P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 176
16th November 2012
I. 'Nietzsche: The Politics of Physiology' by Martin Jenkins
II. 'Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea: Fishing, Life and Work' by
Pedro Blas Gonzalez
III. Responses to Philosophy Pathways Issue 175 by Anthony
Flood and Max Wilkinson
More by chance than by design, this issue of Philosophy Pathways is
entirely in-house, with articles by ISFP Board member Professor Pedro
Blas Gonzalez and Pathways mentor Martin Jenkins, together with
responses to the articles by Kilivris and Uhall in issue 175 by
Pathways mentor Tony Flood, who will be joining the Board of the
ISFP, and Max Wilkinson, currently studying for the University of
London BA in Philosophy via Pathways.
Martin Jenkins looks at Nietzsche's notorious charge against
socialist/ anarchist analysis and critique of inequalities in society
that they are merely physiological symptoms, evidence of an unhealthy
psychology brought about by ingrained ressentiment resulting in
fatally conflicting 'drives'. Against my better socialist
inclinations, I found his exposition of Nietzsche rather persuasive,
which leads me to wonder whether, ultimately, Marxist thinking might
benefit from synthesis with Nietzsche's later ideas about the kind of
human beings that we ought to strive to be.
The Nietzschean ideal of nobility is beautifully expressed in the
study by Professor Gonzalez of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man And The
Sea. If anyone thought that being 'noble' meant being a member of the
ruling class or elite, then this moving testimony to the integrity of
the individual in the daily struggle for physical and moral survival
would swiftly disabuse them of any such notion. The paper was
originally given as a public lecture.
In his robust response to Kilivris, Tony Flood points to several
unexamined assumptions, chief amongst which seems to be that the
humanist supplanting of the earlier, theistic view of human beings
and their place in nature is seen uncritically as an 'achievement'.
He also points out that, given the historical circumstances, there
were rather obvious reasons why Heidegger and Adorno did not enter
Max Wilkinson offers a knowledgeable analysis of Uhall's claims,
arguing that we ought not to be distracted by the admitted logical
difficulties of defining the identity and individuation conditions
for genes in accepting their powerful explanatory role. We don't yet
undertand all the details of how exactly genes are selected, or how
they are able to 'build' a hen or a human being. This is a matter for
on-going research. We can also accept that there are other influences
at work without casting doubt on the gene theory.
I. 'NIETZSCHE: THE POLITICS OF PHYSIOLOGY' BY MARTIN JENKINS
Unlike the modern ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Karl Marx where
social structures and dynamics of a society are cited as creating
social problems, unrest and protest, Nietzsche appears to locate the
cause in the physiology of people or strata of peoples themselves.
Thus he dismisses those who blame society for their ills as not
knowing the real reasons as to why they suffer. Consequently,
Daniel Ahern calls Nietzsche a 'cultural physician' as he analyses
cultures, values their values and diagnoses accordingly. As known,
Nietzsche analysed Western Culture as forged both by Christianity and
in the Nineteenth century, by the then emerging 'Modern Ideas' of
equal rights, democracy, socialism. Whilst Nietzsche is violently
critical of both I will briefly analyse why, arguing that Nietzsche's
conclusions are based on false premises and are therefore wrong.
Slaves, Priests & Socrates
In On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche paints an originary social
picture of physiologically healthy noble warrior aristocrats and sick
slave masses. The aristocrats health entailed proactive, physical
activity (war, adventure, hunting, dancing) and their values,
perspectives of life were correspondingly affirmative. The slaves
were unhappy -- not because of their situation as slaves but because
of their weariness, exhaustion and the sickness that follows from
this. The sickness leads them to hate their existence, hate their
lives, and devalue the earth. Enabling an escape from weariness and
exhaustion, the slaves vent ressentiment against the noble
aristocrats blaming them for their sickness and suffering. At the
same time, there has been a split away from the noble aristocrats by
the Priestly caste. Once brothers in arms with the warrior
aristocrats, practices Nietzsche terms the Ascetic Ideal, are adopted
by the Priests to demonstrate their singular piety. Practices such as
fasting, sexual abstinence, flights into the nothingness of
self-hypnosis, over-refinement, diet, are not only means of piety
they are also signs of something unhealthy. The Priests view their
suffering as evidence that are too good for this existence and long
for another one, hating this earthly one and like the slaves, they
blame the reigning lords of the earth for their sickness. Due to
their weakened condition, they cannot physically defeat the warrior
Consequently, insofar as they are weak there grows a proportionally
inverse hatred against the Aristocrats. Whilst such vehement
ressentiment cannot be actualised in physical deeds, it is done with
words and beliefs. A whole new anti-worldly metaphysical, religious
perspective develops which surreptitiously undermines the
aristocrats. The ressentiment of the Priest unites with the
ressentiment of the slaves and he becomes their shepherd. As their
shepherd, two things occur. Firstly, the revolt is completed when the
values of the aristocrats are revalued by the Priest/ Slaves in what
Nietzsche terms 'the slave revolt in morality'. The aristocrats
values of 'Good' and 'Bad' are inverted by the hegemony of Priests/
Slaves into their values of 'Good' and 'Evil'. The slave revolt in
morality triumphs and the direction of culture is changed.
Secondly, at the same time, the ressentiment of the slaves towards
their ex-masters is now, at the direction of the Priest, turned
against themselves. No longer are the devalued aristocrats to blame
for the suffering of the slaves, it is they themselves who are to
blame -- for they have sinned. Their suffering is a result of sin.
Atoning practices, rituals and perspectives of the priest's Ascetic
Ideal are inscribed into the masses. Cultural values are now
reactive, life and the earth are devalued, shackled by rancourous
practices, perspectives in favour of the reality of another, worldly
Similar themes emerge with Nietzsche's treatment of Socrates -- who
is invariably taken to be the father of Western Philosophy. Instead
of eulogising him, Nietzsche also finds him, like the slaves and
Priest, exhausted and weary of life. Socrates' cure for his condition
is: 'superfetation of the logical' Indeed this, along with his use
of dialectics in bamboozling Greek aristocrats is symptomatic of
ressentiment, of seeking revenge against them. Although suffering
from the same problem as his fellow Greeks, Socrates offered a cure:
the old Athens was coming to an end -- and Socrates
understood that all the World had need of him -- his
expedient, his cure, his personal art of self preservation
...everywhere the instincts were in anarchy; everywhere
people were but five steps from excess: the monstrum in
animo was the universal danger. 'The instincts want to play
the tyrant, we must devise a counter-tyrant who is
The instincts were in anarchy -- more of this below -- and Socrates
had a cure; not the Ascetic Ideal of the Priests but the tyrant of
reason. Greeks became fanatic about being absurdly rational thereby
suppressing every other instinct. Logic, Reason and Thought were
hypostasised over the body, its drives and the earth.
Arguably, Jewish Theology synthesised with post-Socratic Greek
Philosophy. It's values and perspectives subsequently dominated
Western civilisation for the next two thousand years. In the
nineteenth century, its values and perspectives emerge in 'modern
Nietzsche proclaimed that God died in the later Nineteenth century.
Christianity paved the way for the 'modern ideas' of democracy,
socialism and its extremes of anarchism. As all were equal before God
there being no privileged exceptions, the ressentiment that fuelled
equality continues under secular guises.
The 'equality of souls before God', this falseness, this
pretext for the rancour of everything low-minded, this
explosive concept which becomes revolution, a modern idea
and the principle of the decline of the whole social order
-- is Christian dynamite.
Although Christian in origin, equality is one of the key themes
proffered by modern ideas. For 'the democratic movement is the heir
to Christianity'. Like the slaves before them, Anarchists and by
implication, socialists and democrats, are dismissed as a declining
strata who, when they demand rights, justice, equal rights are
seeking revenge for their suffering. Whereas the Christian
denigrates this world, seeking revenge in the judgement of the next
world, the socialist worker denigrates society and seeks revenge in
triumphant revolution. Both are decadents united in their need to
appropriate blame for their suffering.
Why do they suffer? Why do the slaves, Socrates and the advocates of
modern ideas suffer according to Nietzsche? He declares them
degenerates, decadents: less than what a human being ought to be. Why
are they decadents? Because of their physiological sickness. This
sickness is attributable to a internal anarchy of the drives where
each drive -- as a manifestation of will to power -- is combating
every other drive. Allowing each pathological drive to express itself
expends energy. The person becomes unfocussed and the expenditure of
power vented now this way and now that, depletes their vitality. They
become weary, exhausted, depressed and sick. Hence they seek
respite from their sickness, this is found with the active
distraction of ressentiment -- 'I am suffering, someone else is to
blame'. This conclusion employs a causality that concludes their
suffering as an effect of someone else's actions. Nietzsche
challenges such erroneous thinking when he states that an effect is
not attributable to an efficient cause, it a matter of physiological
immanence. That for example, some one is healthy is not an effect of
diet, it is attributable to their physiology. So in seeking to
blame an external cause such as the prevailing social order, the
advocates of 'modern ideas' are missing the real physiological source
of their suffering -- themselves. The cultural physician alone has
discovered the real, physiological basis of specific cultural
valuations underneath Christianity and Modern Ideas.
And what of the values borne of this depleted life -- vitality of the
suffering and sick? Principally, these are equality and pity. The
'herd' recognises neither god nor master: they suffer, the privileged
are to blame for this and will be subject to the ressentiment fuelled,
revenging, levelling blade of equality. Nietzsche opposes equality as
it is contrary to the essential nature of life -- which is will to
power. Healthy expressions of will to power as the very dynamic of
life will naturally entail inequality between people. There will be
differences between 'man and man, caste and caste' imbuing a pathos
of distance, an order of rank, commensurate with the will to power
that one is. Flowing from the top will be the new philosopher/
creators. In other words, a pyramid-like hierarchy is synonymous with
a healthy society. In negating this, equality negates health and
Modern Ideas of Justice are also based on Pity but a pathological
pity expressive of weakness and sickness. It wants to abolish all
suffering -- which is contrary to the nature of life.
We think that harshness, slavery, violence, danger in the
streets and in the heart, concealment, stoicism, the art of
experiment and devilry of every sort; that everything evil,
tyrannical, predatory and snakelike in humanity serves just
as well as its opposite to enhance the species
Struggle, hardship, problems, enhance humanity just as well as it's
opposite of happiness, peace and ease. Modern Ideas eschew the former
for the latter. Pity further makes the already suffering worse. Pity
is the opposite of 'the tonic affects that heighten the energy of
vital feelings'. It is a contagious depressive which makes the
sickness worse and the hatred of earthly life worse. Further,
Nietzsche condemns Christian Pity as keeping alive all that would
otherwise have perished.
Challenges by which humanity grows, develops and enhances itself,
will be avoided as they involve suffering and this has been abolished
by pity. Equality will prevent differences -- principally those of
strong, daring, creative individuals from developing. All that will
remain, according to Nietzsche, is a timid, uniform herd animal, the
ideal of modern ideas which regards itself as the justification and
culmination of history. This type of life does not want to grow, it
wants a quiet, green pasture happiness. All this has developed from
decadence, now universalised and valorised as the norm, as good.
So we find that according to 'the cultural physician' Nietzsche, the
growing demands for universal suffrage, the development of a labour
movement, the protests of socialist and anarchist politics found in
many European countries were a response not to 19th century
capitalist, industrial development and the corresponding conditions
they created; they are valuations, perspectives borne of a
ressentiment from the labouring masses and their weariness,
exhaustion, their suffering with life. Their suffering, symptomatic
of real, physiological causes of disaggregated drives.
I will examine Nietzsche's diagnosis for the problem of 'Modern
Ideas' another time. Here I would like to ask, Is his contention that
modern decadent humanity and not social structures are the cause of
social unrest, protest convincing? Firstly, I think Nietzsche's
opposition to Socialism predates any physiological explanation for
it. From at least Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche evidences his
disdain of Socialism. His physiological justifications can be
seen as pretexts for already established opposition.
Secondly, even discounting the point made above, the veracity of the
physiological explanation relies on dubious biological premises.
According to Gregory Moore, Nietzsche was familiar with Darwinian and
pre-Darwinian theories of evolution. In particular, that of Carl
Nageli. Nageli held that evolution moves towards perfection, this
understood as a greater degree of organisational complexity and
division of labour. Hence the more complex and ordered the interior
drives of an individual/ species, the higher they are. As with
the masses, the physiological inner anarchy of their drives makes
them lesser in this evolutionary sense; the motivation of greater
complexity being Will to Power. The influence of these views on
Nietzsche's accounts of modern ideas and Christianity is clear. I
would maintain, it is also wrong. It rests on teleology, and
evolution, arguably, does not.
In sum, the premises on which Nietzsche's conclusion rest concerning
Modern Ideas etc. are unsound. Rather, to paraphrase Nietzsche, they
reveal the prejudices of the philosopher. When, as today, peoples
throughout Europe and beyond are protesting at their socio-economic
circumstances, it is not because they are malcontents due to an
intrinsic physiological sickness caused by chaotic drives; it is due
to public, external socio-economic conditions themselves. Nietzsche's
prejudices blind him to this.
1. #34. Skirmishes of an Untimely Man. Friedrich Nietzsche. Twilight
of the Idols. Cambridge University Press 2005. #44. Friedrich
Nietzsche. Beyond Good & Evil. Cambridge University Press 2002.
2. Chapters 1 & 2. Daniel A. Ahern. Nietzsche as Cultural Physician.
Pennsylvania State University Press. 1995.
3. First Treatise: 'Good & Bad', 'Good & Evil'. Friedrich Nietzsche.
On the Genealogy of Morality. Hackett. 1998.
4. I perceive ambiguity concerning the issue of the sickness that
Nietzsche claims the slave masses and the Priests suffer from. Some
places in his text, he writes that adopted practices inculcate the
sickness; in others the sickness is innate due to the inner turmoil
of the drives. Obviously if adoptive and social practices incur
sickness then this is contrary to Nietzsche's thesis and social
factors are to blame for the ills of the many. [For example see GM1
#6 cf gm GM3 #11]
5. #7 Genealogy of Morality op. cit.
6. #17, 18. Third Treatise. On the Genealogy of Morality
7. #4. The Problem of Socrates. Twilight of the Idols.
8. #6, 7. ibid.
9. #8. Ibid.
10. #62. Friedrich Nietzsche. The Anti-Christ. Cambridge University
11. #203. Beyond Good & Evil. op. cit.
12. #34. Skirmishes of an Untimely Man. Twilight of the Idols.
13. #6. What the Germans Lack. #1,2,4,6,7,9. The Problem of Socrates
#37 Skirmishes of an Untimely Man. Twilight of the Idols.
#13,14,15,16,17. Third Treatise. Genealogy of Morality. P. 21. et
alibi. Ahern. op cite above.
14. #1,2. Four Great Errors. Twilight of the Idols.
15. See my essay Nietzsche and Will to Power.
16. #37, 48 Skirmishes of an Untimely Man. Twilight of the Idols.
#258. Beyond Good & Evil. #125. Friedrich Nietzsche. The Will to
Power. It is clear that Nietzsche conflates equality with being
17. #44. Beyond Good & Evil.
18. #7. The Anti-Christian.
19. #62. Beyond Good & Evil. Compare this with BGE #225 where
Nietzsche counterposes pity for the Creator with pity for the
Creature. The former being a 'tough love' approach as opposed to the
latter Christian/Modern Ideas concept of pity.
20. #44 Beyond Good & Evil.
21. See #98, 446, 451, 452, 473 480.
Friedrich Nietzsche. Human, All Too Human. Cambridge University Press
22. Gregory Moore. Nietzsche, Biology, Metaphor. Cambridge University
23. P.29 ibid.
(c) Martin Jenkins 2011
II. 'HEMINGWAY'S THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA: FISHING, LIFE AND WORK' BY
PEDRO BLAS GONZALEZ
Besides, he thought, everything kills everything else in some way.
Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive.
-- The Old Man and the Sea
Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is an uncommon mid
twentieth-century literary masterpiece. This is a novel where the
hero is a working man of deep emotion who is content with his lot in
life. The Old Man and the Sea is a deceptively simple novel that
employs a straightforward and uncomplicated narrative. This short
work develops about half a dozen timeless themes that are worthy of
comparison with classical epic texts.
Given Hemingway's use of lyrically poetic imagery and his description
of the passage of time in one man's life, it is not difficult to view
this inspired work as an epic tale. Yet The Old Man and the Sea is
epic in vital stature and the spice-of-life manner in which the
author describes Santiago's struggle to avoid becoming objectified by
human reality, and not due to its modest length. The Old and the Sea
is a novel marked by detail and nuance. Hemingway wastes no time
telling the reader about the protagonist and his circumstances.
Consider that Santiago, the protagonist, is an old man. Let us also
take into account that this individual makes his living, an honest
and dignified subsistence, from deep sea fishing. It is also fruitful
to realize that every time that Santiago goes out fishing, he is in
fact going out for a day's work. Santiago prefers to fish alone. Fish
or no fish, success or, as is more often the case, mounting failure,
the solitary fisherman embraces work as a form of temporal salvation.
Santiago couples the necessity for work with pride and a profound
sense for the sublime. Idleness can be the devil's work, as the
saying goes. Because he has gone eighty-four days without catching a
fish, Santiago has had to modify his expectations and come to embrace
human contingencies that he cannot control. Of course, one would be
remiss to imagine that a man his age, one who has made his living
from the toil of his own hands for so long, would be shocked by the
flagrant realization that human life is not a bed of daisies.
Santiago knows that life is difficult. This is partly why he shows
such respect for the marlin, his adversary. Every form of work has
its own demands, whether this has to do with materials, degree of
difficulty or the need to respond to unforeseen circumstances.
Fishing for a living presents Santiago with its own form of
resistance. In fact, throughout the novel Santiago's existential
struggle vindicates his aforementioned wisdom. He does not succumb to
the marlin, the sea or the sharks that attack his skiff because he is
a man of deep convictions. That is precisely the point of The Old Man
and the Sea. Once, while talking to a small bird that settled on his
skiff, Santiago tells the bird to get a good rest. Then he tells the
bird to go and take his chances like any other man, fish or bird.
Santiago's struggle with the sea -- and the marlin -- cannot be
separated from his condition as an individual. His daily toil at sea
has physically marked him as a man. He is a master fisherman who
possesses the required technique to bring in grand fish. There can be
no doubt of his ability and know-how as a fisherman. Hemingway was
himself a champion angler. But we ought not to focus too much
attention on the technical aspect of catching large fish in the
novel. That would be simplistic. Instead, The Old Man and the Sea is
about how a man embraces some of the problems inherent in the human
condition. Most importantly, we should also avoid the reductionist,
theoretical and over-intellectualizing agenda of demythologizers. Men
like Santiago have always earned their keep by beating tremendous
odds, for as long as man has existed. Santiago is a vivid reminder of
this. Hence, it seems comical for some intellectual critics to debunk
Hemingway's attitude toward life and the credibility of his
characters as being less than real.
Santiago's love of the marlin that he catches demonstrates the great
bond that exists between him and the fish that has dragged him
dangerously close to the current of the Gulf Stream. In a passage
that can easily be construed as Hemingway's rebuttal to his academic
critics, the marlin is viewed as noble given its ability to put up a
great fight. Hemingway balked at people who failed to give life a
good fight. About the marlin, Santiago says, 'But, thank God, they
are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more
noble and more able.' Sometime later, because of the valiant
struggle that the marlin puts up, Santiago comes to view the fish as
being much too noble for most people to eat.
Fishing may be Santiago's form of subsistence, but this is hardly an
easy living, a quiet day out in the sun. Hemingway refers to Santiago
as someone who is 'salao.' In Cuban Spanish, this word depicts a
profound sense of bad luck, an unbecoming destiny. Salao suggests
bewitched determinism. More so, salao also symbolizes a form of
fatalism that paralyzes a person's capacity for action. This is not
the case for Santiago, however. The protagonist confronts the many
difficulties and dangers that fishing alone poses for him headlong.
He fishes in a small skiff that he rows perilously close to the Gulf
Stream. Santiago is a rugged individualist. We can liken him to a
rancher who must mend fences and do battle with coyotes on a daily
basis. Fishing, Santiago shows us, requires perseverance and
imagination. His meals consist of a bottle of water and some raw
fish, preferably tuna. The sail of his skiff is made from sacks of
flour, which the narrator describes as a flag denoting permanent
It is a critical aspect of the story that Santiago does not think
that he is salao, though. It is the narrator that makes this
observation. In fact, it is the parents of his fishing mate, Manolin,
who refer to Santiago as being unlucky to such a fatalistic degree.
The boys' parents order him to go fishing with other fisherman, on
luckier boats. One aspect of being salao that the boys' parents
understand is that being destined to have such bad luck can also turn
fatal. They are trying to protect the boy. This is understandable.
The boy recognizes that his father does not have much faith in
Santiago. Santiago first took the boy fishing when he was five years
old. The boy has learned much from him and loves the old man for
teaching him. The boy is sad to see the old man come in empty handed
after a long day out at sea. Santiago's friendship with the boy is
important because the boy allows Santiago's wisdom to be communicated.
The boy is the beneficiary of a great lesson. Besides teaching the
boy about reaching old age with dignity, Santiago also imparts a
great respect for work on the young boy's work ethic. The boy loves
Santiago not only because he has taught him how to fish, but also
because he has helped the boy become useful and to have a purposeful
life. Manolin repays him handsomely with genuine and lasting
fidelity, the likes of which children excel at, and which radical
ideologues find suspicious and are quick to rebuke. Manolin genuinely
cares for Santiago.
Santiago is a practical man. He mentions this at the height of his
struggle with the marlin. Like any truly self-respecting outdoorsmen,
Santiago also teaches Manolin to respect the sea and its bounty.
Santiago demonstrates profound respect -- even love -- for the marlin
that he wants so desperately to catch. He considers the mammoth fish
Santiago struggles with the sea in the same manner that the Spanish
philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, argues that everyone must do
battle with their respective existential circumstance. Santiago's
circumstances include his age, the size of his skiff and his
willingness to fish by himself. This set of circumstances is part of
Santiago's responsibility to the degree that he is willing to accept
them. This is a form of tacit consent that the old man welcomes: 'His
hope and his confidence had never gone. But now they were freshening
as when the breeze rises.' This, of course, makes Santiago a free
man, existentially speaking. The narrator continues: 'The old man was
thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck.' The old
man, the reader is informed, also had deep-creased scars on his hands,
cuts made by the fishing line. Santiago is the sole witness to the
difficulty he encounters while fishing alone. When he gets a strong
cramp -- a calambre -- in one of his hands, he utters: 'But a cramp
humiliates oneself especially when one is alone.' This signals the
interior reflection and monologue of a solitary sojourner.
The sea has served as the backdrop of countless literary and artistic
sagas that showcase man's battle with the human condition. The sea has
served as the arena for man's battle between his intrinsic worth as an
existentially autonomous entity and the demands made on us by chance
and destiny. We encounter this theme in Odysseus' encounter with the
six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool, Charybdis; Melville's mythic
white sperm whale in Moby Dick and the hubris of Captain Ahab; Samuel
Taylor Coleridge's depiction of the cross that everyone must carry in
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and in William Carlos William's poem
'Seafarer.' Pictorially, the sea has perhaps never seemed so awe
inspiring, freighting and yet sublime as in J.M.W. Turner's Fishermen
at Sea and Winslow Homer's The Gulf Stream.
Most of The Old Man and the Sea is a soliloquy. What else can one's
man's fishing adventure be? Santiago's sense of self is communicated
to the reader mostly through his actions. Of course, the inherent
trouble 'with show me, don't tell me' philosophy, in literature or
life, is that in order to convey one's virtues to another, both
parties must possesses the same values. Otherwise, one might as well
bark at the moon. This is a classic problem that simply will not go
away. For instance, the narrator tells us as much about Santiago: 'He
was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he
had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no
less of true pride.' Santiago heads out to sea on his eighty-fifth
day without taking in a fish with enthusiasm and hope. When Manolin
reminds him that his personal record without a fish is eighty-seven
days, Santiago is certain that that cannot happen again. This is the
same resoluteness that allows him to secure the massive marlin that
he eventually catches, even though at a great cost to his health.
Undoubtedly, the destructive force and violence that a great deal of
twentieth-century literature has shamelessly put on display post
1960s, and which continues into our own age, is motivated by
social-political demands on reality. Hemingway's work is untainted by
this fashionable malaise. Ironically, the man of action, whether
highlighted by Hemingway's fictional characters or in the author's
own life, has not been improved upon by the modish
intellectual-ideologue caricatures that have come to dominate western
culture. Instead, The Old Man and the Sea is a sincere slice-of-life
look at human life from the only perspective worth writing about:
those who engage life as a vital, existential force. Like in
Unamuno's work, action and reflection are synonymous in Hemingway's
view of human reality.
The Old man and the Sea brings into play several dominant themes that
make it an inspired work of literature. Hemingway achieved this
without the affected fanfare that one encounters in bestsellers, and
many of those books that, in our time, are awarded the Noble Prize
for 'their commitment' to this or that popular cause. There is
nothing phony or affected about Santiago going out to sea by himself
in a tiny skiff in order to earn a living. The most innovative of
Hemingway's literary devices is clarity and readability. The moving
storytelling quality of The Old Man and the Sea is obvious to
discerning readers. Hemingway writes for readers, not committees
responsible for dispensing literary awards. Could this be a reason
that that novel set the author on new popular and critical footing,
after the elite literati had written him off? Can it also be the case
that Santiago's story, a tale of courage, prudence and perseverance,
one which is mostly told to himself in monologue form, resonates with
readers who read the novel for pleasure and enjoyment? There can be no
denying Santiago's nobility and his embrace of work as a form of
temporal salvation. After all, we cannot forget that he is not a
sports fisherman. Santiago fishes for a living. During one of the
monologues that allow the reader to penetrate into the essence of
this man, he reflects on the value that his marlin will bring in the
marketplace. Yet he also wonders how many people it will feed. The
latter is the disinterested essence of sincere art.
There are several reasons why The Old Man and the Sea can be
considered an epic work. For one, the novel explores universal human
concerns, such as facing strife, old age, the passage of time,
heroism and the nature of friendship. Friendship is particularly
important to the novel because Santiago serves as a mentor to
Manolin, as far as fishing is concerned. More importantly, Santiago
is a friend to the young boy. Manolin looks up to Santiago much as
Santiago looks up to legendary baseball players like the 'great' Joe
DiMaggio. The friendship between Manolin and Santiago keeps Santiago
rooted in the kind of innocence that only a child can supply. On the
other hand, the boy views Santiago as a model of manhood and an
ambassador of good will and virtue.
While Manolin has fished with other fishermen on other boats, he
respects Santiago's irresolute commitment and responsibility in
taking care of himself. The old man is a widower who lives alone in a
very modest seaside shack. Curiously, Hemingway's hero has no contact
with the other fisherman. An old form of Cuban wisdom conveyed by
older people has it that 'it is better to be alone than in bad
company.' Is this perhaps one contributing factor to Santiago's
solitary ways? Either way, Santiago's solitude falls in the category
of the hero as a rugged, silent type. Santiago's main concern is not
the brightness of the sun, the current of the Gulf Stream or the
danger of being capsized. He is not afraid of the sea. He respects
it. What he fears most, however, is remaining clear-headed. This, of
course, is the prerogative of one who has been responsible for
himself throughout his life.
Santiago's heroism has very little relation to other townspeople.
Santiago's epic heroism, I will contend, is self-contained. Only the
boy knows of Santiago's battles with the sea, with the life and death
contingencies that fishing large fish presents him with. Yet his
greatest sense of pride is dictated by his own knowledge of the
events that he undertakes. His fight with the gigantic marlin is more
ironic than it is cathartic. Santiago does not need to purge himself
of corrosive emotions. Thus, his fight with the marlin cannot be seen
as cathartic. Instead, his condition is heroic because it is dominated
by irony. He has no fish tales to tell, for Santiago is a man of few
words. Yet he does have a fish to display, if only the skeleton that
the sharks have left him with. What is lost to the townspeople upon
his return is the grandeur and scale of his fight with the marlin.
The novel ends with the skeleton of the marlin left on the beach. The
indecipherable remains of the animal can't even be called a carcass.
The large fish skeleton incites the imagination of casual onlookers.
Passersby can only imagine the size of the mammoth fish. Santiago
takes solace in the tremendous odds he overcame during his two-day
sojourn at sea.
Santiago's heroism is instructive because it is replete with hope.
Throughout his struggle with the marlin, the lines cutting his hands,
his drifting out to sea or his concern not to run out of drinking
water, Santiago makes use of his skills as a fisherman and his will
to outlast the marlin. Not content to simply cut the line and return
home, he does not allow his struggle with the fish to diminish his
will to live. Because Hemingway's protagonist in The Old Man and the
Sea does not have much interaction with others besides the boy, the
hero of the story has a great deal of time alone to contemplate his
station in life.
The Old Man and the Sea is not a tragedy, though. Santiago is not
defeated by the marlin, and he is not destroyed by his experience.
Santiago does indeed catch the marlin. His long spell of eighty-four
days without catching a fish comes to an end. It is the sharks, those
hyenas of the sea, which shamelessly steal his hard-earned pay. The
sharks remind Santiago of at least one aspect of the human condition:
parasites abound. Yet he is not completely caught by surprise.
Remember, he is truly a wise old man. After landing the marlin,
Santiago hopes that the sharks stay away. Santiago knows that he
hopes against hope. Doing sincere battle, that is what is at stake
for Santiago. The Old man and the Sea is not a tragic story but
rather an honorific tale. Santiago cannot be defeated as long as he
remembers that he met his objective -- to catch the marlin -- with
honor and courage. Whatever happens, he understands, is not truly in
his control. This is one reason why Manolin respects and loves the
Equally important to the novel is the understanding that because
Santiago does not share the events of the last two days with others,
except the boy, his tale remains pure in his understanding of the
events that he lived. Hemingway takes the reader on a journey that
requires diligence on the reader's part. How many readers of The Old
Man and the Sea have reflected on the task that Santiago has set for
himself? How many of these readers appreciate the fury of a stormy
sea, the ruthlessness of the sun with nowhere to hide or the view of
the vast ocean from a small skiff with no land in sight? None of
these considerations faze Santiago. The latter would be, as W.B.
Yeats writes, to dwell on pointless, 'foolish things that live a
Santiago embodies a quiet, timeless form of heroism which is best
characterized as the unity of understanding and life. Santiago's life
is not fragmented by abstractions and false, affected notions of
reality. His life retains the purity and simplicity of life that
people enjoyed a long time ago. These elements of the continuity of
life are very obvious in The Old Man and the Sea. Santiago's life is
felt as continuity, or what philosophers of existence call the lived
experience. Because he lives his life with great regard for the
natural rhythm of a twenty-four hour period, his life is framed by
vital possibilities. Santiago enjoys the unity of life. This allows
him to better understand the reality of human contingencies. He does
not make demands on reality. He is one who, having learned his craft
well, remains mindful that life can be agreeable.
Santiago's lived-experience is an important aspect of the novel. This
is why it is left up to the narrator and Manolin to offer the reader a
more comprehensive picture of the man, his dreams, fears and
aspirations. The author tells us that Santiago is too simple and
noble to do so himself. Perhaps this is why Santiago places so much
stress on the inspiration that he receives from man like Joe
DiMaggio. To Santiago, the game of baseball reads like the book of
life. There are the heroes, the fallen men, crushing surprises and
unsung players who rise to the occasion. Santiago looks up to
DiMaggio even though the Yankee Clipper is a much younger man. He
tells Manolin, 'The Yankees cannot lose... Have faith in the Yankees
my son. Think of the great DiMaggio.' DiMaggio serves as
inspiration for Santiago because the baseball player went about his
business with a reserved and dignified demeanor.
Santiago highlights the reality of the external world through the use
of an internal monologue. This is another example of Hemingway's use
of irony in the story. The Old Man and the Sea is perhaps the best
example of the author's conviction that it is more important to make
readers see and feel the story than it is to tell them about it. The
concrete experience that the protagonist undergoes, what he lives, is
made doubly real through a process of feeling and internalization that
pays tribute to objective reality. The difficulty of fishing alone
makes his life more fluid than, say, those who merely theorize about
living. This is Santiago's form of Quijotismo. Fishing by committee
would not improve the plot and themes of The Old Man and the Sea.
What significance can there be in a novel about a committee of
fishermen that goes out to sea to aid Santiago? That would be an
aberration, not great literature. The validity and significance of
the concrete, existential situation is Hemingway's way of suggesting
that, well, life is what it is and that sometimes things cannot be
Santiago's struggle with the marlin is a vital example of
life-in-a-flash. His fight is as colorful and lyrical in scope as it
is in content. This is gallantry at its best. This is also an example
of the hunt displaying its most primal and vital reality. There are
passages in The Old Man and the Sea where the hunter becomes the
hunted. Santiago's epic fight with the sharks, galanos he calls them,
is hair-raising. Between the weight of the marlin, which is estimated
to be over 1,000 lbs and that of the sharks that tug on it, Santiago
is in imminent danger of capsizing. His fight with the sharks turns
out to be a street fight where everything is allowed. After a while
of fighting the sharks, the focus of the old fisherman actually turns
to his wellbeing. To capsize means certain death. Santiago does not
want to lose his fish, and potentially his life to predatory and
Santiago takes offense at the sharks stealing his marlin, a bounty
that they have not worked for and thus have not earned. This
indignation is enough to bring out the fighter in him. The same
cannot be said about the marlin, for the marlin fought for its own
wellbeing. Santiago respects the marlin for its nobility. Santiago
has choice words for the sharks: 'They were hateful sharks, bad
smelling, scavengers as well as killers, and when they were hungry
they would bite at an oar or the rudder of a boat. It was these
sharks that would cut the turtles' legs and flippers off when the
turtles were asleep on the surface, and they would hit a man in the
water, if they were hungry, even if the man had no smell of fish
blood nor fish slime on him.'
It is significant that Santiago's fight with the sharks should come
at the end of the novel. Technically speaking, this encounter between
fisherman and predator serves as a form of resolution to the story.
This is clear to see. The novel comes to an end with Santiago having
to deal with the unexpected. This is a kind of sub-plot to the novel.
Yet this too simplistic an ending to this carefully crafted work
cannot stand on its own as a viable interpretation of the events
therein. What would Santiago's epic struggle with the marlin signify
in light of what essentially appears to be a distraction -- his fight
with the sharks -- at the end of the novel? The attack that the sharks
unleash on Santiago makes him reflect on the reason why he is a
fisherman and about his stage in life. He tells himself: 'You were
born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish. San Pedro
was a fisherman as was the father of the great DiMaggio.'
Santiago's struggle with the marlin is courageous, respectful and
even elegant in its degree of difficulty, patience and skill that
this encounter demands of the fisherman. The marlin too is patient
However, Santiago's decisive moment in his fight with the sharks
comes when he tells the shark that sharks are parasites who would not
have dared take on the marlin when the latter was alive. In fact,
Santiago celebrates the marlin's courage by commending it on its
ability and resolve to fight sharks. While the sharks are beginning
their assault on his once in a lifetime catch, the narrator says,
'But you enjoyed killing the dentuso, he thought. He lives on the
live fish as you do. He is not a scavenger nor just a moving appetite
as some sharks are. He is beautiful and noble and knows no fear of
anything.' Santiago's battle with the sharks is Hemingway's
exclamation point as to the meaning of the story: a man struggles
valiantly and with little acclaim to earn an honorable living, only
to have his livelihood and pride stolen by predators. Of course,
Santiago has always known the threat of parasitic sharks. He fights
the sharks with the oar of his skiff and a small knife. The sharks
succeed in stripping him of his prized catch. He even apologizes to
the noble marlin for allowing it to be dismantled so viciously by
parasitic sharks. In fact, Santiago blames himself for going out too
far. He knows that the return trip hauling a big fish would draw the
attention of the hyenas of the sea. He really didn't imagine that he
would land such a large marlin. Hemingway's answer to this eternal
human dilemma -- which is a staple of the perennial philosophy -- is
that the more virtuous one becomes, the greater the scurvy that such
success attracts from the envious and resentful Other.
The final and most poignant irony in The Old man and the Sea, one
that makes the reader admire the inner fortitude of Santiago's will,
takes place on the last page of the novel. A group of foreign
tourists is sitting on The Terrace, a beachfront eatery, where the
skeletal remains of Santiago's marlin is seen gently bobbing up and
down in the gentle surf. A woman asks the waiter what kind of large
fish that is. In broken English, the waiter tries to tell her that
sharks ate the fish. The woman thinks that the skeleton belongs to a
shark, and utters, 'I didn't know sharks had such handsome,
beautifully formed tails.'
The conclusion of The Old Man and the Sea allows the reader to
reflect on the longstanding human tragedy of confusing appearance for
reality. Santiago is not a tragic hero, for he sees through the veil
of appearance that taints so much of the human condition and which
has destroyed so many lives. Santiago struggles mightily not to
become objectified and thus dehumanized by the daily give-and-take of
1. Ernest Hemingway. The Old Man and the Sea. (New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1952), p. 63.
2. Ibid, p. 9.
3. Ibid, p. 10.
4. Ibid. p. 13.
5. Ibid, p. 9.
6. Ibid, p. 62.
7. Ibid, p. 13.
8. William Butler Yeats. Selected Poems and Three Plays. Edited and
Introduction by M.L. Rosenthal. (New York, New York: Collier Books,
1986), p. 6.
9. The Old Man and the Sea, p. 17.
10. Ibid, p. 107.
11. Ibid, p. 105.
12. Ibid, p. 105.
13. Ibid, p. 127.
(c) Pedro Blas Gonzalez 2012
III. RESPONSES TO PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSUE 175 BY ANTHONY FLOOD AND
An eclectic affinity for proximities? a reaction to Michael Kilivris'
paper' by Anthony Flood
In juxtaposing the thought of Martin Heidegger to that of Theodor
Adorno, Michael Kilivris presupposes not only working knowledge of
what these men wrote -- which he acknowledges is rare -- but also
interest in the fortunes of the 'deep ecology' movement. As these are
three 'deep' subjects, I fail to see how Geoffrey Klempner could come
to the conclusion that it was 'useful as a starting point for
students exploring this controversial and highly topical issue'
(Philosophy Pathways, No. 175, 8 October 2012).
Hegel's comment to the effect that true ignorance is total
unawareness of ignorance surfaced as I read the article. The relevant
ignorance here concerns the worldview and epoch that were replaced by
the Enlightenment and modernity (which form Dr. Kilivris' horizon),
at least in Europe. The Christian theistic worldview and what we
provincially call 'the Middle Ages' boasted a rather robust theology
of nature as declaring the glory of God, in Whose image man was
created, according to that worldview, and to whom God gave dominion
over nature. Why not recover that? There is no nonarbitrary reason
either to do so or not to do so, for all Dr. Kilivris has to say
about it. He tells us that 'humanism' is one of 'the crowning
achievements' of the Enlightenment, as though Erasmus and his
colleagues never existed.
Indeed, apart from a passing reference to Heidegger and Adorno's
several 'proximities' to each other, Dr. Kilivris' paper is fatally
abstract in its treatment of a few sentences of these fatefully
situated thinkers. His opening sentence about Heidegger and Adorno's
failure to 'enter into dialogue' with each other struck me as a bad
joke, given that the latter had to flee the country hijacked by the
party that the former joined. It is the kind of ahistorical (and
arguably obscene) howler that gives philosophy a bad name and for
which no amount of research can compensate. It goes downhill from
there: Dr. Kilivris later assures us that Heidegger 'does not thereby
dismiss the 'dignity of man.''
In a footnote, Dr. Kilivris stipulates that the meaning of 'nature'
will be 'take[n] for granted as meaning non-human nature
conventionally understood.' That convention remained unidentified,
and so I don't know whether I subscribe to it. Is it matter in
motion? The totality of stuff that exploded once upon a time and is
scheduled for heat-death, which provides the ultimate backdrop for
our philosophizing? Now there's a modern ontology for you. The
billion or so Christians who are still around do not take it for
Neither the Heidegger nor Adorno of Dr. Kilivris' paper is
intellectually an compelling character, and the dialectical dance the
author has them do only further dilutes that interest. As he no more
illuminated for me Heidegger's insight into Being than did anything
else I've read, the concern that something might be 'blocking' that
insight leaves me cold. Dr. Kilivris' political motive for writing --
as evidenced by references to the 'transfiguration of social
relations' or the writings of Murray Bookchin or those of Arne Naess
-- is not hard to discern. There are several references to
modernity's 'destructive' relationship to nature, but as nature is
still around, the use of that modifier exaggerates the current state
Dr. Kilivris cites Deborah Cook's 'explanations' without comment.
Since she seems to favor the Adorno side of Kilivris' equation,
however, his insinuation that they are in fact genuine explanations,
and not just her opinions piled on his, is tendentious. Let's take
just one: if reason, as Cook cites Adorno, 'just serves the purpose
of [biological] adaptation more effectively, turning human beings
into 'animals with more far-reaching powers',' then there is little
reason to read another word of Adorno, or Cook, or anyone else.
Remaining unexplored is how Adorno (or Dr. Kilivris) relates 'reason'
to brain states, which are 'adaptive' only if they contribute to the
survival and reproduction of their 'owners' -- regardless of the
cognitive reliability of those material states. If, however, Adorno
non-naturalistically supposes that reason transcends brain states --
that is, the former is not exhaustively explicable in terms of the
latter -- then squaring such a view with materialism is the problem.
Or perhaps there is no problem, but Dr. Kilivris just burkes the
Dr. Kilivris does not explicate why evolved by-products of an
explosion allegedly ought to 'remember nature in the subject.' Or why
nature shouldn't appear as alien. Or why we shouldn't we feel like
aliens on this planet -- or 'one' with it for that matter. The goal
of 'reconciliation' -- or 'quasi-reconciliation' -- of man and nature
is rather arbitrarily presupposed. In 'enlightened modernity...
nothing... counts as intrinsically valuable or worth of protection,'
says Espen Hammer, whom Dr. Kilivris quotes. Aquinas, informed by his
Christian faith, would have had a systematic reply to Hammer. Behind
Dr. Kilivris' slight favoring of one late Enlightenment thinker over
the other is but an act of Enlightenment faith.
I couldn't tell whether Adorno's 'prioritizing' of nature referred to
chronological or also axiological priority; or understand what it
means for nature to 'preponderate' (Adorno's ponderous term); or how
one can 'focus' upon that preponderance; or why Adorno drapes on the
shoulders of one 'type' of materialism (the kind in which universals
are figments) the mantle of 'science' (which unfortunately cannot do
without numbers); or what it would mean for 'a social transformation'
to 'displace instrumental reason.' (Is instrumental reason merely a
ladder we will throw away after the revolution is achieved?)
It occurred to me that the thought of these ostensibly 'opposite'
thinkers might be dialectically related on a higher level -- so that
there may one day be such things as Heidegger's latent humanism and
Adorno's latent anti-humanism -- would have made for an interesting
essay for those who are not versed in their writings and a challenge
to those who are. But that fascinating possibility apparently did not
occur to Dr. Kilivris. No, his essay's coda is a bland 'perhaps there
is a way to take the best of both worlds' and an ode to 'all life.'
Nothing in the foregoing, it should go without saying, is directed at
Dr. Kilivris personally. Let our theories die in our stead, as Karl
Popper so nobly heralded! I look forward to being shown by Dr.
Kilivris how badly I have misunderstood everything, if he would favor
me with such criticism.
(c) Anthony Flood 2012
'Uhall's ontological problem with the selfish gene: a reply' by Max
In his essay in Philosophy Pathways Issue 175, Michael Uhall claims
that the selfish gene theory is flawed because the gene is not well
defined and because the same gene appears to have different effects
on the growth of body parts depending on a cell's environment. He
claims there is an 'ontological' problem with the gene as commonly
understood and suggests that selection at the level of the group or,
more probably, at multiple levels (the cell, the individual and the
group) may provide a better explanation of evolution. I do not find
his arguments convincing, although there might be something in his
conclusion for reasons different from those that he states.
Philosophers need to be cautious about pronouncing on scientific
theories, especially theories such as inheritance and natural
selection which are supported by a vast body of data. Time and again,
from Aristotle onwards, the world has turned out to be unlike what
philosophers said it should be. For example, philosophers might
easily show that it is impossible for particles to exist and not
exist at the same time. Is that an ontological proof that quantum
theory is wrong? Or, to paraphrase Nils Bohr, does it just show that
the world is stranger than we thought? We should remember John
Locke's caution about a philosopher's ability to understand the
natural world. We are made of corpuscles (atoms), Locke said, but how
they cohere into all the intricate parts of the body, God only knows.
Today, Locke might have made a similar remark about the relation of
genes to the growth of bodies. We know the general picture but not
all of the intricate details. In this spirit, I shall address Uhall's
central observation: that 'genes seem to be functional packages that
change the role they play depending on their positioning... [and on]
environmental influences'. There is indeed a mystery as to how
identical copies of DNA in every one of the body's cells contrive to
produce organs as diverse as brains, bones and eyes. We can seek to
understand this without being diverted into speculations about the
ontology of the gene. It is enough to know that spirals of the DNA
molecule include nucleotides that form four 'letters' (ATGC). These
letters are grouped into 'words' which are part of the code for
producing new proteins. The gene is the name given to a stretch of
the DNA which codes for a particular protein. It is known that in the
presence of different chemicals, genes will be switched on or off to
manufacture particular proteins. This sequential switching (and cell
division) create the complexity of living things. Exactly how the
cumulative differentiation of cells results in organisms as different
as monkeys and men is the subject of research. That it happens is
So, to address Uhall's point: our basic understanding of how DNA
works does not depend on the precise definition of a gene. Uhall is
also wrong to build his argument on the suggestion that we do not
completely understand how molecular codes in DNA are switched on and
off sequentially to create bodies. Uhall alleges that a special and
confusing definition of the gene is used in the 'selfish gene
thesis'. He says: 'According to the... thesis... genes are redefined
as any reasonably short sequence of DNA on a chromosome' (my itals).
He appears to think that such a gene refers to 'an arbitrary string
of letters'. Uhall says: 'Due to the apparently high volume of
counter-examples to simplistic definitions of the gene, I would
conclude that the gene, rather than being an ontologically discrete
entity, is instead a family of concepts' (my itals). Consequently, he
claims, it would be 'invisible to selection'. But that is simply not
how most molecular biologist understand the gene. Uhall's
conclusion can be true only if the gene is redefined in such a way
that it doesn't do the job that professionals think it does, namely
code for a specific protein. But even if definitions of the gene
might differ, the underlying theory of how the nucleotide letters of
DNA make codes for proteins would remain intact.
Moreover, as Uhall records in a footnote, genes aren't really
selfish. That notorious adjective has put a lot of people off
neo-Darwinian theory. But the 'Selfish Gene' is not so much the
description of a theory as a popular metaphor. It emphasises a
near tautology. Those genes that happen to survive are the ones that
happen to confer survival values on the bodies they give rise to.
Samuel Butler famously said: 'A hen is an egg's way of making another
egg'. He might have added that an egg will make more eggs than other
eggs make if it can make a hen that does more laying than other hens.
And the new eggs will, in turn, make more eggs if they inherit the
ability to make more productive hens, There is nothing selfish about
eggs. Making good hens is just what they do -- at least the ones
whose chickens survive.
In these simple terms, genetic selection seems pretty obvious. Nor
does Uhall completely deny it. He says: 'It is even possible that
genes can be units of selection, since according to the multi-level
selection model, there need not be one single unit of selection' (my
itals). He does not explain how inheritance via groups or individuals
might contribute to natural selection. What are the possible
candidates, other than the transmission of DNA?
First, for individuals: The main competitor to gene theory is the
Lamarkian idea that acquired characteristics, such as developed
muscles, might be inherited. But that has been largely disproved.
Second, for groups: Uhall rightly concedes that the theory of group
selection (between races or tribes) has little support. The main
reason is that groups cannot have sex, at least in the sense of
begetting other groups. The only way that inherited characteristics
can be passed to the offspring of group members is by sex between
individuals. The difficulty is that qualities, such as loyalty and
co-operation, which can help the group. may not give a selective
advantage to individuals within it. Think of bankers.
But might group cultures favour the survival of individuals and hence
of their DNA? Possibly. Richard Dawkins proposed the idea of 'memes'
as units of cultural selection. But even if whole cultures were
subject to a kind of natural selection via memes, there is a residual
certainty that every cell manufactured by an individual's body is
coded by inherited DNA. And the manufacturing process depends on the
cells' differing chemical environments, not on the cultural
So Uhall espouses a compromise, that selection takes place at a
'multi-level', including cells, groups and individuals. Provided the
basic mechanism of gene selection is accepted, it is easy to agree
that groups might be important. For example, if one inbred tribe were
to share warrior genes, it might wipe out tribes with inbred genes for
weakness. Genes for cooperativeness or morality, if they existed and
if shared in a group, might similarly confer an advantage. This is
uncontroversial. Indeed, William D Hamilton explained how
'selfish' genes might promote altruism in a group, a question that
bothers Uhall. If there were a gene that simultaneously coded for
green beards and for being kind to green-bearded people, the
Green-Beards would thrive, multiply and be good neighbours. Serious
disagreement arises only if it is suggested that a group can itself
select for altruism. Much work has been done on the conditions that
might make it advantageous for a selfish gene to promote altruism,
even towards those who did not share the same (green-beard) gene.
That leaves room for plenty of discussion about the relationship
between gene selection, nature versus nurture, altruism, cultural
norms, group survival and individual survival. There is a vast
literature on these topics. But they are not, I suggest, illuminated
by questioning the ontology of the gene, 'selfish' or otherwise.
1. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica the gene is a 'unit of
hereditary information that occupies a fixed position (locus) on a
chromosome... Genes achieve their effects by directing the synthesis
of proteins... Experiments indicate that one gene is responsible for
the assembly of one polypeptide chain' (gene. Encyclopaedia
Britannica, 2010). Similarly. the The Human Genome Project says the
gene is 'a segment of DNA that tells the cell how to make a certain
If Uhall's looser definition were accepted the Human Genome
Project could hardly have succeeded.
2. Used by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (OUP 1976). He drew on
George C. Williams's Adaptation and Natural Selection (Princeton 1966)
and other works.
3. Proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1800.
4. Prof. Richard W. Burkhardt writes In the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
'In the 20th century, since Lamarck's idea failed to be confirmed
experimentally... it became thoroughly discredited.' (Article on
5. We'll forget parthogenesis.
6. Williams, G.C., ed. Group Selection. (Aldine-Atherton, Chicago
1971). For a summary of the argument see Christopher Baddock,
PsychoDarwinism, Chapter 2 (HarperCollins 1994) or Richard Dawkins,
The Selfish Gene pp 8-11).
7. Although the methods of transmission are necessarily imprecise.
See Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene Chapter 11 and The Blind
Watchmaker p158 (Longman 1986).
8. proposed by David Wilson Sloan and Elliott Sober Unto Others: The
Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. University of Harvard
9. Hamilton W D The genetical evolution of social behaviour (July
1964). The Idea is also explained by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish
10. For excellent overviews, see Robert Wright The Moral Animal
(Little, Brown 1994) or Matt Ridley The Origins of Virtue (Penguin
1998) or The Selfish Gene chapter 10.
(c) Max Wilkinson 2012
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