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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy

A Darwinian Left

Peter Singer

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To purchase A Darwinian Left

Title: A Darwinian Left
Author: Peter Singer
Genre: Essay
Written: 1999
Length: 63 pages
Availability: A Darwinian Left - US
A Darwinian Left - UK
A Darwinian Left - Canada
  • Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation
  • Part of the Darwinism Today series, from the Darwin@LSE Project. (See links for further information.)

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Our Assessment:

B- : small book about politics and Darwinism, with some points of interest

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Republic C- 10/1/2000 Peter Berkowitz
National Review . 2/4/2001 Larry Arnhart
Salon . 9/1/2001 Ralph Brave
Scientific American . 6/2000 Leigh Van Valen
The Spectator . 16/9/2000 Samuel Brittan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Singer's confused attempt to justify a Darwinian left therefore actually helps us to see the potential justification for a Darwinian right." - Larry Arnhart, National Review

  • "A Darwinian Left is not devoid of useful admonitions about the dangers of utopian visions, and the aspirations to remake human nature, and the dreams of the perfectibility of humankind; but it features a central line of argument that manages to be both unexceptionable and incoherent." - Peter Berkowitz, The New Republic

  • "What makes Singer so provocative is that he takes up the left's commitment to fighting injustice and at the same time urges scientists to pursue the knowledge and control of our biological makeup to the furthest reaches." - Ralph Brave, Salon

  • "(P)owerfully argued." - Leigh Van Valen, Scientific American

  • "The Peter Singer book might be described as a plea to the left to accept the human condition." - Samuel Brittan, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Each title in the Darwin Today series aims to be, according to the editors, "an authoritative pocket introduction to the Darwinian ideas that are setting today's intellectual agenda." Short surveys, some 15,000 words in length, they cover a variety of subjects, from farming to sex to politics. Refer to the links for further information.

       Peter Singer's contribution to the Darwin Today series focusses on politics, suggesting that "the left" can and should embrace Darwinism, and should adapt its policies to fit within a Darwinist framework. He emphasizes that it is necessary for the left to accept the fact that the idea of the perfectibility of society is at odds with biological reality, but he also believes that a better society can be achieved by understanding Darwinism and utilizing the knowledge gleaned from this understanding.
       Singer offers a useful, small historic survey of the influence of Darwin on political thought. From early on the Darwinian struggle for survival has been embraced by the right as supporting the capitalist ideal, with the market as the proving ground, "survival of the fittest" the rallying cry (leaving aside that the statement is tautological -- empty and meaningless). The left, believing man to be malleable, distrusted the sense of inevitability of Darwinism.
       Singer suggests that Darwin also offers a great deal to the left: specifically because cooperation is also an integral part of Darwinism, and such cooperation and altruism can be fostered through policy in order to create a better and more just society.
       There are numerous difficulties with Singer's survey, including its brevity, which does not allow for an in-depth analysis or discussion of the many factors at issue here. There are also definitional questions, first and foremost being the the whole notion of "the left" (and, conversely, "the right"). Australian-born, Oxford-educated Singer focusses on the trade-union based left of Australia and England as his point of reference; other countries would find the left leaning differently. Singer addresses this to some extent, but his pseudo-definition (or rather: anti-definition) is less than helpful:

If we shrug our shoulders at the avoidable suffering of the weak and the poor, of those who are getting exploited and ripped off, or who simply do not have enough to sustain life at a decent level, we are not of the left.
       Certain of his conclusions are certainly valid -- such as the idea that the left (just like the right, and everybody else) must acknowledge and accept certain basic scientific truths about human nature, including the notion that people tend to act out of self-interest in many situations. He also offers the constructive thought that the left should use some of the conclusions Darwinism reaches and build policy around them, in order to create incentives for people to cooperate in creating a better society for all. As to the details of how this is to be accomplished, well, that needs more work.
       In his highly critical review in The New Republic Peter Berkowitz summarily dismisses Singer's oversimplifications. Certainly, Singer goes too far in reducing the issues at hand to a few basic points. Nevertheless, there are starting points for worthwhile discussion in Singer's work.
       As a professor of bioethics, and notorious supporter of infanticide (under certain conditions) and animal rights, Singer also brings some of these subjects into the discussion -- thankfully not going much beyond suggesting that a new (Darwinian) left would "work towards a higher moral status for nonhuman animal, and a less anthropocentric view of our dominance over nature."
       Because of the brevity of this book one can forgive many of the simplifications and the lack of a more rigorous analysis. It is questionable whether some of Singer's arguments would withstand much scrutiny (see Berkowitz' easy dismissal), but there is some food for thought here, making it worth a look. A quick read, of some interest.

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A Darwinian Left: Reviews: Darwin@LSE: Peter Singer: Other books by Peter Singer under review: Other books in the Darwin Today series under review: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       Australian philosopher Peter Singer is the author of the influential Animal Liberation, and currently teaches at Princeton University.

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© 2000-2010 the complete review

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