Between beast and man

June 23, 1995

The concept of beastliness. The moral philosopher Mary Midgley talks to Martin Kelly about one of her first papers, "The concept of beastliness", and her first book, Beast and Man, published in 1979, in the second of our occasional series on first academic publications.

The great advantage of not starting writing until you are 50," says moral philosopher Mary Midgley at her home in Newcastle, "is that you don't have that nervous shyness that the young have, so if you think you have got something to say you're quite inclined to say it. You have passed your mid-life crisis and know that you will be dead soon anyway, so it seems just as well to say things before you go." It was not, in fact, until Mary Midgley was almost 60 that her first substantial work, Beast and Man, was published, injecting a measure of cool, philosophical detachment into the, then acrimonious, sociobiology debate.

The path towards Beast and Man started in the 1950s with a copy of Konrad Lorenz's King Solomon's Ring, which presents his important studies on animal behaviour in a highly readable form. Midgley's own academic background was in the metaphysical questions posed by Plotinus and the neo-Platonists but she was taking a career break to bring up her three sons. Her interest in animal behaviour kindled, she followed Lorenz with books by Tinbergen and Jane Goodall. "Through them I became interested in evolution and how it works and the processes that unite us with the other animals."

At this stage it was purely for her own interest but, in the mid-1960s, she started teaching part-time in the department of philosophy at Newcastle. "I was now back looking at the philosophy I had done previously," she explains, "and trying to relate it to these thoughts about our situation towards the animals. The more I did this, the more I thought it did fit together. I was then also reading the sociobiology debate which was coming up at that time."

Here was a fertile seam for a moral philosopher to work. Lurking behind the notion that behaviour may be influenced by genes stood the twin spectres of genetic determinism and eugenics. Scientists and social scientists stood head-to-head in a debate that was as much ideological as it was academic in nature.

"Progressive social scientists didn't want there to be any animal nature in us at all. They were dedicated to the thought that we were a piece of blank paper at birth because if we were not, we would not be free. They thought that the notion of a human nature of any positive kind was fascist, racist and dangerous.

"It was not surprising they thought this because it had been used repeatedly by fascists, racists and other dangerous kinds of people in order to justify oppression."

Out of these musings came, in 1973, a paper entitled "The concept of beastliness" published in Philosophy (vol. 48, pp. 111-135). "It was about how we mistakenly cut ourselves off from other animals, trying not to think that we have an animal nature, justifying this by the thought that they are 'beastly'. This paper was seen by some American philosophers and I was asked to go to Cornell to discuss it with an inter-disciplinary group for the study of science, technology and society. I got a lot of very good questions from them. Then the Cornell University Press asked me to write a book about it, which I did."

As she finished the manuscript, however, Edward Wilson's Sociobiology: the New Synthesis was published and it became obvious both to the publisher and, somewhat reluctantly, to Mary Midgley herself that this controversial work could not be ignored.

The book that finally emerged in the United States in 1978, and a year later here was Beast and Man (Howarth Press). It was the first substantial contribution to the sociobiology debate by a philosopher, guaranteeing it a good hearing.

"I had a few hostile reviews, all from the States, from social scientists who were not going to have any compromise about this. But on the whole people were glad, as they very often are, when somebody pops up in the middle and says 'Hey, perhaps you don't need to choose between these extremely distant positions."

A long way from her first studies on Plotinus in Oxford after the war? Not at all. "Any of the big metaphysicians would want to put these questions in a bigger context and would be more aware, I think, of the repercussions that really aren't just factual that lie behind every scientific pronouncement.

A thing like sociobiology is not just factual but highly ideological and anyone used to looking at large scale metaphysics sees that it splits up at once into a lot of quite varied things. The point about Plotinus is that I think he's very much aware of the vastness of the human psyche, of the great number of kinds of being that there are inside us and the complexity of our motives. Anyone who is in the least aware of that must, I think, object to Wilson's reductiveness."

But this is more than just a theoretical exercise. Midgley consciously writes for an audience wider than her fellow specialists. Later books such as Wisdom, Information and Wonder address the fragmenting of knowledge at the expense of understanding.

Trapped within what she describes as "an arbitrary jumble of loose specialities" is it any wonder that the various "tribes" - biologists, sociologists, psychologists and so on - develop their own conceptual frameworks that can lead, at times, to bitter and often passionate clashes such as occurred during the sociobiology debate.

She believes passionately that it is the role of philosophy to bridge the gaps between disciplines. "Moral philosophers are back in the world," she writes at the end of Wisdom, Information and Wonder, "which is certainly the right place for them."

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