Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The First Darwinian Left?

In 1998 and 1999, when Peter Singer proposed a "Darwinian left" as a "new paradigm" for the left, he presented this as an alternative to the "traditional left," and particularly the Marxist left.  Generally, he argued, the left had not interpreted Darwin correctly.  The left had assumed that in explaining human evolution as a product of the "struggle for existence," Darwin had understood human life--and all life--as shaped by the competition of individuals, which supported the view of human nature favored by liberal individualism, rather than the view of the left that emphasized the human need for social cooperation.  This was a mistake because Darwin's account of human evolution, particularly in The Descent of Man, argued that human beings evolved as social animals with moral and intellectual capacities that allowed them to cooperate within their families and groups in ways that enhanced their survival and reproduction.  Only recently, Singer claimed, has this cooperative side of Darwinism been brought into clear view by the work of sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists who see that human beings are evolved to be both competitive and cooperative.  And while this denies the utopian dream of the traditional left for human perfectibility, it does allow for a Darwinian left to work for a more cooperative society.

According to Singer, the only person on the left who saw this cooperative side of Darwinism was Peter Kropotkin, in his book Mutual Aid, who saw that Darwin's Descent recognized cooperation between animals of the same species as a factor of evolution.  Since human beings were naturally cooperative, Kropotkin argued, they did not need government, which actually impeded their natural cooperation, and they would be more cooperative without government.  Thus, Kropotkin's anarchism lessened his influence with the traditional left, particularly Marxists.

There's one big mistake in Singer's story:  he ignores the long period from 1859 to World War II when many people on the left--socialists and progressive liberals--identified themselves as Darwinians.  It was only after the Second World War that those on the left generally rejected any Darwinian understanding of morality and politics as tainted by the seemingly right-wing history of "Social Darwinism."  It was this later turn away from Darwin that explains why the left reacted with such vehement scorn to the publication of Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology in 1975.  When Barack Obama condemns his opponents as Social Darwinists, he is manifesting this leftist tradition of scorn for Darwinism.

To correct Singer's story, David Stack has written The First Darwinian Left: Socialism and Darwinism, 1859-1914 (2003).  Stack shows the influence of Darwinian ideas on the history of British socialism, particularly the tradition that led into the Independent Labour Party of  Great Britain, which defended its socialist position against Marxism on the left and liberalism on the right.  He identifies a long line of Darwinian socialists, including Alfred Russel Wallace, Annie Besant, Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, and Ramsay MacDonald.  (Stack's book elaborates an argument first stated in an article available online.)

Stack succeeds in so far as he shows that many of the socialists who were looking for an alternative to Marxist revolution employed Darwinian language in arguing for an evolutionary socialism that would emerge gradually through democratic reforms.  These socialists saw the evolutionary process as a progressive movement towards ever greater cooperation, so that the competitive individualism of capitalism was only a temporary stage on the road to the cooperative society of socialism.

Although he does not express it in this way, Stack's argument can be stated as three premises leading to a conclusion:

1.  Darwinism provides a scientific explanation of the human propensity to social cooperation as part of our evolved human nature, and thus it denies atomistic individualism.

2.  Classical liberalism promotes atomistic individualism, and thus it denies the human propensity to social cooperation.

3.  Socialism promotes social cooperation as superior to atomistic individualism.

Therefore, Darwinism supports socialism.

Stack helps us to see the plausibility in this line of reasoning as explaining the history of Darwinian socialism.  But I see at least five weaknesses in Stack's argument.

The first weakness is that Charles Darwin himself never identified support for socialism as a necessary conclusion from his science.  Stack quotes (p. 2) from a letter that Darwin wrote in December 26, 1879, in which he wrote to a Dr. Scherzer: "What a foolish idea seems to prevail in Germany on the connection between Socialism and Evolution through Natural Selection."  Far from being a socialist, Darwin was an enthusiastic supporter of the Liberal Party, when liberalism was identified as classical liberalism.

Moreover, some of the Darwinian socialists admitted that there was no support in Darwin's writing for connecting evolution to socialism.  In Socialism and Society (1908), Ramsay MacDonald observed: "The influence of Darwinism upon Socialism does not depend upon whether Darwin's special theories of evolution do or do not lead to Socialism" (109).  Enrico Ferri began his Socialism and Positive Science (Darwin-Spencer-Marx) (1905) by admitting: "It is true that Darwin, and especially Spencer, stopped short half-way from the final conclusions of religious, political and social order, which necessarily follow from their indisputable premises" (xi).

Nevertheless, as Ferri suggests, one might argue that even if Darwin himself did not see the connection to socialism, Darwin's science necessarily leads to socialism as a final conclusion.  But to make such an argument, one would have to offer a careful reading of Darwin's Descent to show that the logic of Darwin's reasoning pointed to socialism.  In fact, none of the Darwinian socialists covered by Stack do this.  With the possible exception of Kropotkin, none of them make any effort to show how their socialist conclusions emerge necessarily from a meticulous reading of Darwin's Descent. 

This indicates the second weakness in Stack's argument.  He has to admit that socialist conclusions are only "loosely drawn from Darwinism" (56, 63, 119).  The Darwinism of Darwinian socialism consists of nothing more than some loose language of biological metaphors--"the organic and evolutionary metaphor" of the "social organism" (53, 79, 81, 119-20).  The metaphor of society as an organism comes more from Spencer than from Darwin, and Spencer stresses that the metaphorical likeness of a human society to a human body is incomplete because while a human body has one central nervous system and brain, a human society has no single mind beyond the separate minds of the individuals composing the society.  This is a crucial point, because the socialist use of the metaphor of the "social organism" presumes that the government in a socialist state can act as one mind over a whole society.

This points to the third weakness in Stack's argument.  The Darwinian socialists had to assume that the Darwinian evolution of cooperation was an evolution towards an ever more socialistic state (47, 60, 83, 120).  But this is not necessarily true.  As Stack admits, both Spencer and Kropotkin saw the natural evolution of cooperation as showing that the state was not necessary for cooperation, and that the state might even rightly be seen as an impediment to the cooperation that can naturally emerge in social life.

The weakness here in Stack's reasoning turns on what one means by "cooperation."  Does one mean voluntary cooperation or compulsory cooperation?  Contrary to the second premise in Stack's argument, classical liberalism does not assert an atomistic individualism that denies cooperation, because liberalism affirms the natural propensity of human beings for voluntary cooperation in society.  One can see that, for example, in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, which presents human beings as naturally other-regarding in their capacity for sympathy and moral sentiments, and it was this reasoning that Darwin adopted in his account of the evolution of the natural moral sense in his Descent of Man.  This is a fundamental claim of liberalism as promoting voluntary cooperation in society as superior to compulsory cooperation enforced by the state.

The natural evolution of cooperation is a recurrent theme of classical liberal thought.  So, for example, Ludwig von Mises in Human Action wrote: "The notion of the struggle for existence as Darwin borrowed it from Malthus is to be understood in a metaphorical sense. . . . It need not be a war of extermination. . . . Reason has demonstrated that, for man, the most adequate means of improving his condition is social cooperation and division of labor."

Classical liberals worry about the concentration of coercive power in the state because they worry about the natural tendency of human beings to be corrupted by the exercise of coercive rule over others.  This point is related to the fourth weakness in Stack's argument.  Stack criticizes Singer for arguing that leftists like Marx "know nothing at all about human nature," because, in fact, Stack claims, Marx had a concept of human nature (64).  But here Stack hides the important point that Singer is making. 

The remark that leftists like Marx "know nothing about human nature" is actually a quotation from the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin who predicted that a Marxist socialist regime would become tyrannical.  Bakunin wrote:  "And from the heights of the state they begin to look down upon the whole common world of the workers.  From that time on they represent not the people but themselves and their own claims to govern the people.  Those who doubt this know nothing at all about human nature." 

Marx responded to Bakunin by dismissing his "nightmares about authority" and his "hallucinations about domination."  Of course, Bakunin's nightmares about the tyranny of socialist statism turned out to be accurate prophecies.  Singer rightly observes that a Darwinian view of human nature would sustain Bakunin's belief about the corrupting effects of the natural desire for coercive power. 

At one point, Stack describes the British socialists as experiencing the "thrill of power," and he doesn't find this troublesome (120).  But perhaps he would say that in contrast to the Marxist socialists, the British socialists were not corrupted by the power of the state.

And yet, Stack has to recognize the morally repugnant commitment of many British socialists to coercive eugenic policies, which seems to me to be a fifth weakness in his argument.  Stack writes:
     In a number of ways, the eugenic analysis overlapped with a socialist exegesis of Darwinism--to such an extent that Galton's most important follower, Karl Pearson, defined himself as a socialist.  Firstly, eugenics was a collectivist doctrine.  Whereas Darwin had left the unit of natural selection undecided between the individual and the group, the notion of racial fitness demanded that natural selection be a group process.  Secondly, eugenics rested upon a positivistic faith in scientific rationality, and man's Promethean destiny to wrest control of his future, that echoed the agenda of most socialists.  Thirdly, the instrument of eugenic policy, what Galton called the "agencies under social control" intervening to improve "the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally" was to be the state.  This chimed with the socialist objective of a strong state overcoming the interests of petty individualism.  Fourthly, in the "positive" versions of eugenics, the state was to institute a social health programme that cared for mothers and babies.
     Thus, although eugenics did not, as is sometimes asserted, resuscitate the Enlightenment dream of perfectibility, it did hint at a "rational selection" that would dispose, once and for all, of laissez-faire individualism.  It did so, moreover, by substituting the human mind, in the form of the state, for the vicissitudes of nature.  As Galton put it, "what Nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly."  This, of course, was the essence of the socialist case.  No wonder historians of both inter-war Britain and France have suggested that we reassess our attitudes towards eugenics, and learn to see it as a progressive force in politics. (86-87)
Stack immediately tries to reject this idea of socialist eugenics by claiming that eugenics assumed a hard hereditarianism that was contrary to the environmentalist explanations of human behavior usually favored by the left.  But this is implausible since the very people that Stack regards as most representative of British socialism were enthusiastic about coercive eugenics.  Indeed, Stack must admit: "There was no question of socialists rejecting eugenics outright" (88).

Darwin rejected Galton's proposals for eugenics as utopian.  Darwin did suggest, however,  that Parliament should investigate the effects of inbreeding to see if cousin marriages might be dangerous. 

The general point here is that socialist eugenics illustrates the danger inherent in socialist statism, in "the socialist objective of a strong state overcoming the interests of petty individualism," and "substituting the human mind, in the form of the state, for the vicissitudes of nature."  If this is the "essence of the socialist case," as Stack indicates, then this illustrates the danger in the socialist preference for compulsory cooperation as opposed to the liberal preference for voluntary cooperation.

Some of my posts on related themes can be found here, here, here, here, and here.


Empedocles said...

I was thinking about your series on strong reciprocity or true altruism. You left out the consideration of how altruism has been motivated throughout much of human history, by religion, probably the only real success story in motivating altruism. Forget the question of psychological altruism and whether someone acting for rewards in the afterlife is truly altruistic, and instead concentrate on the effects in this world. In this world the result is the same, people behaving religiously would produce the beneficial effects of true altruism. Now I wonder if civilization needs true altruists in order to exist, for people to behave altruistically beyond kin or mutually beneficial agreements. If so, the result is that civilization needs religion in order to exist.

Steve Sailer said...

I find the modern tendency to draw strict lines between Darwin (Yeah!) and Galton (Boo!) to be exaggerated. Galton saw himself as following in his half-cousin's tradition, and Darwin learned from his younger relative, as the numerous references to Galton in Darwin's The Descent of Man suggest.

Galton largely called not for coercion but for what today we'd refer to as "Awareness." This can be seen from reading transcripts of the 1904 symposium in Galton's honor where H.G. Wells called for coercive eugenics, and Galton replied to him coldly.

Galton encouraged the development of awareness of heredity and himself invented one of the crucial tools for thinking rigorously about it: the correlation coefficient. Eugenicists such as Pearson and, especially, Fisher carried on, discovering much of modern statistics and genetics. The eugenicists themselves were primarily the scientists who worked out the complexities of genetics and figured out eventually that eugenics would not be as easy as they had hoped.

Larry Arnhart said...

"Eugenics would not be as easy as they had hoped"??

Eugenics was total rubbish!

Good eugenics--such as is practiced by Ashkenazi Jews to eliminate diseases like Tay Sachs--is reasonable when based on voluntary compliance. Prohibition of incest within the nuclear family is also reasonable.

Anything else is dangerous nonsense.

Galton promoted this dangerous nonsense in his "Kantsaywhere" utopianism, which Darwin had rejected.