Saving Darwin from Dawkins: Midgley

The philosopher Mary Midgley has in recent years criticised Richard Dawkins, not because of his attack on religion, though she feels his attack has weaknesses, but because of his use of the word selfishness, and his psychological account of the human condition, and therefore human morality, in terms of being selfish. She believes that under the guise of his biological science, he has smuggled in an explanation of human behaviour that is psychological, rather than biological.

Writing in 2009 she suggested that:

Selfish is an odd word because its meaning is almost entirely negative. It does not mean “prudent, promoting one’s own interest”. It means “not promoting other people’s” or, as the dictionary puts it, “devoted to or concerned with one’s own advantage to the exclusion of regard for others”. This being usually seen as a fault, the word serves chiefly as a term of abuse. And it raises a difficulty for theorists who want to say that self-interest is, in some sense, the core of all human motivation.

By theorists she is talking about Dawkins and those like him, who view human behaviour in highly deterministic terms.

We wonder how, if this is so, the word could ever come to be invented at all? Just as there would be no word for white if everything was white, there could surely be no word for selfish if everyone was always selfish. As things are, however, we notice that some people do consider others less than most of us, and we use words like selfish or mean to record this fact. (Midgley, 2009)

She notes that Charles Darwin presses a more complex account of human behaviour in his book The Descent of Man.

Darwin derived morality, not just from our extra intelligence but from the combination of that intelligence with the strong affectionate and co-operative motives which we share with other social animals, and related these to our evolutionary history. As he put it, “Thus the social instincts – the prime principle of man’s moral constitution – with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule, ‘As ye would that men should do unto you, do ye to them likewise’ and this lies at the foundation of morality. (Midgley, 2009)

However Dawkins seems to have taken a rather different route. In his book The Selfish Gene (1989), Dawkinsdisregards these Darwinian suggestions. He writes flatly that “we are born selfish” – we are ourselves, not the genes. Here the word selfish has its normal, negative sense here. He writes that if we want,

to build a society in which individuals co-operate generously and unselfishly… you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then have a chance to upset their design, something which no other species has ever aspired to. (Dawkins, 1989, p.3)

Dawkins goes on to argue that it is possible for a human being to turn against his instinct.

We can even discuss ways of cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism, something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world… We have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. (Dawkins, 1989, p.200)

Midgley suggests that far from being science, this is a metaphysical claim, an extreme dogmatic suggestion based on a simplistic and arbitrary understanding of human psychology. Midgley argues that this extremist psychological has actually pushed people towards creationism and intelligent design because of the suggestion that this is linked to Darwin. And yet, Midgley would have us believe that Darwin was far more nuanced than Dawkins. Darwin would never have dogmatised hastily about matters that are mysterious and complex to us.

Nor, certainly, would he have made the mistake of mixing claims to scientific objectivity with melodramatic rhetoric based on personifying the gene – a mixture which gives Dawkins his own grand conclusion that the cosmos is both a random, meaningless jumble and also a callous, brutal fate-figure that manipulates us. Small wonder that his readers say “If that is evolution I don’t want it”. (Midgley 2008)

Dawkins’ doctrine is simply unrealistic. In her most recent book (2010) Midgley argues that the reduction of human motivation to pure self-interest, which she calls a reductive individualism, comes not from Darwin and his evolutionary theory, but other enlightenment thinking which portrays human beings as heroically independent and driven by self-directed individualism. She goes on to argue that human beings are framed to interact with one another in society and the complex ecosystem within which we are a tiny part.


Dawkins, R (1989) The Selfish Gene, Oxford: OUP.

Midgley, M (2008) ‘Cold wars and grand conclusions: The conflicts that matter aren’t between different parties in the world but within each one of us, as Darwin knew’, in The Guardian, Available at: (Accessed: 10 September 2010).

Midgley, M (2009) ‘Hobbes’s Leviathan, Part 3: What is selfishness?
How Richard Dawkins went further than Hobbes and ended up ludicrously wrong’, in The Guardian, available at: (Accessed: 10 September 2009)

Midgley, M (2010) The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene, Acumen: Durham.

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