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Moments of Nostalgia: The Tutorial

by Damian O’Malley

This piece is nostalgic to me for two reasons. 

Firstly, I wrote it thirty years ago when my daughter was born. I had the pretentious idea of creating a series of autobiographical sketches so that one day she could get to know her father better.

Secondly (and logically), it is about an event even further in the past; an undergraduate tutorial with the philosopher Ian McHattie Crombie. We knew Professor Crombie then as an authority on Plato but found out later that he was also a conscientious objector during the Second World War. I had always thought that the subject of this most memorable “tute” was arbitrary, but in light of Crombie’s moral convictions, maybe not.


~ The Tutorial ~


I have a photograph of my matriculating year at Wadham. It is 1974, the first year of the experiment in which five Oxford men's colleges began to admit women. Wadham is one of the five. A dozen slightly out of focus women stare at the camera amongst fifty or so men. I am in the middle, a chubby figure with black plastic National Health spectacles, long hair flattened against my head, a brown Terylene suit, and a black Commoners gown. I look terrified.

Most of my study time is divided between two libraries, The Bodleian and the Psychology Faculty library. In the former I read Hume, Berkeley, Locke, and J.S. Mill; in the latter I read Eysenck, Broadbent, and Skinner.

The teaching system at Oxford pits student against student and, sometimes, student against teacher. It breeds intellectual bullies. Two of us sit there with the tutor, we have a topic, we have an argument; it's called dialectics.

I feel a bit sorry for the Oxford philosophy dons, it is not their decade. The gods have died leaving behind just the apostles and the apologists. Philosophical thought is undergoing a paradigm shift; the philosophy of science, for so long thought indisputable, is beginning to be found inadequate.

It's the same in popular music. The most successful bands of the mid-seventies are so-called super groups, like "'Yes" and "Emerson Lake and Palmer". They are technological and smooth and represent themselves as the pinnacle of pop, the end of musical evolution. They are also bland and soulless, and remote from the realities of the three-day week. Punk rock is born to rediscover the soul.

Reductionist science and the experimental scientific method also lack soul. When I came to Oxford to study psychology, I hoped to be studying people. I find that I am mostly studying rats. I spend my days trying to understand complex cognitive phenomena in terms of stimulus and response.

Biological determinism and the ideas of Dawkins, expressed in his book 'The Selfish Gene', are very modish and underlie my most memorable tutorial. The one in which, against all common sense, my philosophy tutor, Ian Crombie, tries to persuade us that there can be no such thing as altruism in human beings.

The example he chooses is that of a man falling on a live enemy grenade in a trench during World War 1, thus sacrificing his own life but saving those of his comrades. His assertion is that this could never happen; such behaviour would have been selected against by evolution. He gives us a week to think about it. I volunteer to write the essay and lead the discussion. I start to read.

"I could have looked for documentary evidence of people throwing themselves on grenades in trenches, but I decided that that was beside the point. Your thesis, Professor Crombie, is that altruism - at least the kind of altruism that leads to death - is not adaptive behaviour, and, if it ever existed, would have been selected against and eventually died out.

I think there can be little doubt that there have been individual acts of heroism that have led to the death of the hero. One possible explanation is that such behaviour is so rare that evolutionary pressure has not been brought to bear. In other words, altruism is a trivial part of the biological history of mankind. The other possibility is that you are wrong, and that altruism is indeed adaptive behaviour."

Can I just interrupt you for a second? Are you seriously suggesting that people, faced with a situation of extreme danger like a grenade falling into their trench, have chosen to preserve the lives of their fellow men, competitors if you like in the biological sense, rather than their own lives?

"I doubt, sir, whether people really thought it through at the time, but I can think of a number of reasons why they might. Perhaps if you are going to die anyway it is better, in an evolutionary sense, to use your death to preserve the gene pool by preventing the death of others. More particularly, as I understand it, at the time of the First World War the idea of honour, serving the King, the glory of war and so on, were drummed into the population. Perhaps society, peer pressure, and so on, can overwhelm one's own survival instincts in certain circumstances."

But I return to my main point. Even if you are right, and you may be, I would argue that evolution would select against such behaviour and that it would eventually die out so to speak.

"Well, I guess that it has died out insofar as our own society is very different to Edwardian British society. I doubt that the men of my generation would volunteer to be cannon fodder in such numbers as they volunteered then. However, I can think of other contemporary situations in which people kill themselves because of societal pressure: Japanese Samurai committing Hari Kari; Buddhist monks self-immolating; and Indian widows throwing themselves onto funeral pyres. Well I admit that the Samurai are not contemporary, but the other two are."

Are you sure that any of those cases can be classed as altruism?

"Well look, even if they can't, I have a counter-thesis, an explanation of why altruism may be adaptive. It runs like this. Human children are unusual in the length of their gestation period relative to their body weight and the length of time it takes them to mature. Stable, monogamous, human families developed early on in evolutionary time, presumably as a good way of ensuring that children reached maturity and hence that their genes were preserved. If that is so, then I can imagine that the adults in such families would be prepared to fight to the death to protect their children.

But that is illogical. If one or both of the parents dies then, by definition, the family is destroyed.

"Yes, by definition, but in reality the children might survive and have a better chance of reaching maturity. But anyway, the second part of my argument is that society is a collection of families. In other words, human societies developed as one large family, starting as tribes and ending up with modern industrial societies that bear little relation to the original human family. Perhaps in that sense, altruism is simply a carryover of the ancient imperative to protect your children.

I don't see...

"Think of it this way, then. If, in ancient times, someone's parents were killed, perhaps there were circumstances in which it benefited the future of the tribe if another adult in the tribe was to take care of the orphans. The youth of the tribe were necessary to preserve the future of the tribe as well as the future of the genes of any one individual within the tribe. Unless food was extremely scarce it would not endanger your own genes to look after another's offspring.

I maintain the view that over time individuals who were inclined to choose self-preservation instead of preservation of the tribe would eventually form the majority of the tribe and that such altruism would die out.

"You're suggesting that evolutionary forces inevitably make mankind more and more selfish."


I wouldn't necessarily make the statement in such a value laden way, but in effect, yes.

"So you share Nietzsche’s view that mankind is turning into a race of slaves."

At the mention of Nietzsche, the professor draws on his pipe a little harder.

Nietsche's view that to be a man you must be prepared to die rather than submit to the will of others is plainly unscientific. We saw the terrible consequences of that kind of thinking in the German Nazi party.

"But surely that supports my argument. The fact that men are prepared to die for a cause, for example to fight fascism shows that mankind can transcend their genes.”

You are suggesting that because human beings fight wars, we are qualitatively different from other animals and free of normal evolutionary pressures. I can see how we might like to think that, but do you think it's true?

"I don't know, I think it might be true. Isn't it obvious that we are qualitatively different from other kinds of animals?”

When the grenade flies into the trench you have at most three seconds to decide what to do. You stare in fascination at the grey pineapple that will shortly expand faster than the speed of sound. The shrapnel will already be slicing through your legs, face, and into your stomach before you hear the explosion.

Would I become a Nietzschean Übermensch in those three seconds, facing my death nobly, knowing that at last I am a man? Or would I panic and throw myself at the grenade hoping to eject it from the trench before it is too late?

And would it be too late? And would my trench mates testify to my heroism? And would the army give my parents or my widow a medal? And would a philosopher later call it altruism?

Who knows?

When philosophy meets biology, the biology usually ends up smeared on the walls of the trench.

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