Book Reviews

A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation
by Peter Singer

Hardcover - 64 pages (April 2000)
Yale Univ Pr; ISBN: 0300083238 ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.44 x 7.24 x 4.67

Editorial Reviews
Review by William A. Spriggs

This is a small, yet very powerful book that should be required reading for those who reject or fear the evolutionary approach in understanding human nature. The rejection and fear within liberal circles emerges from visions of Social Darwinists, in particular, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and his immortal phrase "survival of the fittest" becoming the law of the land. This fear then grows to paranoid proportions with little Hitlers emerging from beneath rocks morphing into lab-coated technicians at biotech firms.

Noting a lapse of progressive ideas lately, A Darwinian Left, written by one of the most liberal of the liberal giants of our modern time tries to calm turbulent waters by suggesting: "...that one source of new ideas that could revitalize the left is an approach to human social, political and economic behavior based firmly on a modern understanding of human nature." p.6

Singer's most admirable concern for the poor, exploited humans, and sentient animals does not stop him from viewing certain undeniable truths of our biological origins and makes a clarion call for the left to open its mind to the possibilities of the evolutionary perspective. Having declared this new paradigm shift, Singer then suggests that the left concentrate on finding more evidence of group cooperation vs. the individual biological mechanisms so far uncovered in the emerging fields as the most logical approach [once again, we are given the time-honored evidence found in of the "prisonerís dilemma" as the perfect example of cooperation].

But, before the left can begin to embark upon a journey of finding more example of cooperative group behaviors, Singer makes gives us a clue as to where liberals need to embrace as their starting point for this group cooperation:  "Both national and international surveys show little correlation between an increase in wealth and an increase in happiness, once basic needs have been met." What he is telling us is that is OK to own private property and be rich, but once you have more than fulfilled your basic needs, it makes no sense to continue to amass piles of new toys and to defend those toys with an attitude of an armed camp sharing only those bounties with kin and close phenotypes. 

Singer then finalizes his powerful book by giving readers ten features that he believes a Darwinian left should embrace.  I won't list them here as not to spoil your eagerness to learn more.  I  highly recommend the book to liberal and progressive policy makers.

Peter Singer is DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University.
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