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← Mary Midgley and the selfish gene... apparently it's Margaret Thatcher's fault

Mary Midgley and the selfish gene... apparently it's Margaret Thatcher's fault - Comments

mmurray's Avatar Comment 1 by mmurray

Ugh Mary Midgely. Thank you for sacrificing your time and reporting back to us! I scanned the comments and she obviously remains as she was before. Checking her wikipedia page I see she still seems to not understand what Richard meant by 'the selfish-gene'.

In her 2010 book The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene she argues that 'simple one-sided accounts of human motives, such as the "selfish gene" tendency in recent neo-Darwinian thought, may be illuminating but are always unrealistic'[19]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Midgley

Worth looking at her wikipedia page for the "Midgeley-Dawkins debate"

Michael

Mon, 27 Dec 2010 12:45:17 UTC | #569217

Richard Dawkins's Avatar Comment 2 by Richard Dawkins

Here, yet once more, is my reply to Mary Midgley's earlier (more than thirty years earlier) attack on The Selfish Gene. At the time, she didn't take kindly to the suggestion that she had read the book by title only, and I have from time to time been asked to apologise for suggesting it. But every time she sounds off about it she provides further evidence that she cannot have read the book. At very least, as I said in my original article, "Midgley raises the art of misunderstanding to dizzy heights."

Note added: Here is a better source of my article, which does not require subscribing to a journal.

Richard

Mon, 27 Dec 2010 13:32:43 UTC | #569226

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 3 by AtheistEgbert

Margaret Thatcher was supposedly influenced by Friedrich Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, so her views were based on his version of liberty. As everyone here probably knows, The Selfish Gene is not a self-centred political book but a gene-centred interpretation of evolution.

I've never heard of Mary Midgley until today, and so I'm left with the impression that she is a rather ignorant person who probably should retire from public life.

Mon, 27 Dec 2010 13:56:30 UTC | #569233

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 4 by Alan4discussion

  • Seems to be another one who reads "selfish gene" as "selfish Jean", without bothering to read the book!
  • From Wiki (Thanks Michael @1):-

    Mary Midgley, née Scrutton (born September 13, 1919), is an English moral philosopher. She was a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Newcastle University and is known for her work on science, ethics and animal rights.

    Midgley strongly opposes reductionist and scientistic ideas, which attempt to make science a substitute for the humanities, a role for which she argues it is wholly inadequate. She has written extensively about what philosophers can learn from nature, particularly from animals

    She has also written in favour of a moral interpretation of the Gaia hypothesis.

    While, like the rest of us, philosphers can learn much from animals, mixing "moral interpretations" with evolutionary interactions in the environment, looks to me like chronic wooo-ology.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 13:58:27 UTC | #569234

    elenaripoll's Avatar Comment 5 by elenaripoll

    @Richard

    Have you read any of Oliver James books, and if you have what are your thoughts on it and his style of writing?

    Could it be that she may have read the book but did not understand it entirely because the way in which it is written makes it more difficult for those whom think more with the right side of your brain to understand it in the first place? or easier to misinterpret it?

    A lot of people criticize the writing style of Oliver James, however I find it a style I can read with great ease unlike the books written by Richard Dawkins. (Also the book Commonsense Rebellion is fabuloid!)

    I do respond easier to visual material demonstrating theories in Dawkin's books as well.

    Could it be that she actually agrees with your book in some respects, but like a growing amount of people don't believe the 'selfish' element to be genetic but merely environmental. (maybe this is what you suggest Richard) I really enjoyed Oliver James book Afluenza.

    Since the Thatcherite era 'real' communities have disappeared causing social problems to flourish.

    I am of the opinion that all 'selfish' behaviour is a person's brain stuck in 'robot' mode and thus doomed to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors.

    I think most people can be rehabilitated to see the error of their ways, but treating each and every person like an individual and working out the best method of rehabilitation slowly is not part of rehabilitation for most today, and an institutionalized society makes individualism near impossible.

    Not all psychopaths do evil in this world, and some even develope real emotions through life changing experiences eg having a child (me for example) had I chose to read only material written by Dawkins and the like, I am convinced I would not have been impowered to break the cycle of emotional abuse in my family (you could blame it on religious indocrination, but I think deeper than that, religion is not the main problem, trying to parent with no 'real' communities is the first problem needing fixing and fast).

    Richard you said recently you are writing a book for children, what about producing some written material actively targetting people whom think more with the right side of their brain (and no this is NOT always females, and especially not now in a more diverse society)

    I am an atheist and a humanist, and I am against organized religion, but I can't help but see 'Atheism' losing a lot of respect from sectors of society that really want to join but are frightened by so many 'left brain thinkers'

    food for thought at the very least.....

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 14:07:53 UTC | #569239

    elenaripoll's Avatar Comment 6 by elenaripoll

    "The well written book ‘Ireland since 1939 – the persistence of conflict by Henry Patterson has one striking sentence I will never forget “A Republican internee during the second world war, Devlin had educated himself out of both nationalism and Catholicism to become a dogged and courageous exponent of socialism and secularism.”

    If self education is the key to changing a person's mindset, as education in the UK has simply become a process of instruction to pass exams, Atheism can't even expect to make a dent in the world as a 'concept' for people to turn to after years of religious nonsense unless it starts to produce material that appeals to sectors of society whom are lagging behind on critical thinking etc etc yaddy yadda yadda ...

    Mary Midgley's style of writing I find very easy to read, and I can empathize with both Mary and Richard.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 14:21:11 UTC | #569245

    AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 7 by AtheistEgbert

    "Since the Thatcherite era 'real' communities have disappeared causing social problems to flourish."

    Margaret Thatcher has always had an extreme amount of hatred from the left, including jokes about her assassination. I'm not exactly sure why she was so hated, because the country at the time was economically in a mess.

    I'm really not sure what is meant by 'real' communities, but society has changed, I think for the better.

    The problem with the promotion of the market was that it created a class of psychopathic business demagogues (as portrayed in the movie 'Wall Street') who went around buying up, destroying and selling off businesses and turning them into pure profit. Ironically, Ayn Rand would have admired these parasites.

    Unfortunately, no matter how rational or liberal a system, human nature has a tendency to corrupt and exploit other people and so any society will require an immune system to cope with such people.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 14:23:09 UTC | #569246

    Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 8 by Steve Zara

    Mary Midgley's style of writing I find very easy to read, and I can empathize with both Mary and Richard

    I do hope Mary Midgley does not read books on geology. I can imagine her becoming quite irate about the suggestion that mountains are high. It's such a terrible thing to condemn these magnificent features of our landscape as intoxicated, with the implication that the serene Alps are in reality a mineral orgy. Perhaps she might be placated by the description of the great Mariana Trench as deep.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 14:30:37 UTC | #569249

    epeeist's Avatar Comment 9 by epeeist

    Comment 9 by AtheistEgbert :

    I'm really not sure what is meant by 'real' communities, but society has changed, I think for the better.

    "Real" communities were those in which my relatives and those of my wife lived, the mining villages around Barnsley and Castelford.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 14:37:42 UTC | #569253

    RDfan's Avatar Comment 10 by RDfan

    Is it just me or does Mary seem to think that life is just one story after another and that science, like any other endeavour in life, is just one story after another. She also seems (Does she not?) to have some axes to grind (such as free-market economics) and Thatcher and Dawkins represent quite a few of them (She also attacks the meme idea). That might explain her decades-long misunderstanding of the Selfish Gene.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 14:57:31 UTC | #569266

    Arnott Bird's Avatar Comment 11 by Arnott Bird

    I think that the OP has oversimplified the thesis offered (not that it is a thesis, but rather a part of an argument), and by doing so misses the point. She addresses the use of 'selfish' as metaphor, but the question then remains, why use the term? Dawkin's early response that; "...My central point had no connection with what she alleges. I am not even very directly interested in man, or at least not in his emotional nature. My book is about the evolution of life, not the ethics of one particular, rather aberrant, species" is a little....diversional. Why would one not interested in the ethics of an aberrant species devote a book to a central ethical construct of that species? (The God Delusion, anyone?)

    It is senseless, imo, to try and pretend that what Dawkins has structured throughout his writings is not exactly what Midgeley is arguing against, fundamentally; that one can explain behaviour by means of an entirely biological series of processes, that no other body of knowledge will (eventually) be necessary.

    In short, if one writes polemics one should not be surprised that a simplistic argument is derived.

    Yes, perhaps the term 'selfish gene' was used because it was simply 'catchy', but it is a strong metaphor, and it's sociological context cannot be ignored.

    "if a figure of speech (only a metaphor) pervades a book, as that does, it is part of the substance.." a reasonable point, surely?

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 14:58:45 UTC | #569268

    AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 12 by AtheistEgbert

    Comment 12 by epeeist :

    Comment 9 by AtheistEgbert :

    I'm really not sure what is meant by 'real' communities, but society has changed, I think for the better.

    "Real" communities were those in which my relatives and those of my wife lived, the mining villages around Barnsley and Castelford.

    What makes mining villages any more real than non-mining villages? We all know the reasons why the mining industry had to go, it's completely irrational to support an industry that makes a loss. Today, people face losing their jobs all the time, that's the reality of economics and people are now fully aware of that reality.

    Yeah, and real communities are those which enter into the social contract, those who believe in the welfare state and realise the need for humanity to collectively help each other in fundamental ways, such as an NHS. Margaret Thatcher despised these things, and if she had her way, she would have dismantled the welfare state and introduced the privatisation of those aspects which people need most. Look at the United States healthcare system under her "brother in arms" Ronald Reagan. Thatcher wanted to fuse corporate interests with the role of government, and "luckily" she was successful only to a certain degree.

    So you claim, which fits nicely within your prejudices. However, this is not the reality. Margaret Thatcher had to rescue the country from an economic decline, only then can it afford a welfare system and NHS.

    I never signed any social contract btw.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 15:09:32 UTC | #569271

    AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 13 by AtheistEgbert

    Comment 15 by Arnott Bird :

    It is senseless, imo, to try and pretend that what Dawkins has structured throughout his writings is not exactly what Midgeley is arguing against, fundamentally; that one can explain behaviour by means of an entirely biological series of processes, that no other body of knowledge will (eventually) be necessary.

    Please tell me, have you read The Selfish Gene?

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 15:13:39 UTC | #569273

    The Plc's Avatar Comment 14 by The Plc

    Richard Dawkins' response to Midgely's 'review' of The Selfish Gene is one of the most devastating replies to pseudo-academic posturing that I've ever read. No wonder she still has it stuck in her craw over thirty years on, she was wittily exposed for her charlatanism, lack of comprehension and nastiness. I think she's just as a bad as your common creationist, no matter how much clarity, refutations and evidence is shoved directly in her face, she still rails against against the same straw man with the same wilful ignorance as always.

    Midgely's fatuousness is cited in Why Truth Matters by Benson as a prime example of the wilful, obscurantist confusion between issues of objective fact and theory, and politics and morals. Postmodernism and relativism truly is a cancer on intellectual culture.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 15:15:40 UTC | #569274

    AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 15 by AtheistEgbert

    Midgley's use of the word 'metaphor' seems similar to the crazy talk of Michael Ruse who seems to have misinterpreted Thomas Kuhn's interpretation of scientific history.

    I wonder what Professor Dawkins' view is on Michael Ruse.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 15:20:41 UTC | #569277

    Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 16 by Jos Gibbons

    Never worry about what Thatcher claimed as her inspiration. Her favourite philosopher was Karl Popper, and one needn't read all of his hefty The Open Society and Its Enemies to know how little his political philosophy gelled with hers.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 15:31:20 UTC | #569282

    Richard Dawkins's Avatar Comment 17 by Richard Dawkins

    The url that I previously gave for my reply to Mary Midgley's original attack, 'In defence of selfish genes' now points to an place that requires a subscription for access. Here is an alternative source of the article, which is free.

    Richard

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 15:31:45 UTC | #569283

    Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 18 by Alan4discussion

    Comment 15 by Arnott Bird

    Yes, perhaps the term 'selfish gene' was used because it was simply 'catchy', but it is a strong metaphor, and it's sociological context cannot be ignored.

    "if a figure of speech (only a metaphor) pervades a book, as that does, it is part of the substance.." a reasonable point, surely?

    More comments which entirely miss the point!

    The term "selfish gene" refers to the genetics of natural selection. It has absolutely NOTHING to do with conscious selfish attitudes of individual humans.

    Those who make such basic errors, simply demontrate they have failed to understand natural evolutionary selection.

    It is senseless, imo, to try and pretend that what Dawkins has structured throughout his writings is not exactly what Midgeley is arguing against, fundamentally; that one can explain behaviour by means of an entirely biological series of processes, that no other body of knowledge will (eventually) be necessary.

    So the behaviour of an amoeba now requires a body of knowledge in addition to understanding biological processes!?? - According to which specialist is that??

    Why do confused philosphers persist in trying to push their wooist ignorance into evolutionary biology?

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 15:34:10 UTC | #569284

    AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 19 by AtheistEgbert

    Comment 20 by Michael Friedrichs :

    Which fits nicely with your prejudices.

    I'm not the one holding a prejudice.

    Margaret Thatcher put profit before people,

    Again, a prejudicial statement that is completely untrue. Where is the evidence that Margaret Thatcher held that view?

    now I can come to terms with the fact that you have no moral qualms about this, but do not expect other people to feel the same.

    Your argument is based on feelings, but not in reason. Margaret Thatcher's policies were a result of the reality of the economic collapse of Britain at the time and the philosophy of Hayek's Liberalism.

    Unfortunately her liberal idealism did not anticipate the likes of Tiny Rowland and James Goldsmith, who really did put profit over people.

    Now I could sit and list the reasons why I dislike Margaret Thatcher all day, but I won't because not only does it deviate from the topic of the thread, but it is also an argument I've had once too many.

    How convenient! You dislike Margaret Thatcher because you hold a prejudice shared by the majority of people, on a false belief on who she was and what she stood for. No need to provide any evidence for your prejudicial views then.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 15:47:57 UTC | #569289

    green and dying's Avatar Comment 20 by green and dying

    Why do so many people feel they can sum up The Selfish Gene without reading it? I came across a reference to it in a book on ethics, and surprise surprise they hadn't read it and thought it was saying people are selfish. Why do people think they can get away with that?

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 16:47:19 UTC | #569308

    bethe123's Avatar Comment 21 by bethe123

    I just read RD's informative "In Defence of Selfish Genes"... and I have to admit when I first heard the term "reciprocal altruism" (not on this thread, on a different thread some time ago) it seemed to be at odds with my intuition of what altruism means( As it is not my field, I was not familiar with the technical useage, but only the normal usage) So I too was guilty of the definitional misunderstanding, so I would expect that to be not uncommon in those not trained in the subject.

    However, having the advantage of Google which Midgley would not have at the time of her original attack, I did an internet search, and quickly found "altruism" has a technical meaning, and so it was being used in a technical sense.

    So, I certainly understand Midgley's error, having committed it myself, but a scientist should be happy to admit when they are mistaken, or what is the point of doing science?

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 16:50:59 UTC | #569311

    frax71's Avatar Comment 22 by frax71

    @ Atheist Egbert. Margaret Thatcher was also an admirer of Pinochet have you read nothing of his record in undermining democracy in Chile. The Chilean authorities are still trying to identify all of his victims.

    Your claim that Thatcher had to " save Britain " is laughable.Her economic policies were taken from the pages of Friedmans " Capitilism and Freedom " which called for capitilism untrammeled and the infantile idea of monetarism.Which simply put is the control of the money supply in order to control lnflation. The effect of which was widespread disinvestment in British industry and widespread industrial decline and an over reliance on the volatile market system. This is an economic mismangement hangover that the British economy is still dealling with

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 16:57:23 UTC | #569312

    Stevehill's Avatar Comment 23 by Stevehill

    @bethe123

    So, I certainly understand Midgley's error, having committed it myself, but a scientist should be happy to admit when they are mistaken, or what is the point of doing science?

    Well none, as far as Mary Midgley is concerned - hence her decision to be a philosopher!

    I am not sure what the protocol is for a philosopher admitting he or she might have been wrong. It's probably terra incognita.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 17:14:27 UTC | #569316

    Corylus's Avatar Comment 24 by Corylus

    Comment 28 by Stevehill :

    I am not sure what the protocol is for a philosopher admitting he or she might have been wrong.

    The same as for any other discipline i.e. (depending on context) in a paper; public announcement; in a letter, or simply verbally will all do.

    It's probably terra incognita.

    That is a lazy uncalled for generalisation.

    The casual philosophy bashing that goes on on this site does not add to its content.

    [Additional: I see my tone above is grumpier than normal - my apologies. However, this really is one of my pet peeves on here.]

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 17:34:13 UTC | #569321

    Stevehill's Avatar Comment 25 by Stevehill

    @Corylus

    Midgley's comprehensive and utter failure to understand TSG having been abundantly refuted nearly 30 years ago, not only by Dawkins, to a degree which would satisfy any reasonable observer, her continuing failure to clarify or correct her own "misunderstanding" (I'm being kind here), to the extent that even today she can't refrain from spouting her misguided and wholly illiterate "theory" (that's generous too), and is apparently willing to be used in the capacity of Andrew Brown's personal cannon fodder in his wider campaign, suggests to me that in at least this case "casual philosophy bashing" would appear to be completely justified, and appropriate.

    That could have been several shorter sentences, probably. Sorry!

    Personally, I have no general animus towards philosophers, and respect many of them. But when they undermine science to pursue a personal theistic agenda, they are straying far from any norms of academic rigour, and should be criticised.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 17:42:40 UTC | #569325

    God fearing Atheist's Avatar Comment 26 by God fearing Atheist

    You stupid woman. link clip

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 17:47:18 UTC | #569327

    Neodarwinian's Avatar Comment 27 by Neodarwinian

    I guess philosophy also advances one funeral at a time. Ideology makes for poor understanding of anything.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 17:50:41 UTC | #569329

    Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 28 by Schrodinger's Cat

    Wonders if Mary Midgley has a dog called Mungo.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 18:00:16 UTC | #569333

    Corylus's Avatar Comment 29 by Corylus

    Comment 31 by Stevehill :

    @Corylus

    Midgley's comprehensive and utter failure to understand TSG having been abundantly refuted nearly 30 years ago, not only by Dawkins, to a degree which would satisfy any reasonable observer, her continuing failure to clarify or correct her own "misunderstanding" (I'm being kind here), to the extent that even today she can't refrain from spouting her misguided and wholly illiterate "theory" (that's generous too), and is apparently willing to be used in the capacity of Andrew Brown's personal cannon fodder in his wider campaign, ...

    Yes, I am aware of the history, having read the original review by Midgley and RD's response to it.

    .... suggests to me that in at least this case "casual philosophy bashing" would appear to be completely justified, and appropriate.

    You had me until that bit - 'causal philosophy bashing' is not an appropriate response because:

    a) It it implies collective responsibility - which is a bit of a sod for the non-involved.

    b) To talk pejoratively (about either an individual or a group) implies that the situation at hand could be (and should be) different than it is. This is not a casual matter.

    That could have been several shorter sentences, probably. Sorry!

    Not to worry - I whitter on myself at times :)

    Personally, I have no general animus towards philosophers, and respect many of them.

    Jolly good. What are we scrapping about then?

    But when they undermine science to pursue a personal theistic agenda, they are straying far from any norms of academic rigour, and should be criticised.

    In other words, when they misuse philosophical arguments to make dodgy theological points? Quite agree. It is not just philosophers than do that though - that game is played in several different arenas.

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 18:09:43 UTC | #569335

    Stevehill's Avatar Comment 30 by Stevehill

    What are we scrapping about then?

    We're not, AFAIK.

    It's just a chat in the pub, isn't it?

    Mon, 27 Dec 2010 19:14:25 UTC | #569356