Fighting Straw Men: Mary Midgley and Scientific Discourse

Mary Midgley’s publisher Routledge calls her a fighter of “scientific pretension” – but what remains with the reader is her passion for science’s defamation.

Observe two of her statements: “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous”[1] and “Reason’s just another faith”[2]. In many of her writings, she refers to scientists as “prophets”, science as an inclusive institution, or evolution as religion[3].

Many will know the typical antiscience mantras – cropping up like weeds in what should be a growth of knowledge and not its stifling. Creationists or anti-Darwinists play the victim-card, stating the scientific community ostracizes anyone who “dares” speak out against the “doctrine” of Darwinism. Of course, if they simply went to any biology conference or read a biology journal, they would see the ones at the forefront of critiquing (strands of) evolutionary theory are, well, biologists themselves. There is no mullah-like governance deciding “This shall not be considered science!”

Thus it was that the title ‘Evolution as Religion’ leapt out at me. I initially thought that, as a highly regarded moral philosopher, Midgley would provide some answer to this dilemma of why science has become hated and distrusted. I thought that by juxtaposing evolution, which she calls the “creation myth of our age”[4], with traditional religious myths I would gain some insight. But – alas – it was not to be.

Her first apparent stumbling block is the now infamous debacle regarding Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene[5]. Her lack of understanding of the gene-centered view of biology had her fumbling, Nearly 20 years later, she is unrelenting in her attitude. In a 2005 interview, she stated:

I’m not anti-science. What I object to is improper science sold as science. I understand Dawkins thinks he was talking about the survival potential of certain lines rather than the motives of the genes themselves, but I believe he is mistaken. [Scientists] are unaware of when they start bringing their own political and psychological views into the argument. There’s nothing wrong with scientists having such views as long as they are aware of what they are doing … Dawkins may argue that he is using selfishness as a metaphor but he must have been aware of how the concept might be interpreted and used. And Dawkins has to take some responsibility for that.

It seems she has still missed the point entirely. But this introduces the first claim we can lay against her: Her attack on Straw Men.

According to Midgley, Dawkins “must have been aware” of how the concept of selfishness would be seen. As Stangroom highlights, Dawkins constantly stated the contrary throughout The Selfish Gene. It seems that every time Dawkins mentioned he was not supporting selfishness, wickedness, and so on, Midgley ignored it.

In her ‘Evolution as Religion’ article, she writes:

Evolution is the creation myth of our age. By telling us our origins it shapes our views of what we are. It influences not just our thought but also our feelings and actions in a way which goes far beyond … a biological theory. In calling it a myth I am not saying that it is a false story. I mean that it has great symbolic power, which is independent of its truth. Is the word religion appropriate to it? This depends [how] we understand that very elastic word. I have chosen it deliberately because I want to draw attention to the remarkable variety of elements which it covers…[6]

Therefore, Midgley must be “aware of how the concept might be interpreted and used”. Therefore, she shouldn’t be surprised if creationists or Intelligent Design proponents prop her up as support for their anti-science side. She must be aware, as she claims of Dawkins, of the usage of language and terms.

I was surprised to see that New Scientist asked Midgley to comment on the impact of Reason.

Midgley begins her article[7] by assessing the great Nehru, the first prime-minister of independent India. Nehru speaks about placing his trust in materialistic science over and above superstitious mumbo-jumbo. Nehru, an atheist, believed that “the future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science”[8] This is a view I agree with heartily and was therefore interested to see if maybe the philosopher had any decent criticisms.

She correctly sees Nehru’s statement as a manifesto for Reason – but she dismisses it as such because Nehru says “science alone”. She inflects the usual view of the elitism of science, which she defines as “[a] trademark of scientism”. She then defines Scientism as “the belief in the unconditional supremacy of physical science – or of Science with a capital ‘S’ – over all forms of thought.” Once again, she places it within a definition of her own choosing, then critiques this new definition. This is very essence of the Straw man Fallacy. She says:

[T]aken literally, Nehru’s proposition is odd. We might think, for instance, that we obviously need things, such as good laws, good institutions and a clear understanding of history, as well as science, to solve the problems he named (superstition, hunger, poverty, etc.). He surely knew this, but he put science first because he thought it was the only cure for what he considered the central cause of present evils – religion.

To me Nehru is important (India is my ancestral homeland and I have grown up in the same culture, which causes an ‘irrational’ affinity for that beautiful land and people). Sir Salman Rushdie – a man who would be my hero, if I had heroes – writes:

[Gandhi, and Ghandi] alone was responsible for the transformation of the demand for independence into a nationwide mass movement that mobilised every class of society against the imperialist; yet the free India that came into being, divided and committed to a programme of modernization and industrialization, was not the India of his dreams. His sometime disciple, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the arch-proponent of modernization, and it is Nehru’s vision, not Gandhi’s, that was eventually – and perhaps inevitably – preferred.[9] [emphasis mine]

Nehru’s view then is well defended. It was the destruction of Nehru’s secular prospect that led afterwards to the many terrible things in India[10] – all done in the name of a god which Nehru warned people about. Midgley is incorrect in her assessment of Nehru’s views.

Nehru was not about limiting thought – quite the opposite. To propose that the love and trust and value of science are somehow traceable to this bizarre notion of Scientism is a major mistake.

Consider the debate between Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould, regarding punctuated equilibrium. The philosopher Kim Sterelny has written a brilliant account of it entitled Dawkins vs. Gould. Sterelny lucidly outlines each argument and allows the reader to decide, stating that he himself favours Dawkins’ standard Darwinian explanations. My reason for raising this is to show: Yes there is conflict amongst scientists, about science. But that does not mean science as a whole is mistaken or religious or dominated by elitist positions.

Yes the general public might be confused or upset by the scary elitist men. But that is changing, as we attempt to make people aware of the beauty of science.


1. Mary Midgley ‘Gene Juggling’, Philosophy, vol. 54, no. 210 (1979), pp. 439.

2. Mary Midgley (2008) ‘Reason’s just another faith’. New Scientist, Vol. 199, No. 2666. P.50

3. Mary Midgley (1987) “Evolution as a religion: A comparison of prophecies.” Zygon, Vol. 22, No. 2 June, PP 179-194). All these terms can actually be found in just this one rather horrible lecture.

4. Ibid. p. 179

5. Jeremy Stangroom ‘Misunderstanding Richard Dawkins’

6. Midgley (1987), op. cit., p. 179

7. Midgley (2008) op. cit., P. 50

8. As cited in Midgley (2008)

9. Salman Rushdie ‘Gandhi Now’ in Step Across This Line: Collected Non-Fiction 1992-2002. London: Vintage, p. 283

10. Ibid

Further reading: see Roger Scruton’s appreciation of Midgley.

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