In 1981 the philosopher Peter Singer published a book titled The Expanding Circle – Ethics, Evolution and Moral Progress. The book was inspired by EO Wilson’s Sociobiology – The New Synthesis, because although Singer claimed to find fallacies in Wilson’s book, he saw Wilson’s work as nevertheless providing a sound basis for exploring the evolution of ethical behaviour. Singer saw the need to republish with added notes in 2011 due to the appearance of fresh ideas on the subject.
In Chapter One “The Origin of Altruism” he began well with; “Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human” but the rot set in with “Wilson has called altruism ‘the central theoretical problem of sociobiology’ because it has to be accounted for within the framework of Darwin’s theory of evolution. If evolution is a struggle for survival, why hasn’t it ruthlessly eliminated altruists, who seem to increase another’s prospects of survival at the expense of their own?” The regurgitation that followed, of all the tired arguments presented by the gene-centrics as they attempt to explain the impossible – altruism within a Darwinian framework - was not what I had expected from a thinker of Singer’s calibre, but that’s exactly what he did.
Here’s an example of that, found in the very first instance he gave to explain animal altruism from the Darwinian view.
After telling how birds will give warning calls that expose the caller to higher risk but allow others in the group to seek safety, he continued “If, as we would expect, birds who give warning calls are eaten at a higher rate than birds who act to save themselves without warning the rest of the flock, how does such altruism survive?” This was all leading up to the ultimate mistake, the gene-centred view of evolution, but did you detect the initial flaw that prepares the unwary reader for the ultimate? The example was based on assumptions for which no evidence was given. There is no evidence that sentinel birds are killed at a higher rate. There is no evidence that sentinels are even at slightly greater risk. Sentinel birds position themselves in trees in relative safety compared to others in the flock that are feeding on the ground. It’s the ground-feeders and stragglers that are targeted by predators. It was also assumed that altruism can die with the altruist; that altruism is genetic in basis.
This is a prime example of the fallacies that underpin the Darwinian (gene-centric) view of evolution. Unlike Darwin, who was cautious and temperate in his conclusions, and who based his conclusions on observations from the wild, (and who made few errors) the Darwinians have been, from the time of Thomas Huxley onwards, incautious, intemperate, and have based their conclusions on armchair theorising of the type just discussed.
After several more “examples” in the same vein, Singer dug his hole deeper.
After playing devil’s advocate and presenting the “species selection” explanation for animal altruism, he went on; “The flaw in this simple explanation is that it is hard to see how, except in very special and rare conditions, the evolution of altruism could occur on so general a level...The real basis of selection is not the species, nor some smaller group, nor even the individual. It is the gene. Genes are responsible for the characteristics we inherit. If a gene leads individuals to have some feature which enhances their prospects of surviving and reproducing, that type of gene will itself survive into the next generation;...”
Let’s put to one side “genes are responsible for the characteristics we inherit”; a gross over-simplification if ever there was one. And let’s not get into a discussion yet about the level or levels at which selection takes place; let’s focus on the ongoing fallacy. That fallacy has it that altruism has a genetic basis. And of course once the fallacy is established (in the minds of the unwary) it can be progressed into further fallacies, leading ultimately to a thought system or world-view that is without foundation.
The next fallacy presented of course was kin selection, a concept that presumes to explain altruism from a Darwinian perspective and is therefore of the utmost importance for the gene-centric position to prevail. (1)
Singer then engaged in a lengthy discussion of various problems associated with the search for a biological foundation for ethical behaviour, but he continually referred back to the relevance of kin selection to this debate.
Then came a remarkable shift in position.
After subscribing to all the baseless assertions of gene-centrism, (that altruism is gene-based, that genes equal traits etc.,) Singer concluded that the leading lights of socio-biology had failed to appreciate the full significance of altruism as an aspect of evolution because their definitions of altruism and selfishness are deficient. He’s quite right, of course, but he overlooks the fact that if the definitions are deficient, then the conclusions, including kin selection, must be unsound.
His shift in position continued as he developed the theme of the book – that evolution, through kin selection and reciprocal altruism, has put humans in the unexpected position of having the reasoning capacity to see the merit in extending the area of influence of our altruistic actions to include other humans and other organisms that are far removed from the workings of kin selection. In other words, the “expanding circle” used in the title of the book.
While his treatment of the development of reason was detailed and well-presented, and while there is no doubt that the capacity for reasoning can result in a move in this direction, it is wrong to give this as the sole or even the primary reason for inter-species and non-kin altruism. Particularly as he is familiar with the comprehensive treatment of extended altruism by the Russian geographer Peter Kropotkin.
Here’s what he said of Kropotkin’s work.
After referring to the “long line of writers who have drawn ethical implications from Darwin’s theory of evolution” he continued; “The line includes Herbert Spencer and the Social Darwinists, the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and in our own century Julian Huxley and C. H. Waddington. Today EO Wilson is the most prominent representative of this line of thought. Herbert Spencer is little read now. Philosophers do not regard him as a major thinker. Kropotkin appeals more to the romantic idealist in us rather than to the strictly scientific side of our intellect. Huxley and Waddington made little headway in their efforts to resurrect evolutionary ethics. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to brush aside Wilson’s attempt to show the relevance of evolutionary theory to ethics just because the attempt has been made often before, and always in vain.”
Several comments are necessary at this point.
If, in a serious philosophy paper not dealing with animal rights, Peter Singer’s contribution to the subject matter was dismissed without discussion and he was referred to only as “animal rights activist Peter Singer”, he would be justifiably upset. Kropotkin was a noted geographer who not only wrote about evolutionary ethics in Mutual Aid, but also in his great work Ethics, which was somehow overlooked by Singer. He has therefore earned the right to be treated with rather more respect than was shown by Singer, whose reference to Kropotkin’s political activity could be taken as a deliberate smear.
And to refer to Kropotkin as promoting romantic idealism is a gross distortion of the truth. Kropotkin actually explained his position on this very point when he stated in the introduction to Mutual Aid “It may be objected to this book that both animals and men are represented in it under too favourable an aspect; that their sociable qualities are insisted upon, while their anti-social and self-asserting instincts are hardly touched upon. This was, however, unavoidable. We have heard so much lately of the “harsh, pitiless struggle for life” which was said to be carried on by every animal against all other animals, every “savage” against every other “savage” and every civilised man against all his co-citizens – and these assertions have become so much an article of faith – that it was necessary first, to oppose to them a wide series of facts showing animal and human life under a quite different aspect.” It seems that not much has changed in the ensuing century; the propaganda of the gene-machine has ensured that those “articles of faith” are now articles of text-book dogma. Despite this clear warning, Singer has disregarded Kropotkin and fallen instead for the flawed assumptions of the “nature red in tooth and claw” version of evolution, if not the colourful rhetoric.
The falseness of the romantic idealism charge can also be seen in this from the introduction to Mutual Aid; “It is not love, and not even sympathy in its proper sense, which induces a herd of ruminants or horses to form a ring in order to resist an attack from wolves; not love which induces wolves to form a pack for hunting; not love which induces kittens or lambs to play, or a dozen of species of young birds to spend their days together in autumn; not love or even personal sympathy which induces many thousand fallow-deer scattered over a territory as large as France to form a score of separate herds, all marching to a given spot in order to cross there a river. It is a feeling infinitely wider than love or personal sympathy – an instinct that has been slowly developed among animals and men in the course of an extremely long evolution, and which has taught animals and men alike the force they can borrow from the practice of mutual aid and support and the joys they can find in social life.” Kropotkin then proceeded to give the “wide series of facts” and his argument based on those facts in a work of science that is comparable to, and complementary to, Darwin’s Origin of Species. Romantic idealism? I think not.
It becomes clear that Peter Singer is not treating the matter dispassionately when we consider this from Kropotkin as he returned later to the theme of the passage just quoted. “But it is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience – be it only at the stage of an instinct – of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man by the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependency of everyone’s happiness upon the happiness of all, and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own.” Those two sentences are such an accurate summary of The Expanding Circle that they could have been written by Singer himself. Consider the following from Singer. “The pleasures of a self-centred life eventually pall...Real fulfilment is more likely found in working for some other end. Hence, these philosophers claim, if we want to lead a happy life we should not seek happiness directly, but should find a larger purpose in life, outside ourselves.” Consider also the final sentence from Singer’s chapter titled Reason. “That is why I believe that if ethics grows to take into account the interests of all sentient creatures, the expansion of our moral horizons will have at last completed its long and erratic course.”
I happen to agree with those thoughts, as would Kropotkin, but in light of what Singer has written the question must be asked – who’s the romantic idealist now?
It’s worth considering also at this point what Darwin had to say on the matter. In The Descent of Man he wrote that the foundation of moral feeling is to be found “in the social instincts which lead the animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.”
Which leaves us with more questions.
Why has Peter Singer been so dismissive of a detailed study of evolutionary ethics which comes to exactly the same conclusions as Singer? And why was Darwin not included in the “long line of writers who have drawn ethical implications from Darwin’s theory of evolution”? Darwin himself was first in line! The power of gene-machine propaganda can be the only answer.(2) Singer accepted all the foundation assumptions of gene-centrism, then, in a manoeuvre of which any gene-centric would be proud, explained how an evolutionary process formed around selfish genes can lead to organisms who defy their selfish genes. Here’s his explanation. In considering the fact that altruism actually exists, he wrote that therefore “Any theory which entails that non-reciprocal altruism towards strangers cannot occur must be wrong. Does this mean that the evolutionary theories of the origin of altruism discussed in the first chapter of this book must be wrong? It may seem that it does, since these theories explained the rise of kin altruism, reciprocal altruism, and possibly a little group altruism, but could not account for altruism to strangers who cannot reciprocate. But recall the argument of the preceding chapter in which I suggested that altruistic impulses once limited to one’s kin and one’s own group might be extended to a wider circle by reasoning creatures who can see that that they and their kin are one group among others, and from an impartial point of view no more important than others. Biological theories of the evolution of altruism through kin selection reciprocity and group selection can be made compatible with the existence of non-reciprocal altruism towards strangers if they can accept this kind of extension of the circle of altruism.”
There’s so many ifs buts and maybes there, that we can only gasp at Singer’s audacity. It’s so reminiscent of the style and “rigour” of The Selfish Gene that we could be forgiven for thinking that it has Richard Dawkins’ fingerprints all over it.
So, who is the more believable? Peter Singer the intellectual contortionist and intrepid thought experimenter, or Kropotkin and Darwin who reached conclusions only after many years of observation of the natural world? The only criticism that can be levelled at Kropotkin is that he based his conclusions about evolutionary ethics entirely on his interpretation of the social interaction that he observed throughout the natural world.
To deny sociality as the basis of ethics is to deny the concept of ethics outright. It is, by definition, a social concept. Because Kropotkin demonstrated beyond any doubt that sociality is a feature of life itself, he argued that ethics developed from sociality; that rudimentary ethical behaviours can be found in all life forms that have an observable social life. It’s a simple argument; it’s not hard to understand. And it’s so much more acceptable than the convoluted, torturous reasoning path strewn with half-truths presented by Peter Singer, whereby ethical behaviour suddenly sprang from selfish-gene-based kin selection into an expanding circle of concern for all life.
Here’s Kropotkin’s summary of the matter from Ethics. “...or when we see that a young bird that has stolen some straw from another bird’s nest is attacked by all the other birds of the same colony, we catch on the spot the very origin and growth of the sense of equity and justice in animal societies. And finally, as we advance in every class of animals towards the higher representatives of that class, (the ants wasps and bees among the insects, for example) we find that the identification of the individual with the interests of the group, and eventually even self-sacrifice, grow in proportion. It thus appears that not only does Nature fail to give us a lesson of amoralism...but we are bound to recognise that the very ideas of bad and good, and man’s abstractions concerning “the supreme good” have been borrowed from Nature.”
What an eloquent refutation of the gene-centric fable concerning the “blind indifference” of a natural world devoid of values, first promoted by Thomas Huxley and parroted ever since by all the Dawkinsian sycophants that followed. A refutation furthermore, that requires no acrobatic leap of faith such as we saw from Peter Singer.
When we get down to the bare essentials of the argument, the only accusation that Singer and the gene-centrics can throw at Kropotkin is his adherence to large-scale group selection. (Keep in mind that Singer allows “a little group selection.”)
But to deny that group selection occurs commonly is to deny logical thought.
When an insect that is being eaten leaves so unpleasant a taste in the mouth of the predator that it decides to never eat such prey again, then a selective process has occurred that results in a benefit to the species. The individual insect has gained no benefit, but all life forms that share its visible traits do benefit. It’s called species selection.
Species die out when all members have a trait or traits that prevent the group from adapting to new selective pressures. When European rats invaded Lord Howe Island they caused the extinction of several bird species while others survived. How can that be anything other than species selection?
So what can we make of the following definition? “Naïve group selectionism is the unquestioning belief that adaptations can evolve at all levels of the biological hierarchy--for the good of individuals, groups, species and even ecosystems--without requiring special conditions.”
That sort of thinking ignores the fact that adaptations DO evolve for the good of the group, and in the case of our dear departed insect, can evolve for little benefit to the individual. So the “special conditions” are not special at all – they are commonplace. Adaptations for the greater good? Without doubt! And in such situations the individual becomes a minor player; becomes secondary to the group. Don’t tell the gene-centrics.
As for the evolution of ethics, this is simply an outcome of the evolution of groups, as ethical behaviours are the bonds that preserve the group; that prevent the group from splitting into sub-groups or individuals. The selection of groups selects ethical behaviours also, so as groups evolve, so do the ethical systems on which they are based.
Clearly, this is not a complex issue. It is a simple matter made to seem difficult by the ideologues of gene-centrism.
(1) If you have some lingering regard for kin selection, or inclusive fitness as its originator WD Hamilton called it, please read Hamilton’s “Geometry for The Selfish Herd.” In it you will find a contempt for the scientific method, and a preference for mathematical modelling over observations from nature, that is staggering in its audacity, and which has become the standard operating procedure for gene-centrics. It was mathematical modelling and a refusal to accept evidence from the natural world that caused kin selection to be presented as having universal application. The promotion of the inclusive fitness concept has resulted in Hamilton enjoying near-godlike status and becoming possibly the most cited biologist in history after Darwin. And all based on armchair speculation.
(2) Possibly the most significant incorrect assumption of gene-centrism, one which was boldly asserted by Singer, is that genes cause behaviours. The actual position is that there is merely a genetic component to behaviours. Genes do not equal traits because all that genes do is synthesise proteins. Proteins are not traits. There is a long chain of cellular activity and input before those proteins contribute to traits. Traits are the products of living systems. Genes are not living systems.
Peter Singer, Group Selection, and the Evolution of Ethics