The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene by Mary Midgley

From The Telegraph:

Midgley_main_1759408f Beast and Man was written as a corrective to two opposing views of human nature. The one dominant in the social sciences believes man is shaped completely by society or economic circumstances; the other side, argued for by zoologists such as Desmond Morris, sees man as an evolved animal with natural urges and tendencies – usually aggressive – that cannot be abolished. Midgley sought to balance these two approaches. She agreed with the zoologists that man was among the animals rather than separate from them, and that our nature cannot be wholly created by society or by ourselves because of the limits of our biological make-up. Observing chimpanzees in the manner of Jane Goodall could yield fascinating insights into human behaviour.

Yet she was also deeply wary of the fatalism she saw in some (usually male) zoologists who continually emphasised competition, selfishness and virility among animals and took a morbid delight in nature, red in tooth and claw. The Solitary Self takes up the arguments of Dawkins, the most recent exponent of biological fatalism. Our genes, Dawkins suggests, are like Chicago gangsters, forever competing with one another; we are, therefore, “born selfish”. However, as Midgley picks up, Dawkins does not notice that his words leap from speaking about selfish genes to selfish persons. People are whole entities subject to many influences – their physical environment, other people, their culture, not to mention their own minds.

More here.

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