The selfish metaphor

Characterising evolution
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New Scientist has a regular feature called ‘The Big Idea’. In the current issue, Mary Midgley (who describes herself as a freelance moral philosopher) has an excellent article on the role of metaphor in evolutionary thought.1

Midgely argues that the metaphors that have dominated the discourse about evolution for decades, like ‘selfish’, ‘war’ and ‘competition’, define “the landscape so completely it becomes hard to admit there are other ways of conceiving it.”

Midgley recognises that:

The trouble with metaphors is that they don’t just mirror scientific beliefs, they also shape them. Our imagery is never just surface paint, it expresses, advertises and strengthens our preferred interpretations. It also usually carries unconscious bias from the age we live in.

While I’m completely with Midgley, I baulk at her characterisation of the role of metaphor as “trouble”. If metaphors weren’t troubled to shape beliefs they would have very little use. That they are not just descriptive but also constructive is their great value. It is why they are useful to science and every other human endeavour. We just have to understand their nature.

Midgley critises evolutionary discourse for the “thoughtless” use of the selfish/competition metaphor when at all levels, from genes to societies, entities complex enough to compete cannot exist without cooperation. She notes even Richard Dawkins pointed out the 30th anniversary of his book, The Selfish Gene, that genes are actually cooperative rather than egoistic.

Midgely traces the root of the problem to:

Atomistic thinking, originally drawn from physics, acquired a social meaning in economics and was then returned to science as ideas of competition began to dominate 19th-century biology.

That makes sense to me, and I smiled when Midgley falls prey (!) to her own complaint. She uses the same kind of metaphors to describe the “clash” and “conflicts” between the communal and separatist views of human nature. (And I wont comment on the origin of the word Mary uses to describe herself, “freelance”)

As a palliative to the selfish metaphor, Midgley invokes complexity theorist Brian Goodwin, neurobiologist Steven Rose, paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, systems biologist Denis Noble and of course the mathematical biologist, D’Arcy Thompson. These scholars show how “natural selection is supplemented by a kind of self-organisation within each species, which has it’s own logic”. Midgley concludes:

Now the old metaphors of evolution need to give way to new ones founded on integrative thinking – reasoning based on systems thinking.

And so say all of us. Noble for example has played with the metaphor that evolution is more like music than war.

Just about everything that Midgley says about evolutionary thought can be said of psychology. Mechanistic and particularly computer metaphors abound. Biology at least is imbued with the concept of ecology. Gregory Bateson (and his colleagues) attempted to introduce psychology and psychotherapy to the value of systemic and metaphoric thinking with his Steps to an Ecology of Mind, published in 1972 – but few were listening back then.2

Nevertheless, the world is a-changing. Not only is the Cognitive Linguistic ‘revolution’ (!) in progress in academia, it is rapidly filtering into public consciousness – as evidenced by Midgley’s article. At the same time, a piece by Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman in Psychologies Magazine highlights ‘The Mixed Blessing of Metaphor’ even mentions, “the clean Language movement seeks to call attention to metaphor, opposing the tendency of therapists to recast clients’ experiences in metaphors of their own”.3

Thinking systemically, however, is a more complex and subtle pastime, and that wave is still only a ripple.


1 ‘The selfish metaphor: Conceits of evolution’, Mary Midgley, New Scientist, No. 2797, 19 Jan 2011 pp. 26-27.

2 One notable exception is the school of Family Systems Therapy. While Bateson is seen as one of the intellectual grandfathers of NLP, his systemic ideas, where mentioned, are often adopted in a linear “programming” fashion.

3 ‘The Mixed Blessing of Metaphor’, Oliver Burkeman, Psychologies Magazine, February 2011 p. 28

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