Monkey business. The Origin of Species changed man's conception of himself forever. So why, asks Mary Midgley, is Darwinism used to reinforce the arid individualism of our age?

Almost Like a Whale: The Origin of Species Updated

Steve Jones <em>Doubleday, 379pp, £20 </em>


Steve Jones has boldly rewritten Darwin's best-seller. He closely follows the plan of the original, keeping most of the chapter headings and sub-headings, and he reprints the tremendously powerful chapter summaries by which Darwin rammed his points home. But the rest of the book simply supplies evidence from modern discoveries to complete the argument. Sometimes this involves large contributions on matters quite unknown to Darwin, notably about genetics and the new light that it sheds on classification. Sometimes it just fills gaps of which Darwin was well aware, on the fossil record, for instance, or illustrates his reasoning from modern examples. There is an excellent description of the way in which diseases such as Aids become resistant to attempted cures, showing how such examples commit us all to a Darwinian understanding of evolution, whether we know it or not.

In most of these discussions the project seems to me surprisingly successful. Jones understands and respects Darwin's argument in a way that allows his modern contributions to remain always relevant, even when they seem to wander away from it, and provide the needed support. Deliberately using ordinary speech and avoiding learned debate, he explains the workings of evolution, as they are now understood, with beautiful clarity and, naturally, with a lot more fun and jokes than Darwin ever allowed himself. The book is a pleasure to read.

Some British readers, however, may be puzzled by its adversarial tone. To whom does Darwin's theory still need proving? Well, there is the transatlantic angle. Jones is explicitly concerned with creationism. He points out that, according to a recent poll, 100 million Americans believe that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time during the last ten thousand years". The people who preach this view have - despite losing various lawsuits - managed in an alarming way to keep the topic of evolution out of many syllabuses and many American books on biology. They have also lately been increasing their efforts to insert "creation science" into the regular education curriculum.

The need to reach that public is real. It may have influenced Jones's decision to keep his book simple and straightforward, sidelining today's academic debates on questions of interpretation. This means, however, bypassing some rather important aspects of the argument. Creationists are not the only people who are unhappy about Darwin. Plenty of paid-up secular intellectuals, such as Fred Hoyle and Arthur Koestler, have objected strongly to his views. Though they have given various reasons for doing so, their chief objection has often centred on a range of difficulties about applying Darwinism to the human species. Instead of trying to help with this genuinely puzzling topic, Jones simply rules it to be out of order. He issues a starkly tribal warning to intruders on his province: "Evolution is to the social sciences as statues are to birds; a convenient platform on which to deposit badly digested ideas . . . Biology tells us that we have evolved, but when it comes to what makes us human is largely beside the point . . . There might be inborn drives for rape or greed but Homo sapiens, unique among animals, has no need to defer to them . . . Darwinism has been debased since it began by those who use it to support their own creed."

These snorts would have been quite appropriate in the 19th century, when humanistic sages such as Herbert Spencer were putting forward "social Darwinism". Today, however, when the ideology now called "Darwinism" comes straight out of biology departments at such universities as Oxford (Richard Dawkins) and Harvard (E O Wilson), it will scarcely do for Jones to complain that "such vulgar Darwinism is of interest only in its diversity". He means that it has been used to back many different political conclusions, which is true. But it does not follow that academic apartheid can dispose of it.

The reason why that kind of Darwinism is of interest is that it is appallingly influential. It echoes and reinforces the arid individualism of our age, reaching an enormous and receptive public. And it cannot be set aside just by proclaiming briefly that our own species is different from the rest of nature. That will not work because - as Jones himself makes clear - our oneness with the rest of nature is a central tenet of the serious Darwinism that he favours. The question is, in just what ways are we different from other animals and in what ways are we not? This is a hugely complex matter that cannot be settled by tribal warfare.

Science is, unfortunately, not as separate from the rest of human thought as Jones would like to suggest. It always rises out of other thinking, using the assumptions and the imagery of its times and in its turn rebounding to affect these. If the Origin has indeed "changed man's conception of himself", then those changes are surely relevant business for anyone expounding it. What went wrong there is not hard to see, though it is very hard to put right. The trouble started, surely, with the imaginary. In discussing conflicts of interest in the rest of nature, images were constantly drawn from two particular human institutions - war and commerce - and in that context it was not too hard to remember that these were only metaphors. But when the discussion turns back to human affairs, it becomes hard indeed to prevent them from seeming like literal descriptions of human motives and intentions.

Neo-Darwinist theories do not even seem to know that they ought to make this effort. They do indeed sometimes disclaim these literal meanings, but their denials, like the tiny warnings on cigarette packets, are feeble and have no force against the natural meaning of the words they choose to employ. The extraordinary choice of the term "selfish" in sociobiological writings to mean something like "prolific" or "gene-maximising" has fixed this illicit apparent reference to motives at the centre of their discussions and has spawned a misleading rhetoric of similar dramatic language. It is one strongly disappointing feature of Jones's otherwise excellent book that he shows no distrust for this rhetoric. His discussions of the struggle for life proceed as though this were a matter of motives, full of such terms as "ruthless exploitation", "mutual manipulation" and "calculated benefit". This isn't the way to get rid of irrelevant ideology, or to stop Darwinism being perceived as vulgar. Can't he be persuaded to ditch such language?

Mary Midgley is a philosopher and author

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?