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Biologists' current habit of explaining each feature of human life separately through its evolutionary function – its assumed tendency to enhance each individual's reproductive prospects – is unworkable. It also sits oddly with these scientists' official rejection of teleology, since it treats all life as a process which does have an aim, namely, to perpetuate itself. But that aim is empty because it is circular.
If we want to understand the behaviour of living things (including humans) we have to treat them seriously as subjects, creatures with needs, tendencies and directions of their own. The supposedly objective idea of a world of objects without subjects is an unprofitable fantasy.
Researchers report that people who are asked to give their reason for converting to Creationism often say that they have done so because they see it as the only possible alternative to ‘Darwinism’ – something which they find intolerable and equate with scientific atheism.
Since this is common knowledge, we may well ask why the sweeping claim to the dominance of selfishness was ever made. More broadly, why do so many people today (not only Dawkins) feel that they ought somehow to reduce all human motivation to self-interest? Why do they think it is realistic to give an account that conflicts with so much of the evidence?
This reductive project is, as I have suggested, part of the individualistic tradition that has been so important to us politically since Thomas Hobbes (whom we shall later consider) set it off that it sometimes seems to dominate our whole value system. Enlightenment thought in the West has been constantly engaged in separating individuals out from their surroundings: in securing that they have independent status, rather than being seen as merely parts of their families or nations. Independence and Originality, which are aspects of Freedom, are among the qualities that we most honour today. Indeed, freedom of one sort or another has gradually become a central ideal.
There are, however, many different things that we want to be free from. Campaigns in defence of freedom often start by attacking obviously indefensible forms of abuse and oppression. But, as the trouble-some bonds are successively loosened, that process gradually leads us towards the idea that, ideally, each of us ought to stand altogether alone. At a political level, this notion dictates simple slogans such as “one man one vote” (or even, as awkward reformers eventually pointed out, “one person one vote”).
This determined hostility of biologists to group selection is just one expression of the gulf that has opened between Darwin's own approach and the social atomism preached by those who claim to be his followers: both the “social Darwinists” in his own day and the neo-Darwinists now. Social atomism is not really an essential part of the idea of evolution. It is essentially political: an ideology shaped by Enlightenment individualism, one that takes different forms according to the political and social pressures of the day. Its first strong expression was Hobbes's sharp reaction against religious wars and it still echoes the simplistic rhetoric of its founder. It is not interested in relating its findings to the emotional complexity of our actual lives. And, because it comes from a political context, it is habitually polemical, dealing in extremes. I shall try later to look at this very important element in our thought in its own terms and consider how we ought to use it.
But it needs to be kept separate from Darwin. He, by contrast, was trying to grasp how something as complex as actual human motivation – including moral sensibility – could possibly have evolved. He wanted to understand it ethologically, as an expression of the lifestyle of our species. And, unlike many people who attempt this, he did not simplify his task by reducing humans to stereotypical animals. He looked at both people and the various kinds of animals in their actual bewildering complexity. And he started his enquiry from one of the most puzzling human traits – morality – because he thought it so central.
The topic of this book is individualism. It starts from a discussion of Darwin because he is now widely credited – or blamed – as the source of the strange, drastic form of individualism that is current today. He did not actually invent that doctrine. In fact, his views about human relations were quite contrary to it. They centred on the natural, human affections and fears that bind us together, on the conflicts that arise among those natural feelings and on the ways in which we try to arbitrate these conflicts. More than many thinkers, Darwin fully recognized the crucial importance of conflict in our lives. And this makes his views much more realistic, and so more interesting, than the simple current dogmas of neo-Darwinism.
It seems worth while to get the record straight about this because Darwin's authority and influence, which are now considerable, should not be used to back views that are not his. Besides that, however, the whole topic is central to us now because individualism is giving us real difficulties today. Although it is a guiding ideal for our age, accepted as a main achievement of the Enlightenment, it takes many different forms. In a general way we take it to be the saving sense that people are distinct from one another and must all be considered separately. And in practical politics we often try to get them this kind of freedom.
Renowned philosopher, Mary Midgley explores the nature of our moral constitution to challenge the view that reduces human motivation to self-interest. Midgley argues cogently and convincingly 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. Such neatness, she shows, cannot be imposed on human psychology. She returns to Darwins original writings to show how the reductive individualism which is now presented as Darwinism does not derive from Darwin but from a wider, Hobbesian tradition in Enlightenment thinking. She reveals the selfish gene hypothesis as a cultural accretion that is just not seen in nature. Heroic independence is not a realistic aim for Homo sapiens. We are, as Darwin saw, earthly organisms, framed to interact constantly with one another and with the complex ecosystems of which we are a tiny part. For us, bonds are not just restraints but also lifelines.
Amid all the celebrations in the year in which I write – the year of two great Darwinian anniversaries; the 150th of the publication of his great book, the 200th of his birth – it is rather striking that so little has been heard about Darwin's idea of morality. Indeed, people reading modern neo-Darwinist writings might well suppose that he took little interest in the matter or was unwilling to discuss it. Far from this, it was central to his understanding of human life, as he made clear at the start of the third chapter of The Descent of Man. There, after analysing the intellectual capacities of humans, he turned to consider their active tendencies and found there something even more important. He wrote:
I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important. This sense, as Mackintosh remarks, “has a rightful supremacy over every other principle of human action”; it is summed up in that short but imperious word ought, so full of high significance. It is the most noble of all the attributes of man, leading him without a moment's hesitation to risk his life for a fellow-creature; or after due deliberation, impelled simply by the deep feeling of right or duty, to sacrifice it in some great cause.
In this book we have been looking at some of the thousand-and-one reasons why there can be no such simple solutions. The thing is that, as Darwin pointed out, a social animal that has imprudently let itself become aware of the clashes between its various motives is never going to find life straightforward. The work of harmonizing different aims must always go on. We do right to look for simplicity and to use it when we can find it. But we can never expect it – as seventeenth-century thinkers so often did – to be the final truth. We shall always have to do some of the work ourselves.
Darwin's enquiry seems to me really helpful here. Although it starts from an animal context it plainly does not reduce human qualities to those of other animals. It does justice to our special human difficulties and achievements. It centres on the recognition of conflict, on the clashes of motive that increasing self-knowledge must have gradually revealed to our ancestors, clashes that other animals too experience but briefly, since they live more or less in the moment. Our difficulty here – and our great blessing – is that we live in a much longer time perspective. Our longer memories are, as Darwin shrewdly pointed out, not just inert stores but active, interfering commentators, constantly reminding us of things that we would rather forget. This means that other people are constantly present to us and must always be considered, so that mutual influence continually flows between us.
It is not surprising that, after much talk of this kind, Hume grew tired of the drama where Reason was in charge and decided to reverse the plot, putting feeling on top instead. He protested that “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (1978: bk II, §3, 415). Thought, said Hume, has no motive force on its own; it is a purely cognitive power, concerned solely with the discovery of truth and falsehood. “The passions” – the feelings – are the only forces that can actually move people.
This is well worth saying. Yet it is still just one more divisive pattern of the kind that has attracted theorists for so long. It still posits an incurable split between two aspects of the human psyche. This gulf may be located between theory and practice, or between “hard” and “soft” thinking, or again between the arts and the sciences, between facts and values, between objective and subjective, between science and religion or even between men and women (as Tennyson put it in The Princess [line 430], “Man with the head and woman with the heart”). But wherever they put their gulf, philosophers are strongly inclined to take sides about it.
We have now looked at what Darwin actually wrote about human sociality. We have seen how far his thinking is from what his supposed disciples offer. And we have noticed how his remarks have upset people in two opposite quarters: both his self-styled followers, who think he is not reductive enough, and the various kinds of traditionalists – humanists as well as Christians – who think he is too reductive. The source of both troubles lies in his original ideas about human psychology, which differ from both these widespread positions.
One very important thing that his conception of human motivation shares with the Christian view is a realistic acceptance that conflict is central to human life: that we must always be facing new dilemmas without having ready-made answers. Where he differs from the Christian angle is in locating those conflicts within human nature itself – between our various naturally conflicting motives – rather than between our nature as a whole and spiritual forces for good that lie outside it. He does not see the source of evil as lying in our “animal nature” as such, while everything good comes from outside it. Instead, he sees evil as arising from the mistaken choices that we – as whole persons – make between the various elements that compose our nature. It is, as the Buddhists say, a matter of unskilful means.
How, then, did modern individualism arise? No doubt, if Thomas Hobbes had not lived, someone else would have set it off and would be hailed as its founder. The kind of communal, hierarchical thinking that we now call feudal was becoming unworkable, so someone else would have attacked it. But since Hobbes, with his deep ardour and amazing turns of phrase, was actually present, he has become known as its spokesman. And although much of what he wrote is far more subtle than his later reputation would suggest, his influence on European thought has been so strong that it is now reasonable to say that Hobbes invented the modern ego – the ego that thinks it exists quite on its own.
We shall concentrate here, then, on his extreme statements, the mantras that have caught on and are still affecting our lives, without trying to do justice to his subtleties. Central to these mantras was surely his cry, in Leviathan, that the natural state of human life was one of ceaseless “war of all against all”. Human beings, he said, were naturally pure, relentless egoists who could only be brought to live in harmony by fear of the threatening power of government. “Of the voluntary acts of every man the Object is some good to himself” Without government, therefore, their life would be just a zero-sum game: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (pt I, ch. 13).
Rather than discussing the economic side of competition, the actual shortage of resources, I want to discuss competitiveness itself, the competitive attitude. Certainly good causes must in a sense be in competition; that is, they must share resources. The question is should they actively compete? Should they see themselves as competing?
I want to look at a range of difficulties that seem endemic to controversy as such. Some of the difficulties are psychological, but that does not mean that they are accidental, neurotic oddities of particular disputants. They afflict almost everybody who must argue about something important. Other difficulties are in-trinsic in the nature of human life–clashes between rival values, needs, and ideals, places where no fully satisfactory resolution seems attainable.
What does it mean to say that we have got a mind-body problem? Do we need to think of our inner and outer lives as two separate items between which business must somehow be transacted, rather than as aspects of a whole person?