Is Richard Dawkins responsible for Thatcherism?

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.


Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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  1. Did Dawkins really persuade Maggie to social atomism with a complete mistating of his own position? That would be weird indeed.

    For the evo-psych crowd, the “selfishness” of genes provides a basis for innate human altruism. Natural selection at the individual level would tend to penalise behaviour that benefits other individuals, but “selfish” genes only “care” whether they get passed on, and that can happen if a sibling, or any sufficiently close kin that likely shares that gene, is saved by an individual’s altruism. Without gene selectionism you’d have to assume the behaviour was most likely cultural in origin; which you could also believe if you weren’t some bloody reductivist, but this is Dawkins we’re talking about.

    Note that the wider you define “kin” the longer the gene exists, the better for the altruism gene’s survival and spread. So even Maggie’s “just individuals and families” qualifier to the “There’s no such thing as society” line remains too narrow.

  2. It makes no sense to associate selfish behaviour with Dawkins’s work. This was made very clear in The Selfish Gene and much of his later writing.

    Those who conflate The Selfish Gene with selfish behaviour have likely not read the book.

    Much of his life’s work shows how “society”, or rather altruism, developed despite (or because of) the inescapably gene-driven process of natural selection.

  3. Far too much complication, over analysis and intellectualising (much pseudo) in this comment. From my memory this comment related directly to the matter that it is individuals and families who contribute towards and inevitably finance the expenses of State, that some intangible entity called ‘Society’ that has endless funds to finance whatever political, social dreams the Government (of any complexion) may wish to achieve is imaginary. I may not agree with her on many things but in the context or the time it was made it was a very pertinent point, a sort of wake up call as a bankrupt nation was heading for oblivion and in the wake of a period when Socialism for all its good intentions hadn’t actually worked in this country and had sadly delayed vital decisions being made to help rejuvenate the economy.
    It has however been an easy manipulation for opponents to ignore that and use it simplistically, worse still patronisingly, as a rallying call for their irrational hatred. All for opposing Thatcherism but can we actually do so from the high ground please.

    As for trying to drag Richard Dawkins into the argument hints at a similar myopic and loaded synopsis that is beneath contempt, but sadly is all too common in this black and white environment.

  4. I would echo Steven’s comment and add:

    Dawkins’ own position is very much the opposite of the Thatcher’s position, so to suggest that Thatcher was persuaded by Dawkins in this respect is quite vacuous. Dawkins stated on Twitter that he doesn’t even recall ever being at this dinner. One would think that Dawkins would remember having dinner with the Iron Lady…

  5. I concur that the author has either not read Dawkins at all or seeks to misrepresent him.

    It also hard to see that he has much of an understanding of Thatcher.

    The whole thing looks like a troll dressed up as journalism.

  6. How odd. The selfish gene and sociobiology are actual biological explanations for why there IS such a thing as a society and how being part of a society affects both the biological and psychological development of organisms. Things like altruism for both kin and strangers, social norming, tit-for-tat reciprocity (being nice to nice people, punishing anti-socials), and “us” vs “them” tribalism are all explained by these works.

    It is bizarre to suggest that Hamilton’s gene-centric analysis in general, or Dawkins specifically, would in any way influence Thatcher in the direction she went since it was quite contrary to their work. What made their work useful was the very fact that they demonstrated and quantified the value in cooperative social behaviours from a natural selection point of view for the first time.

    There’s also the fact that describing an “is” does not define and “ought”. Our cravings for fat and sugar are also explainable by natural selection and their historic scarcity but nobody would suggest we ought to indulge them.

    The whole article here is a wasted effort; even superficial research would demonstrate the hypothesis as vacuous.

  7. So is this article missing the Satire tag ?

    I came here after seeing Dawkins tweet this very article the other day. Now this is hilarious. This is the most bizzare blog post I have ever read.

    It appears that Guy has written a blog on two people he dislikes and found a way to squeeze it together, you know as in to make it fit.

    Why not just write a blog about the people you dislike ?

    The least that author could do is read Dawkins book but it really has nothing to do with Thatcherism.
    I am starting to wonder if Guy is not just a parody of his former self ???

    I shall take this blog piece as a form of poorly attempted absurd comedy or a great example of how not too write to get comments.

    HAHA is all I can say to the whole article really come on you are trolling the readers.

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