Mary Midgley belongs to the extraordinary group of women philosophers educated at Oxford during the war, when the men who might have bullied them were absent from the university, either defending their country from the Nazis or betraying it to the communists, according to taste. A contemporary of Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Warnock and Philippa Foot, she has not enjoyed the recognition accorded to those illustrious women, despite being a major philosopher whose work has had a far-reaching impact. One reason might be that she was a late developer, publishing her first book, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, in 1978, when she was already 59 years old. Another reason is that she has not devoted much attention to the areas of philosophy that are regarded in academic circles as central - language, knowledge and metaphysics - and focused instead on the question of the nature of Man. This was, for the Greeks, the central question of philosophy, and remained so until the logical atomists and positivists swept it from the table.
Midgley's view - and it is one with which I concur - is that philosophy, in leaving the question of human nature to the biologists, has betrayed its mission. Beast and Man is devoted to showing the way in which the science then known as sociobiology (but which would be called "evolutionary psychology" today) has misdescribed what is distinctive in the human condition. This is a theme that Midgley has pursued in subsequent books - notably The Ethical Primate: Humans, Freedom and Morality and Evolution as a Religion - taking to task those like Richard Dawkins who believe that the science of genetics contains the clue to understanding the emotional and moral life of human beings. For Dawkins and his many followers, we are "survival machines" in the service of our genes, and must be understood through the "adaptations" that are perpetuated in our behaviour - adaptations which are rarely unique to us since they can be traced to the evolutionary environment that we share with other species.