The ‘Means of Reproduction’ and the Ultimate Purpose of Political Power

Laura Betzig, Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Darwinian View of History (New Brunswick: AdelineTransation, 1983). 

Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, alias ‘Ismail the Bloodthirsty’, a late-seventeenth, early eighteenth century Emperor of Morocco is today little remembered, at least outside of his native Morocco. He is, however, in a strict Darwinian sense, possibly the most successful human ever to have lived. 

Ismail, you see, is said to have sired some 888 offspring. His Darwinian fitness therefore exceeded that of any other known person.[1]

Some have questioned whether this figure is realistic (Einon 1998). However, the best analyses suggest that, while the actual number of offspring fathered by Ismail is indeed probably apocryphal, such a large progeny is indeed eminently plausible for a powerful ruler with access to a large harem of wives and/or concubines (Gould 2000; Oberzaucher & Grammer 2014).

Indeed, as Laura Betzig demonstrates in ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction’, Ismail is exceptional only in degree.

Across diverse societies and cultures, and throughout human history, wherever individual males acquire great wealth and power, they convert this wealth and power into the ultimate currency of natural selection – namely reproductive success – by asserting and maintaining exclusive reproductive access to large harems of young female sex partners. 

A Sociobiological Theory of Human History 

Betzig begins her monograph by quoting a small part of a famous passage from the closing paragraphs of Charles Darwin’s seminal On the Origin of Species which she adopts as the epigraph to her preface. 

In this passage, the great Victorian naturalist tentatively extended his theory of natural selection to the question of human origins, a topic he conspicuously avoided in the preceding pages of his famous text. 

Yet, in this much-quoted passage, Darwin goes well beyond suggesting merely that his theory of evolution by natural selection might explain human origins in just the same way it explained the origin of other species. On the contrary, he also anticipated the rise of evolutionary psychology, writing of how: 

Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. 

Yet this is not the part of this passage quoted by Betzig. Instead, she quotes the next sentence, where Darwin makes another prediction, no less prophetic, namely that: 

Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history 

In this reference to “man and his history”, Darwin surely had in mind primarily, if not exclusively, the natural history and evolutionary history of our species.

Betzig, however, interprets Darwin more broadly, and more literally, and, in so doing, has both founded, and for several years, remained the leading practitioner of a new field – namely, Darwinian history.

This is the attempt to explain, not only the psychology and behaviour of contemporary humans in terms of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and selfish gene theory, but also to explain the behaviour of people in past historical epochs in terms of the same theory.  

Her book length monograph, ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Darwinian View of History’ remains the best known and most important work in this field. 

The Historical and Ethnographic Record 

In making the case that, throughout history and across the world, males in positions of power have used this power so as to maximize their Darwinian fitness by securing exclusive reproductive access to large harems of fertile females, Betzig, presumably to avoid the charge of cherry picking, never actually even mentions Ismail the Bloodthirsty at any point in her monograph. 

Instead, Betzig uses ethnographic data taken from a random sample of cultures from across the world. Nevertheless, the patterns she uncovers are familiar and recurrent.

Powerful males command large harems of multiple fertile young females, to whom they assert, and defend, exclusive reproductive access. In this way, they convert their power into the ultimate currency of natural selection – namely, reproductive success or fitness.

Thus, summarizing Betzig’s work, not only in ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction’, but also in other published works, science writer Matt Ridley reports:

[Of] the six independent ‘civilizations’ of early history – Babylon, Egypt, India, China, the Aztecs and the Incas… the Babylonian king Hammurabi had thousands of slave ‘wives’ at his command. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten procured three hundred and seventeen concubines and ‘droves’ of consorts. The Aztec ruler Montezuma enjoyed four thousand concubines. The Indian emperor Udayama preserved sixteen thousand consorts in apartments guarded by eunuchs. The Chinese emperor Fei-ti had ten thousand women in his harem. The Inca… kept virgins on tap throughout the kingdom” (The Red Queen: p191-2; see Betzig 1993a).

Such vast harems seem, at first, wholly wasteful. This is surely more fertile females than even the horniest, healthiest and most virile of emperors could ever hope to have sex with, let alone successfully impregnate. As Betzig acknowledges: 

The number of women in such a harem may easily have prohibited the successful impregnation of each… but, their being kept from bearing children to others increased the monarch’s relative reproductive accomplishment” (p70). 

In other words, even if these rulers were unable to successfully impregnate every concubine in their harem, keeping them cloistered and secluded nevertheless prevented other males from impregnating them, which increased the relative representation of the ruler’s genes in subsequent generations.

To this end, extensive efforts also were made to ensure the chastity of these women. Thus, even in ancient times, Betzig reports: 

Evidence of claustration, in the form of a walled interior courtyard, exists for Babylonian Mai; and claustration in second story rooms with latticed, narrow windows is mentioned in the Old Testament” (p79). 

Indeed, Betzig even proposes an alternative explanation for early evidence of defensive fortifications

Elaborate fortifications erected for the purposes of defense may [also] have served the dual (identical?) function of protecting the chastity of women of the harem” (p79). 

Indeed, as Betzig alludes to in her parenthesis, this second function is arguably not entirely separate to the first. 

After all, if all male-male competition is ultimately based on competition over access to fertile females, then this surely very much includes warfare. As Napoleon Chagnon emphasizes in his studies of warfare and intergroup raiding among the Yąnomamö Indians of the Amazonian rainforest, warfare among primitive peoples tends to be predicated on the capture of fertile females from among enemy groups.[2]

Therefore, even fortifications erected for the purposes of military defence, ultimately serve the evolutionary function of maintaining exclusive reproductive access to the fertile females contained therein. 

Other methods of ensuring the chastity of concubines, and thus the paternity certainty of emperors, included the use of eunuchs as harem guards. Indeed, this seems to have been the original reason eunuchs were castrated and later became a key element in palace retinues (see The Evolution of Human Sociality: p45). 

Chastity belts, however, ostensibly invented for the wives of crusading knights while the latter were away on crusade, are likely a modern myth.

The movements of harem concubines were also highly restricted. Thus, if permitted to venture beyond their cloisters, they were invariably escorted. 

For example in the African Kingdom of Dahomey, Betzig reports: 

The king’s wives’… approach was always signalled by the ringing of a bell by the women servant or slave who invariably preceded them [and] the moment the bell is heard all persons, whether male or female , turn their backs, but all the males must retire to a certain distance” (p79). 

Similarly, inmates of the Houses of Virgins maintained by Inca rulers:

Lived in perpetual seclusion to the end of their lives… and were not permitted to converse, or have intercourse with, or to see any man, nor any woman who was not one of themselves” (p81-2). 

Feminists tend to view such practices as evidence of the supposed oppression of women

However, from a sociobiological or evolutionary psychological perspective, the primary victims of such practices were, not the harem inmates themselves, but rather the lower-status men condemned to celibacy and ‘inceldom’ as a consequence of royal dynasties monopolizing sexual access to almost all the fertile females in the society in question. 

The encloistered women might have been deprived of their freedom of movement – but many lower-status men in the same societies were deprived of almost all access to fertile female sex partners, and hence any possibility of passing on their genes, the ultimate evolutionary function of any biological organism. 

In contrast, the concubines secluded in royal harems were not only able to reproduce, but also lived lives of relative comfort, if not, in some cases, outright luxury, often being: 

Equipped with their own household and servants, and probably lived reasonably comfortable lives in most respects, except… for a lack of liberal masculine company” (p80). 

Indeed, seclusion, far from evidencing oppression, was primarily predicted on safety and protection. In short, to be imprisoned is not so bad when one is imprisoned in a palace. 

Finally, methods were also sometimes employed specifically to enhance their fertility of the women so confined. Thus, Ridley reports: 

Wet nurses, who allow women to resume ovulation by cutting short their breast-feeding periods, date from at least the code of Hammurabi in the eighteenth century BC… Tang dynasty emperors of China kept careful records of dates of menstruation and conception in the harem so as to be sure to copulate only with the most fertile concubines… [and] Chinese emperors were also taught to conserve their semen so as to keep up their quota of two women a day” (The Red Queen: p192). 

Confirming Betzig’s conclusions but subsequent to the publication of her work, researchers have now uncovered genetic evidence of the fecundity of one particular powerful ruler (or ruling male lineage) – namely, a Y chromosome haplogroup, found in 8% of males across a large region of Asia and in one in two hundred males across the whole world – the features of which are consistent with its having spread across the region thanks to the exception prolificity of Genghis Khan, his male siblings and descendants (Zerjal 2003). 

Female Rulers? 

In contrast, limited to only one pregnancy every nine months, a woman, howsoever rich and powerful, can necessarily bear far fewer offspring than can be sired by a man enjoying equivalent wealth, power and access to multiple fertile sex partners, even with the aid of evolutionary novelties like wet nurses, bottle milk and IVF treatment. 

As a female analogue of Ismail the Bloodthirsty, it is sometimes claimed that a Russian woman gave birth to 69 offspring in the nineteenth-century. She was also supposedly, and very much unlike Ismail the Bloodthirsty, not a powerful and polygamous elite ruler, but rather a humble, monogamously married peasant woman. 

However, this much smaller figure is both physiologically implausible and poorly sourced. Indeed, even her name is unknown, and she is referred to only as the wife of Feodor Vassilyev. It is, in short, almost certainly an urban myth.[3]

Feminists have argued that the overrepresentation of males in positions of power is a consequence of such mysterious and non-existent phenomena as patriarchy or male dominance or the oppression of women.

In reality, however, it seems that, for women, seeking positions of power and wealth simply doesn’t have the same reproductive payoff as for men – because, no matter how many men a woman copulates with, she can usually only gestate, and nurse, one (or, in the case of twins or triplets, occasionally two or three) offspring at a time. 

This is the essence of Bateman’s Principle, later formalized by Robert Trivers as differential parental investment theory (Bateman 1948; Trivers 1972).

This, then, in Darwinian terms, explains why women are less likely to assume positions of great political power.

It is not necessarily that they don’t want political power, but rather that they are less willing to make the necessary effort, or take the necessary risks, to attain power.[4]

This calculus then, rather than the supposed oppression of women, explains, not only the cross-culturally universal over-representation of men in positions of power, but also much of the so-called gender pay gap in our own societies (see Kingsley Browne’s Biology at Work: reviewed here). 

Perhaps the closest women can get to producing such a vast progeny is maneuver their sons into having the opportunity to do so. This might explain why such historical figures as Agrippina the Younger, the mother of Nero, and Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, are reported as having been so active, and instrumental, in securing the succession on behalf of their sons. 

The Purpose of Political Power? 

The notion that powerful rulers often use their power to gain access to multiple nubile sex partners is, of course, hardly original to sociobiology. On the contrary, it accords with popular cynicism regarding males in positions of power. 

What a Darwinian perspective adds is the ultimate explanation of why political leaders do so – and why female political rulers, even when they do assume power, usually adopt a very different reproductive strategy. 

Moreover, a Darwinian perspective goes beyond popular cynicism in suggesting that access to multiple sex partners is not merely yet another perk of power. On the contrary, it is the ultimate purpose of power and reason why men evolved to seek power in the first place. 

As Betzig herself concludes: 

Political power in itself may be explained, at least in part, as providing a position from which to gain reproductively” (p85).[5]

After all, from a Darwinian perspective, political power in and of itself has no intrinsic value. It is only if power can be used in such a way as to maximize a person’s reproductive success or fitness that it has evolutionary value. 

Thus, as Steven Pinker has observed, the recurrent theme in science fiction film and literature of robots rebelling against humans to take over the world and overthrow humanity is fundamentally mistaken. Robots would have no reason to rebel against humans, simply because they would not be programmed to want to take over the world and overthrow humanity in the first place. 

On the other hand, humans have been programmed to seek wealth and power – and to resist oppression and exploitation. This is why revolutions are a recurrent feature of human societies and history.

But we have been programmed, not by a programmer or god-like creator, but rather by natural selection.

We have been programmed by natural selection to seek wealth and power only because, throughout human evolutionary history, those of us who achieved political power tended, like Ismail the Bloodthirsty, also to achieve high levels of reproductive success as a consequence. 

Darwin versus Marx 

In order to test the predictive power of her theory, Betzig contrasts the predictions made by sociobiological theory with a rival theory – namely, Marxism

The comparison is apposite since, despite repeated falsification at the hands of both economists and of history, Marxism remains, among both social scientists and laypeople, the dominant paradigm when it comes to explaining social structure, hierarchy and exploitation in human societies.  

Certainly, it has proven far more popular than any approach to understanding human dominance hierarchies rooted in ethology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology or selfish gene theory

There are, it bears emphasizing, several similarities between the two approaches. For one thing, each theory traces its origins ultimately to a nineteenth-century Victorian founder resident in Britain at the time he authored his key works, namely Charles Darwin and Karl Marx respectively.  

More importantly, there are also substantive similarities in the content and predictions of both these alternative theoretical paradigms. 

In particular, each is highly cynical in its conclusions. Indeed, at first glance, Marxist theory appears superficially almost as cynical as Darwinian theory. 

Thus, like Betzig, Marx regarded most societies in existence throughout history as exploitative – and as designed to serve the interests, not of society in general or of the population of that society as a whole, but rather of the dominant class within that society alone – namely, in the case of capitalism, the bourgeoisie or capitalist employers. 

However, sociobiological and Marxist theory depart in at least three crucial respects. 

First, Marxists propose that exploitation will be absent in future anticipated communist utopias

Second, Marxists also claim that such exploitation was also absent among hunter-gatherer groups, where so-called primitive communism supposedly prevailed. 

Thus, the Marxist, so cynical with regard exploitation and oppression in capitalist (and feudal) society, suddenly turns hopelessly naïve and innocent when it comes to envisaging future unrealistic communist utopias, and when contemplating ‘noble savages’ in their putative ‘Eden before the fall’.

Unfortunately, however, in her critique of Marxism, Betzig herself nevertheless remains somewhat confused in respect of this key issue. 

On the one hand, she rightly dismisses primitive communism as a Marxist myth. Thus, she demonstrates and repeatedly emphasizes that:

Men accrue reproductive rights to wives of varying numbers and fertility in every human society” (p20).

Therefore, Betzig, contrary to the tenets of Marxism, concludes:

Unequal access to the basic resource which perpetuates life, members of the opposite sex, is a condition in [even] the simplest societies” (p32; see also Chagnon 1979).

Neither is universal human inequality limited only to access to fertile females. On the contrary, Betzig observes:

Some form of exploitation has been in evidence in even the smallest societies… Conflicts of interest in all societies are resolved with a consistent bias in favor of men with greater power” (p67).

On the other hand, however, Betzig takes a wrong turn in refusing to rule out the possibility of true communism somehow arising in the future. Thus, perhaps in a misguided effort to placate the many leftist opponents of sociobiology in academia, she writes:

Darwinism… [does not] preclude the possibility of future conditions under which individual interests might become common interests: under which individual welfare might best be served by serving the welfare of society… [nor] preclude… the possibility of the evolution of socialism” (p68). 

This, however, seems obviously impossible. 

After all, we have evolved to seek to maximize the representation of our own genes in subsequent generations at the expense of those of other individuals. Only a eugenic reengineering of human nature itself could ever change this. 

Thus, as Donald Symons emphasized in his seminal The Evolution of Human Sexuality (which I have reviewed here), reproductive competition is inevitable – because, whereas there is sometimes sufficient food that everyone is satiated and competition for food is therefore unnecessary and counterproductive, reproductive success is always relative, and therefore competition over women is universal. 

Thus, Betzig quotes Confucius as observing:

Disorder does not come from heaven, but is brought about by women” (p26). 

Indeed, Betzig herself elsewhere recognizes this key point, namely the relativity of reproductive success, when she observes, in a passage quoted above, that a powerful monarch benefits from sequestering huge numbers of fertile females in his harem because, even if it is unfeasible that he would ever successfully impregnate all of them himself, he nevertheless thereby prevents other males from impregnating them, and thereby increases the relative representation of his own genes in subsequent generations (p70). 

It therefore seems inconceivable that social engineers, let alone pure happenstance, could ever engineer a society in which individual interests were identical to societal interests, other than a society of identical twins or through the eugenic reingineering of human nature itself (see Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left, which I have reviewed here).[6]

Marx and the Means of Reproduction

The third and perhaps most important conflict between the Darwinist and Marxist perspectives concerns what Betzig terms: 

The relative emphasis on production and reproduction” (p67).

Whereas Marxists view control of what they term the means of production as the ultimate cause of societal conflict, socioeconomic status and exploitation, for Darwinians conflict and exploitation instead focus on control over what we might term the means of reproduction – in other words fertile females, their wombs, ova and vaginas. 

Thus, Betzig observes: 

Marxism makes no explicit prediction that exploitation should coincide with reproduction” (p68). 

In other words, Marxist theory is silent on the crucial issue of whether high-status individuals will necessarily convert their political and economic power into the ultimate currency of Darwinian selection – namely, reproductive success

On this view, powerful male rulers might just as well be celibate as control and assert exclusive reproductive access to large harems of young fertile wives and concubines. 

In contrast, for Darwinians, the effort to maximize one’s reproductive success is the very purpose, and ultimate end, of all political power. 

As sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe observes in his excellent The Ethnic Phenomenon (reviewe here, here and here): 

The ultimate measure of human success is no production but reproduction. Economic productivity and profit are means to reproductive ends, not ends in themselves” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p165). 

Thus, production is, from a sociobiological perspective, just another means of gaining the resources necessary for reproduction. 

On the other hand, reproduction is, from a biological perspective, the ultimate purpose of life. 

Therefore, it seems that, for all his ostensible radicalism, Karl Marx was, in his emphasis on economics rather than sex, just another nineteenth-century Victorian prude! 

The Polygyny Threshold Model Applied to Humans? 

One way of conceptualizing the tendency of powerful males to attract (or perhaps commandeer) multiple wives and concubines is the polygyny threshold model

This way of conceptualizing male and female reproductive and ecological competition was first formulated by ornithologist-ecologist Gordon Orians in order to model the mating systems of passerine birds (Orians 1969). 

Here, males practice so-called resource defence polygyny – in other words, they defend territories containing valuable resources (e.g. food, nesting sites) necessary for successful reproduction and provisioning of offspring. 

Females then distribute themselves between males in accordance with size and quality of male territories. 

On this view, if the territory of one male is twice as resource-abundant as that of another, he would, all else being equal, attract twice as many mates; if it is three times as resource-abundant, he would attract three times as many mates; etc. 

The result is rough parity in resource-holdings and reproductive success among females, but often large disparities among males. 

Applying the Polygyny Threshold Model to Modern America

Thus, applying the polygyny threshold model to humans, and rather simplistically substituting wealth for territory size and quality, we might predict that, if Jeff Bezos is a hundred thousand times richer than Joe Schmo, then, if Joe has only one wife, then Jeff should have around 100,000 wives.

But, of course, Jeff Bezos does not have 100,000 wives, nor even a mere 100,000 concubines. 

Instead, he has only one solitary meagre ex-wife, and she, even when married to him, was not, to the best of my knowledge, ever guarded by any eunuchs – though perhaps he would have been better off if she had been, since they might have prevented her from divorcing him and taking an enormous share of his wealth with her in the ensuing divorce settlement.[7]

The same is also true of contemporary political leaders. 

Indeed, if any contemporary western political leader does attempt to practice polygyny, even on a comparatively modest scale, then, if discovered, a so-called sex scandal almost invariably results. 

Yet, viewed in historical perspective, the much-publicized marital infidelities of, say, Bill Clinton, though they may have outraged the sensibilities the of mass of monogamously-married Middle American morons, positively pale into insignificance besides the reproductive achievements of someone like, say, Ismail the Bloodthirsty

Indeed, Clinton’s infidelities don’t even pack much of a punch beside those of a politician from the same nation and just a generation removed, namely John F Kennedy – whose achievements in the political sphere are vastly overrated on account of his early death, but whose achievements in the bedroom, while scarcely matching those of Ismail the Bloodthirsty or the Aztec emperors, certainly put the current generation of American politicians to shame. 

Why, then, does the contemporary west represent such a glaring exception to the general pattern of elite polygyny that Betzig has so successfully documented throughout so much of the rest of the world, and throughout so much of history? And what has become of the henpecked geldings who pass for politicians in the contemporary era? 

Monogamy as Male Compromise? 

According to Betzig, the moronic mass media moral panic that invariably accompanies sexual indiscretions on the part of contemporary Western political leaders and other public figures is no accident. Rather, it is exactly what her theory predicts. 

According to Betzig, the institution of monogamy as it operates in Western democracies represents a compromise between low-status and high status males. 

According to the terms of this compromise, high-status males agree to forgo polygyny in exchange for the cooperation of low status males in participating in the complexly interdependent economic systems of modern western polities (p105) – or, in biologist Richard Alexander’s alternative formulation, in exchange for serving as necessary cannon-fodder in wars (p104).[8]

Thus, whereas, under polygyny, there are never enough females to go around, under monogamy, at least assuming that there is a roughly equal sex ratio (i.e. a roughly equal numbers of men and women), then virtually almost all males are capable of attracting a wife, howsoever ugly and unpleasant. 

This is important, since it means that all men, even the relatively poor and powerless, nevertheless have a reproductive stake in society. This, then, in evolutionary terms, provides them with an incentive both:

1) To participate in the economy to support and thereby provide for their wife and family; and

2) To defend these institutions in wartime, if necessary with their lives.

The institution of monogamy has therefore been viewed as a key factor, if not the key factor, in both the economic and military ascendency of the West (see Scheidel 2008). 

Similarly, it has recently been argued that the increasing rates of non-participation of young males in the economy and workforce (i.e. the so-called NEET’ phenomenon) is a direct consequence of the reduction in reproductive opportunities to young males (Binder 2021).[9]

Thus, on this view, then, the media scandal and hysteria that invariably accompanies sexual infidelities by elected politicians, or constitutional monarchs, reflects outrage that the terms of this implicit agreement have been breached. 

This idea was anticipated by Irish playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw, who observed in Man and Superman: Maxims for Revolutionaries, the preface to his play Man and Superman

Polygyny, when tried under modern democratic conditions, as by the Mormons is wrecked by the revolt of the mass of inferior men who are condemned to celibacy by it” (Shaw 1903). 

Socially Imposed Monogamy’?

Consistent with this theory of socially imposed monogamy, it is indeed the case that, in all Western democratic polities, polygyny is unlawful, and bigamy a crime. 

Yet these laws are seemingly in conflict with contemporary western liberal democratic principles of tolerance and inclusivity, especially in respect of ‘alternative lifestyles’ and ‘non-traditional relationships’.

Thus, for example, we have recently witnessed a successful campaign for the legalization of gay marriage in most western jurisdictions. However, strangely, polygynous marriage seemingly remains anathema – despite the fact that most cultures across the world and throughout history have permitted polygynous marriage, whereas few if any have ever accorded any state recognition to homosexual unions.

Indeed, strangely, whereas the legalization of gay marriage was widely perceived as ‘progressive’, polygyny is associated, not with sexual liberation with rather with highly traditional and sexually repressive groups such as Mormons and Muslims.[10]

Polygynous marriage was also, rather strangely, associated with the supposed oppression of women in traditional societies

However, most women actually do better, at least in purely economic terms, under polygyny than under monogamy, at least in highly stratified societies with large differences in resource-holdings as between males. 

Thus, if, as we have seen, Jeff Bezos is 100,000 times richer than Joe Schmo, then a woman is financially better off becoming the second wife, or the tenth wife (or even the 99,999th wife!), of Jeff Bezos rather than the first wife of poor Joe. 

Moreover, women also have another incentive to prefer Jeff to Joe. 

If she is impregnated by a polygynous male like Jeff, then her male descendants may inherit the traits that facilitated their father’s wealth, power and polygyny, and hence become similarly reproductively successful themselves, aiding the spread of the woman’s own genes in subsequent generations. 

Biologists call this good genes sexual selection or, more catchily, the sexy son hypothesis

Once again, however, George Bernard Shaw beat them to it when he observed in the same 1903 essay quoted above: 

Maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first rate man to the exclusive possession of a third rate one” (Shaw 1903). 

Thus, Robert Wright concludes: 

In sheerly Darwinian terms, most men are probably better off in a monogamous system, and most women worse off” (The Moral Animal: p96). 

Thus, women generally should welcome polygyny, while the only people opposed to polygyny should be: 

1) The women currently married to men like Jeff Bezos, and greedily unwilling to share their resource-abundant ‘alpha-male’ providers with a whole hundred-fold harem of co-wives and concubines; and

2) A glut of horny sexually-frustrated bachelor-‘incels’ terminally condemned to celibacy, bachelorhood and inceldom by promiscuous lotharios like Jeff Bezos and Ismail the Bloodthirsty greedily hogging all the hot chicks for themselves.

Who Opposes Polygyny, and Why? 

However, in my experience, the people who most vociferously and puritanically object to philandering male politicians are not low-status men, but rather women. 

Moreover, such women typically affect concern on behalf, not of the male bachelors and ‘incels’ supposedly indirectly condemned to celibacy by such behaviours, but rather the wives of such politicians – though the latter are the chief beneficiaries of monogamy, while these other women, precluded from signing up as second or third-wives to alpha-male providers, are themselves, at least in theory, among the main losers. 

This suggests that the ‘male compromise theory’ of socially-imposed monogamy is not the whole story. 

Perhaps then, although women benefit in purely financial terms under polygyny, they do not do so well in fitness terms. 

Thus, one study found that, whereas polygynous males (unsurprisingly) had more offspring than monogamously-mated males, they (perhaps also unsurprisingly) had fewer offspring per wife. This suggests that, while polygynously-married males benefit from polygyny, their wives incur a fitness penalty for having to share their husband (Strassman 2000). 

This probably reflects the fact that even male reproductive capacity is limited, as, notwithstanding the Coolidge effect (which has, to my knowledge, yet to be demonstrated in humans), males can only manage a certain number of orgasms per day. 

Women’s distaste for polygynous unions may also reflect the fact that even prodigiously wealthy males will inevitably have a limited supply of one particular resource – namely, time – and time spent with offspring may be an important determinant of offspring success, which paid child-minders, lacking a direct genetic stake in offspring, are unable to perfectly replicate.[11]

Thus, if Jeff Bezos were able to attract for himself the 100,000 wives that the polygyny threshold model suggests is his due, then, even if he were capable of providing each woman with the two point four children that is her own due, it is doubtful he would have enough time on his hands to spend much ‘quality time’ with each of his 240,000 offspring – just as one doubts Ismail the Bloodthirsty was himself an attentive father his own more modest mere 888. 

Thus, one suspects that, contrary to the polygyny threshold model, polygyny is not always entirely a matter of female choice (Sanderson 2001).

On the contrary, many of the women sequestered into the harems of rulers like Ismail the Bloodthirsty likely had little say in the matter. 

The Central Theoretical Problem of Human Sociobiology’ 

Yet, if this goes some way towards explaining the apparent paradox of socially imposed monogamy, there is, today, an even greater paradox with which we must wrestle – namely, why, in contemporary western societies, is there apparently an inverse correlation between wealth and number of offspring.

After all, from a sociobiological or evolutionary psychological perspective, this represents something of a paradox. 

If, as we have seen, the very purpose of wealth and power (from a sociobiological perspective) is to convert these advantages into the ultimately currency of natural selection, namely reproductive success, then why are the wealthy so spectacularly failing to do so in the contemporary west?[12]

Moreover, if status is not conducive to high reproductive success, then why have humans evolved to seek high-status in the first place? 

This anomaly has been memorably termed the ‘The central theoretical problem of human sociobiology’ in a paper by University of Pennsylvania demographer and eugenicist Daniel Vining (Vining 1986). 

Socially imposed monogamy can only go some way towards explaining this anomaly. Thus, in previous centuries, even under monogamy, wealthier families still produced more surviving offspring, if only because their greater wealth enabled them to successfully rear and feed multiple successive offspring to adulthood. In contrast, for the poor, high rates of infant mortality were the order of the day. 

Yet, in the contemporary west, it seems that the people who have the most children and hence the highest fitness in the strict Darwinian sense, are, at least according to popular stereotype, single mothers on government welfare. 

De Facto’ Polygyny 

Various solutions have been proposed to this apparent paradox. A couple amount to claiming that the west is not really monogamous at all, and, once this is factored in, then, at least among males, higher-status men do indeed have greater numbers of offspring than lower-status men. 

One suggestion along these lines is that perhaps wealthy males sire additional offspring whose paternity is misassigned, via extra-marital liaisons (Betzig 1993b). 

However, despite some sensationalized claims, rates of misassigned paternity are actually quite low (Khan 2010; Gilding 2005; Bellis et al 2005). 

If it is lower-class women who are giving birth to most of the offspring, then it is probably mostly males of their own socioeconomic status who are responsible for impregnating them, if only because it is the latter with whom they have the most social contact. 

Perhaps a more plausible suggestion is that wealthy high-status males are able to practice a form of disguised polygyny by through repeated remarriage. 

Thus, wealthy men are sometimes criticized for divorcing their first wives to marry much younger second- and sometimes even third- and fourth-wives. In this way, they manage monopolize the peak reproductive years of multiple successive young women. 

This is true, for example, of recent American President Donald Trump – the ultimate American alpha male – who has himself married three women, each one younger than her predecessor

Thus, science journalist Robert Wright contends: 

The United States is no longer a nation of institutionalized monogamy. It is a nation of serial monogamy. And serial monogamy in some ways amounts to polygyny.” (The Moral Animal: p101). 

This, then, is not so much ‘serial monogamy’ as it is ‘sequential’ or non-concurrent polygyny’. 

Evolutionary Novelties 

Another suggestion is that evolutionary novelties – i.e. recently developed technologies such as contraception – have disrupted the usual association between status and fertility. 

On this view, natural selection has simply not yet had sufficient time (or, rather, sufficient generations) over which to mold our psychology and behaviour in such a way as to cause us to use these technologies in an adaptive manner – i.e. in order to maximize, not restrict, our reproductive success. 

An obvious candidate here is safe and effective contraception, which, while actually somewhat older than most people imagine, nevertheless became widely available to the population at large only over the course of the past century, which is surely not enough generations for us to have become evolutionarily adapted to its use.  

Thus, a couple of studies have found that that, while wealthy high-status males may not father more offspring, they do have more sex with a greater number of partners – i.e. behaviours that would have resulted in more offspring in ancestral environments prior to the widespread availability of contraception (Pérusse 1993: Kanazawa 2003). 

This implies that high-status males (or their partners) use contraception either more often, or more effectively, than low-status males, probably because of their greater intelligence and self-control, namely the very traits that enabled them to achieve high socioeconomic status in the first place (Kanazawa 2005). 

Another evolutionary novelty that may disrupt the usual association between social status and number of surviving offspring is the welfare system

Welfare payments to single mothers undoubtedly help these families raise to adulthood offspring who would otherwise perish in infancy. 

In addition, by reducing the financial disincentives associated with raising additional offspring, they probably increase the number of offspring these women choose to have in the first place. 

While it is highly controversial to suggest that welfare payments to single mothers actually give the latter an actual financial incentive to bear additional offspring, they surely, at the very least, reduce the financial disincentives otherwise associated with bearing additional children. 

Therefore, given that the desire for offspring is probably innate, women would rationally respond by having more children.[13]

Feminist ideology also encourages women in particular to postpone childbearing in favour of careers. Moreover, it is probably higher-status females who are more exposed to feminist ideology, especially in universities, where feminist ideology is thoroughly entrenched

In contrast, lower-status women are not only less exposed to feminist ideology encouraging them to delay motherhood in favour of career, but also likely have fewer appealing careers available to them in the first place. 

Finally, even laws against bigamy and polygyny might be conceptualized as an evolutionary novelty that disrupts the usual association between status and fertility. 

However, whereas technological innovations such as effective contraception were certainly not available until recent times, ideological constructs and religious teachings – including ideas such as feminism, prohibitions on polygyny, and the socialist ideology that motivated the creation of the welfare state – have existed ever since we evolved the capacity to create such constructs (i.e. since we became fully human). 

Therefore, one would expect that humans would have evolved resistance to ideological and religious teachings that go against their genetic interests. Otherwise, we would be vulnerable to indoctrination (and hence exploitation) at the hands third parties. 

Dysgenics? 

Finally, it must be noted that these issues are not only of purely academic interest. 

On the contrary, since socioeconomic status correlates with both intelligence and personality traits such as conscientiousness, and these traits are, in turn, substantially heritable, and moreover determine, not only individual wealth and prosperity, but also at the aggregate level, the wealth and prosperity of nations, the question of who has the offspring is surely of central concern to the future of society, civilization and the world. 

In short, what is at stake is the very genetic posterity that we bequeath to future generations. It is simply too important a matter to be delegated to the capricious and irrational decision-making of individual women. 

__________________________

Endnotes

[1] Actually, the precise number of offspring Ismail fathered is unclear. The figure I have quoted in the main body of the text comes from various works on evolutionary psychology (e.g. Cartwright, Evolution and Human Behaviour: p133-4; Wright, The Moral Animal: p247). However, another earlier work on human sociobiology, David Barash’s The Whisperings Within gives an even higher figure, of “1,056 offspring” (The Whisperings Within: p47). Meanwhile, an article produced by the Guinness Book of Records gives a figure of at least 342 daughters and 700 sons, while a scientific paper by Elisabeth Oberzaucher and Karl Grammer gives a figure of 1171 offspring in total. The precise figure seems to be unknown and is probably apocryphal. Nevertheless, the general point – namely that a powerful male with access to a large harem and multiple wives and concubines, is capable of fathering many offspring – is surely correct.

[2] The capture of fertile females from among enemy groups is by no means restricted to the Yąnomamö. On the contrary, it may even form the ultimate evolutionary basis for intergroup conflict and raiding among troops of chimpanzees, our species’ closest extant relative. It is also alluded to, and indeed explicitly commanded, in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Deuteronomy 20: 13-14; Numbers 31: 17-18), and was formerly prevalent in western culture as well.
It is also very much apparent, for example, in the warfare and raiding formerly endemic in the Gobi Desert of what is today Mongolia. Thus, the mother of Genghis Khan was, at least according to legend, herself kidnapped by the Great Khan’s father. Indeed, this was apparently an accepted form of courtship on the Mongolian Steppe, as Genghis Khan’s own wife was herself stolen from him on at least one occasion by rival Steppe nomads, resulting in a son of disputed paternity (whom the great Khan perhaps tellingly named Jochi, which is said to translate as ’guest) and a later succession crisis.
Many anthropologists, it ought to be noted, dismiss Chagnon’s claim that Yanomami warfare is predicated on the capture of women. Perhaps the most famous is Chagnon’s own former student, Kenneth Good, whose main claim to fame is to have himself married a (by American standards, underage) Yąnomamö girl – who, in a dramatic falsification of her husband’s theory, was then herself twice raped and abducted by raiding Yanomami warriors.

[3] It is ironic that John Cartwright, author of Evolution and Human Behaviour, an undergraduate level textbook on evolutionary psychology, is skeptical regarding the claim that Ismail the Bloodthirsty fathered 888 offspring, but nevertheless apparently takes at face value that claim that a Russian peasant woman had 69 offspring, a biologically far more implausible claim (Evolution and Human Behaviour: p133-4).

[4] There may even be a fitness penalty associated with increased socioeconomic status and political power for women. For example, among baboons, it has been found that high-ranking females actually suffer reduced fertility and higher rates of miscarriages (Packer et al 1995). Kingsley Browne, in his excellent book, Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality (which I have reviewed here), noting that female executives tend to have fewer children, tentatively proposes that a similar effect may be at work among humans:

Women who succeed in business tend to be relatively high testosterone, which can result in lower female fertility, whether because of ovulatory irregularities or reduced interest in having children. Thus, rather than the high-powered career being responsible for the high rate of childlessness, it may be that high testosterone levels are responsible for both” (Biology at Work: p124).

[5] However, here, Betzig is perhaps altogether overcautious. Thus, whether or not “political power in itself” is explained in this way (i.e. “as providing a position from which to gain reproductively”), certainly the human desire for political power must surely be explained in this way.

[6] The prospect of eugenically reengineering human nature itself so as to make utopian communism achievable, and human society less conflictual, is also unrealistic. As John Gray has noted in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (reviewed here), if human nature is eugenically reengineered, then it will be done, not in the interests of society, let alone humankind, as a whole, but rather in the interests of those responsible for ordering or undertaking the project – namely, scientists and, more importantly, those from whom they take their orders (e.g. government, politicians, civil servants, big business, managerial elites). Thus, Gray concludes:

“[Although] it seems feasible that over the coming century human nature will be scientifically remodelled… it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control” (Straw Dogs: p6).

[7] Here, it is important to emphasize that what is exceptional about western societies is not monogamy per se. On the contrary, monogamy is common in relatively egalitarian societies (e.g. hunter-gatherer societies), especially those living at subsistence levels, where no male is able to secure access to sufficient resources so as to provision multiple offspring (Kanazawa and Still 1999). What is exceptional about contemporary western societies is the combination of:

1) Large differentials of resource-holdings between males (i.e. social stratification); and

2) Prescriptive monogamy (i.e. polygyny is not merely not widely practised, but also actually unlawful).

[8] Quite when prescriptive monogamy originated in the west seems to be a matter of some dispute. Betzig views it as very much a recent phenomenon, arising with the development of complex, interdependent industrial economies, which required the cooperation of lower-status males in order to function. Here, Betzig perhaps underestimates the extent to which even pre-industrial economies required the work and cooperation of low-status males in order to function. Thus, Betzig argues that, in ancient Rome, nominally monogamous marriages concealed rampantly de facto polygyny, with emperors and other powerful males fathering multiple offspring with both slaves and other men’s wives (Betzig 1992). Similarly, in medieval Europe, she argues that, despite nominal monogamy, wealthy men fathered multiple offspring through servant girls (Betzig 1995a; Betzig 1995b). In contrast, Macdonald persuasively argues that medieval monogamy was no mere myth (Macdonald 1995a; Macdonald 1995b).

[9] Certainly, the so-called NEET and incel phenomena seem to be correlated with one another. NEETs are disproportionately likely to be incels, and incels are disproportionately likely to be NEETs. However, the direction of causation is unclear and probably works in both directions. On the one hand, since women are rarely attracted to men without money or the prospects of money, men without jobs are rarely able to attract wives or girlfriends. However, on the other hand, men who, for whatever reason, perceive themselves as unable to attract a wife or girlfriend even if they did have a job, probably see little incentive to getting a job in the first place or keeping the one they do have.

[10] Indeed, during the debates surrounding the legalization of gay marriage, the prospect of the legalization of polygynous marriage was rarely discussed, and, when it was raised, it was usually invoked by the opponents of gay marriage, as a sort of reductio ad absurdum of changes in marriage laws to permit gay marriage, something champions of gay marriage were quick to dismiss as preposterous scaremongering. In short, both sides in the acrimonious debates regarding gay marriage seem to have been agreed that legalizing polygynous unions was utterly beyond the pale.

[11] Thus, father absence is a known correlate of criminality and other negative life outcomes. In fact, however, the importance of paternal investment in offspring outcomes, and indeed of parental influence more generally, has yet to be demonstrated, since the correlation between father-absence and negative life-outcomes could instead reflect the heritability of personality, including those aspects of personality that cause people to have offspring out of wedlock, die early, abandon their children or have offspring by a person who abandons their offspring or dies early (see Judith Harris’s The Nurture Assumption, which I have reviewed here). 

[12] This paradox is related to another one – namely, why it is that people in richer societies tend to have lower fertility rates than poorer societies? This recent development, often referred to as the demographic transition, is paradoxical for the exact same reason that it is paradoxical for poorer people within western societies to have have fewer offspring than poorer people within these same societies, namely that it is elementary Darwinism 101 that an organism with access to greater resources should channel those additional resources into increased reproduction. Interestingly, this phenomenon is not restricted to western societies. On the contrary, other wealthy industrial and post-industrial societies, such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea, have, if anything, even lower fertility rates than Europe, Australasia and North America.

[13] Actually, it is not altogether clear that women do have an innate desire to bear children. After all, in the EEA, there was no need for women to evolve a desire to bear children. All they required to a desire to have sexual intercourse (or indeed a mere willingness to acquiesce in the male desire for intercourse). In the absence of contraception, offspring would then naturally result. Indeed, other species, including presumably most of our pre-human ancestors, are surely wholly unaware of the connection between sexual intercourse and reproduction. A desire for offspring would then serve no adaptive function for these species at all. However, this did not stop these species from seeking out sexual opportunities and hence reproducing their kind. However, given anecdotal evidence of so-called ‘broodiness’ among women, I suspect women do indeed have some degree of innate desire for offspring.

References

Bateman (1948), Intra-sexual selection in Drosophila, Heredity, 2 (Pt. 3): 349–368.
Bellis et al (2005) Measuring Paternal Discrepancy and its Public Health Consequences. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 59(9):749.
Betzig 1992 Roman Polygyny. Ethology and Sociobiology 13(5-6): 309-349.
Betzig 1993a. Sex, succession, and stratification in the first six civilizations: How powerful men reproduced, passed power on to their sons, and used power to defend their wealth, women and children. In Lee Ellis, ed. Social Stratification and Socioeconomic Inequality, pp. 37-74. New York: Praeger.
Betzig 1993b. Where are the bastards’ daddies? Comment on Daniel Pérusse’s ‘Cultural and reproductive success in industrial societies’. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16: 284-85.
Betzig 1995a Medieval Monogamy. Journal of Family History 20(2): 181-216.
Betzig 1995b Wanting Women Isn’t New; Getting Them Is: Very. Politics and the Life Sciences 14(1): 24-25.
Binder (2021) Why Bother? The Effect of Declining Marriage Market Prospects on Labor-Force Participation by Young Men (March 1, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3795585 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3795585
Chagnon N (1979) Is reproductive success equal in egalitarian societies. In: Chagnon & Irons (eds) Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective pp.374-402 (MA: Duxbury Press).
Einon, G (1998) How Many Children Can One Man Have? Evolution and Human Behavior, 19(6):413–426.
Gilding (2005) Rampant Misattributed Paternity: The Creation of an Urban Myth. People and Place 13(2): 1.
Gould (2000) How many children could Moulay Ismail have had? Evolution and Human Behavior 21(4): 295 – 296.
Khan (2010) The paternity myth: The rarity of cuckoldry, Discover, 20 June, 2010.
Kanazawa & Still (1999) Why Monogamy? Social Forces 78(1):25-50.
Kanazawa (2003) Can Evolutionary Psychology Explain Reproductive Behavior in the Contemporary United States? Sociological Quarterly. 44: 291–302.
Kanazawa (2005) An Empirical Test of a Possible Solution to ‘the Central Theoretical Problem of Human Sociobiology’. Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology. 3: 255–266.
Macdonald 1995a The establishment and maintenance of socially imposed monogamy in Western Europe, Politics and the Life Sciences, 14(1): 3-23.
Macdonald 1995b Focusing on the group: further issues related to western monogamy, Politics and the Life Sciences, 14(1): 38-46.
Oberzaucher & Grammer (2014) The Case of Moulay Ismael – Fact or Fancy? PLoS ONE 9(2): e85292.
Orians (1969) On the Evolution of Mating Systems in Birds and Mammals. American Naturalist 103 (934): 589–603.
Packer et al (1995) Reproductive constraints on aggressive competition in female baboons. Nature 373: 60–63.
Pérusse (1993). Cultural and Reproductive Success in Industrial Societies: Testing the Relationship at the Proximate and Ultimate Levels.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16:267–322.
Sanderson (2001) Explaining Monogamy and Polygyny in Human Societies: Comment on Kanazawa and Still. Social Forces 80(1):329-335.
Scheidel (2008) Monogamy and Polygyny in Greece, Rome, and World History, (June 2008). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1214729 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1214729
Shaw GB (1903) Man and Superman, Maxims for Revolutionists.
Strassman B (2000) Polygyny, Family Structure and Infant Mortality: A Prospective Study Among the Dogon of Mali. In Cronk, Chagnon & Irons (Ed.), Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective (pp.49-68). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Trivers, R. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. Sexual Selection & the Descent of Man, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 136-179. Chicago.
Vining D 1986 Social versus reproductive success: The central theoretical problem of human sociobiology Behavioral and Brain Sciences 9(1): 167- 187.
Zerjal et al. (2003) The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols, American Journal of Human Genetics, 72(3): 717–721.

Peter Singer’s ‘A Darwinian Left’

Peter Singer, ‘A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation’, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1999.

Social Darwinism is dead. 

The idea that charity, welfare and medical treatment ought to be withheld from the poor, the destitute and the seriously ill so that they perish in accordance with the process of natural selection and hence facilitate further evolutionary progress survives only as a straw man sometimes attributed to conservatives by leftists in order to discredit them, and a form of guilt by association sometimes invoked by creationists in order to discredit the theory of evolution.[1]

However, despite the attachment of many American conservatives to creationism, there remains a perception that evolutionary psychology is somehow right-wing

Thus, if humans are fundamentally selfish, as Richard Dawkins is taken, not entirely accurately, to have argued, then this surely confirms the underlying assumptions of classical economics. 

Of course, as Dawkins also emphasizes, we have evolved through kin selection to be altruistic towards our close biological relatives. However, this arguably only reinforces conservatives’ faith in the family, and their concerns regarding the effects of family breakdown and substitute parents

Finally, research on sex differences surely suggests that at least some traditional gender roles – e.g. women’s role in caring for young children, and men’s role in fighting wars – do indeed have a biological basis, and also that patriarchy and the gender pay gap may be an inevitable result of innate psychological differences between the sexes

Political scientist Larry Arnhart thus champions what he calls a new ‘Darwinian Conservatism’, which harnesses the findings of evolutionary psychology in support of family values and the free market. 

Against this, however, moral philosopher and famed animal liberation activist Peter Singer, in ‘A Darwinian Left’, seeks to reclaim Darwin, and evolutionary psychology, for the Left. His attempt is not entirely successful. 

The Naturalistic Fallacy 

At least since David Hume, it has an article of faith among most philosophers that one cannot derive values from facts. To do otherwise is to commit what some philosophers refer to as the naturalistic fallacy

Edward O Wilson, in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis was widely accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy, by attempting to derive moral values form facts. However, those evolutionary psychologists who followed in his stead have generally taken a very different line. 

Indeed, recognition that the naturalistic fallacy is indeed a fallacy has proven very useful to evolutionary psychologists, since it has enabled them investigate the possible evolutionary functions of such morally questionable (or indeed downright morally reprehensible) behaviours as infidelityrape, warfare and child abuse while at the same time denying that they are somehow thereby providing a justification for the behaviours in question.[2] 

Singer, like most evolutionary psychologists, also reiterates the sacrosanct inviolability of the fact-value dichotomy

Thus, in attempting to construct his ‘Darwinian Left’, Singer does not attempt to use Darwinism in order to provide a justification or ultimate rationale for leftist egalitarianism. Rather, he simply takes it for granted that equality is a good thing and worth striving for, and indeed implicitly assumes that his readers will agree. 

His aim, then, is not to argue that socialism is demanded by a Darwinian worldview, but rather simply that it is compatible with such a worldview and not contradicted by it. 

Thus, he takes leftist ideals as his starting-point, and attempts to argue only that accepting the Darwinian worldview should not cause one to abandon these ideals as either undesirable or unachievable. 

But if we accept that the naturalistic fallacy is indeed a fallacy then this only raises the question: If it is indeed true that moral values cannot be derived from scientific facts, whence can moral values be derived?  

Can they only be derived from other moral values? If so, how are our ultimate moral values, from which all other moral values are derived, themselves derived? 

Singer does not address this. However, precisely by failing to address it, he seems to implicitly assume that our ultimate moral values must simply be taken on faith. 

However, Singer also emphasizes that rejecting the naturalistic fallacy does not mean that the facts of human nature are irrelevant to politics. 

On the contrary, while Darwinism may not prescribe any particular political goals as desirable, it may nevertheless help us determine how to achieve those political goals that we have already decided upon. Thus, Singer writes: 

An understanding of human nature in the light of evolutionary theory can help us to identify the means by which we may achieve some of our social and political goals… as well as assessing the possible costs and benefits of doing so” (p15). 

Thus, in a memorable metaphor, Singer observes: 

Wood carvers presented with a piece of timber and a request to make wooden bowls from it do not simply begin carving according to a design drawn up before they have seen the wood, Instead they will examine the material with which they are to work and modify their design in order to suit its grain…Those seeking to reshape human society must understand the tendencies inherent within human beings, and modify their abstract ideals in order to suit them” (p40). 

Abandoning Utopia? 

In addition to suggesting how our ultimate political objectives might best be achieved, an evolutionary perspective also suggests that some political goals might simply be unattainable, at least in the absence of a wholesale eugenic reengineering of human nature itself. 

In watering down the utopian aspirations of previous generations of leftists, Singer seems to implicitly concede as much. 

Contrary to the crudest misunderstanding of selfish gene theory, humans are not entirely selfish. However, we have evolved to put our own interests, and those of their kin, above those of other humans. 

For this reason, communism is unobtainable because: 

  1. People strive to promote themselves and their kin above others; 
  2. Only coercive state apparatus can prevent them so doing; 
  3. The individuals in control of this coercive apparatus themselves seek to promote the interests of themselves and their kin and corruptly use this coercive apparatus to do so. 

Thus, Singer laments: 

What egalitarian revolution has not been betrayed by its leaders?” (p39). 

Or, alternatively, as HL Mencken put it:

“[The] one undoubted effect [of political revolutions] is simply to throw out one gang of thieves and put in another.” 

In addition, human selfishness suggests, if complete egalitarianism were ever successfully achieved and enforced, it would likely be economically inefficient – because it would remove the incentive of self-advancement that lies behind the production of goods and services, not to mention of works of art and scientific advances. 

Thus, as Adam Smith famously observed: 

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” 

And, again, the only other means of ensuring goods and services are produced besides economic self-interest is state coercion, which, given human nature, will always be exercised both corruptly and inefficiently. 

What’s Left? 

Singer’s pamphlet has been the subject of much controversy, with most of the criticism coming, not from conservatives, whom one might imagine to be Singer’s natural adversaries, but rather from other self-described leftists. 

These leftist critics have included both writers opposed to evolutionary psychology (e.g. David Stack in The First Darwinian Left), but also some other writers claiming to be broadly receptive to the new paradigm but who are clearly uncomfortable with some of its implications (e.g.  Marek Kohn in As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind). 

In apparently rejecting the utopian transformation of society envisioned by Marx and other radical socialists, Singer has been accused by other leftists for conceding rather too much to the critics of leftism. In so doing, Singer has, they claim, in effect abandoned leftism in all but name and become, in their view, an apologist for and sell-out to capitalism. 

Whether Singer can indeed be said to have abandoned the Left depends, of course, on precisely how we define ‘the Left’, a rather more problematic matter than it is usually regarded as being.[3]

For his part, Singer certainly defines the Left in unusually broad terms.

For Singer, leftism need not necessarily entail taking the means of production into common ownership, nor even the redistribution of wealth. Rather, at its core, being a leftist is simply about being: 

On the side of the weak, not the powerful; of the oppressed, not the oppressor; of the ridden, not the rider” (p8). 

However, this definition is obviously problematic. After all, few conservatives would admit to being on the side of the oppressor. 

On the contrary, conservatives and libertarians usually reject the dichotomous subdivision of society into oppressed’ and ‘oppressor groups. They argue that the real world is more complex than this simplistic division of the world into black and white, good and evil, suggests. 

Moreover, they argue that mutually beneficial exchange and cooperation, rather than exploitation, is the essence of capitalism. 

They also usually claim that their policies benefit society as a whole, including both the poor and rich, rather than favouring one class over another.[4]

Indeed, conservatives claim that socialist reforms often actually inadvertently hurt precisely those whom they attempt to help. Thus, for example, welfare benefits are said to encourage welfare dependency, while introducing, or raising the level of, a minimum wage is said to lead to increases in unemployment. 

Singer declares that a Darwinian left would “promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition” (p61).

Yet many conservatives would share Singer’s aspiration to create a more altruistic culture. 

Indeed, this aspiration seems more compatible with the libertarian notion of voluntary charitable donations replacing taxation than with the coercively-extracted taxes invariably favoured by the Left. 

Nepotism and Equality of Opportunity 

Yet selfish gene theory suggests humans are not entirely self-interested. Rather, kin selection makes us care also about our biological relatives.

But this is no boon for egalitarians. 

Rather, the fact that our selfishness is tempered by a healthy dose of nepotism likely makes equality of opportunity as unattainable as equality of outcome – because individuals will inevitably seek to aid the social, educational and economic advancement of their kin, and those individuals better placed to do so will enjoy greater success in so doing. 

For example, parents with greater resources will be able to send their offspring to exclusive fee-paying schools or obtain private tuition for them; parents with better connections may be able to help their offspring obtain better jobs; while parents with greater intellectual ability may be able to better help their offspring with their homework. 

However, since many conservatives and libertarians are as committed to equality of opportunity as socialists are to equality of outcome, this conclusion may be as unwelcome on the right as on the left. 

Indeed, the theory of kin selection has even been invoked to suggest that ethnocentrism is innate and ethnic conflict is inevitable in multi-ethnic societies, a conclusion unwelcome across the mainstream political spectrum in the West today, where political parties of all persuasions are seemingly equally committed to building multi-ethnic societies. 

Unfortunately, Singer does not address any of these issues. 

Animal Liberation After Darwin 

Singer is most famous for his advocacy on behalf of what he calls animal liberation

In ‘A Darwinian Left’, he argues that the Darwinian worldview reinforces the case for animal liberation by confirming the evolutionary continuity between humans other animals. 

This suggests that there are unlikely to be fundamental differences in kind as between humans and other animals (e.g. in the capacity to feel pain) sufficient to justify the differences in treatment currently accorded humans and animals. 

It sharply contrasts account of creation in the Bible and the traditional Christian notion of humans as superior to other animals and as occupying an intermediate position between beasts and angels. 

Thus, Singer concludes: 

By knocking out the idea that we are a separate creation from the animals, Darwinian thinking provided the basis for a revolution in our attitudes to non-human animals” (p17). 

This makes our consumption of animals as food, our killing of them for sport, our enslavement of them as draft animals, or even pets, and our imprisonment of them in zoos and laboratories all ethically suspect, since these are not things generally permitted in respect of humans. 

Yet Singer fails to recognise that human-animal continuity cuts two ways. 

Thus, anti-vivisectionists argue that animal testing is not only immoral, but also ineffective, because drugs and other treatments often have very different effects on humans than they do on the animals used in drug testing. 

Our evolutionary continuity with non-human species makes this argument less plausible. 

Moreover, if humans are subject to the same principles of natural selection as other species, this suggests, not the elevation of animals to the status of humans, but rather the relegation of humans to just another species of animal. 

In short, we do not occupy a position midway between beasts and angels; we are beasts through and through, and any attempt to believe otherwise is mere delusion. 

This is, of course, the theme of John Gray’s powerful polemic Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (which I have reviewed hereherehere and here). 

Finally, acceptance of the existence of human nature surely entails recognition of carnivory as a part of that nature. 

Of course, we must remember not to commit the naturalistic or appeal to nature fallacy.  

Thus, just because meat-eating may be natural for humans, in the sense that meat was a part of our ancestors diet in the EEA, this does not necessarily mean that it is morally right or even morally justifiable. 

However, the fact that meat is indeed a natural part of the human diet does suggest that, in health terms, vegetarianism is likely to be nutritionally sub-optimal. 

Thus, the naturalistic fallacy or appeal to nature fallacy is not always entirely fallacious, at least when it comes to human health. What is natural for humans is indeed what we are biologically adapted to and what our body is therefore best designed to deal with.[5]

Therefore, vegetarianism is almost certainly to some degree sub-optimal in nutritional terms. 

Moreover, given that Singer is an opponent of the view that there is a valid moral distinction between acts and omissions, then we must ask ourselves: If he believes it is wrong for us to eat animals, does he also believe we should take positive measures to prevent lions from eating gazelles? 

Economics 

Thus, bemoaning the emphasis of neoliberals on purely economic outcomes, he protests:

From an evolutionary perspective, we cannot identify wealth with self-interest… Properly understood self-interest is broader than economic self-interest” (p42). 

Singer is right. The ultimate currency of natural selection is not wealth, but rather reproductive success – and, in evolutionarily novel environments, wealth may not even correlate with reproductive success (Vining 1986). 

Thus, as discussed by Laura Betzig in Despotism and Differential Reproduction, a key difference between Marxism and sociobiology is the relative emphasis on production versus reproduction

Whereas Marxists see societal conflict and exploitation as reflecting competition over control of the means of production, for Darwinians, all societal conflict ultimately concerns control over, not the means of production, but rather what we might term the means of reproduction – in other words, women, their wombs and vaginas

Thus, sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe observed: 

“The ultimate measure of human success is not production but reproduction. Economic productivity and profit are means to reproductive ends, not ends in themselves” (The Ethnic Phenomenon**: p165). 

Production is ultimately, in Darwinian terms, merely by which to gain the necessary resources to permit successful reproduction. The latter is the ultimate purpose of life. 

Thus, for all his ostensible radicalism, Karl Marx, in his emphasis on economics (‘production’) at the expense of sex (‘reproduction’), was just another Victorian sexual prude

Competition or Cooperation: A False Dichotomy? 

In Chapter  Four, entitled “Competition or Cooperation?”, Singer argues that modern western societies, and many modern economists and evolutionary theorists, put too great an emphasis on competition at the expense of cooperation. 

Singer accepts that both competition and cooperation are natural and innate facets of human nature, and that all societies involve a balance of both. However, different societies differ in their relative emphasis on competition or cooperation, and that it is therefore possible to create a society that places a greater emphasis on the latter at the expense of the former. 

Thus, Singer declares that a Darwinian left would: 

Promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition” (p61) 

However, Singer is short on practical suggestions as to how a culture of altruism is to be fostered.[6]

Changing the values of a culture is not easy. This is especially so for a liberal democratic (as opposed to a despotic, totalitarian) government, let alone for a solitary Australian moral philosopher – and Singer’s condemnation of “the nightmares of Stalinist Russia” suggests that he would not countenance the sort of totalitarian interference with human freedom to which the Left has so often resorted in the past, and continues to resort to in the present (even in the West), with little ultimate success, in the past. 

But, more fundamentally, Singer is wrong to see competition as necessarily in conflict with cooperation. 

On the contrary, perhaps the most remarkable acts of cooperation, altruism and self-sacrifice are those often witnessed in wartime (e.g. kamikaze pilotssuicide bombers and soldiers who throw themselves on grenades). Yet war represents perhaps the most extreme form of competition known to man. 

In short, soldiers risk and sacrifice their lives, not only to save the lives of others, but also to take the lives of other others. 

Likewise, trade is a form of cooperation, but are as fundamental to capitalism as is competition. Indeed, I suspect most economists would argue that exchange is even more fundamental to capitalism than is competition. 

Thus, far from disparaging cooperation, neoliberal economists see voluntary exchange as central to prosperity. 

Ironically, then, popular science writer Matt Ridley also, like Singer, focuses on humans’ innate capacity for cooperation to justify political conclusions in his book, The Origins of Virtue

But, for Ridley, our capacity for cooperation provides a rationale, not for socialism, but rather for free markets – because humans, as natural traders, produce efficient systems of exchange which government intervention almost always only distorts. 

However, whereas economic trade is motivated by self-interested calculation, Singer seems to envisage a form of reciprocity mediated by emotions such as compassiongratitude and guilt
 
However, sociobiologist Robert Trivers argues in his paper that introduced the concept of reciprocal altruism to evolutionary biology that these emotions themselves evolved through the rational calculation of natural selection (Trivers 1971). 

Therefore, while open to manipulation, especially in evolutionarily novel environments, they are necessarily limited in scope. 

Group Differences 

Singer’s envisaged ‘Darwinian Left’ would, he declares, unlike the contemporary left, abandon: 

“[The assumption] that all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning. Some will be, but this cannot be assumed in every case” (p61). 

Instead, Singer admits that at least some disparities in achievement may reflect innate differences between individuals and groups in abilities, temperament and preferences. 

This is probably Singer’s most controversial suggestion, at least for modern leftists, since it contravenes the contemporary dogma of political correctness

Singer is, however, undoubtedly right.  

Moreover, his recognition that some differences in achievement as between groups reflect, not discrimination, oppression or even the lingering effect of past discrimination or oppression, but rather innate differences between groups in psychological traits, including intelligence, is by no means incompatible with socialism, or leftism, as socialism and leftism were originally conceived. 

Thus, it is worth pointing out that, while contemporary so-called ‘cultural Marxists‘ may decry the notion of innate differences in ability and temperament as between different racessexesindividuals and social classes as anathema, the same was not true of Marx himself

On the contrary, in famously advocating from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, Marx implicitly recognized that people differed in “ability” – differences which, given the equalization of social conditions envisaged under communism, he presumably conceived of as innate in origin.[7]

As Hans Eysenck observes:

“Stalin banned mental testing in 1935 on the grounds that it was ‘bourgeois’—at the same time as Hitler banned it as ‘Jewish’. But Stalin’s anti-genetic stance, and his support for the environmentalist charlatan Lysenko, did not derive from any Marxist or Leninist doctrine… One need only recall The Communist Manifesto: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. This clearly expresses the belief that different people will have different abilities, even in the communist heaven where all cultural, educational and other inequalities have been eradicated” (Intelligence: The Battle for the Mind: p85).

Thus, Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, points to the theoretical possibility of what he calls a “Hereditarian Left”, arguing for a Rawlsian redistribution of resources to the, if you like, innately ‘cognitively disadvantaged’.[8] 

With regard to group differences, Singer avoids discussing the incendiary topic of race differences in intelligence, a question too contentious for Singer to touch. 

Instead, he illustrates the possibility that not “all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning” with the marginally less incendiary case of sex differences.  

Here, it is sex differences, not in intelligence, but rather in temperament, preferences and personality that are probably more important, and likely explain occupational segregation and the so-called gender pay gap

Thus, Singer writes: 

If achieving high status increases access to women, then we can expect men to have a stronger drive for status than women” (p18). 

This alone, he implies, may explain both the universalilty of male rule and the so-called gender pay gap

However, Singer neglects to mention another biological factor that is also probably important in explaining the gender pay gap – namely, women’s attachment to infant offspring. This factor, also innate and biological in origin, also likely impedes career advancement among women. 

Thus, it bears emphasizing that never-married women with no children actually earn more, on average, than do unmarried men without children of the same age in both Britain and America.[9]

For a more detailed treatment of the biological factors underlying the gender pay gap, see Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality by professor of law, Kingsley Browne, which I have reviewed here and here.[10] ;See also my ;review of Warren Farrell’s Why Men Earn More, which can be found here, here and here.

Dysgenic Fertility Patterns? 

It is often claimed by conservatives that the welfare system only encourages the unemployed to have more children so as to receive more benefits and thereby promotes dysgenic fertility patterns. In response, Singer retorts:

Even if there were a genetic component to something as nebulous as unemployment, to say that these genes are ‘deleterious’ would involve value judgements that go way beyond what the science alone can tell us” (p15).

Singer is, of course, right that an extra-scientific value judgement is required in order to label certain character traits, and the genes that contribute to them, as deleterious or undesirable. 

Indeed, if single mothers on welfare do indeed raise more surviving children than do those who are not reliant on state benefits, then this indicates that they have higher reproductive success, and hence, in the strict biological sense, greater fitness than their more financially independent, but less fecund, reproductive competitors. 

Therefore, far from being deleterious’ in the biological sense, genes contributing to such behaviour are actually under positive selection, at least under current environmental conditions.  

However, even if such genes are not ‘deleterious’ in the strict biological sense, this does not necessarily mean that they are desirable in the moral sense, or in the sense of contributing to successful civilizations and societal advancement. To suggest otherwise would, of course, involve a version of the very appeal to nature fallacy or naturalistic fallacy that Singer is elsewhere emphatic in rejecting. 

Thus, although regarding certain character traits, and the genes that contribute to them, as undesirable does indeed involve an extra-scientific “value judgement”, this is not to say that the “value judgement” in question is necessarily mistaken or unwarranted. On the contrary, it means only that such a value judgement is, by its nature, a matter of morality, not of science. 

Thus, although science may be silent on the issue, virtually everyone would agree that some traits (e.g. generosity, health, happiness, conscientiousness) are more desirable than others (e.g. selfishness, laziness, depression, illness). Likewise, it is self-evident that the long-term unemployed are a net burden on society, and that a successful society cannot be formed of people unable or unwilling to work. 

As we have seen, Singer also questions whether there can be “a genetic component to something as nebulous as unemployment”. 

However, in the strict biological sense, unemployment probably is indeed partly heritable. So, incidentally, are road traffic accidents and our political opinions – because each reflect personality traits that are themselves heritable (e.g. risk-takers and people with poor physical coordination and slow reactions probably have more traffic accidents; and perhaps more compassionate people are more likely to favour leftist politics). 

Thus, while it may be unhelpful and misleading to talk of unemployment as itself heritable, nevertheless traits of the sort that likely contribute to unemployment (e.g. intelligenceconscientiousnessmental and physical illness) are indeed heritable

Actually, however, the question of heritability, in the strict biological sense, is irrelevant. 

Thus, even if the reason that children from deprived backgrounds have worse life outcomes is entirely mediated by environmental factors (e.g. economic or cultural deprivation, or the bad parenting practices of low-SES parents), the case for restricting the reproductive rights of those people who are statistically prone to raise dysfunctional offspring remains intact. 

After all, children usually get both their genes and their parenting from the same set of parents – and this could be changed only by a massive, costly, and decidedly illiberal, policy of forcibly removing offspring from their parents.[11]

Therefore, so long as an association between parentage and social outcomes is established, the question of whether this association is biologically or environmentally mediated is simply beside the point, and the case for restricting the reproductive rights** of certain groups remains intact.  

Of course, it is doubtful that welfare-dependent women do indeed financially benefit from giving birth to additional offspring. 

It is true that they may receive more money in state benefits if they have more dependent offspring to support and provide for. However, this may well be more than offset by the additional cost of supporting and providing for the dependent offspring in question, leaving the mother with less to spend on herself. 

However, even if the additional monies paid to mothers with dependent children are not sufficient as to provide a positive financial incentive to bearing additional children, they at least reduce the financial disincentives otherwise associated with rearing additional offspring.  

Therefore, given that, from an evolutionary perspective, women probably have an innate desire to bear additional offspring, it follows that a rational fitness-maximizer would respond to the changed incentives represented by the welfare system by increasing their reproductive rate.[12]

A New Socialist Eugenics

If we accept Singer’s contention that an understanding of human nature can help show us how achieve, but not choose, our ultimate political objectives, then eugenics could be used to help us achieve the goal of producing the better people and hence, ultimately, better societies. 

Indeed, given that Singer seemingly concedes that human nature is presently incompatible with communist utopia, perhaps then the only way to revive the socialist dream of equality is to eugenically re-engineer human nature itself so as to make it more compatible. 

Thus, it is perhaps no accident that, before World War Two, eugenics was a cause typically associated, not with conservatives, nor even, as today, with fascism, but rather with the political left

Thus, early twentieth century socialist-eugenicists like H.G. Wells, Sidney Webb, Margaret Sanger and George Bernard Shaw may then have tentatively grasped what eludes contemporary leftists, Singer very much included – namely that re-engineering society necessarily requires as a prerequisite re-engineering Man himself.[13]

_________________________

Endnotes

[1] Indeed, the view that the poor and ill ought to be left to perish so as to further the evolutionary process seems to have been a marginal one even in its ostensible late nineteenth century heyday (see Bannister, Social Darwinism Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought). The idea always seems, therefore, to have been largely, if not wholly, a straw man.

[2] In this, the evolutionary psychologists are surely right. Thus, no one accuses biomedical researchers of somehow ‘justifying disease’ when they investigate how infectious diseases, in an effort maximize their own reproductive success, spread form host to host. Likewise, nobody suggests that dying of a treatable illness is desirable, even though this may have been the ‘natural’ outcome before such ‘unnatural’ interventions as vaccination and antibiotics were introduced.

[3] The convenional notion that we can usefully conceptualize the political spectrum on a single dimensional left-right axis is obviously preposterous. For one thing, there is, at the very least, a quite separate liberal-authoritarian dimension. However, even restricting our definition of the left-right axis to purely economic matters, it remains multi-factorial. For example, Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom classifies fascism as a left-wing ideology, because it involved big government and a planned economy. However, most leftists would reject this definition, since the planned economy in question was designed, not to reduce economic inequalities, but rather, in the case of Nazi Germany at least, to fund and sustain an expanded military force, a war economy, external military conquest and grandiose vanity public works architectural projects. The term ’right-wing‘ is even more problematic, including everyone from fascists, to libertarians to religious fundamentalists. Yet a Christian fundamentalist who wants to outlaw pornography and abortion has little in common with either a libertarian who wants to decriminalize prostitution and child pornography, nor with a eugenicist who wants to make abortions, for certain classes of person, compulsory. Yet all three are classed together as ’right-wing’ even though they share no more in common with one another than any does with a raving unreconstructed Marxist.

[4] Thus, the British Conservatives Party traditionally styled themselves one-nation conservatives, who looked to the interests of the nation as a whole, rather than what they criticized as the divisive ‘sectionalism’ of the trade union and labour movements, which favoured certain economic classes, and workers in certain industries, over others, just as contemporary leftists privilege the interests of certain ethnic, religious and culturally-defined groups (e.g. blacks, Muslims, feminists) over others (i.e. white males).

[5] Of course, some ‘unnatural’ interventions have positive health benefits. Obvious examples are modern medical treatments such as penicillin, chemotherapy and vaccination. However, these are the exceptions. They have been carefully selected and developed by scientists to have this positive effect, have gone through rigorous testing to ensure that their effects are indeed beneficial, and are generally beneficial only to people with certain diagnosed conditions. In contrast, recreational drug use almost invariably has a negative effect on health.

[6] It is certainly possible for more altruistic cultures to exist. For example, the famous (and hugely wasteful) potlatch feasts of some Native American cultures exemplify a form of competitive altruism, analogous to conspicuous consumption, and may be explicable as a form of status display in accordance with Zahavi’s handicap principle. However, recognizing that such cultures exist does not easily translate into working out how to create or foster such cultures, let alone transform existing cultures in this direction.

[7]  Indeed, by modern politically-correct standards, Marx was a rampant racist, not to mention an anti-Semite

[8] The term Rawlsian is a reference to political theorist John Rawles version of social contract theory, whereby he poses the hypothetical question as to what arrangement of political, social and economic affairs humans would favour if placed in what he called the original position, where they would be unaware of, not only their own race, sex and position in to the socio-economic hierarchy, but also, most important for our purposes, their own level of innate ability. This Rawles referred to as ’veil of ignorance’. 

[9] As Warren Farrell documents in his excellent Why Men Earn More (which I have reviewed here, here and here), in the USA, women who have never married and have no children actually earn more than men who have never married and have no children and have done since at least the 1950s (Why Men Earn More: pxxi). More precisely, according to Farrell, never-married men without children on average earn only about 85% of their childless never-married female counterparts (Ibid: pxxiii). The situation is similar in the UK. Thus, economist JR Shackleton reports:

“Women in the middle age groups who remain single earn more than middle-aged single males” (Should We Mind the Gap? p30).

The reasons unmarried, childless women earn more than unmarried childless men are multifarious and include:

  1. Married women can afford to work less because they appropriate a portion of their husband’s income in addition to their own
  2. Married men and men with children are thus obliged to earn even more so as to financially support, not only themselves, but also their wife, plus any offspring;
  3. Women prefer to marry richer men and hence poorer men are more likely to remain single;
  4. Childcare duties undertaken by women interfere with their earning capacity.

[10]  Incidentally, Browne has also published a more succinct summary of the biological factors underlying the pay-gap that was first published in the same ‘Darwinism Today’ series as Singer’s ‘A Darwinian Left’, namely Divided Labors: An Evolutionary View of Women at Work. However, much though I admire Browne’s work, this represents a rather superficial popularization of his research on the topic, and I would recommend instead Browne’s longer Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality (reviewed here) for a more comprehenseive treatment of the same, and related, topics. 

[11] A precedent for just such a programme, enacted in the name of socialism, albeit imposed consensually, was the communal rearing practices in Israeli Kibbutzim, since largely abandoned. Another suggestion along rather different lines comes from Adolf Hitler, who, believing that nature trumped nurture, is quoted as proposing: 

The State must also teach that it is the manifestation of a really noble nature and that it is a humanitarian act worthy of all admiration if an innocent sufferer from hereditary disease refrains from having a child of his own but bestows his love and affection on some unknown child whose state of health is a guarantee that it will become a robust member of a powerful community” (quoted in: Parfrey 1987: p162). 

[12] Actually, it is not entirely clear that women do have a natural desire to bear offspring. Other species probably do not have any such natural desire. Since they are almost certainly are not aware of the connection between sex and child birth, such a desire would serve no adaptive purpose and hence would never evolve. All an organism requires is a desire for sex, combined perhaps with a tendency to care for offspring after they are born. (Indeed, in principle, a female does not even require a desire for sex, only a willingness to submit to the desire of a male for sex.) As Tooby and Cosmides emphasize: 

Individual organisms are best thought of as adaptation-executers rather than as fitness-maximizers.” 

There is no requirement for a desire for offspring as such. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence of so-called broodiness, and the fact that most women do indeed desire children, despite the costs associated with raising children, suggests that, in human females, there is indeed some innate desire for offspring. Curiously, however, the topic of broodiness is not one that has attracted much attention among evolutionists.

[13] However, there is a problem with any such case for a ‘Brave New Socialist Eugenics’. Before the eugenic programme is complete, the individuals controlling eugenic programmes (be they governments or corporations) would still possess a more traditional human nature, and may therefore have less than altruistic motivations themselves. This seems to suggest then that, as philosopher John Gray concludes in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (which I have reviewed here):  

“[If] human nature [is] scientifically remodelled… it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of the struggles in the murky world where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control” (Straw Dogs: p6).

References  

Parfrey (1987) Eugenics: The Orphaned Science. In Parfrey (Ed.) Apocalypse Culture (New York: Amoc Press). 

Trivers 1971 The evolution of reciprocal altruism Quarterly Review of Biology 46(1):35-57 

Vining 1986 Social versus reproductive success: The central theoretical problem of human sociobiologyBehavioral and Brain Sciences 9(1), 167-187.

John Gray’s ‘Straw Dogs’: In Praise of Pessimism

‘Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals’, by John Gray, Granta Books, 2003.

The religious impulse, John Gray argues in a later work elaborating on the themes first set out in ‘Straw Dogs’, is as universal as the sex drive. Like the latter, when repressed, it re-emerges in the form of perversion.[1]

Thus, the Marxist faith in our passage into communism after the revolution represents a perversion of the Christian belief in our passage into heaven after death or Armageddon – the former, communism (i.e. heaven on earth), being quite as unrealistic as the otherworldly, celestial paradise envisaged by Christians, if not more so. 

Marxism is thus, as Edmund Wilson was the first to observe, the opiate of the intellectuals

What is true of Marxism is also, for Gray, equally true of what he regards as the predominant secular religion of the contemporary West – namely humanism. 

Its secular self-image notwithstanding, humanism is, for Gray, a substitute religion that replaces an irrational faith in an omnipotent god with an even more irrational faith in the omnipotence of Man himself (p38). 

Yet, in doing so, Gray concludes, humanism renounces the one insight that Christianity actually got right – namely the notion that humans are “radically flawed” as captured by the doctrine of original sin.[2]

Progress and Other Delusions

Of course, in its ordinary usage, the term ‘humanism’ is hopelessly broad, pretty much encompassing anyone who is neither, on the one hand, religious nor, on the other, a Nazi. 
 
For his purposes, Gray defines humanism more narrowly, namely as a “belief in progress” (p4). 

More specifically, however, he seems to have in mind a belief in the inevitability of social, economic, moral and political progress. 

Belief in the inevitability of progress is, he contends, a faith universal across the political spectrum – from neoconservatives who think they can transform Islamic tribal theocracies and Soviet Republics into liberal capitalist democracies, to Marxists who think Islamic tribal theocracies and liberal capitalist democracies alike will themselves ultimately give way to communism

Gray, however, rejects the notion of any grand narrative arc in human history.

Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds” (p48). 

Scientific Progress and Social Progress 

Although in an early chapter he digresses on the supposed “irrational origins” of western science,[3] Gray does not question the reality of scientific progress. 
 
Instead, what Gray questions is the assumption that social, moral and political progress will inevitably accompany scientific progress. 
 
Progress in science and technology, does not invariably lead to social, moral and political progress. On the contrary, new technologies can readily be enlisted in the service of governmental repression and tyranny. Thus, Gray observes: 

Without the railways, telegraph and poison gas, there could have been no Holocaust” (p14). 

Thus, by Gray’s reckoning, “Death camps are as modern as laser surgery” (p173).
 
Scientific progress is, he observes, unstoppable and self-perpetuating. Thus, if any nation unilaterally renounces modern technology, it will be economically outcompeted, or even militarily conquered, by other nations who harness modern technologies in the service of their economy and military: 

Any country that renounces technology makes itself prey to those that do not. At best it will fail to achieve the self-sufficiency at which it aims – at worst it will suffer the fate of the Tasmanians” (p178). 

However, the same is not true of political, social and moral progress. On the contrary, a nation excessively preoccupied with moral considerations would surely be defeated in war or indeed in economic competition by an enemy willing to cast aside morality for the sake of success. 
 
Thus, Gray concludes:

Technology is not something that humankind can control. It is an event that has befallen the world” (p14). 

Thus, Gray anticipates: 

Even as it enables poverty to be diminished and sickness to be alleviated, science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war” (p123). 

This leads him to predict: 

If one thing about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on humanity by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it” (p14). 

Human Nature

This is because, according to Gray, although technology progresses, human nature itself remains stubbornly intransigent. 

Though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive animal that is also one of the most predatory and destructive” (p4). 

As a result, “The uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves” (p28). 
 
Thus, the fatal flaw in the humanist theory that political progress will inevitably accompany scientific progress is, ironically, its failure to come to grips with one particular sphere of scientific progress – namely progress in the scientific understanding of human nature itself. 
 
Sociobiological theory suggests humans are innately selfish and nepotistic to an extent incompatible with the utopias envisaged by reformers and revolutionaries
 
Evolutionary psychologists like to emphasize how natural selection has paradoxically led to the evolution of cooperation and altruism. They are also at pains to point out that innate psychological mechanisms are responsive to environmental variables and hence amenable to manipulation. 
 
This has led some thinkers to suggest that, even if utopia is forever beyond our grasp, nevertheless society can be improved by social engineering and well-meaning reform (see Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left: which I have reviewed herehere and here). 

However, this ignores the fact that the social engineers themselves (e.g. politicians, civil servants) are possessed of the same essentially selfish and nepotistic nature as those whose behaviour they are seeking to guide and manipulate. Therefore, even if they were able to successfully reengineer society, they would do so for their own ends, not those of society or humankind as a whole.

Of course, human nature itself could itself be altered through genetic engineering or eugenics. However, once again, those charged with doing the work (scientists) and those from whom they take their orders (government, big business) will, at the time their work is undertaken, be possessed of the same nature that it is their intention to improve upon. 
 
Therefore, Gray concludes, if human nature itself is remodelled: 

It will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control” (p6). 

It will hence reflect the interests, not of humankind as a whole, but of rather those responsible for undertaking the project. 

The Future

In contrast to the optimistic vision of such luminaries as Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now and Matt Ridley in his book The Rational Optimist (which I have reviewed here), Gray’s vision of the future is positively dystopian. He foresees a return of resource wars and “wars of scarcity… waged against the world’s modern states by the stateless armies of the militant poor” (p181-2).

This is an inevitable result of a Malthusian trap

So long as population grows, progress will consist in labouring to keep up with it. There is only one way that humanity can limit its labours, and that is by limiting its numbers. But limiting human numbers clashes with powerful human needs” (p184).[4]

These “powerful human needs” include, not just the sociobiological imperative to reproduce, but also the interests of various ethnic groups in ensuring their survival and increasing their military and electoral strength (Ibid.). 

Zero population growth could be enforced only by a global authority with draconian powers and unwavering determination” (p185). 

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your perspective), he concludes: 

There has never been such a power and never will be” (Ibid.). 

Thus, Gray compares the rise in human populations to the temporary “spikes that occur in the numbers of rabbits, house mice and plague rats” (p10). Thus, he concludes: 

Humans… like any other plague animal…cannot destroy the earth, but… can easily wreck the environment that sustains them” (p12). 

Thus, Gray darkly prophesizes, “We may well look back on the twentieth century as a time of peace” (p182). 

As Gray points out in his follow-up book: 

War or revolution… may seem apocalyptic possibilities, but they are only history carrying on as it has always done. What is truly apocalyptic is the belief [of Marx and Fukuyamathat history will come to a stop” (Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions: p67).[5]

Morality

While Gray doubts the inevitability of social, political and moral progress, he perhaps does not question sufficiently its reality. 

For example, citing improvements in sanitation and healthcare, he concludes that, although “faith in progress is a superstition”, progress itself “is a fact” (p155). 
 
Yet every society, by definition, views its own moral and political values as superior to those of other societies. Otherwise, they would not be its own values. They therefore view the recent changes in moral and political values that led to their own moral and political values as a form of moral progress. 
 
However, what constitutes moral, social and political progress is entirely a subjective assessment
 
For example, the ancient Romans, transported to our times, would surely accept the superiority of our science and technology and, if they did not, we would outcompete them both economically and militarily and thereby prove it ourselves. 

However, they would view our social, moral and political values as decadent, immoral and misguided and we would have no way of proving them wrong. 
 
In other words, while scientific and technological progress can be proven objectively, what constitutes moral and political progress is a mere matter of opinion. 
 
Gray occasionally hints in this direction (namely, moral relativism), declaring in one of his many countless quotable aphorisms 

Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions in hats” (p103). 

He even flirts with outright moral nihilism, describing “values” as “only human needs and the needs of other animals turned into abstractions” (p197), and even venturing, “the idea of morality” may be nothing more than “an ugly superstition” (p90). 
 
However, Gray remains somewhat confused on this point. For example, among his arguments against morality is that observation that: 

Morality has hardly made us better people” (p104). 

However, the very meaning of “better people” is itself dependent on a moral judgement. If we reject morality, then there are no grounds for determining if some people are “better” than others and therefore this can hardly be a ground for rejecting morality. 

Free Will

On the issue of free will, Gray is more consistent. Relying on the controversial work of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, he contends: 

In nearly all our life willing decides nothing – we cannot wake up or fall asleep, remember or forget our dream, summon or banish our thoughts, by deciding to do so… We just act and there is no actor standing behind what we do” (p69). 

Thus, he observes, “Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams then the enactments of conscious selves” (p38) and “Our actual experience is not of freely choosing the way we live but of being driven along by our bodily needs – by fear, hunger and, above all, sex” (p43). 
 
Rejection of free will is, moreover, yet a further reason to reject morality. 
 
Whether one behaves morally or not, and what one regards as the moral way to behave, is, Gray contends, entirely a matter of the circumstances of one’s upbringing (p107-8).[6] Thus, according to Gray “being good is good luck” and not something for which one deserves credit or blame (p104).

Gray therefore concludes: 

The fact that we are not autonomous subjects deals a death blow to morality – but it is the only possible ground of ethics” (p112). 

Yet, far from truly free, Gray contends: 

We spend our lives coping with what comes along” (p70). 

However, in expecting humankind to take charge of its own destiny: 

We insist that mankind can achieve what we cannot: conscious control of its existence” (p38). 

Self-Awareness

For Gray, then, what separates us from the remainder of the animal kingdom is not then free will, or even consciousness, but rather merely self-awareness.
 
Yet this, for Gray, is a mixed blessing at best. 
 
After all, it has long been known that musicians and sportsmen often perform best, not when consciously thinking about, or even aware of, the movements and reactions of their hands and bodies, but rather when acting ‘on instinct’ and momentarily lost in what positive psychologists call flow or being in the zone (p61). 

This is a theme Gray returns to in The Soul of the Marionette, where he argues that, in some sense, the puppet is freer, and more unrestrained in his actions, than the puppet-master.

The Gaia Cult

Given the many merits of his book, it is regrettable that Gray has an unfortunate tendency to pontificate about all manner of subjects, many of them far outside his own field of expertise. As a result, almost inevitably, he sometimes gets it completely wrong on certain specific subjects. 
 
A case in point is environmentalist James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which Gray champions throughout his book. 

According to ‘Gaia Theory’, the planet is analogous to a harmonious self-regulating organism – in danger of being disrupted only by environmental damage wrought by man. 

Given his cynical outlook, not to mention his penchant for sociobiology, Gray’s enthusiasm for Gaia is curious.

As Richard Dawkins explains in Unweaving the Rainbow, the adaptation of organisms to their environment, which consists largely of other organisms, may give the superficial appearance of eco-systems as harmonious wholes, as some organisms exploit and hence come to rely on the presence of other organisms in order to survive (Unweaving the Rainbow: p221). 
 
However, a Darwinian perspective suggests that, far from existing in benign harmony, organisms are in a state of continuous competition and conflict. Indeed, it is paradoxically precisely their exploitation of one another that gives the superficial appearance of harmony. 
 
In other words, as Dawkins concludes: 

Individuals work for Gaia only when it suits them to do so – so why bother to bring Gaia into the discussion” (Unweaving the Rainbow: p225). 

Yet, for many of its adherents, Gaia is not so much a testable, falsifiable scientific theory as it is a kind of substitute religion. Thus, Dawkins describes ‘Gaia theory’ as “a cult, almost a religion” (Ibid: p223).

It is therefore better viewed, within Gray’s own theoretical framework, as yet another secular perversion of humanity’s innate religious impulse. 
 
Perhaps, then, Gray’s own curious enthusiasm for this particular pseudo-scientific cult suggests that Gray is himself no more immune from the religious impulse than those whom he attacks. If so, this, paradoxically, only strengthens his case that the religious impulse is indeed universal and innate.

The Purpose of Philosophy

Gray is himself a philosopher by background. However, he is contemptuous of most of the philosophical tradition that has preceded him. 

Thus, he contends:  

As commonly practised, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs” (p37). 

In former centuries such conventional beliefs were largely religious dogma. Yet, from the nineteenth century on, they increasing became political creeds emphasizing human progress, such as Whig historiography, and the theories of Marx and Hegel.

Thus, Gray writes:  

In the Middle Ages, philosophy gave intellectual scaffolding to the Church; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it served a myth of progress” (p82). 

Today, however, despite the continuing faith in progress that Gray so ably dissects, philosophy has ceased to fulfil even this function and hence abandoned even these dubious raisons d’être.

The result, according to Gray, is that:

Serving neither religion nor a political faith, philosophy is a subject without a subject-matter; scholasticism without the charm of dogma” (p82). 

Yet Gray reserves particular scorn for moral philosophy, which is, according to him, “an exercise in make-believe” (p89) and “very largely a branch of fiction” (p109), albeit one “less realistic in its picture of human life than the average bourgeois novel” (p89), which, he ventures, likely explains why “a philosopher has yet to write a great novel” (p109). 

In other words, compared with outright fiction, moral philosophy is simply less realistic. 

Anthropocentrism

Although, at the time ‘Straw Dogs’ was first published, Gray held the title ‘Professor of European Thought’ at the London School of Economics, he is particularly scathing in his comments regarding Western philosophy. 

Thus, like Schopenhauer, his pessimist precursor, (who is, along with Hume, one of the few Western philosophers whom he mentions without also disparaging), Gray purports to prefer Eastern philosophical traditions. 

These and other non-Western religious and philosophical traditions are, he claims, unpolluted by the influence of Christianity and hence view humans as merely another animal, no different from the rest. 

I do not have sufficient familiarity with Eastern philosophical traditions to assess this claim. However, I suspect that anthropocentrism and the concomitant belief that humans are somehow special, unique and different from all other organisms is a universal and indeed innate human delusion. 

Indeed, paradoxically, it may not even be limited to humans. 
 
Thus, I suspect that, to the extent they were, or are, capable of conceptualizing such a thought, earthworms and rabbits would also conceive of themselves as special and unique over and above all other species in just the same way we do.

Death or Nirvanva?

Ultimately, however, Gray rejects eastern philosophical and religious traditions too – including Buddhism
 
There is no need, he contends, to spend lifetimes striving to achieve nirvāna and the cessation of suffering as the Buddha proposed. On the contrary, he observes, there is no need for any such effort, since: 

Death brings to everyone the peace Buddha promised only after lifetimes of striving” (p129). 

All one needs to do, therefore, is to let nature take its course, or, if one is especially impatient, perhaps hurry things along by suicide or an unhealthy lifestyle.

Aphoristic Style

I generally dislike books written in the sort of pretentious aphoristic style that Gray adopts. In my experience, they generally replace the argumentation necessary to support their conclusions with bad poetry.

Indeed, sometimes the poetic style is so obscurantist that it is difficult even to discern what these conclusions are in the first place. 
 
However, in ‘Straw Dogs’, the aphoristic style seems for once appropriate. This is because Gray’s arguments, though controversial, are straightforward and not requiring of additional explication. 
 
Indeed, one suspects the inability of earlier thinkers to reach the same conclusions reflects a failure of The Will rather than The Intellect – an unwillingness to face up to and come to terms with the reality of the human condition. 

A Saviour to Save us from Saviours’?

Unlike other works dealing with political themes, Gray does not conclude with a chapter proposing solutions to the problems identified in previous chapters. Instead, his conclusion is as bleak as the pages that precede it.

At its worst, human life is not tragic, but unmeaning… the soul is broken but life lingers on… what remains is only suffering” (p101).

Personally, however, I found it refreshing that, unlike other self-important, self-appointed saviours of humanity, Gray does not attempt to portray himself as some kind of saviour of mankind. On the contrary, his ambitions are altogether more modest.

Moreover, he does not hold our saviours in particularly high esteem but rather seems to regard them as very much part of the problem. 
 
He does therefore consider briefly what he refers to as the Buddhist notion that we actually require “A Saviour to Save Us From Saviours”. 

Eventually, however, Gray renounces even this role. 

Humanity takes its saviours too lightly to need saving from them… When it looks to deliverers it is for distraction, not salvation” (p121). 

Gray thus reduces our self-important, self-appointed saviours – be they philosophers, religious leaders, self-help gurus or political leaders – to no more than glorified competitors in the entertainment industry.

Distraction as Salvation?

Indeed, for Gray, it is not only saviours who function as a form of distraction for the masses. On the contrary, for Gray, ‘distraction’ is now central to life in the affluent West. 
 
Thus, in the West today, standards of living have improved to such an extent that obesity is now a far greater health problem than starvation, even among the so-called ‘poor’ (indeed, one suspects, especially among the so-called ‘poor’!). 
 
Yet clinical depression is now rapidly expanding into the greatest health problem of all. 
 
Thus, Gray concludes: 

Economic life is no longer geared chiefly to production… [but rather] to distraction” (p162). 

In other words, where once, to acquiesce in their own subjugation, the common people required only bread and circuses, today they seem to demand cake, ice cream, alcohol, soap operas, Playstations, Premiership football and reality TV!

Indeed, Gray views most modern human activity as little more than distraction and escapism. 

It is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality. It is practical men and women who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance” (194). 

Indeed, for Gray, even meditation is reduced to a form of escapism: 

The meditative states that have long been cultivated in Eastern traditions are often described as techniques for heightening consciousnessIn fact they are ways of by-passing self-awareness” (p62). 
 

Yet Gray does not disparage escapism as a superficial diversion from serious and worthy matters. 
 
On the contrary, he views distraction, or even escapism, as the key to, if not happiness, then at least to the closest we can ever approach to this elusive but chimeric state.

Moreover, the great mass of mankind instinctively recognizes as much:

Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure” (p142). 

Thus, in a passage which is perhaps the closest Gray comes to self-help advice, he concludes: 

Fulfilment is found, not in daily life, but in escaping from it” (p141-2). 

Perhaps then, escapism is not such a bad thing, and there is something is to be said for sitting around watching TV all day after all. 
____________ 

 
By his own thesis then, it is perhaps as a form of ‘Distraction’ that Gray’s own book ought ultimately to be judged. 
 
By this standard, I can only say that, with its unrelenting cynicism and pessimism, ‘Straw Dogs’ distracted me immensely – and, according to the precepts of Gray’s own philosophy, there can surely be no higher praise!

Endnotes

[1] John Gray, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions: p7; p41. 

[2] John Gray, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions: p8; p44. 

[3] John Gray, ‘Straw Dogs’: p20-23.

[4] Of course, the assumption that human population will continue to grow contradicts the demographic transition model, whereby it is assumed that a decline in fertility inevitably accompanies economic development. However, while it is true that declining fertility has accompanied increasing prosperity in many parts of the world, it is not at all clear why this has occurred. Indeed, from a sociobiological perspective, increases in wealth should lead to an increased reproductive rate, as organisms channel their greater material resources into increased reproductive success, the ultimate currency of natural selection. It is therefore questionable how much faith we should place in the universality of a process the causes of which are so little understood. Moreover, the assumption that improved living-standards in the so-called ‘developing world’ will inevitably lead to reductions in fertility obviously presupposes that the so-called ‘developing world’ will indeed ‘develop’ and that living standards will indeed improve, a obviously questionable assumption. Ultimately, the very term ‘developing world’ may turn out to represent a classic case of wishful thinking. 

[5] Thus, of the bizarre pseudoscience of cryonics, whereby individuals pay private companies for the service of freezing their brains or whole bodies after death, in the hope that, with future advances in technology, they can later be resurrected, he notes that the ostensible immortality promised by such a procedure is itself dependent on the very immortality of the private companies offering the service, and of the very economic and legal system (including contractual obligations) within which such companies operate.

If the companies that store the waiting cadavers do not go under in stock market crashes, they will be swept away by war or revolutions” (Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions: p67).

[6] Actually, heredity surely also plays a role, as traits such as empathy and agreeableness are partly heritable, as is sociopathy and criminality.