- Beast and Man by Mary Midgley
Harvester, 396 pp, £7.50
Biology as a guide to ethics has been an intellectual fad of the last decade, and Mrs Midgley is trying to restore a sense of proportion. Sociobiology has had its home principally in the United States rather than in the land of Herbert Spencer, and Professor E.O. Wilson of Harvard, author of Sociobiology the New Synthesis, is now the leading figure in this new, or revived, philosophy of human nature. The founding father was Konrad Lorenz, who followed the vastly popular King Solomon’s Ring with the immensely influential On Aggression. Then came The Naked Ape (Desmond Morris) and The Territorial Imperative (Robert Ardrey), which made the idea of aggression in defence of territory a household phrase as the name of an instinct which men, like other mammals, are presumed to possess, and which promised to explain their warlike behaviour and regional hatreds.[*] Moral philosophers were warned that both ethical theory and the conduct of life would sooner or later be revolutionised by the study of animal behaviour. We would learn, as a benefit of rigorous science, which moral ideals are practical, being in accord with known basic instincts, and which are wholly unrealistic, being in conflict with innate dispositions comfortably inferred from discoveries about animal routines. Now, as in the last century, popular biology as the key to scientific ethics reliably produces best-sellers; like old conventional religion, new science sweeps away moral uncertainties.
Mrs Midgley steps into the controversy surrounding these large claims as a judicious and temperate sceptic, rejecting the extravagant confusions of the sociobiologists, but agreeing that the study of animal behaviour has produced results which have some interesting implications for morality. The book is fluent and clear. It has no philosophical technicalities and is plainly designed for the layman, even though Mrs Midgley is an academic philosopher alive to the philosophical issues. She briskly demolishes Professor Wilson’s simple-minded 19th-century materialism in a section entitled. ‘Why neurology cannot replace moral philosophy’. Wilson is quoted as having written ‘Cognition will be translated into circuitry and having cannibalised psychology, the new neurology will yield an enduring set of first principles for sociology’ Again,
when mankind has achieved an ecological steady state, probably by the end of the 21st century, the internalisation of social evolution will be nearly complete. About this time biology should be at its peak. Skinner’s dream of a culture predesigned for happiness will surely have to wait for the new neurobiology. A genetically accurate and hence completely fair code of ethics must also wait.
The philosophical mistake here is the idea that better understanding of physical inputs and outputs makes thought about aims and intentions redundant rather as if better knowledge of the mechanisms of the eye made it unnecessary to think about what one is seeing and how it should be described. This old and elementary mistake is a serious one, because it has always been apt to lead to a fatuous and dangerous optimism about the future of humanity. Soon man, the Baconian lord of nature, will have all his problems solved at science’s Second Coming. Mrs Midgley makes the important point that natural selection should not be thought to be an unfailing path to a total improvement, all things considered, in the prospects of survival for a species. A temporarily favourable mutation may involve costs in the design of the organism which in the longer run, and in a changed environment, eventually prove disabling and even fatal. So perhaps now for men.
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[*] E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology was reviewed by the present writer in The New York Review of 12 October 1978. Further autobiographical accounts of their encounters with animals are due shortly from Morris and Lorenz: Animal Days by Desmond Morris (Cape, £5.95), The Year of the Greylag Goose by Konrad Lorenz (Eyre Methuen, £9.95).