HBD: Human Biodiversity

A Darwinian Left


To me, it's seemed over the last half decade or so that the op-ed writers of the New York Times need to spend more time reading the science section of the same paper. In the last couple years, we've seen a piece that comes dangerously close to admitting that important genetic differences between the races exist, more than a few articles fairly summarizing the finding that IQ is highly hereditable, and even a report on evidence that non-Africans -- and non-Africans only -- have ancestors from a different species. 

Throughout this period, there's been no perceptible change in the Times'spolitical writing. 

While it may be unfair to suggest that accepting the findings of the social sciences should make every liberal drop everything he believes in and join the Alternative Right, I think that the Left does have to rethink quite a few issues if it's not going to ignore behavioral genetics or psychometrics.  

No leftist has taken the implications of human biodiversity more seriously than philosopher Peter Singer. Depending on your perspective, he is either one of the most rigorous and consistent thinkers of the analytical tradition or the perfect example of what happens when man takes godless Utilitarian ethics to its logical conclusions. Once in a while his name shows up in headlines on conservative websites over articles and blog posts on what's wrong with the modern world.  Kathryn Jean-Lopez, for instance, argues that since he's "known to be a proponent of infanticide, perhaps nothing he says or writes should thereafter raise eyebrows" but continues that because he's a Princeton professor, contemporary writers must take his ideas seriously. 

In the philosopher's own words, Singer believes "that the life of a fetus (and even more plainly, an embryo) is of no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc., and that since no fetus is a person no fetus has the same claim to life as a person. "

Now it must be admitted that these arguments apply to the newborn baby as much as to to the fetus... If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either, and the life of a newborn baby is of less value to it than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee is to the nonhuman animal.  Thus while my position on the status of fetal life may be acceptable to many, the implications of this position for the status of newborn life are at odds with the virtually unchallenged assumption that the life of a newborn baby is as sacrosanct as that of an adult.

Singer's view of infanticide is a logical extension of his support for abortion rights. It's interesting that so much outrage over his philosophy comes from the Right, considering that what he's most often doing is pointing out the inconsistencies of the Left. To a Christian conservative, what's the big deal about another baby killer in a position of power if in your mind anyone who supports abortion rights is a baby killer? The fact that the logic in the passage above is impeccable is only a problem for liberals.

It took a man this honest to address the problems biorealism poses for liberalism. The year 2000 saw the publication of Singer's A Darwinian Left: Politics, evolution and cooperation. The book is no more than 70 pages, references included, but none the less it is a coherent attempt of a thinker trying to incorporate the findings on human nature, sex differences and the possibility of biological race differences into his worldview while remaining a true left-winger.  

To the author, the "most tragic irony of the past century is that the record of governments that have claimed to be Marxist shows that Marx got it wrong" on human nature. The fall of the USSR and the mainstream Left's abandonment of the goal of nationalizing the means of production mean that Western liberals need a new paradigm.  

The first question that we must ask of this project is, as Singer puts it, "Can the left swap Marx for Darwin, and still remain left?" And to arrive at an answer one must start with "what is essential to the left?" A leftist is one who cares deeply about the suffering in the universe and wants to do what he can to relieve some of it. We are told that liberals understand the principle of diminishing marginal utility. A dollar a day means much less to an American heart surgeon than it does to an Indian peasant. A caring leftist is outraged to be living in a world where the 400 richest people are monetarily worth more than the poorest two billion. Statistics like this alone are enough for the author to demand that we "work towards a more equal distribution of resources," even though he does not value equality for its one sake.  None of this -- the desire to alleviate suffering by redistribution, understanding the concept of diminishing returns -- necessitates that one take a position on human biodiversity. Therefore, there can be a Darwinian Left. 

Left gives us a short critique of the Darwinian Right before a brief history of how socialists and Marxists have fit an acceptance of natural selection into their ideologies. A few writers have made the mistake of deriving "ought" from "is."  If nature is ruthless and competitive, it doesn't make us obliged to encourage competition and ruthlessness. Another Darwinian right-wing criticism of the Left is exemplified in E.O. Wilson's statement that philosopher John Rawls hadn't thought through the "ultimate ecological or genetic consequences of the rigorous prosecution" of his conclusions. Singer believes that such statements are "to put it charitably, highly speculative." And even if it were proven that redistributionist policies helped the less intelligent and less responsible reproduce, science by itself can't tell us what traits we would like to have more or less of. 

This attempted refutation of the eugenic and anti-dysgenic conclusions of some biorealists is the weakest part of the book. Science can't tell us that being wealthy is better than being poor either, but Singer takes for granted the premise that the world's more indigent populations would suffer less if they had more wealth. It is simply illogical to then turn around and suggest that we should be morally neutral towards the cognitive characteristics that make a higher standard of living possible in the first place. Dysgenics isn't speculation either, it's happening. Whether policies traditionally associated with the Left create or perpetuate this evil isn't as easy to prove, but we can use common sense and evidence from the social sciences to see whether such is the case. 

Singer at least agrees with Wilson when the latter says that knowledge about human nature can at least make us aware of what the costs are likely to be when we seek certain political goals, especially egalitarian ones. He also hopes that evolution can help discredit pre-Darwinian ideas; the one claiming a dichotomous separation between human and nonhuman animals he sees as the cause of a great amount of evil.  

Readers might be surprised to know that Marx and Engels were somewhat enthusiastic about Darwin's Big Idea, or their interpretation of it at least. Marx believed that On the Origin of Species gave him a "natural-scientific basis for the class struggle in history." At Marx's funeral, Engels said that while Darwin taught us about the laws of organic nature, the man he was eulogizing similarly brought to light the laws of historical development. But as Singer points out, Engels revealed that he didn't understand Darwin's theory at all in his famous article "The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man," which was used by Soviet Lamarckians to show that their evolutionary theory was the true Marxist one. Whatever the founders of communism believed about the creation of man, a consistent theme in their writings was that the Darwinian laws were no longer applicable to modern humans. Modern liberals, Marxists and non-Marxists alike, continue to make the same mistake.

The very first thing that a Darwinian Left will have to give up is the "dream of perfectibility." Since the materialist theory of history is wrong, and undesirable behaviors are not caused by private property, white racism, government or any other man-made institution, they're part of who we are and thus here to stay.  Acceptance of biological facts will kill off utopianism in political life -- and not a moment too soon.

Singer divides human traits into three categories. First are those that show great variation cross culturally: food production, for example, along with religious institutions and forms of government. Then there are some things that seem to show a moderate level of deviation. Sexual relationships and some kind of racism or xenophobia fall into this category. Finally, there are human universals that show little to no variation: our social nature, concern for kin, hierarchy, and most controversially, sex differences. 

In every culture it's women who do most of the care-giving and men who tend to dominate political life and be responsible for the vast majority of violence. The author stresses that just because something is universal, doesn't mean we shouldn't work to change it, lest we fall into the "is/ought" trap once again.  On the other hand, studying human nature can help us predict what the results of our actions will be and clarify the cost-benefit analyses that are unavoidable when thinking carefully about politics or ethics.  

The science of human beings isn't all bad news for the Left.  Cooperation is as much of a part of nature as pitiless struggles for existence. A thought experiment can help us understand how we can build a more altruistic society. There are quite a few versions of prisoner's dilemma and the version of Left is as follows.  You and another person are arrested and charged with plotting against the government and interrogated separately. An officer tells you that if you both confess you get 10 years in jail each.  If one of you confesses and the other doesn't, the former is let off and the latter gets 20 years. If neither admits to the crime both are put in jail for six months and released. The investigator explains to you that no matter what happens your best bet is to confess. If your partner confesses and you do, too, you end up with only 10 years in jail instead of 20. If your partner remains silent and you cop to the crime, you walk free instead of waiting half a year for your freedom. The tragedy of the game is that if you both remained silent you'd be better off than if you both looked out for yourselves, but there's no way to coordinate cooperation, and there's no point in hoping to build trust as this is a one-time decision. 

Luckily, those are only features of this particular situation and not society at large. For a Darwinian Left, there's the hope that in communities where individuals deal with one another on a regular basis people can learn that altruism is best both for themselves and society at large.  

Singer concludes with what a Darwinian Left would and wouldn't be. It wouldn't deny the existence of human nature or claim that it is inherently good, search for utopia or assume that all socioeconomic inequalities are caused by discrimination. It would see what man has in common with other suffering creatures of the world and reject the exploitation of animals as a relic of a more philosophically primitive time.  A Darwinian Left must expect that people will work to gain status and look out for kin no matter what our social institutions look like.  Finally, it would hold on to the traditional values of the Left "by being on the side of the weak, poor and oppressed."

Many of the problems of Singer's left remain the same as those of the more traditional kind. Take for example his simplistic ideas about the distribution of resources.  A house worth five million dollars transported from Beverly Hills to a village in the Congo would lose all but a fraction of its value, as would a computer company that attempted to operate in a low-IQ nation. Since the monetary value of anything is subjective, and what gets made is subject to the desires of those who produce (or steal through the government), redistribution on a massive worldwide scale makes little sense.

Hopefully a Darwinian Left would understand that Marx didn't just get evolution and human nature fundamentally wrong but economics, too. And to accept heredity and reject the desirability of eugenics will always remain impossible for utilitarianism or consequentialism, two related philosophies that seem to square well with the inherent sense of morality of most people. Despite this, Singer is to be commended for honestly facing what science has been telling us over the past few decades and acknowledging that the philosophy of the Left needs to be revised in light of what's been established.

If only the New York Times would do the same.