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Notes Toward a Darwinian Left


Is the progressive ethos of the political left compatible with modern Darwinian views of human nature? I think it is. I discuss some of the main arguments on this question and describe the conceptual stumbling blocks to creating a coherent Darwinian left. Finally, I make a few recommendations for the scholarly left based on behavioral ecology.


Notes Toward A Darwinian Left

“Why should our nastiness be the baggage of an apish past and our kindness uniquely human? Why should we not seek continuity with other animals for our noble traits as well?”

Stephen Jay Gould[1]

To what extent is the Darwinian vision of human nature compatible with progressive philosophies of social change, or more generally, with contemporary “left-of-center” ideals of social equality and justice? Is it possible to acknowledge our animal qualities while simultaneously advocating the ideals of a progressive and secular humanism? Darwinism seems to ask that we consider our nature from an inhuman perspective, to look without flinching at evolved, genetically encoded dispositions for violence, domination, and cruelty. Can we accept that demand and still own our humanity? I think we can. But unless we take a hard look at the more disturbing parts of our nature, we will never be able to make good on the promise of those parts we approve: evolved, genetically encoded dispositions for cooperation, kindness, mercy, compassion, and fairness. If we want to make our benevolent dispositions the master elements in our social policies, we cannot simply ignore the characteristics that lead us to harm others. We will have to understand how all our dispositions interact within the total system of human nature.

Peter Singer, who authored a monograph on the subject of Darwin and progressive politics, makes these recommendations: A Darwinian left must “accept that there is such a thing as human nature, and seek to find out more about it, so that policies can be grounded on the best available evidence of what human beings are like”; and it must “reject any inference from what is ‘natural’ to what is ‘right’.”[2] These recommendations top a longer list—but let me stop there, because quite frankly, we are still a long way from rising to these challenges.

Even today, thirty years after Gould penned the lines quoted at the outset of this piece, a caricature of evolution dominates the humanities and some quarters of the social sciences. It is the specter of Social Darwinism, an ideology associated with the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Darwin used the phrase but did not exemplify it. He adopted it, inadvisedly, on the recommendation of Herbert Spencer, a laissez-faire ideologue. Darwin himself was for the most part a progressive and liberal thinker, kind in his personal relations and hostile to all forms of social cruelty and exploitation. He hated slavery, which he had witnessed firsthand in Brazil. Whatever Darwin’s own views, modern academics react with fear to Darwinian views of human nature because they are afraid that any juxtaposition of evolution and human society will lead, willy-nilly, to pseudo-biological rationalizations for bad behavior: brute force, competition without compassion, sexual oppression, eugenics, and Machiavellian territoriality. In reality, the overwhelming majority of modern researchers into evolved human characteristics are themselves decent human beings, enlightened and progressive in their social views.  Are they just kidding themselves?  Is there some radical incompatibility between their scientific beliefs and their ethical stance?  The more one becomes immersed in this research, and the more familiar one is with the people who conduct it, the less plausible any such suspicion seems.

“Selfish genes” are not the same thing as selfish people. Richard Dawkins, who coined the phrase, is himself clear that selfish genes can be responsible for some very unselfish behaviors: altruism and cooperation.[3] And indeed, for decades now, evolutionists have debated the origins of our nobler sentiments—the feelings that motivate us to help each other and to care for one another, even at great cost to ourselves. If survival and reproduction are the ultimate criteria, why do we find altruists— individuals that risk their own survival (or in some cases, sacrifice it) for the sake of a group? That question has been at the heart of the debate over “group selection” or “multi-level selection.” Most prominently advanced by the biologist David Sloan Wilson, “multi-level selection” is the idea that natural selection operates not only at the level of genes and individual organisms but also at the level of groups. Wilson’s arguments, once marginal, have now persuaded many thinkers at the leading edge of research into sociality.[4] Whatever the ultimate verdict on this theoretical issue might be, we should be aware that the existence of self-sacrificing behavior was never in question; rather, what was and remains in question is how that behavior evolved, and under what conditions it holds.

In A Darwinian Left, Peter Singer focuses on cooperation as the panhuman instinct that provides the most promising foundation for a progressive politics: we must “promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition, and attempt to channel cooperation into socially desirable ends.”[5] This focus converges with the broader attempt, in certain quarters of anthropology and primatology, to explain the evolutionary basis of pro-sociality. The primatologist Frans de Waal, who has been a champion of this endeavor, presents his own work as helping to correct “the one-sided portrayal by biologists of the natural world as a place of combat rather than social connectedness.”[6] That one-sided portrayal is not unique to biology. And indeed, it has been a recurring theme in Western thought. Herbert Spencer’s main ideological work predates Darwin’s theory of natural selection and has stronger ties to economics than to biology. Hobbes, of course, famously identified the natural state as one of war—each against all—long before anyone had given much thought to the mechanism through which species evolve, or had even recognized that they do evolve. Theories like those of Hobbes and Spencer are instances of what de Waal has called the “Veneer Theory”—the idea that our higher, “civilized” sentiments and behaviors comprise a thin outer layer, beneath which lies our brutish and vicious animal nature. In part as a response to this strand of Western philosophy, primatologists are now gathering evidence of the animal precedents of empathy, compassion, cooperation, reciprocity, and fairness.[7] De Waal explains, “There exists ample evidence of one primate coming to another’s aid in a fight, putting an arm around a previous victim of an attack, or other emotional responses to the distress of others.[8]

Sheer anthropomorphism? Consider: Primatology requires us to see that complex human emotions—including the moral sentiments that we take to be uniquely human—must have arisen from simpler precedents in the animal world. This insistence on continuity is not arbitrary. It is consistent with what we know about evolution. Natural selection can only tinker with what already exists; it cannot create something entirely unprecedented. Evolutionary change, therefore, does not proceed in leaps and bounds, but rather in the slow accumulation of gradual changes. Put another way, we do not expect to find large gaps or chasms separating us from our primate and mammalian ancestors. To posit some Great Leap Forward with respect to language, morality, or any human trait, is tantamount to saying that that feature did not evolve.[9]

Peter Singer identifies—correctly, I think—the heart of the issue that keeps many thinkers on the left (but particularly in academe) from embracing the Darwinian framework. In the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx argues that, “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” Singer comments: “It follows from this belief that if you can totally change the ‘ensemble of the social relations,’ you can totally change human nature.” This claim goes to the heart of Marxism and of more broadly marxist (with a small ‘m’) thinking. As a result, it affects much of the thought of the entire left.” The great dream of the perfectibility of human nature has been the cornerstone of much leftist thought, because it leaves open the possibility of a different kind of society.[10] Though most scholars and teachers today are not avowed Marxists, the focus on cultural or social “constructs” is the modern descendent of Marx’s “ensemble of social relations.”[11]

Again, the question is not whether such constructs exist; we know that they do. But modern evolutionists worry that an over-emphasis on cultural constructs and historical specificity implies the nearly infinite malleability of human nature—a possibility that is biologically implausible. The academic left, in contrast, worries that naturalistic notions of a “fixed,” innate, or universal human nature can serve as a source of normative social values. Used in this context, the word “normative” expresses suspicion about belief systems that coerce people to conform to a norm or marginalize those who do not. The fear is that “Nature,” writ large, will be another Church, another source of absolute authority that hands down unquestionable laws from on high. Such laws have historically served the interests of ruling classes—hereditary elites, whites, colonial powers, males, heterosexuals, propertied interests, etc.

Modern progressive thought acquired a strong liberationist strand in no small part as a response to the historical catastrophes of the twentieth century. Scholars and thinkers on the left express its ideals, including tolerance for differences and advocacy for the rights of the oppressed, by foregrounding the uniqueness of other cultures and the singularity of specific historical situations. Whether a work is overtly political or not, this ethos has become part of the methodological fabric of scholarly work on the left, both inside and outside of academe. For several generations, we have spurned philosophical and scientific attempts to discover human universals, fearing that such universals could be applied normatively, in the sense described above. But relying on cultural or social “constructs” to explain human behavior implies that human nature is more malleable than it is. While there is room for a great deal of flexibility, the evidence is constantly mounting that human tendencies operate within certain bounds that are found across cultures. Moreover, the variations we observe are not random, and are likely “cued” by environmental factors.

So, where do we stand? What is the current state of the discussion among informed people? It might go something like this:

Evolutionist: We have empirical data that in most cultures, men are more violent, aggressive, and more sexually promiscuous than women, and that women are choosier with respect to mate selection and expend more energy and time on childcare. These findings may not be surprising in themselves, but we cannot ignore the fact that they are consistent with what we have learned about quantifiable trends that span the animal kingdom, and with the behaviors of our primate ancestors in particular.

Social Constructivist: I believe in evolution in general, but am uncomfortable with the ease with which you collapse the complexities of human behavior into the animal world. At best, you have simply provided a biological underpinning for old-fashioned folk intuitions; at worst, you have given a biological justification or rationalization for oppressive practices that are worthy of censure.

EV: Nothing of the sort. We evolutionists have been quite careful to distinguish between is and ought. A fact of nature tells us nothing about what we ought to do. I am no more a Social Darwinist than you are!

SC: Your intentions may be good, but no matter how often you invoke the naturalistic fallacy, biological “facts” often get misused and appropriated to questionable ends. They become part of the discourse of popular culture—a discourse that serves to propagate existing inequities.

EV: Any true fact can be misused by bad people. Such misuse should be censured, but we cannot stop seeking true facts about the world . . .

I have purposefully omitted the vitriol and rancor that often accompanies discussions of this sort. But many of us have witnessed, or been party to this debate, and we can easily imagine our own variation of this conversation. In distinguishing “is” from “ought,” the evolutionist is rejecting the so-called naturalistic fallacy, which has become a commonplace in academic debates over evolution. We cannot unconditionally derive a moral imperative from a fact of nature. But there’s more to it than that. I say “unconditionally,” because it is not difficult to come up with examples in which our knowledge about a fact of nature seems to inform a moral decision.

Marc Hauser presents the following scenario: imagine a situation in which a doctor administers anesthesia to a child. The anesthesia will cause no permanent damage, but without it, the patient will be in agony. We therefore conclude that the doctor should administer the drug. We appear to have made a conclusion about what ought to be done from a simple fact of nature (about the chemistry of the drug and how it interacts with the human body). [12] But the real issue here is whether we “ought” to prevent pain, and on that issue, only our own values, prompted by feeling, can give us an answer. Is feeling a safe foundation? One can understand the suspicion that it is not: while feeling prompts most of us to avoid causing pain to children, it also causes a few to take pleasure in that suffering. Or to take a less lurid, but more revealing, example: the consensus among progressive liberals is that we should unconditionally seek peace and equality; but among militaristic nationalists—no small minority among historical populations—the feeling is very different.

It is not enough simply to invoke the naturalistic fallacy. The conservative scholar Larry Arnhart forces us to confront this inadequacy when he derives several “oughts” from “ises.” In direct opposition to the fact-value distinction, Arnhart argues for the ultimate compatibility of Darwinian evolution and Aristotelian natural right.[13] The context of this endeavor is clear: Darwin has few advocates on the political right these days, due in large part to the coalition, forged in the Reagan era, between fiscal and social conservatives on the one hand, and Christian conservatives on the other. Arnhart therefore finds himself in a minority when he claims that “conservatives need Charles Darwin.”[14] To make this claim, he must argue that our evolved human nature is a source of moral—and specifically conservative—values.

Like almost all modern evolutionists, Arnhart posits a panhuman, species-typical nature. On the basis of this human nature, he takes a moral stand on the issues of slavery and female circumcision. Both practices, he argues, violate the basic, evolved needs of human nature. Theoretically, this move puts us in the same place as Hauser puts us: it takes evolutionary biology as the source of factual knowledge, and then leaves us to decide about how to deploy that knowledge. But unlike most evolutionists, Arnhart goes on to invest “human nature” with a kind of sacral authority that he feels is self-evidently wicked to contravene. But therein lies the false step: by choosing loaded examples, Arnhart makes the derivation seemingly self-evident. But one could also point to other historical examples in which what comes naturally is not self-evidently “good.” Puritanism (and other belief systems that value chasteness) exhorts its followers to contravene our nature, and then identifies that contravention—that abstention or forbearance—as the Good.

“Human nature” itself cannot stand in as a proxy for God. We’re back to feeling, but not without having made some progress. Yes, it is possible for some to feel pleasure at the suffering of children, and for others to find our highest good in frustrating the natural impulses of human nature. Nonetheless, if we recognize the limits and potential in our common humanity, we shall at least know where we stand. We can put the norms implicit in the feelings of psychopaths and the ethos of Puritans—and the norms implicit in our judgment of them—into their appropriate biological context. (It is probable that the brains of psychopaths exhibit irregularities in regions of the frontal lobe that mediate pro-social emotions, like empathy and compassion. Belief systems that place a premium on chasteness, by contrast, may represent social constructs that tap into and amplify an evolved, but highly variable, instinct for “purity.”[15])

So where does that leave us—particularly those of us on the scholarly left? I began by highlighting the evolutionary study of pro-social behaviors and emotions, because so many of us are simply unaware of, or indifferent to, this recent development in the evolutionary sciences. Given the fact that we possess both the instinct for violence and the instinct for compassion, a proclivity for selfishness and an impulse toward cooperation, it should be clear that the existence of those evolved traits does not help us decide which tendency is right or better for a given situation. What we can do as scholars is to map, describe, and explain the contexts that promote one over the other, while holding to our core system of values.

But to get to that point, we must begin by letting go of the folk intuition that “genes” or “hard-wiring” are equivalent to rigid determinism.[16] The existence of evolved psychological traits in no way fixes the outcome of social, historical, or political events; it doesn’t even determine the outcome of individual interactions. It merely equips us with instincts and feelings that motivate us to act in a certain way. Once we acclimate ourselves to this idea, we can begin to take note of the basic tenets of behavioral ecology: many organisms are endowed with a range of behaviors and instincts that are cued by local conditions.[17] These conditions may include things like access or limits to natural resources, access to mates, frequency of predation, parasite load in the local environment, and so forth. While this approach suggests flexibility of behavior, especially in primates, such flexibility is neither random nor unconstrained. It is probable that what was “fixed” in our phylogeny was a range of predispositions for many domains—predispositions that can be called forth to varying degrees by local ecologies.

Despite the internal debates within evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and biology, I believe that this “ecological” approach is the most promising avenue for scholars and writers on the left who must navigate between the human and the inhuman. It opens the door to what David Sloan Wilson has called “evolutionary social constructivism”—a synthesis of the more refined aspects of evolutionary thought and the more plausible versions of social constructivism.[18] The point is to unpack, in detail, the complex intertwining of evolved human traits and culturally or socially constructed practices, belief systems, and ideologies. Since much of the effort to reveal social constructs is an attempt to debunk them as authoritarian, patriarchal, or “hegemonic,” should we not also consider the degree to which such constructs either amplify or contravene our evolved predispositions? Here, then, are a few suggestions—questions and projects that I hope will begin to engage the scholarly left:

  1. How do social constructs amplify, or take advantage of, certain evolved predispositions—even in a pernicious way that oppresses marginalized groups?
  2. Conversely, to what extent do those constructs run counter to certain evolved, species-typical predispositions? And what is the social or ethical cost of a cultural practice that contravenes our instincts? (Nothing prevents us from advancing a progressive version of Arnhart’s argument, so long as we do not invest human nature with sacral authority!)
  3. To what extent are certain social constructs “called forth” or “cued” by ecological conditions, such as the severe limitation of resources, or a change in the availability of potential mates?

Even cursory reflection reveals the overwhelming prevalence of kinship metaphors in most historical solidarity movements. The scholarly (constructivist) literature on nationalism, race, ethnicity and culture is certainly replete with studies of kinship as a recurring trope. But we can now begin to take into account the evolutionary reasons why metaphors of kinship are so powerful, and perhaps we can even begin to hypothesize about the conditions (ecological or otherwise) in which they are most prevalent. The evolutionary studies of altruism would seem to suggest that socially constructed kinship tropes would come into play when unusual degrees of self-sacrifice are required. Does this prediction match the data, and if not, why?

Finally, we can begin to examine the behavioral and affective tendencies that emerge as our access to resources grows limited. Some studies suggest that sensitivity to the availability of resources can subtly and unconsciously affect even our mate preferences.[19] Since scarcity is a condition that most species have repeatedly encountered in their phylogeny, we would expect a range of possible responses (though not an infinite range!). We can even imagine extreme conditions in which evolved proclivities run amok, to the detriment of all. This is the gist of Jonathan Gottschall’s reading of Homer: it is essentially an ecological argument, that the extreme violence depicted in the Homeric epics was a response to a shortage of fertile women.[20]

The filmmaker Akira Kurosawa said that, “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.” That is equally true for us—evolutionists and Darwinian humanists on the left. In the long run, facing up to the realities of our evolved, biological inheritance will prove a more solid foundation than our denials of human nature. Recognizing the biological context, both of our brutish and our nobler aspects, will give us a firmer ground to stand on when we ask “What can and should we do?”


[1] Stephen Jay Gould, “So Cleverly Kind an Animal,” in Ever Since Darwin (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1980) 260-267, 261.

[2] Peter Singer, A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000) 61.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976, 1999) 2-3.

[4] David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) esp. 6-8, 12-20.

[5] Singer, 61. For more on Singer’s view of competition, cooperation, and altruism, see also Singer, 44-59.

[6] Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006) 25.

[7] See for example Joan B. Silk, “The Evolution of Cooperation in Primate Groups,” in Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life, edited by Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005) 43-74. See also Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[8] De Waal, 25-26.

[9] Both Pinker and Deacon’s works are attempts to correct this shortcoming in Chomsky’s earliest views of language. See Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York: Harper Collins, 1994); and Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997).

[10] Singer, 5, 24-25.

[11] In his chapter on “Politics,” in The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker provides a useful survey that situates Singer in relation, not to constructivist thinkers, but to other “innatist” thinkers on the left such as Chomsky, biologists like Robin Trivers, and Marxists-turned-Darwinians like Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. See Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 2002) 299-304.

[12] Marc Hauser, Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong (New York: Harper, 2006) 3-4.

[13] Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998) 1-13.

[14] Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Conservatism (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2005).

[15] I refer here to the work of the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has argued that moral or religious views of purity may be an extension of our capacity for disgust, an adaptation to our exposure to common pathogens. Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic Books, 2006) 181-211. See also P. Rozin, J. Haidt, and C. McCauley, “Disgust,” in Handbook of Emotions, M. Lewis and J. M. Haviland-Jones, eds. (New York: Guilford Press, 2000) 637-653.

[16] Jiro Tanaka, “What is Copernican? A Few Common Barriers to Darwinian Thinking about the Mind,” in The Evolutionary Review: Art, Science, Culture, vol. 1, Alice Andrews and Joseph Carroll, eds. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010) 6-12.

[17] One classic text on the fundamentals of behavioral ecology is: J. R. Krebs and N. B. Davies, Introduction to Behavioural Ecology (Oxford: Blackwell Science, 1981, 1987, 1993).

[18] David Sloan Wilson, “Evolutionary Social Constructivism,” in The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, Jonathan Gottschall and D. S. Wilson, eds. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2005) 20-37.

[19] Daniel Nettle, “Beyond Nature versus Culture: Cultural Variation as an Evolved Characteristic,” in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (15) 2009: 223-240. See also my essay, “What is Copernican,” 10.

[20] Jonathan Gottschall, The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

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