Each chapter was written by a different author chosen for expertise in particular fields of science, and of course the chosen one for the chapter on Charles Darwin was Richard Dawkins. The chapter is well written and worth reading for the history of the gradual development and acceptance of natural selection as the driver of evolution, but I read it in eager anticipation of a blunder or two from Dawkins, knowing that he cannot resist the urge to put his own spin on things, and I was not disappointed. In recounting the rudimentary versions of natural selection that were already published prior to the papers of Darwin and Wallace, Dawkins wrote this; “Wells made the leap to generalise from artificial to natural selection, but he applied it only to humans, and he thought of it as choosing among races of people rather than individuals as Darwin and Wallace did. Wells therefore seems to have arrived at a form of group selection rather than true, Darwinian natural selection...which selects individual organisms for their reproductive success.” And later, “Darwin, who clearly saw selection as choosing among individuals,...”
You see, the problem with choosing Dawkins to write about Darwin is that Dawkins is a Darwinist. That might sound ridiculous, but the unfortunate fact is that Darwinism is a deliberate misrepresentation of Darwin’s views on selection. Darwin did write at length about individual selection, and there is no doubt that he placed great significance on its role in evolution, but his work on evolution did not end with "On The Origin of Species". In his later work, "The Descent of Man", he was crystal clear in his argument that cooperative groups will survive at the expense of the less cooperative.
In short, he argued a case for group selection.
This was not an abandonment of individual selection; rather it was an acceptance that in biology things are rarely simple and clear cut; and so selection can act at multiple levels. That is surely not a difficult proposition to see and accept, but it is difficult for Darwinists. The unfortunate outcome of their inability to accept the obvious is that their perverted form of Darwinism has gained near-universal recognition as being the last word on evolution; with Darwinist jargon becoming part of everyday language, and Darwinist psychology (evolutionary psychology) presuming to provide answers to the most profound of human problems.
It’s that latter point that has concerned British philosopher Mary Midgley and prompted her to write THE SOLITARY SELF – Darwin and the Selfish Gene (2010) thereby arousing the fury of neo-Darwinists, one of whom mounted an extraordinary and baseless attack on Midgley as I explained in Does Truth Matter. The synopsis given on the back cover of the book gives a pretty good snapshot of the contents: "In The Solitary Self Mary Midgley explores the nature of our moral constitution to challenge the view that reduces human motivation to self-interest. Midgley argues cogently and convincingly that simple, one-sided accounts of human motives, such as the selfish gene tendency in recent neo-Darwinian thought, may be illuminating but are always unrealistic. Such neatness, she shows, cannot be imposed on human psychology.
Midgley returns to the original writings of Charles Darwin to show how the reductive individualism that is now presented as Darwinism does not derive from Darwin but from a wider, Hobbesian tradition in Enlightenment thinking. She reveals the selfish gene hypothesis in evolutionary biology as a cultural accretion that is not seen in nature. Heroic independence, argues Midgley, is not a realistic aim for Homo sapiens. We are, as Darwin saw, earthly organisms framed to interact with one another and with the complex ecosystems of which we are a tiny part.
For us, (social) bonds are not just restraints but also lifelines. The Solitary Self is a significant re-reading of Darwin and an important corrective to recent work in evolutionary science, which has wide implications for debates in science, religion, psychology and ethics." Not only does the book have wide implications for debates in evolutionary psychology, it overturns that school of thought completely, as it presents a comprehensive rebuttal of the selfish gene hypothesis on which evolutionary psychology (as we know it) is based. But Midgley did not stop there; she has also presented a valuable contribution to evolutionary philosophy with a discussion of the contributions to this field by such notable figures as Kant, Hume, Comte, Mill, Nietzsche, and others too numerous to mention. And all of this discussion is within the framework of Darwin’s own detailed and carefully constructed position.
Here’s a snippet to give a taste of the book; “Moreover, the demand for fairness and justice rather than partiality is itself also a natural human feeling, as can be seen from its prominence in all human institutions, and even more convincingly, from the determined way in which small children assert it. This egalitarian spirit constantly engages in debate against our narrowness at every human level from the playground on. That sense of fairness is now also being detected in other species by those who are, somewhat belatedly, now looking for such things experimentally. This, in fact, is surely one of many cases where nature itself sets up a dialectic, endowing us with feelings that are bound to conflict, and also with the power of reconciling them. Darwin’s point was that the capacities by which we seek a higher synthesis for these conflicts – and sometimes find it, are still part of our evolved nature, as much part of it as the simpler faculties that we share with other animals. This is surely right, and it does not mean that they have somehow lost their value or significance.”
That standard of penetrating insight and clarity of thought is present throughout the book, and what a refreshing change it is in contrast to the pseudo-intellectualism of those who push the evolution-as-selfishness myth while declaring themselves, with brazen dishonesty, to be Darwinists. I found the treatment of Hobbes’ influence on the selfish gene view particularly interesting as this was a subject I covered in 12 Misunderstandings of Evolution. Both books are highly recommended.