Beast and Man
The Roots of Human Nature

by Mary Midgley

This is a review of Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, by Mary Midgley (New American Library, 1978, ISBN 0-0452-00587-6). Dr. Midgley is a professor of philosophy at Newcastle University in England. She is a very lucid and witty writer, a pleasure to read as well as convincing in argument.

She is, in general, mapping out a middle ground between the proponents of Nuture and those of Nature – between those who hold some version of what she calls the Blank Paper theory (that humans have no inborn nature or instincts), behaviorist and existentialists, for instance, and those who go to the other extreme, currently typified by the sociobiologists. In general, she finds abuses a lot worse on the Blank Paper side, but is emphatic about declaring the middle as the only viable position. Nature and Nurture, Instinct and Reason, are not stark opposites, or opposites at all. This is one of the morals of her book.

I don't, however, feel I can explain her book any better than she does herself, so my review is going to consist mostly of short excerpts bolstered with some commentary to provide context.

From the opening:

This is a general book about how such comparisons [between humans and other animals] work and why they are important. The gap between man and other animals comes, I believe, in a slightly different place from the one where tradition puts it, as well as being rather narrower.

From an introduction to the nature/nuture controversy and why it is ill-conceived:

Every age has its pet contradictions. Thirty years ago, we used to accept Marx and Freud together, and then wonder, like the chameleon on the Turkish carpet, why life was so confusing.

On philosophers' ignorance of actual biology:

Actual wolves, then, are not much like the folk-figure of the wolf, and the same is true for apes and other creatures. But it is the folk-figure that has been popular with philosophers.

On an unfortunate side-effect of Christian monotheism, tending to blacken the image of animals:

The effect is an asymmetry about animal symbols. Favorable symbols are carefully demythologized, so that beasts shall not compete, first with God, then with man. It is not officially supposed that we ought to respect or be nice to actual lions or lambs on account of the Lamb of God or the Lion of Judah. But no similar trouble is taken in the tradition about unfavorable symbols.

But this is not a syndrome limited to Christianity. Animals started serving as scapegoats (*cough*) much earlier, for another religious reason:

It is almost a pity that the development of religion and morality should have put an end to this convenient way of thinking. [Blaming the gods for one's irrational acts.] They did, however, and as the Greek notion of the gods grew steadily more dignified and noble, the problem, "Whom can I blame for my faults?" again became pressing. I do not think it is any accident that Plato, the first Greek who consistently wrote of the gods as good, was also the first active exponent of the Beast Within.

The "Beast Within" is an irrationally raving fury, motivated by aimless wrath, lust, and hunger, completely oblivious to considerations of prudence, morality, or affection. In short, it is a beast at least as mythical as a griffin or a dragon, and much less biologically plausible. The Beast Within is no straw man (straw dog?) or dead horse. It is very much alive in popular culture. A recent SF show on TV showed people "de-evolving" into ancestral species and (of course) raving about like the Beast Within rather than acting like, say, stroke victims or orangutans.

This leads into a particular irrational streak in rationalism:

The white horse willingly obeys the charioteer and helps him to restrain the black; it is no Balaam's Ass that hazards its own suggestions. Accordingly the feelings named in this connection are shame, ambition, the sense of honor, never, for instance, pity or affection, where the body might be held to make good suggestions to the soul. Plato excludes such a possibility. This exclusion has been both morally and psychologically disastrous. Fear of and contempt for feeling make up an irrational prejudice built into the structure of European rationalism.
For our nature is not Plato's or Nietzsche's Beast Without the Law. It is a complex, balanced affair, a structure like the Beasts Within other beasts, subject to a lot of laws, and rather more, not less, adaptable than others, because where they grew horns and prickles, we grew an intelligence, which is quite an effective adaptive mechanism.
Neither Beasts Without not Beasts Within are as beastly as they have been painted.

There is a strong tendency to search for one single sterling quality that differentiates Man from Beast. This tendency isn't really a good idea:

In the Nicomachean Ethics (1.7) he [Aristotle] asks what the true function of man is, in order to see what his happiness consists in, and concludes that that function is the life of reason because that life only is peculiar to man. I do not quarrel for the moment with the conclusion but with the argument. If peculiarity to man is the point, why should one not say that the function of man is technology, or the sexual goings-on noted by Desmond Morris, or even exceptional ruthlessness to one's own species.

If you must dwell on rationality as our peculiar province, you had best do so carefully. It isn't the same as mere ability to calculate:

Traditionally, the distinguishing mark of man, and also his peculiar merit, is rationality. This is not an easy concept. It is not the same thing as intelligence, since you could show great intelligence in pursuit of something quite irrational. "Rational" includes reference to aims as well as means; it is not far from "sane." [And aims, at least many important ones, are innate and instinctive.]

Bringing beasts into the philosophic picture (something which is rarely done except for illustration or a narrow range of propagandistic purposes), throws a new light of criticism on the social-contract theory of ethics:

If you think cruelty wrong in general – which Kant certainly did – it seems devious to say that cruelty to animals is wrong for entirely different reasons from cruelty to people.

On the inescapable intermixing of instinct and learning – which makes hash of the idea that they are somehow opposed:

Cats, for example, tend naturally to hunt; they will do so even if deprived of all example. They do it as kittens when they do not need food, and they will go on doing it even if they are kept fully fed; it is not just a means to an end. But their hunting is not a single stereotyped pattern, it covers a wide repertory of movements. A cat will greatly improve in its choice of these during its life; it can invent new ones and pick up tips from other cats. In this sense hunting is learned. The antithesis between nature and nurture is quite false and unhelpful there; hunting, like most activities of higher animals, is both innate and learned.

Einstein once said, "Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." I am sure Midgley would agree:

Because of his methods of observation and his refusal to posit single explanations, the ethologist is better off than many previous people who have made use of the term "human nature." The term is suspect because it does suggest cure-all explanations, sweeping theories that man is basically sexual, basically selfish or acquisitive, basically evil, or basically good. These theories try to account for human conduct much as a simpleminded person might attempt to deal with rising damp, looking for a single place where water is coming in, a single source of motiviation. This hydraulic approach always leads to incredible distortions once the theorist is off his home ground, as can be seen from Marxist theories of art or Freudian explanations of politics.

On teleology:

Without being deceived, we need to think of organisms to some extent as if they were artifacts. / This requirement worries people. They have made various efforts to get rid of the schema. What cannot be got rid of, however, is the value judgement – "this is the good which X does." Saying that seals are well adapted to cut through water commits us, not just to a view about what is good and bad water-cutting, but also to saying that cutting through water is an advantage, something that can be worthwhile for creatures to do. We do not speak of animals as being well adapted to fall over cliffs, or get stuck in holes, or even neglect their young.
But certain chronic confusions prevent anybody hell-bent on imitating the physical sciences from talking sense about social evolution. These confusions I must discuss in the next five chapters. At their core is something that is not supposed to be on Wilson's agenda at all, namely, the notion of purpose. As I have already remarked, this idea, when officially outlawed, proves remarkably resistant and inclined to come back through the window. The damage this does to the scheme of sociobiology is my next topic.

And, continuing her criticism of sociobiologists (not as biologists, but as philosophers of ethics and politics):

The as-ifness of purpose language causes constant trouble. Taking it literally is strangely hard to avoid. New entities therefore are invented to be cast as designer.
[E. O.] Wilson says...: "The hypothalamic-limbic complex of a social species, such as man, `knows,' or more precisely it has been programmed to behave as if it knows, that its underlying genes will be proliferated only if it orchestrates behavioral responses [properly]." Rather more precisely still, it has not been programmed, it cannot behave (except in the boring sense in which gases do so), and it is not the sort of thing that could conceivably know anything – so it cannot behave as if it knew anything either. Like our liver, it works.

Even more than the limbic system, the genes, or DNA, are called on in socio- biologists' rhetoric, to take on the roles of fates or gods. This can easily be carried too far, and it is. Contrariwise:

In fact if somebody were called upon to advise an audience of conceited genes, as Wilson is advising an audience of conceited individuals, on how to survive, he would have to speak on very much the same lines, telling them not to behave as if they were the only element in the evolutionary cycle. "Remember," he would have to say, "that your welfare depends on that of the individuals which embody you. You must make it worth their while to keep going. If you depress them too much, or set them impossible problems, they will die out, taking you with them. And serve you right." It seems a pity that no gene is in a position to listen to such sound advice. For the same reason, they can no more have a morality than they can play the trombone or write books on sociobiology.

Genes get cast as fates as part of a strong tendency in popular science literature to transform the feeling of awe or wonder of nature into a contempt of the human state:

I shall return later to this question, to the absolute necessity of taking seriously the perspective of ordinary life, as well as the echoing vistas of evolution and the microscopic view of the neurologist. I must first, however, examine something else, which works to push aside that ordinary perspective. This is the third point I mentioned, the suggestion that genes or DNA should in some sense displace ordinary individuals as furnishing the point of the evolutionary process – further, that they can be seen as immortal beings, entitled to reverence.
It is clear that those who invented and favored the idea of the Life Force did put it to illicit emotional use, as a device to justify contempt for the unappreciative crowd around them. ... I was sharply reminded of this habit recently by hearing a well-known writer on evolution speak on a television program, bizarrely entitled "The Selfish Gene," during which he repeated with relish Samuel Butler's remark about the egg and assured his audience gleefully that they were really only their genes' way of producing more genes. His tone was not (as Wilson's is) one of awe at the glory that outlives us. Instead, it expressed only the simple glee of the intellectual who has found a way to put down his public. ... Middle-sized phenomena, such as we must always deal with in our lives, are dismissed as beneath explanation, while the scientist makes off with the speed of light, either to use his electron microscope on ultimate particles, or to gaze through his telescope at remote perspectives, in terms of which indeed the individual counts for almost nothing. Now both these things must be done, but they are no more scientific than working on patterns seen in the phenomena immediately before us.

I have quoted Midgley on sociobiology, because it is now the trendy concept, only recently starting to fade from the criticisms of people like Midgley. But she actually has even more criticisms, and harsher ones, to make of behaviorists and anyone else who claims there is no such thing as a definite "human nature."

Her whole book, in fact, is a caution against being over-simple, over-hasty, and drawing stark oppositions that are false and harmful. Without ever approaching hair-splitting, she teaches valuable lessons on careful distinction, and does so with great clarity and wit.

Return to Introduction to Essays
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop

Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011