Is Richard Dawkins Responsible for Thatcherism?

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Oliver Sacks once remembered following one of his Tourette’s patients through the street. Some Tourette’s people engage in involuntary mimicry; this woman was trying to restrain herself from doing so. After managing to control her composure the length of a street, she turned into an alleyway and there, said Sacks, essentially decomposed, mimicking at high-speed everyone she’d passed in the past ten minutes.

That is Britain now, a week after the death of Margaret Thatcher, three days before her funeral. There’s nothing rational about the death of someone being the moment for discussing a whole era – indeed it can be absolutely distorting (obscuring in this case, the degree to which Thatcher was the front-person for a phalanx of interconnected ideological-interest forces). But there’s no way out of it. The whole culture is replaying thirty years worth of battles over ten days. One of the most significant has been her remark, in an interview in Women’s Own magazine, that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Barely noticed at first, it became her most celebrated quote in the late 1980s and 1990s – especially as the early ‘growth’ from her policies evaporated by the late 80s, leaving a fractured, rusted and seething society. By the mid-90s, it was all anybody remembered about her, and the Tory party spent a decade trying to erase her memory from their image. In the days after her death, some Tories tried to pretend that she had never said it – until BBC Radio 4’s Today program found the quote, and the journalist who did the interview. They were so desperate to dispel this notion, because they were venerating Thatcher out of current weakness, not past strength. After all, the observation is nothing other than straight English empiricist classical liberalism – the argument that ‘society’ is an abstraction, and attributing characteristics to it a form of intellectual error. That’s clearer still when you consider the full quote: ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individuals and there are families.’ Classical liberals like Hayek always argued that the one ‘real’ social form was the family, grounded in natural connection (or an imitation thereof), an atavistic form of attachment. It is this exception to individualism that forms a basis to the mix of economic liberalism and social conservatism at the heart of the Thatcherite formula.

So we had always assumed that such a remark reflected the very real influence that Hayek had had over Thatcher from the 1940s, when she read The Road To Serfdom, onwards, and particularly in the early 1970s. Now, Radio 4’s Today has thrown a loop in that, finding another source for her belief in that: Richard Dawkins.

Yesterday, Today heard from a zoologist who, as a young graduate, had attended a High Table college dinner in Oxford at which Thatcher – and Dawkins and a whole bevy of zoologists and biologists – were also present. Thatcher, according to this source, was pontificating somewhat and said ‘society is the future’ (!). Wrong audience. By the late 1970s, Dawkins had published The Selfish Gene and EO Wilson Sociobiology: the new synthesis. Both drew on the work of WD Hamilton, the mathematician/biologist who had reconstructed the idea of natural selection using probabilities. Hamilton argued that neither the species nor the even the individual animal could be seen as the unit of natural selection. It was the gene that persevered by advantageous selection, and individual animals would thus sacrifice themselves for offspring and some siblings (half their genes) nephew/nieces and cousins in diminishing proportion. Leaving aside the essential intellectual error of applying this simplistically to enculturated human beings, it has been challenged in biology as well, most famously by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould (and recently by EO Wilson himself, now in his 90s). In the late 1970s, the theory had caught on in biology and zoology like wildfire. Indeed, some scientists were waving it as a flag against the humanities – it was an era when Wilson’s speeches (and those of the now-largely-discredited psychologist Hans Eysenck) were regularly disrupted by protests. The scientists present led by Dawkins, assailed Thatcher with the ‘anti-society’ argument, and the rest, so we are to believe, was our history.

How much truth can we credit to this story? Thatcher, despite the legend, was a slow and gradual convert to hardcore Hayekianism. Her mentions of The Road to Serfdom can be misleading – everyone was reading it in the 40s, after a cheap abridged edition was released by conservative groups. But throughout the 50s and 60s, and in much of her work as a junior pensions and then education minister and shadow, she toed a conventional right social democratic line of the time. Under the tutelage of Keith Joseph and former Stalinist, Spanish Civil War veteran Arthur Sherman, she became more classical liberal in the early 70s, and was a cofounder of the Centre of Policy Studies with Keith Joseph (the MP who many had assumed would be the standard-bearer of the New Right within the Tory Party). But sociobiology of a type tangled up Joseph too – after a speech in which he mused that the poor should be dissuaded from having children (in language that would be seen as leftishly coy today), he was denounced from all sides, and Thatcher emerged as their leadership candidate. She once famously slammed Hayek’s massive Constitution of Liberty on a tables saying ‘this is what we believe!’ Whether she had ever made it through its complex epistemological argument is far from certain.

Lending credence to the recent story is that Thatcher was a scientist by profession and also, by inclination, seeing it as a hard and real form of knowledge. Discussion of her scientific career has often been regrettably snobbish and sexist; she became a chemist at a time when 5 per cent of science graduates were women. Many of them were in chemistry, because it was seen as analogous to cooking, and the main jobs were in food chemistry. Thatcher famously worked on Mr Whippy ice cream. The story that she invented soft-serve ice cream is, intriguingly, typically individualist apocrypha – it took a team of scientists, of which she was one, to accomplish the minor task of improving the smoothness and fluidity of soft-serve. Before that work, she had done honours with Dorothy Hodgkin, the x-ray crystallographer who, over her career, unlocked the structure of penicillin and insulin, thus making vast amounts of synthetic drugs possible. Hodgkin was an active leftist, a student (and onetime lover) of the great JD Bernal, and the only British woman to win a science Nobel Prize. Thatcher’s involvement with her was one of the great pieces of good luck of her life, for she not only encountered a brilliant woman, she encountered a woman who was literally unlocking the structure of matter, someone who was intervening in the world in a way that had not been possible even a few years before. Indeed, Thatcher was close to one of the central scientific events of the twentieth century – in the early 50s Hodgkin was shown the first x-ray photos of DNA by a colleague Rosalind Franklin (who should have shared the Nobel that Crick and Watson gained for it), and gave a suggestion as to which general idea of structure would best fit the material. At this time, Thatcher was still in touch with Hodgkin (she would eventually hang a portrait of Hodgkin in Number Ten Downing Street). It seems highly unlikely to me that being close to these momentous events did not have a fundamental effect on a young Thatcher. One can’t help but wonder if her willingness to atomise British society was in part prepared for by a literal understanding of atomisation itself. And it seems more than possible that she was persuaded to a radical vision of human life, not by philosophers but by scientists, spruiking an ideology that struck them as an obvious truth. Thatcher may be dead, but we are all still twitching, and so will be for some time to come.

 

Written By: Guy Rundle
continue to source article at overland.org.au

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  1. This appears to be a very similar line of argument to the “darwin inspired the nazis” line of argument frankly, though I wonder if professor dawkins remembers the anectodal event and has any opinion on the matter.

    • In reply to #1 by littletrotsky13:

      This appears to be a very similar line of argument to the “darwin inspired the nazis” line of argument frankly, though I wonder if professor dawkins remembers the anectodal event and has any opinion on the matter.

      Does seem a bit tenuous doesn’t it, just being present when sombody said something is no grounds for thinking one of the audience agreed.

  2. It’s not surprising we don’t often see the full quote because she says it twice (nearly) in a long reply to a question that I haven’t been able to find. However the source I’ve used is here.

    Anyway, here she goes … Quote:

    I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—“It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it”. That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: “All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!”

    There is also something else I should say to them: “If that does not give you a basic standard, you know, there are ways in which we top up the standard. You can get your housing benefit.”

    But it went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate. And the worst things we have in life, in my view, are where children who are a great privilege and a trust—they are the fundamental great trust, but they do not ask to come into the world, we bring them into the world, they are a miracle, there is nothing like the miracle of life—we have these little innocents and the worst crime in life is when those children, who would naturally have the right to look to their parents for help, for comfort, not only just for the food and shelter but for the time, for the understanding, turn round and not only is that help not forthcoming, but they get either neglect or worse than that, cruelty.

  3. If Thatcher was protege of a woman who as “literally unlocking the structure of matter” I doubt she’d have stopped at Prime Minister. She’d have wanted world domination, just for a start.

  4. Is Richard Dawkins responsible for Thatcherism?

    No-one had heard of him until 3 years before Thatcher became the PM, so this is even less plausible than Popper being responsible for her. Both men disagreed with her politically. (RD is first mentioned a third of the way in, by the way, so an argument for his influence is lacking for some time.)

    One of the most significant has been her remark, in an interview in Women’s Own magazine, that ‘there is no such thing as society’.

    Which was (and I say this as someone who hates Thatcher’s policies) taken out of context.

    By the mid-90s, it was all anybody remembered about her

    So you’re telling me that, only a half-decade after one of the UK’s most influential PMs left an 11-year stint in office, all anyone could remember was, “is she that woman who said there’s no society”? Try telling that to anyone who lived in areas her policies affected.

    After all, the observation is nothing other than straight English empiricist classical liberalism – the argument that ‘society’ is an abstraction, and attributing characteristics to it a form of intellectual error.

    That’s not all of what it meant in her original contexts (no-one recalls she said it twice). She said: “They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation” and “There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.” So Thatcher was also saying that society is emergent, that we must not use its existence to excuse our own responsibilities, and wealth is zero-sum.

    That’s clearer still when you consider the full quote: ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individuals and there are families.’

    I love how Rundle’s idea of “the full quote” is still something I’ve shown is misleading on its own. And, as I said above, she said it twice.

    Hayek always argued that the one ‘real’ social form was the family, grounded in natural connection (or an imitation thereof), an atavistic form of attachment. It is this exception to individualism that forms a basis to the mix of economic liberalism and social conservatism at the heart of the Thatcherite formula.

    No, it’s not; if you read what I quoted above, you will see she also included your neighbour, which is basically everyone. But everyone here has now guessed what the “it’s RD’s fault” argument will be: “He mentioned kin selection; therefore she’s a product of him”. As it happens, both MT and RD discussed non-kin, too; TSG discusses reciprocal altruism at length. But I doubt GR makes that “see; another similarity” connection, because otherwise he wouldn’t have led with the “she only mentioned family” lie. If he did make that argument, I would reply as follows: knowing evolution gives us a natural source of altruism can hardly be expected to make you a pull-the-ladder-up-jack jerk.

    Hamilton argued that neither the species nor the even the individual animal could be seen as the unit of natural selection. It was the gene that persevered by advantageous selection, and individual animals would thus sacrifice themselves for offspring and some siblings (half their genes) nephew/nieces and cousins in diminishing proportion. Leaving aside the essential intellectual error of applying this simplistically to enculturated human beings, it has been challenged in biology as well, most famously by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould

    You think just because humans have culture we won’t engage in kin altruism? In fact our culture makes it compulsory to engage in quite a lot of it. And to say kin altruism has really been undermined by any decent argument in evolutionary biology is a lie. After all, rb > c is a theorem.

    some scientists were waving it as a flag against the humanities

    Example? Citation needed.

    Lending credence to the recent story is that Thatcher was a scientist by profession and also, by inclination, seeing it as a hard and real form of knowledge… It seems highly unlikely to me that being close to these momentous events did not have a fundamental effect on a young Thatcher. One can’t help but wonder if her willingness to atomise British society was in part prepared for by a literal understanding of atomisation itself. And it seems more than possible that she was persuaded to a radical vision of human life, not by philosophers but by scientists, spruiking [sic] an ideology that struck them as an obvious truth

    We’re supposed to believe that, because Thatcher had a scientific career full of hobnobbing with the greats, she would base her politics on any then-not-famous scientist she happened to sit with at dinner?

  5. Leaving aside the essential intellectual error of applying this simplistically to enculturated human beings,

    In favour of the even more erroneous assumption that culture wipes out biological influence, which is an even bigger problem.

    it has been challenged in biology as well, most famously by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould (and recently by EO Wilson himself, now in his 90s).

    And none of the challenges have stood the test. Lewontin and Gould made fallacious arguments motivated less by scientific ideas than by moralistic outrage, and they self-confessedly had political axes to grind. Lewontin has been known to misrepresent his opponent’s views (Dawkins was one such target of his distortion) and both men set up false dichotomies and bogus argumentation in their critiques. As for Wilson, his group selection plug has been refuted, and he still refuses to change his mind or acknowledge the criticism of the recent paper he released, choosing instead to publish a book espousing the ideas in it regardless.

    If he can’t even represent the biological sciences fairly, then I don’t have high hopes for his integrity in political discourse or on Thatcher’s inspirations elsewhere in the article.

  6. It might be nice to at least have the year Thatcher allegedly meet Dawkins.

    Once that is established, RD might like to comment if a) he even remembers the event, b) if he even spoke to Thatcher, c) what he said.

    If any conversation occurred I doubt it lasted more than two minutes. If that two minutes changed history it contradicts Thatcher’s public persona – she would have had to be “The Putty Lady”, not “The Iron Lady”.
    The story also contradicts RDs political views. Either the conversation was so short RD didn’t have time to explain and Thatcher didn’t have time to understand, or it was long enough for Thatcher to understand that Dawkins’ would not support her subsequent politics.

    Until more evidence arrives, I think it is total bollocks.

    BTW I think the writer’s understanding of evolutionary biology is also total bollocks.

    • In reply to #7 by God fearing Atheist:

      It might be nice to at least have the year Thatcher allegedly meet Dawkins.
      Once that is established, RD might like to comment if a) he even remembers the event, b) if he even spoke to Thatcher, c) what he said.

      Richard makes a very polite comment on Twitter.

      Richard Dawkins‏@RichardDawkins10h
      Am I responsible for Thatcherism? I hope not, and I have no memory of the alleged dinner. http://bit.ly/159bjKm It’s a strange article.

  7. Of course it’s quite clear what Thatcher meant by “There’s no such thing as society” She meant the workers had to be self sufficient, not relying on the state, and to make enough money during their lives to be able to die in the Ritz Hotel with a crew of 12 individuals looking after them !

    • In reply to #8 by Mr DArcy:

      Of course it’s quite clear what Thatcher meant by “There’s no such thing as society” She meant the workers had to be self sufficient, not relying on the state, and to make enough money during their lives to be able to die in the Ritz Hotel with a crew of 12 individuals looking after them !

      That’s the have and have nots ethos. The same thing might be said of Pope Benny. Saying one thing while doing another. I bet Benedict isn’t living an impoverished lifestyle on his own now he is “retired”.

      Anyway, one of the first things Thatcher did when getting in was to give me a massive pay increase, so not at all bad IMO. }80)~

      Edit: In the interests of balance….the recently retired ABofC will hardly be roughing it either now he’s left office.

  8. Sorry, I don’t fall into the ‘Hate Thatcher’ bandwagon, it’s lazy. I never voted Tory but I remember the 70′s and the 80′s. She did some sensible things, some difficult things and some pretty horrendous things that I didn’t agree with. Same as any politician. We, the voters and taxpayers’, seem to want everything right at all times for ourselves when nothing is ever that straightforward and if we don’t get it there is a collective ‘waaaah’ like big babies. Well, we vote for our governments and those who don’t vote should not be complaining. The comments I’ve seen elsewhere calling her ‘evil’ and blaming every social ill on her (as if it were by design) make me gag. I also hate the sycophantic worshipping which is equally repugnant. Somewhere in the middle is the truth. But I will always admire her for succeeding in a man’s world and for taking the tough decisions that no-one else would – the 70′s were HORRENDOUS, a lot of the problems of the 80′s were a hangover from those times, which were in turn a consequence of other choices and circumstances such as the changing world economy. I actually agreed with her about the miners and the privatisation of some of our industries – if that is offensive to anyone, tough.

    • In reply to #9 by chezzyd:

      I broadly agree with your views. There was no easy way out of the problems she had to deal with. The country was in a terrible mess. There was going to be severe pain whatever decisions she took. She undoubtedly made mistakes, but a tough leadership was required. I agree that a lot of anti-Thatcher comments are lazy, made from the luxury of hindsight and without having to provide alternative solutions.

    • In reply to #9 by chezzyd:

      Hi chezzyd,

      Sorry, I don’t fall into the ‘Hate Thatcher’ bandwagon, it’s lazy. I never voted Tory but I remember the 70′s and the 80′s. She did some sensible things, some difficult things and some pretty horrendous things that I didn’t agree with. Same as any politician.

      I couldn’t agree more.

      We, the voters and taxpayers’, seem to want everything right at all times for ourselves when nothing is ever that straightforward and if we don’t get it there is a collective ‘waaaah’ like big babies.

      So true – and so many want every political argument reduced to a dichotomy, irrespective of how false a dual-view might be to the subject in hand. I will argue that the Media goes far beyond that dis-service to democracy by also simplifying – i.e. removing details that are difficult to comprehend or decide without a comprehensive secondary education, ‘forgetting’ the inconvenient to each medium’s political affiliations and shouting the subsequently engineered odds.

      Well, we vote for our governments and those who don’t vote should not be complaining.

      Whoa, there Tiger!

      Not voting is an entirely different political movement with a long and distinguished history. I was persuaded, against my better judgement – by a political scientist academic, to vote at the last General Election. I am so disappointed. I will return to my habit of not voting at the next election. There are already local councillors in Britain who are in power with a mandate of less than 5% of the full electorate’s vote.

      To my mind the coming revolution is overdue. The corruption levels continue to increase – disillusion is tracking it very nicely. The Prime Minister himself said that lobbying “is the next big scandal waiting to happen” and yet we move towards that scandal still – as if on rails. The scandals of Government impinging on our democratic rights, and our traditional hard-won judicial rights, continues alongside the long-term degradation of education. The open goal provided by Leveson was deliberately missed – as if those in power are players taking back-handers from vested interests …

      We will get there, one vote at a time.

      Peace … for now.

  9. Whatever your politics, it seems to me, far too much has been read into her comment anyway.

    All she was saying, in a nutshell, was that other people actually pay other people’s benefits and to say “society” pays disguises the fact and implies that some imaginary “other” magics the money out of the air. She wanted everyone who claimed any “free” benefit or service to make that connection.

  10. I was as much against Thatcher’s gang as anyone, and she even caused my dyed in the wool Tory dad to change his political allegiance, but this is just quote mining which gets you nowhere.

    Taken in context what she said was perfectly reasonable, the problem was that out of context it seemed to fit her perfectly as well.

    As far as parental care is concerned I think she may not have quite practiced what she proclaimed.

    As always I stand to be corrected, but as far as I understand it, and I hope I’m not being unfair here, her son was refused an entry permit to America due to his having a criminal record, and his mother had to stomp up £176,000 in bail money after one of his speculative gallivants landed him in it.

    Please correct me as well if I’m wrong in saying that Mrs Thatcher’s daughter was asked to leave the employ of the BBC after she had described a black guy as looking like a golliwog.

    I hasten to add that my only source for this information was the press.

    Should I expect a call from lawyers?

  11. The quote, by itself, is idiotic. In context, it just shows the late Mrs. Thatcher was quite confused about what a society is, which in itself, is not that serious. She can call it whatever she wants, what she described IS society (at least by some definitions). While I heartily disagreed with her political and economic views, she can’t be criticized just by that quote. There’s plenty more to criticize if you happen to disagree with it.

  12. Britain had to do something about the unions running the country instead of the elected government. It just happened to be someone called Margaret Thatcher. If it wasn’t to be her it would have been someone else. Else the country would have been a Russian satellite.

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