounds for hoping that a different kind of society is possible. The real reason why the left rejected Darwinism is that it dashed the left's great dream: the perfectibility of man. Even before Plato's Republic, the idea of building a perfect society had been present in the western consciousness. For as long as the left has existed, it has sought a society in which all human beings live harmoniously and cooperatively with each other in peace and freedom. For Darwin, on the other hand, the struggle for existence, or at least for the existence of one's offspring, is unending.

In the 20th century, the dream of the perfectibility of humankind turned into the nightmares of Stal-inist Russia, China during the Cultural Revolution and Cambodia under Pol Pot. From these nightmares the left awoke in turmoil. There have been attempts to create a new and better society with less terrible results-Castro's Cuba, the Israeli kibbutzim-but none are unqualified successes. The dream of perfectibility should be put behind us, and with that, one barrier to a Darwinian left has been removed.

But what about the malleability of human nature? What do we mean by malleability and how essential is it to the left? Let us divide human behaviour into three categories: that which shows great variation across culture; some variation across culture; and little or no variation across culture.

In the first category, showing great variation, I would include the way we produce our food-by gathering and hunting, by grazing domestic animals, or by growing crops. To these differences would correspond differences in lifestyles-nomadic or settled-as well as differences in the kinds of food we eat. This first category would also include economic structures, religious practices and forms of government-but not, significantly, the existence of some form of government, which seems to be nearly universal.

In the second category, showing some variation, I would include sexuality. Victorian anthropologists were very impressed by the differences between attitudes to sexuality in their own society and those in the societies they studied; as a result, we tend to exaggerate the extent to which sexual morality is relative to culture. There are, of course, important differences between societies that allow men to have one wife and those that allow men to have more than one wife; but almost every society has a system of marriage that implies restrictions on sexual intercourse outside marriage. Moreover, while men may be allowed one wife or more, according to the culture, systems of marriage in which women are allowed more than one husband are rare. Whatever the rules of marriage may be, and no matter how severe the sanctions, infidelity and sexual jealousy seem to be universal elements of human sexual behaviour.

In this second category I would also include ethnic identification and its opposite, xenophobia and racism. I live in a multicultural society with a relatively low level of racism; but I know that racist feelings do exist among Australians, and they can be stirred up by demagogues. The tragedy of Bosnia has shown how ethnic hatred can be revived among people who have lived peacefully with each other for decades. Racism can be learned and unlearned, but racist demagogues hold their torches over highly flammable material.

In the third category, showing little variation across cultures, I would include the fact that we are social beings 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 an almost universal human tendency. There are very few human societies without differences in social status; when attempts are made to abolish such differences, they tend to re-emerge rapidly. Finally, gender roles also show relatively little variation. Women almost always play the main 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.

Of course, culture does have an influence in sharpening or softening even those tendencies that are most deeply rooted in our human nature. And there can be variations between individuals. Nothing I have said is contradicted by the existence of individuals who do not care for their kin, or couples where the man looks after the children while the woman serves in the army. I must also stress that my rough classification of human behaviour carries no evaluative overtones. I am not saying that because male dominance is characteristic of almost all societies, that it is therefore good, or acceptable, 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 our goals.

For example, if we live in a society with a hierarchy based on a hereditary aristocracy, and we abolish that aristocracy, as the French and American revolutionaries did, we are likely to find that a new hierarchy emerges, based perhaps on military power or wealth. When the Bolshevik revolution in Russia abolished both the hereditary aristocracy and private wealth, a hierarchy soon developed on the basis of rank and influence within the Communist party; this became the basis for all sorts of privileges. The tendency to form hierarchies shows itself in all sorts of petty ways in corporations and bureaucracies, where people place enormous importance on how big their office is, and how many windows it has. None of this shows that hierarchy is good, or desirable, or even inevitable; but it does show that getting rid of it is not going to be as easy as previous revolutionaries thought.

the left has to accept and understand our nature as evolved beings. But there are different ways of working with the tendencies inherent in human nature. The market economy is based on the idea that human beings can be relied upon to work hard and show initiative only if by doing so they will further their own economic interests. To serve our own interests we will strive to produce better goods than our competitors, or to produce similar goods more cheaply. Thus, as Adam Smith said, the self-interested desires of a multitude of individuals are drawn together, as if by a hidden hand, to work for the benefit of all. Garrett Hardin summarised this view in The Limits of Altruism when he wrote that public policies should be based on "an unwavering adherence to the cardinal rule: never ask a person to act against his own self-interest." In theory-abstract theory that is, free from any assumptions about human nature-a state monopoly should be able to provide the cheapest and most efficient utility services, transport services or, for that matter, bread supply; indeed, such a monopoly would have huge advantages of scale and would not have to make profits for its owners. However, when we take into account the popular assumption that self-interest-more specifically, the desire to enrich oneself-drives human beings to work well, the picture changes. If the community owns an enterprise, its managers do not profit from its success. Their own economic interest and that of the enterprise pull in different directions. The result is, at best, inefficiency; at worst, widespread corruption and theft. Privatising the enterprise will ensure that the owners will take steps to reward management in accordance with performance; in turn, the managers will take steps to ensure that the enterprise runs as efficiently as possible.

This is one way of tailoring our institutions to human nature, or at least to one view of human nature. But it is not the only way. Even within the terms of Hardin's cardinal rule, we still have to ask what we mean by "self-interest." The acquisition of material wealth, beyond a relatively modest level, has little to do with self-interest in the biological sense of maximising the number of descendants one leaves in future generations. There is no reason to assume that increasing personal wealth must, either consciously or unconsciously, be the goal that people set for themselves. It is often said that money cannot buy happiness. This may be trite, but it implies that it is more in our interests to be happy than to be rich. Properly understood, self-interest is broader than economic self-interest. Most people want their lives to be happy, fulfilling, or meaningful; they recognise that money is at best a means of achieving part of these ends. Public policy does not have to rely on self-interest in this narrow economic sense.

Modern Darwinian thought embraces both competition and reciprocal altruism (a more technical term for cooperation). Focusing on the competitive element, modern market economies are premised on the idea that we are driven by acquisitive and competitive desires. Free market economies are designed to channel our acquisitive and competitive desires so that they work for the good of all. Undoubtedly, this is better than a situation in which they work only for the good of a few. But even when competitive consumer societies work at their best, they are not the only way of harmonising our nature with the common good. Instead we should seek to encourage a broader sense of self-interest, in which we seek to build on the social and cooperative side of our nature rather than the individualistic and competitive side.

Robert Axelrod's work on the prisoner's dilemma provides a basis for building a more cooperative society. The prisoner's dilemma describes a situation in which two people can each choose whether or not to cooperate with the other. The catch is that each does better, individually, by not cooperating; but if both make this choice, they will both be worse off than they would have been if they had both chosen to cooperate. The outcome of rational, self-interested choices by two or more individuals can make all of them worse off than they would have been if they had not pursued their own interest. The individual pursuit of self-interest can be collectively self-defeating.

People who commute to work by car face this kind of situation every day. They would all be better off if, instead of sitting in heavy traffic, they abandoned their cars and used the buses, which would then travel swiftly down uncrowded roads. But it is not in the interests of any individual to switch to the bus, because as long as most people continue to drive, the buses will be even slower than cars.

Axelrod is interested in which strategy, of cooperating or not cooperating, would bring about the best results for parties who face repeated situations of this type. Should they always cooperate? Should they always defect, as the non-cooperative strategy suggests? Or should they adopt some mixed strategy, varying cooperation and defection in some way? Axelrod invited people to suggest strategies which would produce the best pay-off for the person using it, if they were in repeated prisoner's dilemma situations.

When he received the answers, Axelrod ran them against each other on a computer, in a kind of round-robin tournament in which each strategy was pitted against every other strategy 200 times. The winner was a simple strategy called "tit for tat." It opened every encounter with a new player by cooperating. After that, it simply did whatever the other player had done the previous time. So if the other cooperated, it cooperated; and it continued to do so unless the other defected. Then it defected too, and continued to do so unless the other player again cooperated. Tit for tat also won a second tournament that Axelrod organised, even though the people sending in strategies this time knew that it had won the previous tournament.

Axelrod's results, which have been supported by subsequent work in the field, can serve as a basis for social planning that should appeal to the left. Anyone on the left should welcome the fact that the strategy with the best pay-off always begins with a cooperative move, and is never the first to abandon the cooperative strategy or seek to exploit the "niceness" of the other party. But members of the more idealistic left may regret that tit for tat does not continue to cooperate no matter what. A left that understands Darwin must realise that this is essential to its success. By being provokable, tit for tat creates a virtuous spiral in which life gets harder for cheats, and so there are fewer of them. In Richard Dawkins' terms, if there are "suckers," then there will also be "cheats" who can prosper by taking advantage of them. It is only by refusing to be played for a sucker that tit for tat can make it possible for cooperators to do better than cheats. A non-Darwinian left would blame the existence of cheats on poverty, or a lack of education, or the legacy of reactionary ways of thinking. A Darwinian left will realise that while all these factors may make a difference to the level of cheating, the only permanent solution is to change the pay-offs so that cheats do not prosper.

The question we need to address is: under what conditions will tit for tat be a successful strategy for everyone to adopt? The first problem is one of scale. Tit for tat cannot work in a society of strangers who will never encounter each other again. This is why people living in big cities do not always show the consideration to each other that is the norm in rural villages in which people have known each other all their lives. We need to find structures that can overcome the anonymity of the huge, highly mobile societies in which we live, and which show every sign of increasing in size.

The next problem is even more difficult. If nothing you do really makes much difference to me, tit for tat will not work. So while equality is not required, too great a disparity in power or wealth will remove the incentive for mutual cooperation. If you leave a group of people so far outside the social commonwealth that they have nothing to contribute to it, you alienate them from the social practices and institutions of which they are part; and they will almost certainly become adversaries who pose a threat to those institutions. The political lesson of 20th century Darwinian thinking is entirely different from that of 19th century Social Darwinism. Social Darwinists saw the fact that those who are less fit will fall by the wayside as nature's way of weeding out the unfit-an inevitable result of the struggle for existence. To try to overcome it was futile, if not positively harmful. A Darwinian left which understands the prerequisites for mutual cooperation and its benefits would strive to avoid economic conditions that create outcasts.

let me draw some threads together. What distinguishes a Darwinian left from previous versions of the left? First, a Darwinian left would not deny the existence of a human nature, nor insist that human nature is inherently good, nor infinitely malleable. Second, it would not expect to end all conflict and strife between human beings. Third, it would not assume that all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning. Some will be, but not all. For example, the fact that there are fewer women chief executives than men may be due to men being more willing to subordinate their personal lives and other interests to their career goals; biological differences between men and women may be a factor in that greater readiness to sacrifice everything for the sake of getting to the top.

What about those things that a Darwinian left would support? First, it would recognise that there is such a thing as human nature. It would seek to find out more about it so that it can be grounded on the best available evidence of what human beings are. Second, it would expect that, under many different social and economic systems, many people will act competitively in order to enhance their own status, gain power and advance their interests and those of their kin. Third, it would expect that irrespective of the social and economic system in which they live, most people will respond positively to invitations to enter into mutually beneficial forms of cooperation, as long as the invitations are genuine. Fourth, it would promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition, and attempt to channel competition into socially desirable ends. Fifth, it would recognise that the way in which we exploit non-human animals is a legacy of a pre-Darwinian past which exaggerated the gulf between humans and other animals, and therefore work towards a higher moral status for non-human animals. Sixth, it would stand by the traditional values of the left by being on the side of the weak, poor and oppressed, but think very carefully about what will really work to benefit them.

In some ways, this is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved. But in the longer term, we do not know to what extent our capacity to reason can take us beyond the conventional Darwinian constraints on the degree of altruism that a society may be able to foster. We are reasoning beings. Once we start reasoning, we may be compelled to follow a chain of argument to a conclusion that we did not anticipate. Reason provides us with the capacity to recognise that each of us is simply one being among others, all of whom have wants and needs that matter to them, as our needs and wants matter to us. Can this insight ever overcome the pull of other elements in our evolved nature that act against the idea of an impartial concern for all of our fellow humans, or better still, for all sentient beings?

No less a champion of Darwinian thought than Richard Dawkins holds out the prospect of "deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism-something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world." Although "we are built as gene machines," he tells us, "we have the power to turn against our creators." There is an important truth here. We are the first generation to understand not only that we have evolved, but also the mechanisms by which we have evolved. In his philosophical epic, The Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel portrayed the culmination of history as a state of absolute knowledge, in which the mind knows itself for what it is, and thus achieves its own freedom. We don't have to accept Hegel's metaphysics to see that something similar really has happened in the last 50 years. For the first time since life emerged from the primeval soup, there are beings who understand how they have come to be what they are. In a more distant future we can still barely glimpse, it may turn out to be the prerequisite for a new kind of freedom: the freedom to shape our genes so that instead of living in societies constrained by our evolutionary origins, we can build the kind of society we judge best.