In recent years there has been no shortage of progressive voices insisting that the left must abandon or renounce its historic commitments and adopt “new” ideological coordinates, if it is to have any hope of surmounting the current, historic impasse and remain a significant political force in the future. One of the most recent such admonitions comes from the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, best known beyond his professional peers as the author of the pioneering work Animal Liberation. In his recent book A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation,1 Singer argues that “the left needs a new paradigm,” and that the requisite reorientation in effect involves “swap[ping] Marx for Darwin.”2 According to Singer, the left should adopt a theoretical framework based on, and consonant with, the understanding of human nature afforded by modern evolutionary theory. A Darwinian left would pursue more modest goals than the traditional left, to be sure, but, at the same time, it would be more certain to attain its goals, by virtue of a superior understanding of human nature.
In the following remarks I take issue with some of the central theses advanced in A Darwinian Left. I shall argue, first of all, that Singer’s account grossly misrepresents emancipatory social theory by wrongly imputing a denial of human nature to the left generally and Marx in particular. I then go on to argue that, partly owing to this travesty of the left’s views, Singer’s book obscures the fact that several of the specific views that are supposed to recommend a properly “Darwinian Left” have in fact long been characteristic of the traditional left whose putative failings in this regard Singer deplores. Finally, I show that the practical ramifications of substituting a “Darwinian Politics”3 for a Marxist politics would likely be negligible, since, as Singer’s own argument makes clear, Darwinian theory has little bearing on most of the questions of immediate concern to the left.
Before proceeding, let me briefly explain why it is, in my opinion, that we need to take seriously what is, after all, a very slim, popularly written work by a writer who is, strictly speaking, not even a political philosopher. To begin with, the fact is that Peter Singer may well be, as Ian Hacking recently claimed, “the most influential living philosopher,”4 and this book can, therefore, expect a wide readership (a prospect which is only enhanced by its brevity and clarity). Secondly, Peter Singer is himself a man of the left, as should be evident to anyone familiar with his more important writings and political activism. Furthermore — and partly on account of the two previous considerations — Peter Singer exercises considerable influence over radical activists, primarily, though not exclusively, in and through the animal liberation movement. Finally, sociobiological approaches to human affairs have continued to gain currency and Singer’s book provides a lucid, if brief, exposition of what amounts to a sociobiological foundation for left-wing politics. For all of these reasons the Marxist left should, it seems to me, take seriously the criticism presented in A Darwinian Left.
How revive the left given the failure of Soviet Communism, on the one hand, and the bankruptcy of social democracy, on the other?5 According to Singer, “one source of new ideas that could revitalise the left is an approach to human social, political and economic behaviour based firmly on a modern understanding of human nature.”6 In other words, “It is time for the left to take seriously the fact that we are evolved animals, and that we bear the evidence of our inheritance, not only in our anatomy and our DNA, but in our behaviour too.”7 In light of these two statements it would not be unreasonable to expect a more or less systematic inventory of the properties comprising human nature as well as a detailed specification of the ways in which evolution determines our behavior. In fact, however, apart from mentioning various dispositions which may have a genetic basis, Singer limits himself to a very general delineation of human nature in a section titled “What is fixed and what is variable in human nature?,” in which he proposes “to 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.”8
In the first category, that of great variation, I would put the way we produce our food — by gathering and hunting, by grazing domesticated animals, or by growing crops… We could also put economic structures into this category, and religious practices, and forms of government — but not, significantly, the existence of some form of government or group leadership, which seems to be universal, or nearly so.
In the second category, showing some variation, I would put sexual relationships… Virtually every society has a system of marriage that implies restrictions on sexual intercourse outside the marriage… Into this category I would also place ethnic identification and its converse, xenophobia and racism.
In the third category, of little variation across cultures, I would place the fact that we are social beings… Equally invariant is our concern for our kin. Our readiness to form cooperative relationships, and to recognize 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.9
Now, although Marxists, and leftists generally, might well greet various features of such a classification with considerable skepticism (his inclusion of xenophobia in the second category or assigning “system of rank” to the third, for example),10 I believe that by and large they would find quite a bit with which to agree. Moreover, surely none would have any quarrel with Singer’s more fundamental point concerning the need to endorse and assimilate a “Darwinian” understanding of life, given the scientific status of modern evolutionary theory.
If these considerations, almost unexceptionable in themselves, form the basis for a “Darwinian politics,” what, exactly, is it that Marxists and leftists should object to in Singer’s proposal? The problem is twofold. First, Singer bases much of his criticism of the left in general, and Marxism in particular, on the premise that they have denied the existence of a common, universal human nature.11 Secondly, and as a corollary of sorts to the first premise,12 Singer contends that the Darwinian truths he discusses prove incompatible with Marxism and most left-wing thought, and that an unprejudiced assimilation of these views would entail a major revision of the left’s theoretical outlook and a reorientation of its practical politics.13
Let us begin with the first point. According to Singer, Marx and the left have generally denied the existence of a common human nature, and this denial derives from “the materialist theory of history” itself, which “implies that there is no fixed human nature. It changes with every change in the mode of production.”14 The warrant for this claim is, as might be expected, the sixth of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, the relevant portion of which runs, of course, as follows: “Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” Following his citation of this passage, Singer remarks: “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.”15 In short: Marx’s sixth “Thesis” leaves no doubt that he rejected the notion of a universal human nature, and to the considerable extent that Marx and Marxism have informed left-wing political thought, it, too, has tended to reject the idea of a common human nature.
The trouble with Singer’s argument is that it rests on a premise which appears to be patently false16: both his interpretation of the sixth “Thesis,” and still more the general view which he attributes to Marx on the basis of this interpretation, prove untenable, as Norman Geras shows in his excellent book Marx and Human Nature.17 The scope of this paper prevents me from doing justice to Geras’s painstaking refutation of the interpretation that Singer presents, but it is important for our purposes to at least sketch the outline of his argument.
Briefly stated, Geras argues that
examination of the relevant lines from the Theses on Feuerbach reveals that their sense is not, in fact, transparent. They can be understood in a number of ways. And when the various possible meanings of this passage are placed within the only possible context for its proper assessment, the interpretation of Marx that has been so reliant on it is shown not to be a viable one at all.18
Accordingly, he begins by undertaking a meticulous analysis of the famous “Thesis.” A work of exemplary rigor and scrupulousness, Geras’s analysis reveals that, far from furnishing a straightforward rejection of the notion of human nature, the “Thesis” in fact lends itself to three distinct construals:
(1) In its reality the nature of man is conditioned by the ensemble of social relations.(2) In its reality human nature, or the nature of man, is manifested in the ensemble of social relations.(3) In its reality the nature of man is determined by, or human nature is dissolved in, the ensemble of social relations.19
Given the impossibility of establishing, or excluding, any one of these interpretations on the basis of the Theses on Feuerbach alone, Geras goes on to examine Marx’s other writings, starting with those chronologically nearest to the Theses. His study shows conclusively that the third interpretation — the only one that amounts to an unqualified rejection of human nature — “is not… a plausible interpretation of Marx’s sense.”20
Moreover, in addition to documenting Marx’s commitment to some conception of human nature in his later writings — where, Geras notes, the notion “fulfils both explanatory and normative functions21” — Marx and Human Nature elucidates the ways in which both historical materialism and the socialist project generally logically presuppose a belief in a certain, somewhat determinate notion of human nature.22 After all, a defense of socialism presupposes a capacity for socialism, so to speak, on the part of human beings.
If new relations and practices are thought able to have the effect in question [establishment of a successful socialist society], human beings must be assumed capable, if only in the “right” circumstances, of developing the necessary qualities. These must be capacities potentially available to members of the human species.23
At the same time, the paramount motivation for many who advocate socialism is of course the fact that capitalism systematically fails to satisfy vital human needs, which are tacitly assumed to be universal needs.24 As for historical materialism, Geras rightly observes that “the very fact that they [human beings] enter this sort of relations [i.e., “social relations of production”], the fact that they produce and that they have a history, he [Marx] explains in turn by some of their general and constant, intrinsic, constitutional characteristics; in short by their human nature.”25 Indeed, this consideration leads Geras to conclude that it is not only the case that Marx “subscribed to the supposition of a common human nature from beginning to end,” but that “historical materialism itself, this whole distinctive approach to society that originates with Marx, rests squarely upon the idea of a human nature.”26
It is, therefore, not true that Marx dismissed every notion of human nature, and I daresay that what is true of Marx in this connection is likewise true of the left as a whole, whether socialist or not. (It is significant that Singer manages to cite only one other “left” thinker, Rousseau, by way of showing that the left “denies human nature.”)27 Consequently, one of Singer’s chief objections to Marxism, and his main reason for urging leftists to abandon a Marxist theoretical framework, turns out to be groundless.
Of course, it could still be the case that even if Marx, Marxists and the left do assume a certain conception of human nature, this conception may be such that its practical political implications prove radically at odds with the commitments that are supposed to follow from a Darwinian conception of human nature (as depicted by Singer). Yet if we are to judge by the views which Singer himself derives from the Darwinian conception of human nature, it turns out that there would seem to be an obvious compatibility, if not substantial agreement, between traditional left-wing positions and those which he identifies with a “Darwinian politics.” This is true whether we take the term “Darwinian politics” to designate a series of immediate practical measures or as referring to a number of fundamental, long-range goals, even though it is not always clear which question Singer himself has in mind.28
To appreciate this compatibility, we need only turn to A Darwinian Left’s programmatic conclusion, titled “A Darwinian Left for Today and Beyond,” in which Singer provides a condensed overview of “the ways in which a Darwinian left would differ from the traditional left that we have come to know over the past two hundred years.”29 According to Singer, a Darwinian left would not:
*Deny the existence of a human nature, nor insist that human nature is inherently good, nor that it is infinitely malleable;
*Expect to end all conflict and strife between human beings, whether by political revolution, social change or better education;
*Assume that all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning. Some will be, but this cannot be assumed in every case.30
The implicit assertions here are, of course, that the left, and in particular the Marxist left, has typically denied the existence of a human nature, expected “to end all conflict and strife between human beings” and assumed “that all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning.” I have already indicated that the first charge, with its evocation of an absolute social constructionist strawman, constitutes a travesty pure and simple, at the very least so far as Marx’s own thought is concerned. (Given Singer’s readiness to uncritically endorse this misconception, perhaps it should not surprise us that he also rehearses another, closely related travesty, namely that the left affirms “the perfectibility of man [sic],” which he contends erroneously—naturally follows from the left’s “belief in the malleability of human nature.”31) Likewise, as should be evident to anyone acquainted with Marxist and left-wing literature, the sort of extreme utopianism insinuated in the second and third propositions represents an equally inaccurate characterization of the left’s positions. As E.P. Thompson put it more than a quarter of a century ago in responding to Leszek Kolokowski’s caricature of Marx’s thought, Marxists merely assert the real-world possibility of approximating “the elimination of socially-determined forms of alienation and…a state of society wherein conflicts and contradictions of interest are reconciled by rational democratic process.”32 With regard to the idea that the left holds that “all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice” and so forth, one need go no further than the Critique of the Gotha Program to learn that Marx, for one, certainly acknowledged the existence of natural inequalities.33 And one would surely be hard pressed, I submit, to find any contemporary leftists, of whatever orientation, who disagreed with him in this respect.
As for its positive program, “A Darwinian left would,” among other things:
*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;
*Expect that, regardless of the social and economic system in which they live, most people will respond positively to genuine opportunities to enter into mutually beneficial forms of cooperation;
*Promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition, and attempt to channel competition into socially desirable ends;
*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 social and economic changes will really work to benefit them.34
It should go without saying that all of these statements could just as well be taken to describe positions and measures traditionally represented by the left. Is it not the case, for example, that the left has always taken for granted that “most people will respond positively to genuine opportunities to enter into mutually beneficial forms of cooperation”? Indeed, I would suggest that this premise represents a fundamental element of the left’s conception of human nature. Or consider the proposition that a Darwinian left would strive to establish institutional arrangements that promote cooperation instead of competition: Is this not precisely what the left, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, has always advocated? Is this not the basic objective informing everything from such movement watchwords as “solidarity” and “mutual aid” to “worker of the year” contests, from countless varieties of emancipatory economic models to Richard Levins’s remark a couple of years ago that “communism is the set of arrangements where it makes sense to be kind?”35 For that matter, could any leftist possibly take issue with Singer’s related suggestion that “public policy” should “appeal to the widespread need to feel wanted, or useful, or to belong to a community — all things that are more likely to come from cooperating with others than from competing with them”?36 And does any more or less “traditional” radical really need to be told that “we need to think about how to set up the conditions in which cooperation thrives” or that the left should “strive to avoid economic conditions that create outcasts”?37
In fact, on Singer’s list we find only two items that constitute a real departure from a more or less conventional left-wing outlook. The first of these is what we might call his biologization of Weber — his thesis that the drive for status, power and the enhancement of the interests of oneself and one’s kin is likely to obtain within any form of social organization.38 Secondly, there is the notion that our brutal exploitation of non-human animals reflects a pre-Darwinian conception of the differences between human beings and other kinds of animals, a conception which prevents us from according animals the full moral consideration that they deserve.39
I’ll return to this last question in a moment. My present point is simply that, if we are to compare the traditional left’s positions with the positions that Singer identifies with a “Darwinian politics,” the similarities would seem to contravene his thesis that there exists a “conflict between the Marxist theory of history and a biological view of human nature.”40 But then, there really exists no reason even to suppose that there should be such a conflict, that is, no reason to think that even the most thoroughgoing assimilation of Darwinian thinking should fundamentally alter the left’s theoretical orientation. The reason is that evolutionary theory has little direct bearing on the issues and struggles with which the left is primarily concerned.
Consider again Singer’s own classification regarding the variability/ invariability of different human behaviors, practices and so on across cultures. Note that within the class of behaviors displaying “great variation” Singer includes “the way we produce our food… [our] economic structures… religious practices… forms of government.” In other words, our evolutionary inheritance would seem to impose few constraints — and is therefore of little relevance — as regards most of the primary concerns of left-wing politics: the economic and productive organization of society, the system of governmental institutions, religious and ideological questions. Singer criticizes Engels’s famous claim that “what Darwin did for natural history, Marx did for human history,” for, he argues, “In that neat characterization there lurks the notion that Darwinian evolution stops at the dawn of human history, and the materialist forces of history take over.”41 What he fails to realize, however, is that his own classification of behaviors implies the very principle of discontinuity that he rejects, since, again, it suggests that we are subject to little biological determinism with respect to the issues that the left most seeks to address, and that, for this reason, appeal to evolutionary theory in this connection is unlikely to prove very enlightening. In other words, unless we understand “human history” to exclude the institutions and activities contained in Singer’s first category, his own view of the constraints on human behavior is inconsistent with his assertion that “to anyone who sees a continuity between human beings and our nonhuman ancestors, it seems implausible that Darwinism gives us the laws of evolution for natural history but stops at the dawn of human history.”42
In sum, then, the alleged “conflict between the Marxist theory of history and a biological view of human nature” proves on closer analysis to be for the most part nonexistent. Traditional left-wing theory, or that of the broadly Marxist left at any rate, is compatible with Darwinian thinking; and even if the left were to pay even greater attention to Darwin, or become more self-consciously Darwinian, it is difficult to see how this could entail any substantial modification of its theoretical framework.
Of course, to assert that there is no conflict between the Marxist theory of history and “a biological view of human nature” is not the same as to say that there exists no conflict between the Marxist theory of history and a sociobiological view of human nature — the view that the evolution of social behavior is dictated by our genes. As Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leon Kamin demonstrate in their devastating critique of sociobiology included in Not In Our Genes, “sociobiology is emphatically not simply the claim that human society is of a nature made possible by human biology,”43 which claim would seem to represent a non-controversial construal of the phrase “biological view of human nature.” The difference between these two views corresponds in part, as Stephen Jay Gould has argued, to the contrast between the concept of biological potentiality and that of biological determinism, a contrast which many sociobiologists have been prone to obscure. James Rachels has summarized Gould’s point as follows:
What is obviously true is that our genes establish the range within which our behavior and social institutions must fall… ‘The range of our potential behavior is circumscribed by our biology,’ says Gould. Everyone can agree that, in this sense, our behavior is under the control of our genes.
However, it is altogether a different matter to say that our genes determine which specific behaviors, from within the available range, we will adopt.44
It is precisely Singer’s tendency to conflate sociobiology and a “biological view of human nature,” or rather, to use the latter expression when what he is defending is in reality nothing so much as a variant of the former, that so often leads him astray in A Darwinian Left. How else explain, for example, his gloss on a 1976 statement by the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People (pp. 29-30), a statement which, according to Singer, simply “perpetuates the standard Marxist idea of Darwin for natural history and of Marx for human history”?45 In fact, the authors of the statement merely hold that “the evolution of societies” is better explained by “social and economic activity [which] alter[s] the physical and social conditions in which these activities occur” than as “the result of changes in the frequencies of different sorts of individuals within them.”46 While remarks such as these do, without question, assert the inadequacy of sociobiological explanations of social evolution, it seems quite arbitrary to interpret them as excluding a “biological view of human nature.”
In the end, then, A Darwinian Left serves chiefly to perpetuate many of the familiar distortions of Marxist theory, and emancipatory social thought generally, echoing and restating many of the motifs that have long been the stuff of such distortions. Indeed, in several respects his work epitomizes that genre of anti-Marxist “obloquy” which Geras meticulously documented and dissected more than a decade ago.47 What is perhaps most dismaying, however, is that such a travesty should come from someone who is not only a man of the left and well-acquainted with Marx’s work in particular — Singer is actually the author of a respected short introduction to Marx — but one whose own views have themselves been grossly distorted.48
If, therefore, A Darwinian Left constitutes, as the publisher’s blurb would have us believe, a “groundbreaking book,” surely it can only be for the reason that a writer with his background should so blithely promote the sort of revisionist caricature that usually issues from the Right.
To be sure, this does not mean that the left can learn nothing whatsoever from A Darwinian Left. Besides reminding us that the left must, indeed, revise any views which should prove inconsistent with modern evolutionary theory—i.e, that, as he put it in The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, “We have to begin with human nature as it is”49 –Singer is right to draw our attention to the fact that the left, too, by and large continues to ignore the exploitation and oppression of non-human animals and to suggest, like James Rachels before him,50 that a failure to appreciate the full implications of evolutionary theory is partly to blame. Nevertheless, this remains far too little to warrant adopting the credo of Singer’s Darwinian Left. To swap Marx for Darwin, as he urges us to do, is, therefore, to get a very raw deal indeed.
1. Peter Singer, A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999).
2. Singer, A Darwinian Left, p. 5; 7.
3. The term is Singer’s; see, for example, page 35 of A Darwinian Left.
4. Ian Hacking, “Our Fellow Animals,” New York Review of Books Vol. XLVII, no. 11 (June 29, 2000), p. 24. Hacking hastens to add that by “the most influential living philosopher” he “mean[s] just that — not that he is the most important, or even that he has a great influence on philosophers.” Richard Taylor recently went even further in assessing Singer’s importance, making, it seems, the very claim that Hacking disavows: “Peter Singer has emerged as the most important and influential philosopher of this generation and, with respect to philosophical ethics, of several generations. He has established the foundation for a revolution in ethics, which he considers inevitable because of the inconsistencies inherent in traditional approaches”(Philosophy Now, no. 28 [August/September 2000], p. 10).
5. In Singer’s words, “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 cherished over…two centuries” (A Darwinian Left, p. 5). I need hardly point out that Singer seems to take for granted that nearly all of the left has in fact renounced or abandoned, for good, the goals he mentions.
6. Singer, A Darwinian Left, p. 6. Cf.: “[His is] the assertion that an understanding of human nature in the light of evolutionary theory can help us to identify the means by which we may achieve some of our social and political goals, including various ideas of equality, as well as assessing the possible costs and benefits of doing so” (Ibid., 15). It should be noted that Singer’s main concern in A Darwinian Left, as he himself stresses, is left-wing theory: “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” (Ibid., p. 6).
7. Ibid., p. 6.
8. Ibid., p. 35.
9. Ibid., pp. 35-37. Singer likewise includes sex roles within the third category: “Sex roles also show relatively little variation” (Ibid.).
10. They might also suspect Singer, with good reason, of committing what Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leon Kamin have identified as one of the sociobiologists’ fundamental “errors of description,” namely, “the conflation of different phenomena under the same rubric”(Not In Our Genes [New York: Pantheon Books, 1984], p. 250). Whether or not Singer’s reference in another passage to “the greed, egoism, personal ambition and envy that a Darwinian might see as inevitable aspects of our nature” (A Darwinian Left, p. 27) involves the same error, this passage certainly recalls another of the sociobiologists’ failings which Lewontin, Rose and Kamin rightly stress: “The problem that is nowhere faced is how to choose the universal characteristics of human nature in the face of immense individual and cultural variation” (Not In Our Genes, p. 246). Finally, it is important to note that most would probably dispute Singer’s assumptions concerning the present state of our knowledge of the ways in which evolution shapes our behavior (“We are the first generation to understand…how this evolutionary heritage influences our behaviour” [A Darwinian Left, p. 63]).
11. Or what Singer in one passage refers to as “universal aspects of human nature” (A Darwinian Left, p. 34). Singer has in fact been criticizing Marx along these lines for some time. See, for example, the interview with Bryan Magee printed in the latter’s The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 207-208).
12. In the sense that, if leftists hold that there is no fixed human nature, they are bound to assert that human beings are capable of an exceedingly broad, almost limitless, range of behaviors and capacities, and this supposition is obviously incompatible with a Darwinian insistence on very determinate, relatively narrow constraints on behavior stemming from our evolutionary inheritance.
13. As he puts it elsewhere, the left’s “factual beliefs are at odds with Darwinian thinking” (A Darwinian Left, p. 18).
14. Singer, A Darwinian Left, p. 23.
15. Ibid., p. 5.
16. If I use the somewhat tentative “appears,” this is only because one cannot, of course, know for certain exactly what Marx held. My disinclination to forthrightly attribute the view in question to Marx should not, therefore, be construed as reflecting any doubts on my part as to the falsity of Singer’s interpretation.
17. Norman Geras, Marx and Human Nature (London: Verso, 1983). There has, of course, been a long tradition of commentators who advance the same interpretation as Singer. Indeed, a conclusive refutation of this very interpretation is the aim of Geras’s book. For references to a number of these commentators, see Marx and Human Nature, pp. 50-54.
18. Ibid., p. 13.
19. Ibid., p. 46. It should be noted that Geras employs “man,” “men,” etc. rather than, e.g., “human being,” solely because, given the standard translations of the Theses, this practice makes “for ease and consistency of exposition” (Ibid., p. 25).
20. Geras rightly remarks apropos of The German Ideology, “If a clue is needed to difficulties in the Theses, it is as likely as anything is to provide one since, written only shortly after them, it manifestly shares and enlarges upon their preoccupations, its most interesting and important section being given over partly to critical remarks about Feuerbach” (Geras, Marx, pp. 63-64). As he subsequently demonstrates, The German Ideology clearly reflects a commitment to a certain conception of universal human nature. Indeed, besides confirming his interpretation of the sixth “Thesis,” Geras’s analysis actually refutes the notion that the Theses mark a watershed in Marx’s thought, after which that is, from the writing of the Theses, and the subsequent emergence of historical materialism, on he would deny any notion of human nature. In fact, and a standard interpretation of Marx notwithstanding, it is actually the early works which are closest to the Theses in their ambiguity with respect to the theme of human nature, closest, that is, to a failure to acknowledge any universal human nature! See pp. 74-74 and 78.
21. Geras, Marx, p. 19.
22. Of course, in a trivial sense every work of political philosophy and normative social theory necessarily presupposes some conception of human nature: without some conception of what human beings essentially are and are capable of becoming i.e., without some notion of human beings’ needs, abilities, potential and limitations it would hardly be possible to defend a determinate system of institutions as being that which is most suited to them. Singer no doubt knows as much, but he nonetheless ignores this point in the present work.
23. Geras, Marx, p. 109. Cf.: “Hence, the standard practical commitment within Marxist and socialist belief rests, whether explicitly or implicitly, upon the theoretical hypothesis of a human nature at least if it is to have a coherent theoretical basis” (Ibid., p. 110).
24. Cf. Geras’s comment that, for Marx, “Essential human needs…possess an overtly practical implication too, serving as a norm of judgment and of action” (Geras, Marx, p. 70). For brief enumeration of some of the needs, which are, according to Geras, acknowledged by Marx, see pp. 72 and 83.
25. Ibid., p. 67. Cf.: “[I]f the nature of man depends upon the ensemble of social relations, it does not depend wholly on them, it is conditioned but not determined by them, because they themselves depend on, that is, are partly explained by human nature, which is a component of the nature of man” (Ibid., p. 68). As Geras notes, historical materialism also logically presupposes some conception of human nature merely insofar as it constitutes a form of materialism: “any genuine materialism must insist rather that human beings, for all that is distinctive about them as a species, and for all of their traits, activities and relationships which can only be explained by specificities of society and history, are nevertheless, like all other species, material and natural beings; ‘irredeemably’ rooted in a given biological constitution; absolutely continuous with the rest of the natural world” (Ibid., p. 97).
As Geras notes, it is also well to bear in mind in this connection the “elementary logical point…that to declare of anything that it changes does not commit one to the view that everything about it changes or that it has no enduring features. Forecasts of a change in the weather would otherwise be received with much greater anxiety than they generally are” (Ibid., p. 90).
26. Ibid., p. 79; pp. 107-108 (emphasis in the original).
27. See p. 23. Singer’s reference is to the famous passage in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality in which Rousseau denounces the ills attending the establishment of private property. While Singer contends that the purport of this passage is, quite simply (and unequivocally), that “there is no fixed human nature” (Ibid.), a disinterested reading of Rousseau’s remarks is unlikely to yield such a categorical interpretation.
28. Sometimes Singer writes as though all he were proposing is a kind of tactical reorientation, as when he remarks that “a society that fosters cooperation can take the left some distance towards its goals” (A Darwinian Left, p. 54). At other times, however, he seems to be suggesting that it is the ends themselves, and not merely the means thereto, which need to be changed. This would appear to be what he means, for example, in saying that his proposals reflect “a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved” (Ibid., 62). It would also seem to follow from another passage cited earlier (see note 5 above) that what his proposals are supposed to represent are alternative objectives.
29. Singer, A Darwinian Left, p. 60.
30. Ibid., pp. 60-61
31. Ibid., p. 24. “Here, I suspect, is the ultimate reason why the left rejected Darwinian thought. It dashed the left’s Great Dream: The Perfectibility of Man” (Ibid.). Indeed, Singer devotes a fair amount of space to this theme (considering the scope of this work), referring in later passages to “the dream of perfecting mankind” (Ibid., p. 27), “the dream of perfectibility” (Ibid., p. 31), and the left’s alleged goal of creating “perfect citizens” (Ibid., p. 33). According to Singer, it was in fact this belief that led to the worst horrors of Stalinism: “the dream of the perfectibility of humankind turned into the nightmares of Stalinist Russia”(Ibid., p. 31). In other words, leftists assert the perfectibility of humankind (owing to their failure to understand human nature), and belief in the perfectibility of humankind ultimately produces the Gulag… Not surprisingly, Singer neglects to document the contemporary left’s putative commitment to “the perfectibility of man.”
32. E.P. Thompson, “An Open Letter To Leszek Kolakowski,” in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1978), p. 367. Thompson was responding to Kolakowski’s travesty of Marxism, according to which Marxism envisages “the final elimination of all alienation and a wholly peaceful state of society without conflicts and contradictions” (Ibid., p. 366). For a review of various passages from Marx’s oeuvre which “show an awareness on Marx’s part…of sources of tension in human relations not traceable to economic causes,” see Norman Geras, “Seven Types of Obloquy: Travesties of Marxism,” in Socialist Register 1990, ed. Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch (London: The Merlin Press, 1990), pp. 13-14.
33. Cf. Geras, “Seven Types of Obliquy,” p. 2.
34. A Darwinian Left, pp. 61-62.
35. “Roundtable on the Future of the Left,” Socialism and Democracy 25, vol. 13, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1999), p. 17.
36. A Darwinian Left, p. 42. Or as he puts it in another passage: “we could seek to encourage a broader sense of our interests, in which we seek to build on the social and cooperative side of our nature, in addition to the individualistic and competitive side” (Ibid., p. 43).
37. Ibid., p. 52; 53.
38. “[A Darwinian left would] expect that, under different social and economic systems, many 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, A Darwinian Left, p. 61). Singer in fact discusses the problem of hierarchy at some length, and on one occasion even claims that the (supposedly) inherent human “tendency to form hierarchies” was the main source of inequalities in the ex-Soviet Union (Ibid., p. 39). He also claims that “revolutionaries” usually assume that it will be easy to eliminate hierarchy (Ibid.). One wonders just which revolutionaries Singer has in mind: surely not Engels (the author of the essay “On Authority,” after all), nor any who have held that a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” however this phrase was construed, would need to remain in place long after the triumph of any socialist revolution.
39. “[A Darwinian left would] recognise that the way in which we exploit nonhuman animals is a legacy of a pre-Darwinian past that exaggerated the gulf between humans and other animals, and therefore work towards a higher moral status for nonhuman animals, and a less anthropocentric view of our dominance over nature” (A Darwinian Left, pp. 61-62).
40. Ibid., p. 28.
41. Ibid., p. 22.
42. Ibid., p. 23. Characteristically, Singer neglects to consider whether the converse of his statement i.e., that to anyone who sees a (radical) discontinuity between human beings and our nonhuman ancestors, it seems implausible that Darwinism gives us the laws of evolution for both natural and human history might not have the same presumptive validity.
43. Lewontin, Rose and Kamin, Not In Our Genes, p. 236.
44. James Rachels, Created From Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 76. Continuing with his account of Gould’s argument, Rachels adds: “Is there a specific gene for male dominance? … There are two possibilities: (1) male dominance might be only one among several forms of social organization consistent with our genes…; or (2) male dominance might be specifically mandated by our genes. Once these alternatives are firmly established, Gould says, we can see that the available evidence supports only the first. … [There is, Gould remarks, currently no] ‘direct evidence for genetic control of specific human social behavior’” (Ibid).
45. Singer, A Darwinian Left, p. 30.
46. Ibid. p. 29.
47. The hallmark of such obloquy, according to Geras, is “the quick, casual disparagement, untroubled by effort of serious proof or even advocacy: the small, avoidable falsehood or lightminded absurdity; the rendering of an opposing viewpoint in transparently prejudicial terms; the passing caricature or easy oversimplification…” (“Seven Types of Obliquy,” p. 1).
48. See, for example, Singer’s essay “On Being Silenced In Germany,” included as the “Appendix” to the second edition of his Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 337-359. For a typical caricature of the animal liberation position, cited by Singer himself, see his Animal Liberation, 2nd edition (London: Thorsons, 1991), p. 271, note 17.
49. Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), p. 158.
50. Rachels, op. cit.