Dawkins, Midgley, disfiguring vanity

I see on Pharyngula that Richard Dawkins has claimed that Mary Midgley confessed to never reading the Selfish Gene before reviewing it in Philosophy.

This is untrue, whether or not he believes it.

When he first told it me, in, I think, 1995, I checked it out. I asked Ullica Segerstråle, the person to whom MM was supposed to have made this confession, whether it had happened and she denied it. She was embarrassed that it should be believed. Later, after a supper with RD, she concluded the whole thing had been “a misunderstanding”. On that basis, I was happy to describe the incident as I did in the Darwin Wars, as one showing that Dawkins was reluctant to believe that anyone could have misunderstood his book to the extent that MM did.

I take it that the US interview with MM — from which the story arose — was taped. US was, after all, researching a scholarly book at the time. So there should be definitive evidence one way or another.

US believes — as I do, and as MM herself would, I think, now accept — that she got the biology wrong. But she never said she had not read the book: why should she? Of course she had read the book before reviewing it.

I will write more if I have time, and the story rolls on.

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11 Responses to Dawkins, Midgley, disfiguring vanity

  1. PZ Myers says:

    The problem, of course, is that Midgley got the whole Selfish Gene story so absurdly wrong that it’s fairly easy to believe that she didn’t read the book. It’s actually very hard to see how she could have read it and come away with the ideas she assigned to it.

    We’re in a state of cognitive dissonance here. We can scarcely believe that Midgley was that stupid (and I’ve read some of her other work; she doesn’t give the impression of being a stupid person), so the explanation that “she didn’t read the book” is appealing because it resolves some of the conflict. Has anyone been able to satisfactorily explain how she screwed up so badly?

  2. Mrs Tilton says:

    I expect Andrew will know a lot more about this than I (after all, what little I know comes from his book). But it seems to me that MM either (i) is prone to picking up other people’s metaphors and running with them to entirely unwarranted places, or (ii) was very badly served by the biologist she recruited to help her understand TSG. Though (i) might on its face seem likelier than (ii), I am inclined to take (ii) as the explanation, esp. if she had been talking to somebody like Steven Rose.

  3. acb says:

    In haste, I have two explanations. The first, more general one, is that though RD didn’t mean what she thought, he certainly said it. The fact that he contradicted it later, and never meant it as more than fine phrases doesn’t unsay it. “Picking up other people’s metaphors and running with them to unintended places” is actually quite a good description of one sort of philosophical criticism. But I have been over all this, exhaustively, and probably more fairly, earlier. She did go over the top, and admitted it in a subsequent article.

    The second is to do with the climate of the times. She had come across the book being used by right-wing students in exactly the sense she supposed it to be intended. It was all part of the first great Seventies wave of sociobiological rhetoric: here are two relevant quotes:

    “No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for cooperation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation. The impulses that lead one animal to sacrifice himself for another turn out to have their ultimate rationale in gaining advantage over a third; and acts ‘for the good’ of one society turn out to be performed to the detriment of the rest. Where it is in his interest, every organism may reasonably be expected to aid his fellows. Where he has no alternative, he submits to the yoke of communal servitude. Yet given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain him from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering—his brother, his mate, his parent, or his child. Scratch an ‘altruist,’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed.”


    “Ideas of vaguely benevolent mutual co-operation are replaced by an expectation of stark, ruthless, opportunistic mutual exploitation.”

    As it happens, only the second one is Dawkins; but they do seem to have a certain something in common, do they not? You might very well suppose that anyone who had signed up for one of them would sign up for the other. I think that a number of her own students had in fact done so and they were not the only ones. Certainly, the political views of Bill Hamilton were entirely consistent with his biology, and not particularly liberal or progressive. In fact RD avoided reviewing his collected papers because of this problem.

    Any social-darwinist reading of TSG is wrong, but it’s not entirely unnatural; nor is the benign, progressive reading forced by the text. I am not the only person who has difficulty with the assertion that we alone of all animals on the planet can escape the tyranny of our selfish genes. It reads to me suspiciously like the invocation of a miracle, in fact, since the mechanism for this escape is never made clear.

    My own way out of these difficulties is to believe that there is no logical connection between Dawkins the scientist and Dawkins the atheist, or Dawkins the philosopher and that the only way to do the scientist justice is to ignore the other two but I appreciate that this is a minority position, probably not shared by the man himself.

    As for Mrs T’s second point, I can’t be sure, but I doubt very much that the biologist who advised her was Steven Rose. I think it was a professor at Newcastle but the relevant conversation was a long time ago.

  4. acb says:

    And, PZ, who are “we”? Dawkins’ claim about MM is just untrue. It’s not stood up by the facts. She did not say any such thing to Ullica Segerstråle. That she didn’t say it is a matter of simple historical fact, like the non-existence of the Garden of Eden. I hope you of all people wouldn’t want to claim that there is some deeper, possibly theological, sense in which it must be true just because it would be so comforting if it were.

  5. Mrs Tilton says:

    Oh, I’d be surprised if it had been Rose himself who worked with MM. I’d be fairly certain, though, that it was somebody who, like Rose, had (at best) grossly misread TSG. As you note, though, the misreading is, like a gaping pit, there to be fallen into.

    In fairness to MM, also, I wonder how many of RD’s disclaimers (“When I say ‘selfish gene’, of course I do not mean that genes are selfish, nor even that they have a ‘self'”, “a society run along the lines our genes run things would be particularly horrible”, etc.) were present in the first edition, which will have been what MM read. I have no idea myself; I have read the book several times, but always only the subsequent edtion (on which RD was helped by, I believe, Helena Cronin).

  6. PZ Myers says:

    Oh, I’m not saying it’s true or that it must be true at all. I’m saying that when you’ve got a phenomenon that is difficult to explain (“how could she get it so wrong?”) and someone offers a simple explanation (“she didn’t read the book”), it’s easy to see how many people leapt to the conclusion that the explanation was true. All I’ve got is a psychological explanation for why so many are incorrectly assuming it is true.

  7. acb says:

    If it’s not true, it’s a silly statement which shows RD in an unpleasant and unflattering light. I know perfectly well that you didn’t make it.

    I’ve offered the best explanations I can for what she wrote in Philosophy. I can’t do better than that, and they are not, really, justifications. There we are.

    As for the Independent article which set you off — I think she is plainly right as a matter of simple fact. That is to say, she is describing accurately the motivations of her (and your) opponents: the ID crowd really do believe in the old motto, “be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever”. Whether they are right to do so is another matter. I think that they are wrong, but it’s interminably debatable.

    The point is that the really powerful motivation for creationism/ID is a sense that there are some things which, even if they are true, we should not think of too closely. Again, you have to distinguish between two aspects to the problem — whether this intuition is justified, and whether is it a real motivating factor.

    So far as I know, you think the intuition is wholly unjustified, but I think you’re wrong if you go on to assume that it’s therefore not a real motivating factor for some of the supporters of ID. Why should this matter, you’ll say: they’re wrong. Well, yes, they are; but if their deep motivation and concern is not the superficial one that they present, then wrangling about the facts of the matter will get no one anywhere. We need to understand what the argument is really, emotionally, about.

  8. Rupert says:

    Religion is people behaving in a perfectly natural manner. Telling them that they’re wrong, dangerous and a threat to humanity is not a solution: doing so because one feels an instinctive revulsion is doubly not so.

    Homosexuality is people behaving in a perfectly natural manner. Telling them that they’re wrong, dangerous and a threat to humanity is not a solution: doing so because one feels an instinctive revulsion is doubly not so.

    Perhaps if religion were renamed theosexuality, it would be easier for atheosexuals to argue against the destructive aspects of the behaviour while recognising that it’s a way of being that can be profoundly liberating, true and enriching. It would also be easier for those who find themselves in sympathy with aspects of both ways — the bithexuals (*) — to embrace the apparent paradox and sunbathe in the illuminations from each.

    Preach safe thex!


    • That’d be me, then
  9. Ian Thorpe says:

    The problem with trying to relate Dawkins’ work on genes with human behaviour is that humans are so bloody-mindedly unscientific.

  10. acb says:

    No. That wouldn’t be a problem at all if Dawkins actually worked on genes. Science is true whether or not we believe it; whether or not we even have a theory to disbelieve. Measles epidemics spread as they do whether or not their victims blame them on evil spirits rather than viruses. To take a more sociobiological example: young men ar emore likely to die violent deaths wheter or not they believe they are immortal.

    Placebos, it seems, provide an exception to the rule, since they only work when the patients believe in them. But placebos go on working whether or not the observer believes they should, and it is the observer who has the possibility of being in this context the scientist.

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