Customer Review

25 of 39 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Learning nothing and forgetting nothing, 23 Dec 2010
This review is from: The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene (Heretics) (Paperback)
Like the Bourbons, Mary Midgley appears to have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing since her review of Richard Dawkins 'The Selfish Gene' in the journal 'Philosophy', 54, 1979. There is no logical link whatever between evolutionary biology/ psychology and what Bishop Butler called 'the selfish theory of human nature' to be found (he claimed) in Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes matters because Midgley credits (or discredits) evolutionary biologists for propounding a Hobbesian theory of human nature. Betwixt Hobbes and Dawkins (her main target of attack), however, a great gulf is fixed. Perhaps there is occasional, minor slippage in Dawkins' use of 'selfish' but he does not believe or claim in any serious, significant way that the selfish gene produces selfish human behaviour. Indeed, the needs of the selfish gene may be best served by the development of morality and co-operation among human beings; i.e. human beings who exhibit morality and co-operation are more likely to survive as a group and hence to transmit their genes. All in all this is a half-way interesting book about the limitations of interpreting human motivation in purely or predominantly 'selfish' terms. As a critique of evolutionary biology/ psychology it is, for all the author's evident sincerity, a caricature : and a gross caricature at that. Mary Midgley has done good work in moral pyschology. Unfortunately this book is no part of it.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

[Add comment]
Post a comment
To insert a product link use the format: [[ASIN:ASIN product-title]] (What's this?)
Amazon will display this name with all your submissions, including reviews and discussion posts. (Learn more)
This badge will be assigned to you and will appear along with your name.
There was an error. Please try again.
Please see the full guidelines ">here.

Official Comment

As a representative of this product you can post one Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.   Learn more
The following name and badge will be shown with this comment:
 (edit name)
After clicking on the Post button you will be asked to create your public name, which will be shown with all your contributions.

Is this your product?

If you are the author, artist, manufacturer or an official representative of this product, you can post an Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.  Learn more
Otherwise, you can still post a regular comment on this review.

Is this your product?

If you are the author, artist, manufacturer or an official representative of this product, you can post an Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.   Learn more
System timed out

We were unable to verify whether you represent the product. Please try again later, or retry now. Otherwise you can post a regular comment.

Since you previously posted an Official Comment, this comment will appear in the comment section below. You also have the option to edit your Official Comment.   Learn more
The maximum number of Official Comments have been posted. This comment will appear in the comment section below.   Learn more
Prompts for sign-in


Tracked by 1 customer

Sort: Oldest first | Newest first
Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 4 Jul 2011 21:49:32 BDT
Last edited by the author on 4 Jul 2011 22:06:55 BDT
"Perhaps there is occasional, minor slippage in Dawkins' use of 'selfish' but he does not believe or claim in any serious, significant way that the selfish gene produces selfish human behaviour."

Midgley's contention is not that Dawkins claims "selfish" genes produce selfish human behaviour but that, in using the very word "selfish" to describe genes, Dawkins is attributing one particular kind of human behaviour to genes. It is, of course, a metaphor but Midgley in that original review, goes into great detail to show that Dawkins never explains how the metaphor works i.e. in what way it is applicable or relevant to gene behaviour.

Indeed - Midgley's contention is that the word "selfish" must be a complete mismatch with reference to genes. There is no way that the behaviour of genes can be likened to human selfishness (genes having no self). But - as a metaphor - it is dangerous - appearing to give sanction to actual selfishness. And - as David Stove points out - Dawkins' use of the S word was undoubtedly the reason for the book's success. Dawkins is presenting a whole new metaphysic: selfishness as a quality inherent in the very building blocks of life - a proposition irresistible to a vast number of readers.

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Mar 2012 19:44:35 BDT
G. williams says:
The original reviewer is closer to the mark.I discussed Dawkin's work with Mary Midgley at a workshop way back in 1980 and it was clear that for all her erudition she just didn't understand evolutionary biology and the point RD was trying to make.As for Dawkins "presenting a whole new metaphysic"...I'm sure he would claim nothing quite so grandiloquent.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Apr 2012 13:23:40 BDT
Last edited by the author on 19 Apr 2012 13:27:25 BDT
Sean Higgins says:
Selfishness in the terms that the genetics are only concerned with the reproduction of themselves, not consciously but as an imperative or chance, a mutation occurs and is beneficial or not in the environment it exists and so it passes beneficial characteristics or fails. It seems wrong to ally genetics with human behaviour. Perhaps the publisers needed a hook and being critical of RD was advantageous.

Posted on 28 May 2012 21:28:04 BDT
Last edited by the author on 29 May 2012 14:32:51 BDT
dcom2 says:
While accepting that Dawkins is correct in his strict scientific meaning of a gene being "selfish" [in the sense that it has to reproduce itself - in this regard the definition given in Sean Higgins comment is excellent] it is nonetheless somewhat disingenuous to use the term "selfish" in this particular way in a work of popular science. It is likely to be misunderstood by many readers, and this is what Mary Midgley herself appears to have done back in 1980. However she is right to say that many (most?) readers of 'The Selfish Gene' will come away with the everyday understanding of the word "selfish" despite clarifications by Dawkins. The problem with that is the idea of a selfish gene is used to justify certain ideologies and policies. If Dawkins had called his idea something else (e.g. "Genetic Selection in Evolution") it may have been more accurate but his idea (or meme) would likely have reached a smaller audience, and thereby his idea as a meme would not have been as successful, i.e. it would not have become widely known. What's interesting is that the actual 'meme' that has been successful (i.e. the meme: 'that the gene itself is selfish thereby aiding in the genes survival therefore selfishness is a positive quality') is not the 'meme' that Dawkins began with, but it is the 'meme' that we are now stuck with.

Both Dawkins and Midgley are, in my opinion, quite honourable by and large in their beliefs and statements on this issue - their 'dispute' just seems like a big misunderstanding to me.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Jun 2012 09:12:29 BDT
Tom Atkins says:
I think G. Williams has hit the nail on the head.

It is clear from Mary Midgely's original 1979 review of The Selfish Gene that she had misunderstood the central metaphor of Dawkins' book:

"His central point is that the emotional nature of man is exclusively self-interested, and he argues this by claiming that all emotional nature is so. Since the emotional nature of animals clearly is not exclusively self-interested, nor based on any long-term calculation at all, he resorts to arguing from speculations about the emotional nature of genes, which he treats as the source and archetype of all emotional nature."(`Gene Juggling', pp. 439-440).

This description is a complete travesty. In fact Dawkins makes it very clear in the book that the "selfishness" of genes is purely behavioural and in no way implies psychology, let alone "emotion":

"An said to be altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another such entity's welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish behaviour has exactly the opposite effect. `Welfare' is defined as `chances of survival'....It is important to realise that the...definitions of altruism and selfishness are behavioural, not subjective. I am not concerned here with the psychology of motives." (The Selfish Gene, p. 4)

Posted on 22 Feb 2013 14:32:49 GMT
J. P. Grove says:
Actually, it doesn't really matter what Dawkins thought he intended to mean by using the term 'selfish'. Anybody who is familiar with the way in which Darwinian and Dawkinsian thought has been picked up by nationalistic political extremists in recent years will have to admit that Midgely was completely right in her fears concerning Dawkins' usage.

On the other hand, it is clear that -- whatever other commenters here have tried to argue -- that Dawkins does indeed elide the narrow 'scientific' sense of selfishness in respect of genetics, and wider aspects of human behaviour. Note for instance his explicit opening statements, "We are born selfish" [p. 2] and "Selfish greed seems to characterise much of child behaviour." [p. 3]

There's no wriggling out of this, either way.

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Sep 2014 09:42:53 BDT
Maggie Goren says:
"Selfish greed seems to characterise much of child behaviour" This RD quote can from my personal experience be very definitely wriggled out of with much of my grandchildren's observations and behaviour, the latest from a four-year old when visiting me being "Nana, aren't you lonely by yourself?" I live alone and it seemed to bother him. In other words he seemed to care beyond his own needs. Culture this may be but still an 'unselfish' thought from one so young.

Being close to Mary Midgley's age and not impressed with the 'selfish' intolerance of the other I have witnessed from Dawkins on a TV programme about alternative 'supernatural' beliefs, I would agree with Midgley that it is worth considering the huge complexity of life and the universe it springs from, remembering the old Hamlet quote about there being 'more things in heaven and earth ...' So I would definitely come down on her side if for no other reason than that. Age makes the complexity more confusing not less and one finds oneself living without the fear or need of even trying to eliminate it scientifically or philosophically.

It's just a sadness that human beings being born new to life seem incapable of learning from history that survival, despite our huge advances in scientific knowledge, technology and psychology, does not lie in the wholesale killing of our own species without thought for the future. Where is the 'selfish gene' in that stupidity. Or is this just nature's blind culling of an over-populated planet? So many questions, so many answers and no one person will ever get it right. Maggie Goren.
‹ Previous 1 Next ›

Review Details


4.5 out of 5 stars (4 customer reviews)
5 star:
4 star:    (0)
3 star:
2 star:    (0)
1 star:    (0)
Add to basket Add to wishlist

Location: London, UK

Top Reviewer Ranking: 215,950