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The Origins of Don Giovanni

If our genes are selfish, does that mean that we are too? Mary Midgley explains the facts of life.

Let us start by quoting from a letter –

“Methinks I see a young couple in courtship, having each a design upon the other…she holds ready a net under her apron, he another under his coat; each intending to throw it over the other’s neck; she over his, when her pride is gratified, and she thinks she can be sure of him; he over hers, when the watched-for yielding moment has carried consent too far.”

So wrote Richard Lovelace, the unscrupulous rake in Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth-century novel Clarissa. He is echoed closely today by Matt Ridley, learned and discreet exponent of sociobiology, who writes thus in The Red Queen:

The Point of Marriage
For a man, women are vehicles that can carry his genes into the next generation. For a woman, men are sources of a vital substance (sperm) that can turn their eggs into embryos. For each gender, the other is a soughtafter resource to be exploited. (p.169, emphasis mine)

Does this apparently close agreement mean that modern biology has discovered facts which prove the rake’s partial and cynical views on this matter to be profoundly correct? Well, no. More oddly, it just means that a whole sect of modern biologists has drifted into using a misleading, melodramatic language to express some ideas which, if put clearly, are rather interesting and important.

The mythology of this curious language is, of course, that of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. Officially, this language describes only the imaginary psychology of the personified genes competing bitterly against one another, not the motives of the people (and other animals) who carry these genes. In the myth, those people and animals are not supposed to be real actors but just passive “survival machines robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” (Selfish Gene p.1).

This is an incredibly crude way of saying something true and important.

Without the rhetoric, the literal point is that the natural motivation of all animals is bound to be of a kind which normally ensures that they can breed plentifully and successfully, because motivation which might stop them doing so is eliminated by natural selection. Non-breeders leave no descendants. This simple idea can be really helpful when we find it hard to understand our own natural emotional constitution so as to distinguish natural traits from the influence of custom. It makes it possible to eliminate various sweeping and simple theories about human nature. For instance, if we ask whether we are indeed (as some thinkers such as Hobbes have said) creatures that are naturally just hell-bent egoists, we can see that this cannot be true because ancestral creatures like that would never have gone through all the trouble and sacrifice that are needed to rear human children. Such people would leave no descendants. Accordingly, bad though we are, we are not endowed with that particular kind of badness. And so forth.

These points will occupy us in a moment. But we need to notice first how the crude metaphor used to convey this interesting idea has obscured it by suggesting something which is much less interesting and more familiar – namely, an ideology of everyday cynicism. This ideology is so seductive as to confuse everybody, including the sociobiologists themselves. To repeat – officially, the doctrine of selfish genes does not mean that individuals are motivated only by self-interest. It means that the genes themselves somehow are so. These genes are supposed to secure their own interest better by engineering ‘vehicles’ with quite a complex set of motives, including some altruistic ones. Yet practically every sociobiological writer slides repeatedly from metaphorical talk about gene-selfishness into literal, everyday talk about ordinary human selfishness. Dawkins himself does it repeatedly, beginning on page 3 of his book (“we are born selfish”). And all the first generation of American sociobiologists, from Edward Wilson on, pour out similar uncriticised generalisations, culminating in a much-quoted passage by M.T. Ghiselin – a passage which though unusually lurid, says no more than what his colleagues are committed to:

No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentality has been laid aside. What passes for co-operation 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…. Given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain him from brutalising, from maiming, from murdering – his brother, his mate, his parent or his child. Scratch a ‘altruist’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed. (The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex, University of California Press 1974, p.147)

It might seem obvious, mightn’t it? (particularly to an evolutionist) that, if this had been true, the word ‘selfish’ along with most of the other nouns, verbs and adjectives in this passage, could never have been invented at all. Those words exist to mark important contrasts, contrasts which could never arise for a species moved only by a single, monolithic motive.. Such words are marks of the complex, paradoxical, ambivalent texture of human life. As Kant said, “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no truly straight thing was ever made.” But anguished recognitions of its crookedness and desperate efforts to straighten it slightly are crucial parts of every human culture. Accordingly, there is a constant dialectic in which pious claims about virtue are answered by cynical claims about universal vice. But one kind of manifesto is no more realistic than the other. Realism would force us to keep both elements in view together, grasping the conflict. And this is extraordinarily hard.

Within this debate, cynical rhetoric of Ghiselin’s kind has a quite legitimate place as a corrective to sentimental optimism. It works to remind us how often these things do indeed happen. Standing on its own, however, as a supposed general truth it is just sensational nonsense. Similarly, Lovelace’s analysis of courtship describes perceptively a genuine and powerful element in sexual relations, but it has no claim to be a complete account of the matter. (He is, of course, using it tactically to excuse his own callousness). In what spirit, however, does Matt Ridley present his pronouncement?

This is really an interesting question because, throughout his book, he goes to a lot of trouble to separate the languages involved and to keep translating the myths into literal statements. Like other second-generation sociobiologists, he has seen that simple slapdash rhetoric won’t do. But the rhetoric has got so tangled up with the doctrines that he cannot always separate them. On its own, his pronouncement (cited above) simply looks like something a traditional misogynist such as Schopenhauer or Nietzsche might have said if somebody had told them about genes. Actually, however, it is part of a carefully reasoned argument to show how it has come about that men and women have different emotional constitutions and why this well-known difference is not dangerous to the ideal of political equality. (Different does not mean worse).

As Ridley points out, the very fact of difference, a fact so unmistakable that we all take it for granted throughout our daily life, has been strangely denied by the social sciences for much of this century. This denial has been an understandable piece of homage to the need for political equality, which, however, is a quite different thing from sameness. But the ancestors who succeeded in producing us must (by definition) have been people emotionally equipped to produce and bring up plenty of children. Otherwise they would not be our ancestors. And, in order to bring that about, the men and women among them had to have distinct emotional constitutions because their respective roles in child-bearing and rearing are so different. Thus, in each sex, the particular emotional tendencies which favoured reproduction for that sex are bound to have been disproportionately promoted simply because those tendencies got reproduced more often. Casanova and King Solomon and Queen Victoria all left more children than Savonarola did. If this is right, it seems that marriage has to be a compromise between the different needs of men, women and (of course) children. We have plenty of scope to make this compromise as fair and sensitive as possible. But there is no possible way of shaping it which will give any of the parties concerned exactly what they themselves would have ordered if they had been the only ones involved. Ridley sees at once that this suggestion has some alarming consequences, but he points out that these cannot be avoided by denying the facts. Those facts are neither controversial nor new to us. It is not news that, in all societies, men are on the whole more promiscuous and more polygamous than women and women are on the whole more interested in bringing up children than men are. The thing that we have not had up to now is an adequate explanation of this difference. And, at a glance, the evolutionary story looks able to provide this.

What makes this story alarming, of course, is the fatalistic interpretation of it – the suggestion that the motives leading to these two ways of life are supreme and irresistible. It is here that the sweeping rhetoric of sociobiology falls down so badly. Its prophets have constantly tended to oversimplify, both by attributing the mythical gene’s motive to the person (or animal) and by implying that this motive must be overwhelming. They tell us that he or she only wants to spread his or her genes. Since most people and animals do not even know that genes exist this has to be nonsense, but the nonsense is further compounded and obscured by an economic image. The misplaced metaphor of selfishness is expanded in the economic language of exploitation which Ridley uses here, spreading into a lush commercial imagery of ‘resources’, ‘investments’ ‘cheats’ ‘grudgers’ ‘suckers’ and ‘manipulation’. This talk makes sociobiological theories sound like a claim to have made important discoveries in the psychology of motive – discoveries which, surprisingly, sound exactly like the familiar remarks of theorists like Hobbes and biased cynics like Lovelace.

What Matt Ridley needed to do in order to avoid this kind of absurd pretentiousness was to preface his remarks about marriage with a limiting phrase such as ‘biochemically speaking’ or ‘to use a commercial metaphor’. The vice is in the illicit expansion. Particular sciences can quite legitimately abstract certain patterns from the welter of life and consider them in isolation, but they need to keep on saying that that is what they are doing. It is all right, too, for scientists to use striking images to show the working of these patterns. ‘Natural selection’ is a metaphor, so is ‘mechanism’, so is the idea of ‘natural law’. What scientists must not do is to talk as if these abstractions and these patterns described the whole mass from which these threads have been isolated. The kind of reductionism that means extending such partial, figurative claims to cover the whole range of life is not science; it is propaganda. And this sort of expansion gets specially pernicious when the image involved is one that is already being used in everyday speech (as the image of exploitation is here) to express a popular half-truth. When that happens, neither writer nor reader has a hope of keeping the two points separate.

All this is a pity because what Matt Ridley is really saying, apart from the misleading rhetoric, is surely important. He is not actually justifying Don Giovanni or saying that he is irresistible. He is simply pointing out that, considering the way evolution works, it should not be surprising if every man has got a Don Giovanni somewhere inside him. And this is surely true. The trouble with sociobiological rhetoric is that it has no language at all for filling in the background that makes sense of this insight – for pointing out that this is clearly not the whole truth either about motivation or about evolution. The opera of life is nothing like as simple as this picture suggests for any kind of social animal, let alone for humans. How come (we can reasonably ask) that inside every man there is usually also, for a start, at least a Figaro, a Tamino and a Sarastro, as well as a whole crowd of unexpected characters whom the tide of life is continually producing? How come that inner conflict is a central feature of our existence, and often gets resolved in a way that certainly does not promote our genes? Until they drop their simplification and look at these difficulties, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists cannot help us much in understanding our motives.

© Dr. Mary Midgley 1999

Mary Midgley used to lecture at the University of Newcastle-upon- Tyne. She is a leading figure in ethics and her name is revered wherever philosophers meet.

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