By Dr Mary Midgley


‘Meme’ is a word, that, meme-like, has entered the everyday language of the age. Coined by the biologist and author Richard Dawkins, a meme is seen as a viral idea, concept, joke, tune, or story that spreads quickly. It may also be important as an indication of cultural values, but that is less clear. The vagueness of what a meme is, beyond it being catchy, makes it difficult to talk seriously about memes ‘evolving’ through random mutation. In fact, taking ideas about memes and cultural evolution further than the boundaries allowed by ordinary descriptive language – when you start claiming there is something universal and scientifically explainable going on – is when the complications start.

In this article, Dr Mary Midgley clearly identifies the confusions that occur when ideas about evolution become dogma. She demonstrates that ordinary language is a very precise tool for describing our life experiences, and the desire for panacea-type explanations, sanctified or not by science, is a temptation we should avoid if we value the truth.

The following is an extract. The entire article is available here:

Each talk was followed by a period of questions and discussion with a pre-arranged interlocutor: this is included at the end of the main text.

The Author

Mary Midgley is a professional philosopher whose special interests are in the relations of humans to the rest of nature (particularly in the status of animals), in the sources of morality, and in the relation between science and religion (particularly in cases where science becomes a religion). She was formerly Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle on Tyne, and has written many books, notably Beast and Man, Science as Salvation and Science and Poetry. She lives in Newcastle and has three sons.

Biological and Cultural Evolution

The time scale, both of evolution and of cultural change, is far too great for us to have the slightest hope of identifying their general direction from within. Hindsight constantly shows us the folly of those who have hoped to do so for history.

For biological change the difficulty would be inconceivably larger. Even if there were some temporary direction, we wouldn’t be able to spot it. The spiders in the corners of the carriage do not know where the train is going.

Since the project is impossible, those who attempt it must really be doing something else. What they’re usually doing is to project some particular contemporary pattern, which happens to interest them strongly, onto the vast backcloth of history.

They then claim validation for the local version from the Brocken spectre which it has produced.


In this way Spencer presented the views of emergent laissez faire capitalism and made them justify themselves. Similarly, and by contrast, Marx, for his part, projected those of the exploited working-class and saw all future history as a stage for completing the frustrated revolutions of 1848.

Morally speaking, Marx’s enterprise was much the more respectable, but there is nothing scientific about either of them; both make fraudulent claims.

Probably this kind of thinking has, in fact, only two choices: if it doesn’t want to be vacuous, which it often is, it has to be pretentiously self-deceiving – and the self-deceptions are usually dangerous.

‘Evolutionary’ doctrine

At present, their most prevalent form is still Spencer’s; the social-Darwinist view of evolution as a process red in tooth and claw, justifying all sorts of cut-throat competition in human society by claiming that, in the familiar phrase, ‘there is no alternative’.

This is something which our bloody-minded age needs like it needs a hole in the head. Moreover, any such evolutionary doctrine, even of a different content, must carry the implication that we are better than our predecessors, and therefore than surviving ‘primitive’ peoples who seem to resemble those predecessors, and this is not a necessary truth.

Nature and history

The other bad effect which these speculations can have is to distract us from the genuinely important business of understanding our nature as evolution has framed it. We are not blank paper at birth, but complex beings with an emotional constitution which we very much need to understand better.

We have a nature as well as a history. Unfortunately, many theories about that constitution have painted it in rather lurid colours, sometimes indeed in unrelieved black.

Put off by this, people of goodwill for some time took to claiming that we actually were blank paper and had no such constitution at all. It has become increasingly clear that this is evolutionary nonsense.

Thus a conflict arises which calls for new and serious thinking. The idea of cultural evolution strikes me as nothing but a dodge to put off the work of doing that thinking, a piece of displacement activity brought in to dodge the conflict.

It is not the right way to grasp the continuity between human and non-human nature. We need to drop it and find a better path.

Questions and Discussion

Dr Midgley’s interlocutor, Robert Cecil, Chairman of the Institute for Cultural Research, began by referring to what he termed the ‘wholly terrifying phenomenon of social Darwinism’. Embedded in the consciousness of nations, it had led to a struggle for survival among them in which fitness had been interpreted almost exclusively in terms of weapons. ‘How are we going to get this identification of social Darwinism with the nation-state out of our systems?’ he asked. ‘Because if we don’t we are doomed.’

Midgley: There is a propaganda job to be done here. It is a considerable job which I don’t think that people have tried very hard to do yet. That is, I think this particular delusion has been rather widespread, so that everybody who is in a position to do some propaganda, should do a little.

The general psychological question, of how people are to be induced to drop a conceptual scheme which is serving a convenient purpose, is a problem we all know about. What seems to me very odd about sociobiology in general, however – not just Dawkins – is that its language is that of social Darwinism: the term ‘selfish’ is central to it. Life is in some sense said to be essentially selfish. Yet the doctrine of sociobiology, ill-expressed by that language, is quite contrary.

Kin selection, which is clearly at least partly true, is central to any way of looking at natural selection now. What is selected, the line that survives, is the line which takes in social creatures, the line which takes enough trouble about its young for those young to survive. Nor is it only young, but all kin. The self-sacrificing baboon which, as has been seen to happen, leaps on attacking leopards while the other baboons get away, is showing a nature, obviously evolved by many ages of baboonery, in which it is a genuine motive to care for those who depend on you. That is possible because more of the genes of the one who started to be like that survive. Unless it is not reproduced at all, the tendency to that kind of conduct can in the long run become widely inherited and it is a much more consistent interpretation of Darwin to say that it does do this.

The essential doctrine of sociobiology is that this kind of thing is possible, that what is called altruism – acts done for their own sakes, but which in fact benefit others – is perfectly possible.

Kin selection makes it work. Sociobiologists then express this in a strange manner, either by saying that the cause is the selfishness of the gene, as if the gene were the agent making the baboon act because it knows that more of it will survive as a result; or that it is the selfishness of the individual, because he is increasing his own inclusive fitness, which means having an awful lot of descendants.

Now, to use the term ‘selfish’ for this is, I think, extremely perverse. Its effect is that what people pick up from sociobiology is reinforcement of their social Darwinism when, in fact, if this were put more clearly, they would see that they must drop it.

Cecil: Do you actually hold that group selection and the kinship mechanism is the only one by which altruism can have come into human behaviour?

Midgley: I don’t know of any other, unless you mean an act of God. I think this is important. I mean, I don’t know of any other scientific explanation. About God I would like to say that I am all for Him being there in the first place, but I don’t see Him as so incompetent a creator that He must leap in and shift handles as things move on. The scientific is a perfectly adequate explanation here, and if you have an adequate explanation, I don’t see why you would look for a different one.

May I just distinguish between kin selection and group selection? Group selection, as such, is a little difficult to accept, because it would mean that anything advantaging the group will continue. That’s not true, however. If the first self-sacrificing baboon had sacrificed himself before having any young, that mutation would have died out. If, however, his mutation was not so severe or so promptly active that he left no descendants, then it could continue because he benefitted his kin; that is kin selection. That makes much clearer how it works. It is the theoretical minimum that I think we should rest on.

Cecil: Why can’t we just say: ‘There is altruism in the human race, we don’t know where it came from?’

Midgley: Perhaps the obvious reason is that it has been claimed that the human race is not altruistic. Egoism, psychological egoism, proposed by Hobbes as a basis for the social contract, is a very powerful concept in political thinking. People don’t usually believe it explains everything if you mention that to them, but they often assume it. One job that ethology really has done is to shake people about this. It was assumed that people and animals were essentially egoistic and nothing could possibly aim at the benefit of another creature. When to their surprise they are shown that even animals sometimes do this, I think it helps. And if a plausible explanation is available too – a reason why the altruism can be present – there seems no reason not to use it.

Dr Robert Ornstein: May I ask a question from the audience? Is there not in fact a direction in evolution, in that organisms appear to be more complex now than they were at periods in the remote past?

Midgley: Yes, that’s right, Darwin did indeed say that. Things are getting more complex in a general sort of way, but sometimes, very often indeed, they stay still; sometimes they even go back, as in the case of parasites. In going back, however, though they may lose their eyes and so forth, they are still adapting themselves to their situations. But if one tries to say anything more specific than that organisms are getting more complex, if one starts to define this complexity and, still more, if one puts a value on it, if one says the outcome is always an improvement, one very quickly gets into frightful difficulties.