Page 83-84


It is an extraordinary comment on the state of the social sciences in the 1960s that the restoration of human nature should have been a task originally undertaken by entomologists. Wilson and Hamilton were both men whose fieldwork was done with insects, and whose fascination with ants and minute wasps shines through their reminiscences. But there were philosophers interested in the matter, too; and one of the most formidable was an English woman named Mary Midgley. She taught at Newcastle with her husband Geoffrey, for nearly thirty years, but retained the unforgiving self-confidence of an Oxford don throughout this period. I think of her picking her way through the confusions of the world in her large, sensible shoes with a lorgnette in one hand and a flick knife in the other. Her capacity for scrupulous examination of a question is equalled only by her gift for an eviscerating phrase.

In the late Sixties, she found herself deeply frustrated by the orthodoxy of the Left that there was no such thing as human nature: that in essence we were entirely formed by our environment. "Educated opinion on this topic seemed split into two impossible extreme positions, And of the two I was more shocked (as on is) by the gratuitous folly of my own tribe, the humanists and social scientists, in swallowing Skinnerian blank paper theory…It seemed to me madness to throw away all chance of having anything sensible to say about human nature just because Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey were saying mistaken things about it."

So she started to teach a course, first to adults, and then to undergraduates in the course of a year at Cornell, in which these questions were addressed. How could we be free, reasoning beasts? It must be possible to be such things, since we are. But it is not clear how we manage the trick. Her lectures at Cornell turned into a book, Beast and Man, which was nearly ready when Sociobiology was published. Her publishers, combining as publishers will rationality and beastliness in defence of their own interests, asked her to take account if it, and she ended up rewriting almost the whole of Beast and Man.

In one sense Midgley’s programme was profoundly opposed to the ambitions of sociobiology. Wilson had hoped to reduce all subjects to biology, or at least to rebuild them anew on a biological base: Midgley was hostile both in principle and in practice to the attempt. Philosophy informed by biology was not, in her view, a subdivision of biology, but a better sort of philosophy, an enterprise in which biological competence was no guarantee of success. This did not mean that she thought it was a matter that should only concern philosophers. Moral philosophy appeared to her something like prose: we all produce it all the time whether or not we are paid to do so. It is necessary for all of us to do it better.

But she also believed that human nature existed, and that it was overwhelmingly important to get as accurate an idea of it as is possible. In this she was squarely on the side of the sociobiologists, and opposed to the shenanigans of Science for the People on strategic as well as tactical grounds: "It seemed to me far madder, far less fertile, to try to do without a notion of human nature altogether (as the social scientists wanted to do) than to start with a crude notion of Human Nature which might be refined later."

The belief that there is such a thing as human nature and that we can learn as much about it from novelists, historians, and philosophers as we can from scientists may seem unsurprising to the sort of people who read books (and even the people who don’t) but it entails a surprising number of academic heresies. Midgley spent most of the Seventies fending off attacks from philosophers who thought her too scientific and scientists who thought she was making too much of philosophy and no doubt from other people who thought she wrote to well. One of the pleasures of researching this story is the amount of clear and vigorous writing it provokes. The combatants in the Darwin wars know what they want to say and that it is urgent. They write from conviction, not for hire; this fact alone would make their books stand out from almost everything else on sale. But no one brings more vividness to their clarity than Midgley. It is a pity, then, that her long review of the Selfish Gene, published in Philosophy in 1979, used the flick knife and the stout boots rather more than the lorgnette.



Front Cuts Book Back