BEAST AND MAN: The Roots of Human Nature by Mary Midgley

BEAST AND MAN: The Roots of Human Nature

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Mary Midgley adds a zestful and spirited voice to the current debate on the nature of human nature. Displaying a neat bit of territoriality herself, she reclaims for philosophy (which she teaches at the University of Newcastle on Tyne) the discussion of concepts, logic, order and values which arise as behaviorists, sociobiologists, ethologists, humanists, and others define humankind. Her position takes shape as she calls each of these groups to account: She chides the behaviorists for their crude reductionism, their illogical concepts and narrow views (and wittily quotes what should be the behaviorists' greeting; ""You've all right. How do I do?""). She values much of E.O. Wilson's erudition, but faults him for making parallels between the more or less ""closed"" instinctual behavior of the social insects and the more open patterns which constitute human needs and desires. She attacks him too far his atomistic genetics--assuming there could be such an entity as an altrusitic gene. She argues that most rationalist philsophers as well as biologists hellbent on making human behavior a proper science assume that everything we do is calculated; that cost-benefit analysis or ultimate self-advantage colors every act. Her empirical answer is that it just isn't so. This stance leads her to a logical attack on egoism, solipsism, and existentialism (of the Camus variety). Her disputes with other contemporary voices include the libertarian critics of Wilson whose fears (that anything genetic wipes out man's freedom) she finds absurd. She believes that there is much in human behavior which has roots in other mammalian behavior. We need to study this in as close and careful a manner as possible--noting the context, exceptions, variations. Further, it is essential to raise questions about motivation and purpose. Finally no one single theme--dominance, aggression, sexuality, the will to power--can ever totally explain human behavior (though she does lean powerfully to care of the young as a major factor permuted in many ways in human interactions). This is a stimulating, hard-thinking, and often delightfully witty contribution from a perceptive philosopher.

Pub Date: Oct. 30th, 1978
ISBN: 0415289874
Publisher: Cornell Univ. Press