The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene

December 9, 2010

It is not, I suggest, just an accident that all those we think of as typical rational beings - namely human ones - have begun their lives as babies, living in a deeply affectionate and dependent relationship with those who reared them," Mary Midgley observes here.

Individualism is a multifaceted concept. Morally it stresses the value of being an autonomous individual. Psychologically, it suggests that human motives are egoistic. In recent decades, such forms of individualism have been defended by referring to a particular understanding of biological processes, with the archetypal example being Richard Dawkins' 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins argues that "a dominant quality of our genes is ruthless selfishness (which) will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour...We are born selfish." According to Midgley, Dawkins' atomistic view of biological beings (collections of genes, each of which is selected for survival in its environment) has strengthened moral and metaphysical individualism, including political ideologies such as those of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In our age, Darwinism is presented as "a vindication of unbridled competition".

Dawkins' Selfish Gene is now approaching its 35th anniversary. Time for a midlife crisis - at least that is the conclusion Midgley draws in The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene. Unlike Dawkins' title, which sets out the programme he pursues, Midgley's title describes the view she is combating. A self is not solitary, and the "selfish gene" is not representative of the views of Charles Darwin. A less subtle title could have been "The Nonsense of the Solitary Self: Darwin against the Selfish Gene".

Midgley is a philosopher armed with great common sense, a sharp pen and a clear mind. She traces the history of normative individualism, reaching back to Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Nietzsche, and robustly challenges the claim that Dawkins is Darwin's true heir. Dawkins seeks to explain morality away, while Darwin placed it in a natural, human context. On the basis of the extensive passages Midgley quotes, Darwin is not a Dawkinsian Darwinist.

For Darwin and Midgley, humans are deeply social beings - and in this sociality lies the source of our morality. It is neither merely rooted in our rationality nor is it just the expression of emotions. The separation of reason and emotion is at odds with human nature. Rationality serves social life, in which we must handle ambiguities and conflicting motives. And our feelings are not necessarily irrational. The two faculties are entangled, as is to be expected for beings who have not started life as individuals and individualists, but as babies.

In this humane, readable and erudite book, Midgley shows empathy with human conflicts about motives. However, I wonder whether the book does not give too much respect to opponents who use biological individualism to legitimise psychological and moral individualism. If Dawkins-style genetic individualism were correct, could one not still object to the psychological and moral consequences Dawkins and others have attached to it?

In her eagerness to counter the emphasis on natural selection, I wonder whether Midgley does not stretch criticisms of genetic individualism and scientific reductionism farther than needed. For instance, she says of convergent evolution: "In the course of evolution, organisms have repeatedly converged towards certain forms for which no obvious mechanical reason emerges, but which seems to be naturally favoured. This suggests that selection from the outside is often far less important in evolution than has often been suggested."

However, convergent evolution is often due to mechanical constraints and selective pressures; as in the convergence of whales and fish in streamlining. The point of convergent evolution is not that selection played no role, but that selection may - along different trajectories - deliver similar results. Similarly, she may express herself more strongly than necessary in a critique of reductionism: "Reduction is always an attempt to simplify the conceptual scheme." Does reduction always amount to simplification? For most humans, the reduction to quantum physics or superstrings doesn't make the scheme simpler. Another remark may be more pertinent: "In fact, holism and atomism are not warring alternatives. They are complementary aspects of all scientific enquiry."

Although I am not yet convinced that individualisms are connected all the way from the genetic to the moral, Midgley's insights into Darwin and human nature make her key message most opportune: we are not solitary selves. In the context of higher education, this is precisely the book that could engage students from the humanities and colleagues from the natural sciences in a genuine conversation on human nature.

The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene

By Mary Midgley. Acumen Publishing, 176pp, £12.99. ISBN 9781844652532. Published 23 September 2010

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