17 January, 2011Issue 15.1PhilosophyScience

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The Genial Self

Alexander Barker

The Solitary SelfMary Midgley
The Solitary Self
Acumen, 2010
176 Pages
£12.99
ISBN 978-1844652532

Given that The Solitary Self was “written out of intense indignation and exasperation” at the contemporary rendering of Darwin, Mary Midgley has managed to retort with disciplined patience. She is exasperated at the unwarranted rhetorical prominence of conflict and manipulation in The Selfish Gene (1976), and indignant at its consequent encouragement of fatalism about human selfishness. With flair she dissociates the latter from its supposed scientific underpinning by unraveling the superfluity of Richard Dawkins’s recurrent analogy: “The whole message is in the rhetoric.” Midgley invokes Darwin himself to show that the interactions of genes need not be described as selfish, demonstrating that more congenial tropes could illustrate the same scientific reality without indirectly providing an excuse for egoism.

Explaining the interaction of genes in terms of selfishness, with a turn of phrase elevating DNA to the status of an all-controlling yet indifferent god, Dawkins encourages the view that only a miraculous rebellion against nature could break our inborn egoism. He himself often succumbs to his own eloquence, stating for example that “pure, disinterested altruism…has no place in nature…has never existed before in the whole history of the world.” On the assumption that we tend to attribute our character to our genes, Midgley worries that such unnecessarily dramatic language lends unmerited scientific varnish to the worldview that sees egoism as our ineluctable destiny, to be accepted if not celebrated.

The key to neutralising Dawkins’s account lies not in questioning its veracity, for it needs no scientific correction, but in identifying Dawkins’s repeated figure of speech as a tendentious choice of metaphor. As Midgley keenly points out, there can be no such thing as selection without something that is selected: “[N]o filter can be the sole cause of what flows out of it. Strainers strain out coffee grounds; they do not create coffee.” While there is of course competition between different units, these units only exist as organisms in the first place through the cooperation of their constituent parts. Dawkins admitted as much at the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Selfish Gene, when he remarked that it “could equally well have been called The Cooperative Gene. The natural world, then, does not demand to be described as a chaos of competition and manipulation, but equally invites portrayal in the vocabulary of harmony and symbiosis. “Disinterested behaviour is really not unusual at all”, and certainly does not need rationalisation as a conspiracy of self-interest.

Midgley treads a delicate path in arguing from a close reading of Dawkins’s text to vast sociological trends, but she treads it carefully. Her dispute with the author of The Selfish Gene did not start with this book, and she is accustomed to the rejoinder that she is making too much of something which is really “only a metaphor”. As she remarks, though—and she has sharpened this point over the years—“metaphors are never ‘only’.” When used to describe a scientific reality which is commonly seen to determine human behaviour—a reality which, she demonstrates, demands no particular metaphors—inflammatory analogies provide grounds for concern.

In the absence of evidence of a solid link between Dawkins’s popularity and the social atomism which worries her, she risks overstating her case against this particular author. Ultimately, however, her quarrel is not primarily with Dawkins himself but with those who find in his colourful exposition a scientific endorsement of their individualistic view of society. Accordingly, she uses her interrogation of his text tacitly to rebuke those who would derive ethical guidance from his story about genes. Though peculiarly indistinguishable from that of free market economists and Ayn Rand characters, his adversarial imagery would not matter if it did not tempt us to excuse our own weakness of will through the “pernicious myth” of the inevitability of conflict and selfishness.

Midgley finds an alternative approach to morality in the most totemic of sources. Darwin of course established that “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.” This naturalist explanation of all actions, including clear cases of altruism and self-sacrifice, in terms of our status as animals, rather than, say, as God’s children, can be taken either to disgrace morality, or to ennoble animality. The man known as “Darwin’s bulldog”, Thomas Huxley, delighted in depicting natural life as a “continuous free fight”, and concluded that “ethical nature…is necessarily at enmity with [cosmic nature].” In contrast, Midgley sees Darwin marveling at “how much friendly order and cooperation–how much, indeed, of what we call humanity–there already is in the lives of other social animals.”

Midgley’s grand ambition, then, is to reveal Dawkins’s choice of language to be a revival not so much of Darwin himself, who insisted “I use the term ‘struggle for existence’ in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another…”, but of Huxley, who perceived the animal world as a “gladiators’ show”. Midgley situates Darwin in a long tradition, stretching back to Aristotle, of philosophers who navigate the tightrope of portraying human motivation in natural terms without reducing altruism to some less attractive aspect of our nature. Dawkins’s exposition of natural selection in agonistic language, on the other hand, with its careless slippages between genetics and ethics, places him in the Huxleyan camp, that of the reductionists, whose descent is more Hobbesian than Darwinian. Yet, despite her tremendous respect for Darwin, this is no argument from authority; her appeal to the writings of the great naturalist subverts Dawkins’s monopoly of his legacy, and works as a safeguard against the unfortunate yet foreseeable aspersions on her fidelity to science itself.

Dawkins’s gratuitous emphasis on struggle accentuates our continuity with “ego-bound crocodiles” rather than “extremely sociable great apes”, seemingly depriving us of the lexicon with which to discuss our moral life in all its colour. In portraying Dawkins not so much as a Darwinian who narrates the theory in the vocabulary of selfishness, but rather as a Hobbesian who has chosen molecular biology as his subject matter, Midgley breaks the insidious power of the figurative and invites us to return to Darwin’s The Descent of Man to inspire a richer approach to human behaviour, in all its malignity and benevolence.

Alexander Barker is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.