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5/17/11

Mary Midgley & The Solitary Self


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Among moral philosophers Mary Midgley has a razor-sharp mind, and when she speaks I listen. Her new book is The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene. As the title suggests, in the book she takes up her long-standing disagreement with Richard Dawkins and his The Selfish Gene, an extremely important book which nonetheless appeals to a rather limited understanding of Darwin, according to Midgley. In the video below, she points out that Dawkins' title is anthropomorphic and therefore off the mark.

In the video she discusses the linkage between a rather shallow but prevalent societal view of individualism and Darwin's concerns about evolution and human morality. I will add that in the USA, both the politics of economics and politics in general are based on a flawed, Spencerian understanding of human nature. What do I mean? In The Descent of Man, Darwin points out that humans are aware of their life as a whole and the effect of their actions, good or bad, upon the entire culture, unlike other animals. This is Darwin's understanding of human nature and it does not imply modern market economics ideology in which Ayn Rand's Nietzschean and wealthy superheroes save the masses from themselves. (19th Century America "unfortunates" have become "losers" in the 21st, so to distinguish them from the only other possibility, "winners.")

The Selfish Gene, Midgley argues, represents an extreme neo-Darwinism. She allows that Dawkins didn't invent this view, but piggy-backed upon a Spencerian survival-of-the-fittest myth prevalent in society since the Nineteenth Century. (These are not her words, but I am sure she would concur.) The success of Dawkins' book stems from its resonance with  post-industrial myth.

She challenges a reduction of human motivation to self-interest. Human psychology is not so neat, she says. Instead, reductionist individualism can be traced to the Eighteenth Century and, before that, Thomas Hobbes' contribution to Enlightenment thought. Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged represents a heroic independence that is not a realistic aim for Homo sapiens. Darwin called it right. As natural selection reveals over and over, "fittest" does not mean "strongest," but an ability to adapt, often through "cooperation" with other organisms. We humans evolved to cooperate, to interact constantly with one another and as a dependent and tiny part of complex and huge ecosystems. Too bad that a more enlightened understanding of human nature has not found its way into economics and politics.
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