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Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (Routledge Classics) 1st Edition, Kindle Edition
|Length: 410 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
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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. Her view, in brief, is that we are part of the animal world, and that, through ethology we can see many aspects of our nature which are not unique to us, which suggests they are part of our make-up, part of what it is to be our-kind-of-being in the world. For example, the discomfort at being stared at is an unusual but useful example - this is not produced by a cultural context, it is present in many species. The book also offers a defence of moral philosophy from Wilson's reductive determinism, and challenges sociobiology's Hobbesian view of humanity, where man is fundamentally out for himself. Midgley's claim is that we are social, cultural beings by nature - that is - by our very nature, we need others, and a wider culture, to complete us. We are interdependent beings. Her approach is refreshingly holistic, and some of the works she uses to build her case are very much worth reading in their own right too, e.g. 'The sovereignty of Good' by Iris Murdoch and 'I and Thou' by Martin Buber.
At times Midgley is a little too conservative for my liking, for example, she seems to take a great deal of modern applications of gender as natural which I would regard as changeable and as products of culture. There is so much reliance on ethology, which is good, except it is not balanced with a broader look at the extent to which concepts of human nature belong to specific discursive practices, available in specific historical/social settings. Here, some acknowlegement of Foucault, Weber, Mauss or Nikolas Rose is needed before Midgley's project can feel robust. Nevertheless, this is still a very important book and an excellent place to go to deflate the rhetoric of sociobiology, or to offer us a view of humanity that sees us as more than spaces passively filled by culture.
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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.
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.