Animal, Spiritual and Cerebral

Mary Midgley

  • Animal Thought by Stephen Walker
    Routledge, 388 pp, £17.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9037 4
  • On the Evolution of Human Behaviour by Peter Reynolds
    California, 259 pp, £20.00, December 1981, ISBN 0 520 04294 8
  • The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit by Melvin Konner
    Heinemann, 436 pp, £16.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 434 39703 2
  • Sociobiology and the Human Dimension by Georg Breuer
    Cambridge, 264 pp, £22.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 521 24544 3
  • Sociobiology and the Pre-Emption of Social Science by Alexander Rosenberg
    Blackwell, 210 pp, £9.90, March 1981, ISBN 0 631 12625 2

In what ways are people similar to other animals, and in what ways are they different? There are real problems of method about the right approach to this question, but they are nothing to the emotional ones which rise, like a buzzing cloud of insects, as soon as we approach its frontiers. The need to determine answers in advance of investigations is perhaps felt more strongly in this area than in any other outside political history – if indeed it is outside it. Time and again scholars have determined to get this disorderly province of the mind finally under control and to issue a clear map of it. Peter Reynolds, in his admirable book, cites one such map, from an American anthropologist writing in 1901:

1. The mentality of animals is instinctive rather than ratiocinative, and for each species responds practically alike to like stimuli; 2. the savage mind is shaped largely by instinct, and responds nearly alike to like stimuli; 3. all barbaric minds are measurably similar in their responses to environmental stimuli; 4. civilised minds rise well above instinct, and work in fairly similar ways under like stimuli, and 5. enlightened minds are essentially ratiocinative, largely independent of instinct, and less nearly alike in their responses to external stimuli than those of lower culture. These several generalisations are mutually and significantly harmonious ... they measure the gradual mergence of bestial instinct in the brightening intellect of progressive humanity.

As far as the barbaric minds were concerned, the work of field anthropologists of course quickly showed this strange map to be a parochial fantasy. But perhaps not enough attention was then paid to the psychological twist which produces such fantasies. This has two elements – the simple need to have someone to despise, plus the fact that those whom one does not understand always tend to seem simpler, more standardised and more automatic in their behaviour than those whom one does. Because this twist was not fully noticed, the rehabilitation of ‘savages’ did animals no good. Indeed it did them harm, since it was now held that the injustice done to primitives had rested centrally on grouping them with animals. The right way to remedy it, therefore, was to draw an impenetrable line round the whole human race, and defend it at all costs, both as a matter of moral principle and as a territorial issue between the social and biological sciences.

It is interesting that those discussing the matter in these terms certainly did not feel partial. They felt scientific, and, as so often happens, they were able to consider themselves scientific because they had stated the issues in a way which threw a heavy burden of proof on their opponents, while leaving their own assumptions veiled in obscurity. The formula chiefly used for this purpose was supposed to be simply an expression of scientific parsimony. It was Lloyd Morgan’s canon of 1894, whose reasoning, as Stephen Walker points out, is extremely rum. It rules that ‘in no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the exercise of one which stands lower on the psychological scale.’ Walker reasonably remarks that it is not even clear whether explanations of this kind are always parsimonious, and even less clear whether the most parsimonious explanations of biological and psychological phenomena are always the best. Applied to human actions, as he says, ‘the Canon would require us always to assume that people act from the most straightforward and least intellectually demanding motives.’ But of course it is not meant to be applied to human actions. (When it is so applied, we call it prejudice, and assume that contempt for those being analysed is the reason for invoking it.) It is meant to be used on animals, where its only possible effect is to ensure that they do not begin to look comparable with people. By combining it with very narrow experimental methods, which made sure that no interesting behaviour would be seen, comparative psychology could thus become the study which protected the human race from serious comparison with any other species. For quite a long time this enterprise succeeded. What has doomed it now is the flood of light thrown on the whole subject by the interesting, fertile and canon-free comparisons which have in the meantime been made, both in neurology and in the study of animal behaviour outside laboratories.

Because both these studies belong to biology, it is still possible for those who dread the damage which they expect comparison to do to human dignity to raise their territorial barriers and declare this kind of light irrelevant to the social sciences. But this dread is surely mistaken. Detailed comparison is as badly needed for understanding differences as for establishing likenesses. Dignity cannot be injured by truth. The threat is usually conceived as one of illicit reduction. But the whole trend of these biological investigations is anti-reductive. They do not only show animal behaviour itself as far richer and more varied than tradition ever imagined. They also show the sources of both human and animal behaviour to be richer – more subtle, more various, more complex in their working – than our current models allow us to suppose. They reveal the whole silly territorial battle between the social and the physical sciences as unnecessary. They give us materials for a new, non-jingoistic map to replace the unrealistic one which still confuses us.

The first four books discussed here are all very useful and constructive contributions to this mapping. (The last, which, significantly, is two years old, is a residual salvo in the old battle, but one which seems calculated finally to reveal its absurdity and reduce contestants on both sides to silent amazement.) The first two, which I find the most interesting, are careful and discriminating studies of the range of intelligent animal behaviour and its relation to our own. Both trace the strong and unmistakable continuity between the two sets of behaviour, without any attempt to blur the differences. Both examine closely the various crude models which have been used to represent this relation, point out some ways in which the facts fit them, and many others in which they do not, and consider what needs to be done to improve on them. The two books supplement each other, often using different materials but converging towards similar conclusions. Walker is the fuller and more thoughtful, being especially good on the philosophical history. Reynolds is the sharper and more aggressive; perhaps he has more striking suggestions – though Walker has those too.

Both pay particular attention to neurology. They spell out a fascinating history of the way in which scientific ideas of the human brain itself were shaped by essentially hierarchical views on how it ought to be working. The notion that, in humans, intellect is a quite distinct force ruling emotion, was traditionally strong, and was felt to demand distinct structures in the brain, with an appropriate causal dependence. In the early controversies over evolution, this demand became suddenly much more urgent, since the ruling structure – accommodating the soul – now had to be something not shared with any other animal. The great anatomist Richard Owen therefore claimed to find such unique structures, and long continued to maintain their uniqueness in the face of plain evidence from T.H. Huxley that they were present in apes as well. When this kind of rearguard defence finally failed, the debate shifted from structure to function. Whatever was enlarged in man – chiefly, of course, the cerebral cortex – was held also to have changed its function in such a way that it had now become a general governor, with powers so drastic that it had taken over the functions of the subordinate parts as well. This transformation effectively abolished instinct, providing culture to replace it. Reynolds, after tracing in detail how brain research has gradually undermined every aspect of this system, calls the hierarchical picture ‘a caricature, best termed the Victorian brain ... This Victorian brain, with the neocortex superimposed on a hierarchy of functional levels, each with the properties of the reflex arc, has given way to a functional interaction among anatomically distinct components, in which phylogenetically different levels are integrated.’ There is, in short, no law that new structures always rule old ones, and not even any very obvious sense to be given to the idea of ruling at all. There is certainly no structure with a general power of replacing the instincts. Yet the idea of a governor has remained powerful. ‘There is a tendency to want to appoint some brain division as “in charge” of all the others,’ remarks Walker – a tendency which in the human case calls for ‘imperialism of the forebrain’ and specialisation there alone for all admired activities. But this exclusive, one-way dependence is not found. ‘The higher cerebral attainments occur in conjunction with, not instead of, other functions of the brain,’ which still work and have not actually undergone any radical change. Intellect comes, not to destroy, but to fulfil. Both on the ladder upward from simpler to grander animals and at the last fateful step to humanity, the imperialistic model has been found badly wanting.

Does this matter? Some social scientists may still feel inclined to ignore all such biological evidence, and to rest the idea of instinct-free man entirely on observation of human life. (They are likely, today, to replace instinct by culture rather than by reason, but this makes no difference to the commitment with which the position is held.) The idea itself is, however, a very obscure one, because the notion of instinct, itself a biological one, needs to be cleared up before we know what we are denying.

The word often seems to be used here to mean automatism, so that we are merely distinguishing people – very properly – from the ludicrous standard mechanical toys which animals were formerly supposed to be. And indeed neither people nor animals are such toys. No doubt observation of human life confirms this. But it can scarcely show, on its own, that people share no important innate behavioural tendencies with animals. To decide on this, an observer needs a full, trained understanding of how such tendencies work, and that training is at present chiefly available to biologists. Another thing which observation itself cannot do is to provide the theoretical model which is needed before it can start. The notion that human life works essentially through the control of emotion by reason and custom is not a product of observation, but a presupposition, derived from a particular moral and political tradition, which of course has obvious advantages but also serious limitations. Officially, behaviourism put this out of date by making culture, not reason, the exclusive ruling faculty. This would mean that feelings, as well as thoughts, are now entirely socially-determined, and physical constitution has ceased to have any effect on them. This idea, however, is so implausible that defending it must be bad for anybody. It really would pay social scientists to cut their losses on the instinct-free model, and open their minds to the fertile, fascinating and quite unobjectionable thought that human activities draw on immense and varied resources at all levels of our brains and nervous systems, as well as on the riches of culture. In doing this, they will find both these books enormously helpful, especially in their discussions of language, too vast a topic to start on here.

Melvin Konner’s book complements these two by supplying a rather different range of evidence for the same central point, and also by drawing interesting moral conclusions of its own. Where Reynolds and Walker concentrate on the cognitive faculties, Konner, a biological anthropologist, deals chiefly with motivation. He goes through the main human emotions – rage, fear, love and so forth – examining in some detail the nerve and brain mechanisms associated with them. He shows their potent effect, and at the same time points out their great complexity and versatility, qualities which make them adequate for their astonishing task. This removes any suspicion of reductiveness from his account. He thus documents clearly the plain fact that human instincts are alive, well, and working. But his purpose is something deeper than simply to establish this. He wants to correct what he sees as a wider bias in the social sciences, lying at the root of their denial of instincts: namely, an unrealistic utopianism which has mistakenly supposed that refusing to look at the sources of conflict would make those sources go away. Like Darwin in The Descent of Man (though with much fuller evidence), he reckons that human life is naturally prone to conflicts, that they do not spring only from outward clashes of interest, but also from divergent natural motives, and that we cannot deal with these properly if we do not understand them. Physical science, he says, stands alongside the great poets in making us face the real depth of human difficulties. Social science, in so far as it has decided to ignore the tragic dimension, tells us lies on which we cannot live. His discussion, though it sometimes needs pruning, is vigorous, clever, honest, often original and extremely thought-provoking.

And so to sociobiology. One of the things which specially endeared Konner to me was his remark that only about 5 per cent of current behavioural biology is actually sociobiology – if only that were also true of the news given in press releases. In itself a harmless, indeed nutritious study, sociobiology is, as he remarks, merely the application of natural selection theory to the explanation of reproduction, especially the behavioural aspects of reproduction. But it has been aggressively marketed by its American exponents, many of whom seem to be unconscious Social Darwinists, as virtually a new universal revelation, containing a brand-new set of principles for the social sciences, and ready to take them all over as soon as they will agree to the operation. In consequence of this ballyhoo, it becomes necessary to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

For this Georg Breuer’s admirable little book is just what is needed. He explains the actual doctrines from scratch very clearly, shows where they are useful, and defends them against the crasser criticisms which they have incurred merely on the sort of grounds which we have already considered – because, in the human case, they do not hesitate to envisage the presence of instincts. He points out how oddly the charge of ‘genetic determinism’ which is levelled against them comes from critics who identify themselves as left-wing, and, in particular, how much this charge would have surprised Marx and Engels. And he exposes to proper contempt the accusations of fascism and racism. But he goes on himself to make the deeper and more serious criticisms which are unquestionably called for, of the crude and over-ambitious attempts to apply the method to human beings. Rosenberg, by contrast, recommends doing precisely that, but at a cost which might make the most fervent sociobiologist grow pale – namely, by getting rid of all the vernacular language which at present deforms the subject, and converting it into a seamless fabric of technical terms and mathematical formulae. If this were done, he says, sociobiology would indeed do what its champions claim it already does, and supply at last a true social science – one which would be wholly quantitative, and therefore genuinely scientific. His book, which is a high-powered affair from a literate philosopher of science, does a terribly effective hatchet-job on a number of enterprises, including all existing sociobiology. I am quite unable to judge whether it is a wickedly clever piece of satire on the view of ‘science’ which it apparently expresses, or a demand in good faith for the unintelligible product which it appears to call for. Anything, after all, is possible.