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Selfish Genes and Social Darwinism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

Mary Midgley
University of Newcastle upon Tyne


Exchanging views in Philosophy with a two-year time-lag is getting rather like conversation with the Andromeda Nebula. I am distressed that my reply to Messrs Mackie and Dawkins, explaining what made me write so crossly about The Selfish Gene, has been so long delayed. Mr Mackie's sudden death in December 1981 adds a further dimension to this distress.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1983

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1 See their Discussion Notes, ‘Genes, and Egoism, ’ by Mackie, J. L. and ‘In Defence of Selfish Genes’ by Richard Dawkins, in Philosophy No. 218 (October 1981). These answered my article ‘Gene-Juggling’ (Philosophy No. 210 (October 1979)), which referred to ‘The Law of the Jungle’ by J. L. Mackie (Philosophy No. 206 (October 1978)). Initials used henceforward refer to these articles and to Richard Dawkins's books, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976Google Scholar) and The Extended Phenotype (London: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1982.)

2 For this painful story, see Richard, Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (New York: Braziller, 1959), Ch. 2, ‘The Vogue of Spencer’, and James R.Moore The Post-Darwinian Controversies (Cambridge University Press, 1979), Ch. 7, ‘The Vogue of Herbert Spencer’.Google Scholar

3 Hofstadter, op. tit., 47.

4 Chapter 2, much of which is reprinted under the title ‘The Myth of Genetic Determinism’ in New Scientist 93, No. 1287 (7 January 1982).

5 Dawkins gives this disclaimer at SG, p. 3, but unfortunately goes on to neutralize it. He writes: ‘My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene's law of universal selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true.’ This seems to concede the factual point I now discuss, not only about genes but about people.

6 See The Behaviour of Organisms (New York: Appleton Century, 1938), Chapter 1, 6–7. Skinner adds ‘The sole criterion for the rejection of a popular term is the implication of a system or of a formulation extending beyond immediate observations’.Google Scholar

7 The most comprehensive and convenient source for this history is Edward, O. Wilson'sSociobiology (Harvard University Press, 1976) which gives many other sources. The latter stages of the dispute can be followed in The Extended Phenotype.Google Scholar

8 ‘Units of Evolution, a Metaphysical Essay’, in The Philosophy of Evolution, U. J. Jensen and R. Harre (eds) (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1981). Hull's extreme politeness, in the remarks which Dawkins cites (IDSG, 570), does not obscure the fact that what Hull is pointing out is a metaphysical difficulty raised by the doctrine of gene-selection, a difficulty which, if not cured, will sink it. It is not really too hard to commit a single ‘act of metaphysics’. What is hard is to extract oneself from its consequences.Google Scholar

9 In some parts of the new book, especially at the opening, he concedes that ‘gene-selectionism’ may be only one way of looking at things, a refreshing alternative idea which does not need to establish itself as an exclusive ruler. But most of the time, zeal for its final victory seems to remain undiminished.

10 Dawkins seems to think that I doubt this, for he attributes to me (IDSG, 558) ‘the old, biology A-level reflex’ of ‘explaining animal adaptations, altruistic behaviour among them, as “for the good of the species” ‘. He bases this charge on my remarks that ‘what is maladaptive…damages the species’ chance of surviving’, and that ‘there is a problem about evolution which runs “Can a species survive if each member of it sometimes does things which do not (in fact) pay him?” ‘ (Beast & Man, 149). The first of these remarks seems to be a matter of logic, and the second simply states in neutral terms the central question of sociobiology, as it affects species. The idea that there might be a direct, Lamarckian mechanism, ensuring that what helped the group or species would prevail regardless of the fate of individuals, never occurred to me, so I took no trouble to deny it. I rather suspect that others accused of ‘group-selectionism’ may be in the same boat, including Lorenz.

11 What Kipling gives is, he says, only ‘a few of the laws that apply to the wolves…specimens of the simpler rulings’ which Baloo gave to Mowgli (see ‘The Law of the Jungle’ in the Second Jungle Book, and the story before it, ‘How Fear Came’).

12 This idea may seem to recall an interesting science-fiction story by Colin Wilson, The Mind Parasites, where human faults are found to be the work of mental parasites which are (I think) then eliminated by some kind of transcendental DDT, returning the human race to the innocence which was its original condition. But Dawkins's idea is much more obscure than this, as well as more sinister. It shows all contents of the mind, equally and indiscriminately, as parasitical. Dawkins cites with approval a colleague's remark that ‘When you plant a meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, … in just the same way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking’ (SG, 207, my italics). But the idea of parasite and host requires separate, distinct individuals. If each individual is only a locus for imnumerable warring parasites, how is there anyone to talk of ‘my brain’ or of you as the parasitizer?