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Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature [Paperback]

Mary Midgley
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

20 April 1995
`Beast and Man is a brilliant and persuasive attempt to set us in our animal context, ... and to indicate a morality for a society without religious absolutes - a morality of which we see the rudiments in our brother species.' - The Observer

Product details

  • Paperback: 424 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 2 edition (20 April 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415127408
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415127400
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 13.9 x 3.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 928,659 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description

About the Author

Mary Midgley (1919-). A philosopher with a special interest in ethics, human nature, and science, Mary Midgley has a widespread international following for her work. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully thoughtful look at human nature 29 Aug 2003
Mary Midgley has made a career out of taking public muddles and examining them with a view to clearing up the muddle in a way which is always illuminating and often just obviously right. Here, she turns her wonderfully sharp attention to the debate between those who argue that human nature is a blank slate, completely open to shaping by the environment, and works which compare human behaviour with that of the other animals. In the process, she makes a brilliant contribution to our understanding of ourselves and our motives. This edition includes a new introduction where she points out that she has satisfied nobody in the debate. Well, I had my own disagreements at points, but I found her contribution readable, fascinating, penetrating and insightful as always. If you have any interest in what drives human beings, invest a few hours in this delightful book.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Have we a nature? 29 April 2010
This was Mary Midgley's first book, published when in her 50s, in 1977. This routledge classics edition has a superb and lucid preface by Midgley (a decent length too - definitely get this edition) which explains the relevance of the ideas in this book today, in a world where many academics promote a view of human nature built on the extremes of biological reductionism, or postmodern scepticism. Midgley's book is still very relevant today, and finds a useable middle-ground between these two. The real crux of this book is the chapter 'Why We Need a Culture', and the final chapter 'The Unity of Life'. Those who haven't time to read the whole 350-400 pages, I recommend reading at least the preface and these two sections, they really are worth reading. The writing style is clear and engaging.

Midgley outlines two popular views of the human subject, the 'sociobiogical' stance promoted by E.O Wilson, where man is nothing more than the sum of his biological parts, and the opposite view, whereby there is no 'human nature' whatever. This view, which Midgley referrs to as the 'blank paper' theory, takes many forms, including Satre's form of existentialism, as well as some forms of sociological theory (I presume Midgley is referring to Goffman and other symbolic interactionists - one of the biggest weaknesses of the book is she doesnt say, or cite, any of the sociology she is supposedly challenging). Psychoanalysis is often viewed as a plausible middle ground, but Midgley prefers the ethological standpoint, perhaps for its stronger empirical backing.

Her approach draws from a range of sources that vary as radically as from philsopher Martin Buber through to naturalist Konrad Lorenz.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new favorite I will read again and again. 14 Jun 2003
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on
Mary Midgley, one of Britian's most cherished moral philosophers, wrote "Beast and Man" at age 50. At a time where behaviorism and existentialism told the world that there was no such thing as instinct or human nature, Midgley took pen to paper after raising three kids and in observing them, realized how wrong that notion was. Kids have instincts, natures. What's more, these natures are not so far off from what we know of animals natures.
Now before I give the impression that Midgley's book is another sociobiology book in disguise, it is the farthest thing from it. The first thing Midgley does is to make it clear that phrases like "Man is JUST (substitute "merely", "only" or "simply") an animmal are not only unfair to animals, they are unfair to humans. Sociobiology even sadomasochistically revels in depressions like this. (after all, aren't we 'only' the 'third chimpanzee'?) Usually, the mistake made is to thihk that animals are 'humans that just haven't gotten there yet' or that humans are 'dressed up brutes that play at ratiionality'. Midgley spends many pages on tackling both of these assumptions, as tacit as they sometimes are.
From there, she tackles things like what it means to say 'instinct', why 'reductionism' doesn't explain much of anything, and intertwining them all with examples of why the 'lower animals' and humans have so much in common yet are so incredibly different.
In short, this book is not to be missed. It is informative, provocative, challenging and all the while written in a crisp and sensitive prose. Never has it felt so good to be called an animal.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Whats the difference between man and animal? 11 Aug 2002
By "repeatonceagain" - Published on
After reading this book, you may decide that the similarities between man and beast are more important than the differences. Mary Midgley discusses many types of animals and how they compare to humans. Are you sure you are attracted to a certain behaviour because of something only inside yourself, or is it because you are moving as part of a flock similar to how birds do? When you learn something, is it because of your own experience or are you mimicking a leader like a rat does? How much better is the human race, in terms of love and compassion, compared to animals such as elephants? The exploration of these and many other questions might stun you.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dead wrong about science and natural selection, but with many valuable insights 21 Jun 2014
By Curtis - Published on
Midgley had a complete draft of this book written when Edward Wilson's Sociobiology was dropped on her desk by her editor and she was told to revise the draft to address that seminal work. It would be interesting to read that original draft. Much of what is valuable in Beast and Man is in response to Sociobiology, but everything wrong with Beast and Man also stems from her attempt to critique work she never fully grasped.

Midgley provides valuable insights into why we both align ourselves with nature and distance ourselves from it, and how we do ourselves and the animals a disservice in the process. Midgley makes compelling arguments for including motivations within the science of human and animal behavior. She also provides much needed clarity on the difference between biological selfishness and 'egoism'. The later chapters are particularly strong--discussing what rationality is, how rationality and instinct (or unconscious bias) can coexist, and how culture is a product of evolution, not an alternative to it.

Meanwhile, Midgley does not understand science or want to. She sets holism against reductionism in a tired fashion. Her definition of science is wholly self-serving and useless.

Worse for the book, she also fails to grasp the 'selfish gene' view of natural selection and evolution, which underlies the sociobiology she is criticizing. She does not understand that it is not generally 'survival of the group' that matters; she does not grasp the technical sense in which 'altruism' is used in biology with no connotations of intentions. She misconstrues the biological shorthand ("genes want...", "genes engineer...") and fails to understand how the end result of natural selection are 'designs' that do indeed provide for the survival and propagation of genes despite their being merely "little bits of complex goo". While there is much worth reading here, and many valuable cautions and caveats are offered to Sociobiology, Midgley is not equipped to 'correct' a theory she does not comprehend.
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