- 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.
Mrs Midgley clarifies, not only the confusions of sociobiology, but also some other superstitions about the relations between men and beasts. First, she shows that there is no simple criterion of superiority which justifies ranking the animal species as higher and lower on a single tree or ladder, on the scala universi, with man obviously at the top; the species can be seen to ramify along many different lines of development and of superiority, when assessed from a scientific standpoint and without metaphysical presuppositions. Secondly, it is natural for men to form many different and divergent cultures and to speak many different languages, and these natural divergences cut across attempts to found morality simply on a common nature. It is natural for men to be artificial and to dress up in fantastic clothes – a point overlooked by some naturists. Thirdly, aggression is a very vague concept and animal species differ enormously in their tendency to fight and to threaten. Generalisations about ‘aggressive instincts’ and territoriality should also be viewed with suspicion, and nothing can be reasonably inferred about any such instinct in men from the very complex facts. With reckless profusion, animals vary in their habits, and too much can be read into, and inferred from, the few species usually taken as examples. Fourthly, in ordinary speech, and in philosophy and literature, our ancestors for centuries attributed their own more repellent and destructive passions and habits to beasts, and this is part of the religious myth of humanity that comes from Plato into the Christian tradition. This world picture, contributing to human self-assurance, prevented men educated in our traditions from seeing the biosphere as it is, until very recently. In fact, civilised human beings are remarkable among animal species for being sex-obsessed, and for their habits of indiscriminate killing and wanton cruelty, particularly to other animals. In these respects, they have been less charming, more disgusting, in their habits than wolves, hyenas and wild dogs.
Lastly, Mrs Midgley argues that one can reliably attribute purposive descriptions to animal behaviour, including that of men, only when the whole way of life of the creature under study is known. The value of any activity is a function of its part in the whole. Adaptation of the creature to its actual and anticipated environment, and the interlocking of dispositions and purposes, can easily baffle an insensitive observer who arrives, with some pre-formed scheme of description and evaluation in mind. The same behaviour, identified by one natural criterion, can serve largely different purposes in two species, and therefore constitute different behaviour, judged from the standpoint of ethology.
These are only a few of the useful points of critical restraint and sound argument in the book. There is an underlying positive theme: that biology is the physical science which should lead us to think again about our reluctance to recognise that we are natural objects who emerged from the ordinary evolutionary processes with an unusually developed brain and the power of explicit and self-conscious speech. Brutes lack the necessary equipment to support these peculiar powers, although different species have an enormous spread of different powers of observation and adaptation, many of which would be useful to men if they had been attainable without too great a cost. Mrs Midgley always remembers that nature is by no means an infallible designer, and the temporary, preferred solution of a design problem in a species, such as man, may leave behind redundant and uneconomic features, and self-destructive ones. The established religions, such as historical Christianity, which place mankind at the centre of the natural order, as the target and triumph of the evolutionary process, also represent beasts as instruments for men’s use. This belief is combined with some fear or unease about mankind’s status which is evident throughout the history of literature and of religion: fear that expulsion from the Garden, the loss of natural innocence for the sake of curiosity and culture, is as likely to lead to self-destruction as to salvation. Mrs Midgley refers to the ambivalence about violence and war in the Iliad, which represents the events of war as being at the same time vile and an occasion for nobility and for celebration. In its spare and magnificent way, the Iliad begins the literary tradition in which, at a much later date, men appear as disjointed beings, alienated from their original purposes, as diseased animals, strained and destructive and deviant, because of some lopsided development of their natural powers. Precisely this unease is defensively expressed in the religions which distinguish mankind’s higher self from a lower nature supposed to link men with the brutes. The higher self is immune to natural processes, or can under prescribed conditions be made immune. There has been deep, emotional resistance to any thoroughgoing naturalism which presents men, without drama, as a contingent byproduct of physical processes – in this respect with similar risks of survival or extinction in a longer run. The Copernican hypothesis and Darwinian theory were painful enough in their day, but anthropocentrism as a presupposition of moral theory is far from dead, even in the minds of free thinkers.
The philosophical resistance to naturalism survives in the idea that human knowledge, explicit and transmitted from one generation to another, guarantees survival through the control of nature, including human nature. This is pride in reason, which is now pride in scientific method, as the differential and unique virtue of man. But our cognitive powers are limited by their physical embodiment, and by themselves they provide no guarantee that they can be extended sufficiently to ensure the necessary control of the environment and of destructive dispositions. Intelligence is a power that is developing within the haphazard evolutionary process, and is not a transcendent force. Because knowledge is of its nature cumulative, one is apt confusedly to think that human intelligence must follow a linear progression in time, as the Encyclopedists hoped: forgetting that knowledge is possessed by vulnerable persons, embodied minds, even if it sometimes has a potential existence in lost libraries. There can be at any time a regression to ignorance and barbarism – for example, by impairment of the supporting gene pool through excessive radiation or by other physical changes traceable to human actions.
That section of the natural order, the biosphere, most intensively studied in this century exhibits the sovereignty of chance, luck and contingency, and provides examples of sudden and substantial changes due to small unpredictable displacements, of little causes producing great effects, and of explanations by probabilities. The two centuries of philosophy dominated by Newton’s physics naturally transferred the idea of unalterable laws to human affairs, with the implication that the history of human affairs must also follow some law-like regularities and be similarly predictable. There was a demand that morality should be determined by universally binding laws, corresponding to the laws of motion exhibited in the starry heavens above. But a thoroughgoing naturalist in philosophy, from Epicurus and Lucretius until the present, will accept untidy contingencies, ‘swerves’ which are in practice unpredictable and which arise from the confluences of heredity and environment in all living systems, and will expect to find this element of unpredictability, and this absence of clear pattern, in human affairs also. The determinate laws of physics underlie these contingencies: but for those who are interested in the functioning of living systems, and who adopt a biological standpoint, interruptions to normal functioning from many different directions are always to be allowed for. The consoling idea that there is a regular pattern and design in human affairs, and that the destiny of mankind is reasonably predictable, is undermined when thought is concentrated on genetics and breeding and mutation, the multiple causes of diseases, and the effects of radiation. The species is no less exposed to risk than any other species of animal, except that human beings are better-equipped to calculate some of the risks and to take out some insurance.
Mrs Midgley tries carefully not to exaggerate, in the traditional way of philosophers, the peculiar advantages which the power of reasoning brings. She sees this power as the power of reflection. Reflection on policies of behaviour leads to the reassessment of aims and interests, and thereby modifies the purposes and morality which each man has derived from his innate endowment and from the social pressures upon him. There are prereflective sources of morality, some natural and more or less common to all men, some cultural and not common, and these are varied by reflection, in pursuit of coherence and in response to the needs of an individual temperament. Rightly, Mrs Midgley brusquely dismisses Hume’s and Kant’s melodramatic severance of the goals of action from the data of natural science and of experience, and returns safely to an Aristotelian ethics appropriate to her topic: we rationalise, as best we can, the needs and desires that nature and culture have given us, knowing that every case is a particular case and moral generalities are only a rough and probable guide to action.
Perhaps at one point she underrates the peculiarity of men among the beasts: because she associates the use of language primarily with communication, she omits to remark that language’s more distinctive and far-reaching power is to bring possibilities before the mind. Culture has its principal source in the use of the word ‘if’, in counterfactual speculation. Not even Lorenz’s strangely responsive jackdaws and amazingly human geese entertain unrealised possibilities, as far as we can see. The other principal gift of language to culture is the power to date, and hence to make arrangements for tomorrow and to regret yesterday. Perhaps that kind of memory, and also that kind of fear of the end, engenders our disease, if we are diseased animals at all: this at least was Freud’s suggestion about the past and about the misfortune of having an attachment to history – to a history which might have been different and might have been less bad. If one associates the innate gift of language-learning and of grammaticality, not with communication and with signalling, but with the innate and related gift of mathematics, one will have a better view of this aspect of human unbeastliness.
This excellent book may irritate some readers by an occasional breeziness of tone and by a perhaps too healthy contempt for philosophies which the author dismisses as lacking in common sense: Existentialism is rather too cursorily put down, for instance. There is sometimes a suggestion of the robust head of family who has no time for morbid speculations when we should all be getting on with the business of living normally in the open air. The prospects for humanity may be darker, and the temptations to madness more powerful, than they are made to seem here, and Existentialists may have been right to suggest this. But still, it must be wrong to complain of too much sanity on this of all subjects.
[*] 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).