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On Biology and Politics

Why the Left must take human evolution seriously.

· 22 min read
On Biology and Politics
Photo by Ryan Al Bishri on Unsplash

I. Human Nature

Debating human nature—the qualities and tendencies fundamental to being human—has kept theologians and philosophers busy for millennia. The arguments most often revolve around whether such traits are innate or acquired, humanly universal or specific to each culture. Even today, an obvious divide separates those who accept religious or non-materialist accounts of our nature from others who embrace the modern materialist idea that life came from matter, and consciousness from life, over the course of human evolution.

A further split is evident among materialists. One side (admittedly, a minority) insists that Darwinian theory is essential to understanding modern human emotions and social behaviour, while the other believes that cultural influences have long since supplanted the influence of any earlier evolved psychological tendencies. According to the latter, our species’ evolutionary history provides few (if any) insights into contemporary human thinking or behaviour.

Broad political factors are also at play here, with both the Left and the Right largely dismissive of the application of evolutionary theory to human affairs. On the Right, the distrust of Darwinism is strongly influenced by religious doctrine. In addition, many conservatives typically regard human nature (whether evolved or God-given) as inherently flawed, thus requiring constant constraint by custom or tradition. The standard leftist reaction is to reject this vision of a fixed and flawed human psyche entirely in favour of a mouldable and perfectible vision of human nature. And even when evolutionary theory is accepted in general, for many on the Left, its application to human society is indelibly linked to its egregious past—the cutthroat competition of Social Darwinism, say, or eugenics and Nazi racial science. Given the lingering reek of extreme right-wing ideology, it is hardly surprising that many of those most vehemently opposed to evolutionary accounts of human nature are found on the political Left.

Ironically, the Left itself appears to reflect the ongoing influence of evolved human behaviour. Witness its infamous factional in-fighting (wonderfully satirised in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian) or the recent progressive lurch towards identity politics, where group identity is held to take precedence over individual needs or beliefs. To the evolutionary-minded, the ease with which humans form in-groups and out-groups is clear evidence of our species’ inherent tribal psychology (the same psychology that prompts people to fight for a country or cause). As a recent Washington Post article put it, “Humans evolved in a challenging world of limited resources in which survival required cooperation—and identifying the rivals, the competitors for those resources.” This has modern repercussions, according to the evolutionary psychologists interviewed. For example, the unfortunate consequence of human social evolution—that “cooperation required out-group hatred”—helps to explain the increasing polarisation of American politics: “There are two major parties, and their contests are viewed as zero-sum outcomes. Win or lose. The presidency is the ultimate example: There are no consolation prizes for the loser.”

Of course, leftists could argue that such in-group/out-group tendencies arise from cultural conditioning—memorial services, say, or a social focus on emblems such as flags—rather than evolved predispositions; from a Darwinian perspective, however, this simply pushes the question back a step, to when and how such all-encompassing cultural forces arose in the first place. How and when, during the millions of years of evolution from our pre-cultural animal ancestors, did the biological instincts so evident in our nearest primate relatives so comprehensively disappear in our species? More plausibly, modern cultural behaviour is built upon earlier biological tendencies—the onus is therefore on the Left to explain why earlier innate traits no longer have any effect. 

Consider, for instance, the global resurgence of populist politicians, from Donald Trump in the US to India’s Narendra Modi or Italy’s Georgia Meloni, or their autocratic equivalents in Russia or China. While evolutionary influences are not the only explanation for this phenomenon, they are likely to be an important one: nationalism taps into our primal, tribal instincts. Similarly, why is it that women leaders such as Meloni are the exceptions that prove the rule that men dominate positions of power? While historical discrimination is clearly a factor here, biology provides a plausible (though not exclusive) explanation: namely, that men are more motivated to seek power because high status has greater reproductive pay-offs for them than for women (as any of Genghis Khan’s 16 million living male descendents could attest).

This is not to say that men pursue status solely for the conscious purpose of mating and reproduction. Natural selection is more subtle, simply promoting behaviours with positive reproductive consequences. With peacocks, for instance, it is hormones rather than conscious decision-making that drives the males’ exuberant mating displays. Yet as evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker wryly notes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, human males vying for attention have much the same hormones coursing through their bodies. (Keep that in mind next time you see men hogging the limelight—or find that you’re peacocking yourself.) Again, attributing the pursuit of status exclusively to cultural factors, as the Left tends to do, raises questions about the universality and ultimate origins of such behaviour. The more parsimonious evolutionary perspective suggests that men seeking power tend to have more offspring, thereby perpetuating this trait across generations. This viewpoint does not dismiss culture; rather, it suggests that cultural influences are built upon existing evolved tendencies. 

Importantly, any Darwinian explanation for aspects of human behaviour in no way justifies that behaviour. Indeed, understanding something from an evolutionary perspective may give us good grounds to reject its consequences. Accepting that human beings have inherent tribal tendencies, for example, does not endorse our in-group/out-group behaviour; it can, however, help us to understand why nationalism (and emblems such as flags) hold such powerful appeal. And while this may in turn help us counter the worst aspects of ethnocentrism, it also cautions against openly dismissing or denigrating the patriotic beliefs that people hold about their country or its symbols (as many cosmopolitan liberals—me included—sometimes do). Similarly, a Darwinian viewpoint underscores the tragic irony of progressive identity politics’ emphasis on group differences, and how this plays directly into the hands of right-wing populists—those who, for example, seek votes and attention by warning of dangerous immigrants “poisoning the nation’s blood.”

The Left ignores the fact that humans are evolved animals at its peril. This point forms the core of two similarly titled books, written a quarter of a century apart—A Darwinian Left (1999) and A (R)Evolutionary Left (2023)—that can serve as a guide to where the Left has gone wrong and why this poses such a risk to its traditional aspirations for building a truly just and equitable society.

II. Darwin for Egalitarians

Moral philosopher Peter Singer begins A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation with what he sees as the major cause of the Left’s rejection of Darwin: the lingering influence of Darwin’s fellow 19th-century thinker, Karl Marx. Trailblazing intellect that he was, Marx got quite a few things wrong—that the communist revolution would first occur in industrialised nations not agrarian ones (like Russia or China), say, or that exploitative capitalism would inevitably collapse and from its ashes a classless socialist system would just as inevitably arise. In Singer’s view, however, perhaps Marx’s biggest mistake was in his unrealistic vision of human nature. 

A Darwinian Left therefore takes particular aim at Marx’s conception of an infinitely malleable human nature, an idealistic notion that still holds sway over large sections of the Left. Briefly, this “blank slate” belief holds that human behaviour merely mirrors the prevailing social environment—that, for example, human competition stems from competitive societies not inherent competitive traits in individuals themselves. According to this view, if social structures change, so too will people’s nature. The political appeal of this for leftists is obvious: the prospect that more egalitarian societies will foster more egalitarian human beings, those whose deep-felt selflessness would truly reflect the Marxist dictum, “From each according to ability, to each according to need.”

Singer pours cold water on this utopian belief. Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and Khmer Rouge Cambodia, he argues, not to mention the long, dismal history of failed “egalitarian” revolutions the world over, proves the lie of the Left’s naive blank-slate position. Unfortunately, as Singer goes on to argue, “ideological blinkers” render the idealistic Left needlessly blind to a more nuanced understanding of human nature based on modern evolutionary science. This wilful ignorance of possible evolved influences on human behaviour leaves the Left ill-prepared to successfully address deeper undesirable emotions that may remain regardless of surface social change. Latent xenophobia is one such example; as Singer points out, writing in the decade that witnessed the Rwanda genocide and the brutal civil war in the former Yugoslavia, “racist demagogues hold their torches over highly flammable material.”

Singer is quick to stress that acknowledging evolved human nature need not mean egalitarians abandon their hopes for harmonious multicultural societies. Rather, by adopting a Darwinian perspective on human behaviour, the Left would be better able to spot potentially avoidable obstacles to its egalitarian goals. “An understanding of human nature in the light of evolutionary theory,” he writes, “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.”  

Take another apparent species-typical behaviour—human beings’ seemingly ubiquitous status hierarchies. Here, Singer notes how rapidly new hierarchies replaced the old aristocratic ones following the American, French, and Russian revolutions. “Getting rid of [hierarchy] is not going to be nearly as easy as revolutionaries usually imagine,” Singer cautions—a warning equally applicable to leftist policies aimed at mitigating widening inequalities between societies’ haves and have-nots, say, or the growing pay disparities between ordinary workers and CEOs. He makes a similar point about status disparities between men and women: that by focusing solely on discrimination as the root cause of sex inequality, and ignoring the possibility of different evolved preferences between men and women, egalitarians may fail to devise effective policies for achieving genuine gender equality.

A Darwinian Left does not, however, offer fully fledged, evolutionarily informed solutions to these or other potential obstacles to the leftist dream of a more egalitarian future; Singer’s account focuses on why the Left should adopt Darwin, not how. With social ranking, for example, he is content to note: “The fact that humans may have an evolved tendency to form social hierarchies need not curtail our demands for a more equal society, rather we simply use our evolutionary understanding of these tendencies to design political policies that mitigate their non-egalitarian consequences.” 

The New Evolution Deniers
The massive social media website Twitter—the central hub for cultural discourse and debate—is now actively banning users for stating true facts about basic human biology.

III. Facts Versus Values

In the 25 years since Singer wrote A Darwinian Left—and despite huge advances in our understanding of human evolutionary genetics, psychology, and neurobiology—there is precious little sign of the mainstream political Left heeding his evolutionary call to arms. Indeed, today’s progressive Left appears to be even more averse to biological thinking than it was a quarter of a century ago. An obvious example is many progressives’ no-debate approach to transgender, a concept that (as exemplified in the claim that sex is “assigned at birth") challenges the role of biology in determining male or female identity.

This has led, in turn, to the emergence of a “gender critical” feminist movement, which emphasises the importance of biological sex in social development and outcomes. An irony here is that biology-denying transgender beliefs can be traced to longstanding scepticism of Darwinian thinking within academic feminism itself, where it was (and still is) viewed as a rationale for patriarchy, misogyny, and the ongoing subjugation of women. And it is undoubtedly the case that Darwinian theory—beginning with Darwin’s own paternalistic attitude towards women in The Descent of Man—has been riddled with sexist assumptions and chauvinist reasoning.

Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy acknowledges these historical flaws in Darwinian theory in her own groundbreaking evolutionary analysis of maternal instincts, Mother Nature (published in the same year as Singer’s A Darwinian Left). Yet while such biases were clearly based on moralistic and patriarchal “wishful thinking” rather than objective observation, Hrdy also highlights how science’s continual challenge and revision of assumptions has steadily corrected these errors over time. Equivalent self-correction, however, has not occurred with the initial feminist rejection of Darwinian reasoning, Hrdy argues. This has led social scientists and feminists to ignore modern biological theories altogether and instead fashion “their own versions of wishful thinking about socially constructed men and women.”

According to biologist Jerry Coyne, such wishful thinking is clearly evident in a recent study of male and female hunting in prehistoric human societies—or, as Coyne scathingly describes it, the “evidence-free hypothesis” that “women constituted a high proportion of hunters in early hunter-gatherer societies.”

The University of Chicago professor’s ire here is directed most forcibly at what he calls a “misleading and distorted” Scientific American cover story on the research. As part of his critique, Coyne analyses the ideological motivation behind those “pushing the claim that women were as physically good at hunting as men”:

[T]he idea that they’re trying to debunk is that women were “second class citizens” in early societies, forced to gather food because they were tied to childcare duties, while men did all the hunting. This is apparently an attempt to buttress the editors’ and authors’ feminism. But feminism doesn’t need buttressing with data on hunting; women’s equality is a moral proposition that doesn’t depend on observations about hunting. In other words, women have equal moral rights and should not be treated unfairly because fair treatment is the moral thing to do. If women never hunted, would we then be justified in treating them as second-class citizens? Hell no!

Here, Coyne (like Hrdy) draws attention to the key distinction between (evolutionary) facts and (moral or political) values. As Coyne points out with gender equality, “Women’s rights rest on morality [i.e., values], not on observations of nature [i.e., facts].” 

As with biology’s early dismissal of female thinking, this fact/value distinction—that we cannot deduce what we ought to do from what human nature actually is like—was often ignored when Darwin’s ideas were first applied to human society and behaviour. For example, Social Darwinists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed that the evolutionary “struggle for existence” somehow legitimised dog-eat-dog capitalism as natural and inevitable or, conversely, delegitimised social welfare as unnatural and therefore wrong. The fact/value distinction was likewise ignored in the most “odious misapplication of Darwinian thinking” to (to paraphrase philosopher Daniel Dennett): the Nazi belief in “natural” racial hierarchies and the equally “natural” inevitability of winner-take-all racial conflict. 

Yet just as it is a fallacy to derive values from facts—for instance, asserting that men should dominate women because, on average, they are larger and stronger—so too is the opposite mistake of drawing supposed “facts” from values, however strongly held. Those promoting the female-hunter hypothesis allow their political beliefs to dictate the evidence that they find: the idea that because women should be the equal of men, therefore (even with activities like running or hunting) women are the equal of men. Dubbed the “moralistic fallacy” by Pinker in The Blank Slate, this sort of fallacious reasoning is a common feature of the Left’s often vehement rejection of Darwinian theory—for example, the implicit belief that because there shouldn’t be cognitive differences between genders or between racial groups (as this appears to undermine leftist ideals of equality) then there are no differences. 

IV. Going with the Grain

The argument that evolutionary theory should inform but not determine our political ideas is central to Peter Singer’s concept of a Darwinian Left. Darwinian thinking, he argues, “leaves the ethical decision up to us, merely offering to provide information relevant to that decision.” And by clearly maintaining the distinction between facts and values, leftists could also come to accept that evolutionary theory does not inevitably lead to politically egregious conclusions.  

Singer goes on to point out that political philosophers, revolutionaries, and reformers “have all too often worked out their ideal society or their reforms, and sought to apply them without knowing much about the human beings who must carry out, and live with, their plans.” He argues that, instead of working out a theoretical plan for an ideal society without regard for the people who will inhabit it, “those seeking to reshape society must understand the tendencies inherent in human beings, and modify their abstract ideals in order to suit them.”

Contemporary political philosophers, however, appear to be largely oblivious to this apparently sensible suggestion of taking human evolution into account in their social theorising. Rather, they  continue to base their concepts of human nature on the varied views of the historical giants of their discipline—the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke from the 17th and 18th centuries—rather than those of the founder of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin (or rather, on the ever-evolving understanding of our species that stems from Darwin’s original insights). This seems perversely backward-looking, akin to someone wondering what stars are like and yet uninterested in what modern astrophysics has revealed about the subject. As Pinker derisively remarks, “Every student of political science is taught that political ideologies are based on theories of human nature. Why must they be based on theories that are three hundred years out of date?” 

This armchair approach to human behaviour is even more forcefully derided by biologist Richard Dawkins. In the opening pages of his seminal work, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins argues that “pre-Darwinian answers” to questions about human nature are now “worthless except for their (considerable) historic interest.” In his provocative style, Dawkins goes on to claim: “There is such a thing as being plain wrong, and that is what, before 1859 [and the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species], all answers to those questions were.” 

The elephant in the room here for political theories devised in ignorance of the real nature of human nature—and most especially for leftist beliefs—is pithily illuminated by the father of sociobiology, the late E.O. Wilson. When first acquainted with the tenets of Marxism as a young man, the world authority on ants is said to have quipped, “Wonderful theory. Wrong species.” 

V. Sense and Nonsense

Since Peter Singer’s calls for a realistic, biologically informed Darwinian Left have gone unheeded, what of a more recent attempt to persuade the Left of the importance and relevance of evolutionary theory? A (R)Evolutionary Left, by German sociologist Benjamin Lindt is an original and thought-provoking attempt to apply Darwinian reasoning to political beliefs, somewhat marred by a needlessly confrontational style and a tendency to slip into the jargon of culture-war polemic (evident in the book’s subtitle, “Why the Woke Must Wake Up to Darwin”). 

A (R)Evolutionary Left: Why The Woke Must Wake Up to Darwin: Lindt, Benjamin: 9781839195358: Books
A (R)Evolutionary Left: Why The Woke Must Wake Up to Darwin [Lindt, Benjamin] on *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. A (R)Evolutionary Left: Why The Woke Must Wake Up to Darwin

Like Singer, Lindt argues that “ignoring and denying even the possibility that our evolved biology could influence human behaviour is a self-defeating strategy”:

At the very least, it leads to screwball claims (that sex or “race,” say, are solely social concepts without any root in biology) that must be vehemently defended against all dissent—an approach that further erodes support for the common sense, egalitarian core of the leftist project. To understand human society—and to solve its problems—we first need to understand human beings, and for this, modern evolutionary theory is indispensable.

This would appear to be a reasonable point to anyone not automatically predisposed to reject a Darwinian perspective on human nature (let alone those already acquainted with the work of Dawkins, Pinker, or Coyne). In line with Singer’s arguments for why the Left must take Darwin seriously, it is Wilson’s “wonderful theory, wrong species” warning writ large. 

Lindt acknowledges the longstanding taboos about addressing subjects such as sex and gender, “race,” intelligence, or eugenics from a biological perspective—and the potential costs of venturing into such verboten territory: “Accusations of ‘biological determinism,’ ‘racism,’ ‘misogyny’ (and, of course, ‘hate’ and ‘violence’) are all too readily hurled at those with the temerity to apply biological reasoning to social questions.” Yet, as a self-proclaimed leftist, Lindt deems the risk worth it. Without an evolutionary understanding of human nature, he argues, “you will never truly understand what motivates people to act as they do.” His broad political argument here neatly mirrors that of Peter Singer. “Put very simply,” Lindt writes, “anti-Darwinian blinkers will forever limit the ideological left to a partial or superficial understanding of human behaviour and its social consequences.” (“Ideological left” here relates to those wedded to a Marxist blank-slate concept of human nature.)

VI. The $10,000 Idea

A (R)Evolutionary Left offers a great deal of material for thought, even where readers may disagree with the conclusions. Take his chapter on eugenics (the idea of controlled selective breeding of human populations to improve the genetic quality of their members). Once again, Lindt begins with a controversy—a now-infamous Twitter comment by Richard Dawkins in 2014. Asked what to do if an unborn foetus was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, Dawkins bluntly replied: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Lindt uses the “firestorm” that this tweet provoked as a launchpad into the moral implications of many modern practices that are, in effect, eugenic (in the Down’s syndrome case, say, of selectively removing unwanted or “undesirable” traits from the population). According to Lindt, the likes of preimplantation genetic screening or the increasing use of modern reproductive interventions (think “designer babies”) have eugenic implications that have not attracted “sufficient public understanding or discussion.” “In recent decades,” he argues, “medical progress has surged so quickly that an adequate ethic has not yet arisen to take our new abilities into account.” So far, so uncontentious.

He then backtracks to provide a broad early historical account of eugenics, from Francis Galton’s first use of the term in the late 19th century to the championing of the concept by radical social reformers in the early part of the 20th century—and ultimately to the horrific way in which eugenic ideas were incorporated into the warped ideology of Hitler’s National Socialism. While this history “has shown with uncompromising clarity” how eugenic ideas “can quickly lead to practices that are not only horrible and traumatic for the individuals directly involved but which are utterly detrimental for the societies in which they are employed,” Lindt believes this is no reason to avoid open discussion of eugenics’ modern implications:

[T]o declare the basic idea of eugenics dead would not only throw out the baby with the bathwater. It would leave us blind to the manifold options and possibilities opened up by our increasing knowledge about human biology and the dramatic advances in modern medicine. Ignoring “eugenics” would also be futile because the ideas and practices persist, only under different names and disguises.

The bulk of the chapter then addresses various “nightmares” for the Left about the possible future of eugenic or eugenic-like policies: birth control for the poor, designer babies for the rich, or a dystopian “brave new world of perfected humanity.” While Lindt’s arguments and conclusions might provoke disagreement, he largely sticks to tracing (some of) the moral implications and social consequences of modern “eugenic” practices. It is how he ends the chapter, however, that might raise the eyebrows (or even hackles) of many readers.

The Moral Panic about Eugenics Poses a Threat to Abortion Rights
Sydney. London. Toronto.

Lindt provides a thought experiment in which a government “decides to pay those who are unable or unfit to properly raise children of their own a sizable sum—perhaps US$10,000 to $20,000—if they undergo a medical procedure to reliably sterilise them for the rest of their lives.” In Lindt’s scenario, this “strictly voluntarily” programme would only follow “an open and critical discussion on who should be offered this incentive.” The “natural candidates” that he envisages (voluntarily) taking up this offer include people “with mental and psychological problems,” “those with a history of violence or drug abuse,” and “perhaps those who have had an abusive upbringing.” In addition, “[t]hose with inherited and inheritable medical conditions should also be offered the incentive.”

In Lindt’s mind at least, if such a program “was successfully implemented in the near future, the repercussions would be tremendous”:

Immense misery and suffering would be effectively prevented by not letting children grow up in an environment that is both detrimental to them and may (with high likelihood) lead to a new generation of bad parents a couple of years down the line. For this reason alone, any measure that effectively prevents such miserable childhoods should be welcomed by the public. … Crime rates will drop considerably, since those children not born to bad parents today will not commit the crimes of the future. … A win-win situation for all? I would answer with an unqualified yes...

Those with any knowledge of the history of eugenics would likely be far more sceptical. Due to its odious past, no politician of any ideological stripe would engage with policy proposals besmirched by the term “eugenic”—Lindt’s “$10,000 idea” is therefore a non-starter for credible political debate. Nevertheless, his analysis of the moral and social implications of modern eugenic-like practices does at least bring these issues to the surface. If this never makes it into the public sphere, it is perhaps as much the result of the oppressive influence of eugenic’s past as the adequacy or otherwise of more up-to-date arguments. (The Left’s knee-jerk rejection of Darwinian thinking is also largely due to its awful history rather than sober analysis of its actual social implications.)

A (R)Evolutionary Left’s chapters on other contentious issues—such as those on “race” and intelligence—are similarly a mix of the thought-provoking and the confrontational, the astute and the naive. Yet this, and the standard problem of any non-specialist trying to cross lots of discipline boundaries, is as much a strength as a weakness; the sort of sincere ignorance that may help us see through the Emperor’s new clothes. Lindt’s more sophisticated arguments illuminate important but neglected aspects of social and political policy (for example, the way that mainstream educational theory and practice largely ignore the influence of genetics on cognitive ability and how this impacts on individuals’ life outcomes). His weaker political/evolutionary arguments, meanwhile, force readers to explain exactly where he goes wrong and, more importantly, what would be a better alternative.

VII. Thinking the Wrong Thoughts

Lindt is most successful in tracing the moralistic fallacy, introduced via a personal anecdote in his introduction. While studying for his PhD, he recounts, “I attended a lecture by a guest speaker from the Gender Studies Department”:

As so often in the social sciences, the talk had a clear political edge, with—of course—the standard moralising tone of someone who knew she was on the right side of history. Still, it was an enjoyable lecture (only sparsely sprinkled with any actual research results) about discrimination facing romantic couples with significant age differences.

The lecturer’s main argument was that Western society seems to frown upon large age gaps between sexual partners, and that this discrimination is much stronger if the (significantly) older partner is a woman. Why, though, are older men with younger women less frowned upon than older women with younger men? “From a Gender Studies perspective,” Lindt says, “the answer is clear: entrenched sexist attitudes.” While listening to the lecture, however, Lindt came up with an alternative idea that he later raised with the speaker:

I asked if it had ever crossed her mind that an old man/young woman combination was a biologically fertile couple, whereas this was not likely the case when it was the other way around. The lecturer was genuinely surprised and admitted she’d never actually thought about it that way. But after only a few seconds’ consideration, she rejected the notion. She called my idea simplistic and finished with a (rhetorical) question designed to stop any further discussion: “Where would this way of thinking lead us?” I will never forget this response: Where would this way of thinking lead us?

The lecturer, in other words, was more concerned about the moral consequences of the “wrong” kind of thinking than about genuinely exploring all possible answers to social problems.

[H]er attitude was both misguided and sadly typical of many academic social scientists: don’t even go there. And this sort of reaction has much graver consequences. The moment we stop asking questions for fear of the answers, we consciously blind ourselves and destroy one of the greatest assets we have as a species: our intellectual curiosity. What’s worse, this self-inflicted damage is so often counter-productive; social issues such as these need more scrutiny not less.

A (R)Evolutionary Left provides an example of where “wrong” thinking could lead us, and it highlights that persistent elephant in the room: how do we accommodate the facts of our evolved biology into our political theories?

VIII. When Biology and Politics Collide

For a clear example of how human biology intersects with modern politics, look no further than the unending abortion debate in the United States. In the introduction to Mother Nature, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy uses abortion to illustrate how human evolution still influences our modern attitudes to sex and reproduction. Writing at the close of the 20th century, she notes that young women in developed countries often regard the anti-abortion movement “as too irrational to take seriously,” naively unaware that the freedoms they enjoy are, in fact, historically unique. 

She instead cautions against dismissing the deep psychological basis of human, and especially male, preoccupation with reproduction. Pointing to the fiery political arguments about abortion (and the significant fact that disagreements are never about intervening in the bodily functions of men), she writes: “Passionate debates about abortion derive from motivations to control female reproduction that are far older than any particular system of government, older than patriarchy, older even than recorded history. Male fascination with the reproductive affairs of female group members predates our species.” She concludes: “If age-old pressures are allowed to erode hard-won laws and protections, it is far from certain that the unique experiment we have embarked upon can persist.”

Given the US Supreme Court’s recent rejection of the constitutional right to abortion, Hrdy’s quarter-century-old warning now appears remarkably prescient. And while abortion has long been a partisan issue dividing Republicans and Democrats, the widespread Democratic outrage at the Supreme Court’s decision may make it the defining issue of this year’s presidential election.

To link this to the arguments advanced by Lindt and Singer above, a Darwinian perspective on the abortion debate adds nuance to standard leftist/feminist claims about patriarchal oppression. While these critiques highlight social structures and cultural norms, a Darwinian approach suggests these attitudes and behaviours may also have deep-rooted psychological underpinnings. This in no way excuses female subjugation; rather, the political point is how such insights could provide additional means to challenge unjust male dominance more effectively.

Abortion is merely an extreme and obvious illustration of how human biology, culture, and politics collide. War, rape, violence, status inequalities, and social hierarchies are other examples raised—to which could be added disparities and differences in health and life expectancy, educational attainment, wealth, and the prevalence of crime within and between populations and communities. As Lindt and Singer both argue, if leftists genuinely want to address the problems that prevent the less well-off leading fulfilling lives, we cannot afford to ignore the role that human evolution has played. 

Both A Darwinian Left and A (R)Evolutionary Left underscore the need for egalitarians to incorporate evolutionary theory into their political thinking and policymaking. What they both lack, however, is a convincing and comprehensive programme for progressive change that offers practical solutions to social problems informed by rigorous evolutionary insights. Lacking such a compelling manifesto, the Left will likely remain tethered to beliefs that, however well-meaning, simply threaten to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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