Tom Gilson

Mary Midgley: Evolutionary Origins of Genuine Humanness?

Series: Mary Midgley and Ethics

Reading Mary Midgley has produced rather a shock to my system. My prior exposure to non-theistic thinking on evolution, ethics, human freedom, and meaning has been dominated by reductionists like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Midgley’s approach, by comparison, is practically heretical among evolutionists who do not believe in God: she actually takes humans seriously for what we know we are. Nick Matzke recommended her 1994 book The Ethical Primate to me a few weeks ago, and I just finished it this afternoon, amazingly within an hour or so of when Kevin Winters emailed me a link to her recent article Purpose, Meaning & Darwinism. (A sincere “thank you” goes to both Nick and Kevin.)

In both the book and the article she breaks decisively from scientistic reductivism, arguing that it’s a hopelessly failed approach to explaining anything above the level of physics or chemistry. What we are, who we are, what we dream of and long for, how we relate socially, how and why we think, how we determine what’s important—none of this, she says, will ever be explainable by breaking it into its smallest pieces, even conceptually, as physicists take protons apart to find quarks.

You can get a flavor of this by reading the linked article. For example,

Some people are therefore now beginning to suspect that the mind/matter rift may be better dealt with differently – perhaps in the way that Spinoza proposed, by not letting it arise in the first place. Perhaps there are not two radically different kinds of stuff, mind and matter, but just one great world-stuff which has both mental and physical attributes, that can then quite properly be viewed without contradiction from both these angles. Then it would not be surprising if a single tendency, or conatus, runs through the whole, so that our kind of conscious purposiveness is only one part of the goal-directedness of nature.

Such talk is out of fashion, of course. But the current sweeping denial of purpose outside human life is certainly no less metaphysically ambitious. It only strikes us as less surprising because we are so used to it. Yet exclusive materialism is not a scientific discovery but an extreme philosophical doctrine…. It is true that the concept of purpose is not used in physics; but then physics is not in the business of trying to explain life. If our aim is to understand a world which includes ourselves, with our thoughts, as well as the other organisms, we need concepts that will explain this.

Such talk is indeed out of fashion. “Goal-directedness of nature?” That’s not at all the way most evolutionists speak. Midgley, a British philosopher, has been labeled Britain’s “foremost scourge of ‘scientific pretension.'” Though she is certainly an exponent of evolution, I rather doubt she would appreciate being labeled an evolutionist in the same way that Richard Dawkins is an evolutionist. She disagrees with him mightily, especially in his reducing all of life to a “selfish gene.” She draws from a rich data set that ranges from ethology to existentialism, derived from a wide range of literature, philosophy, and science. In the first hundred pages of The Ethical Primate she shows that reductivism is too simple, too monistic, too narrow-minded, and too stubbornly ignorant of what human life really is, to have much value at all for explaining human life and behavior. (She doesn’t think much of it even as an explanation for plant or animal life.)

I breezed through those hundred pages, generally nodding my head in agreement, appreciating her insistence that people are actually people: we’re not just gene-machines, and our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings (relating to more current discussions in science now) are not just what happens when electrons and chemicals chug around from place to place in our brains. “It can’t be that simple,” she repeatedly said. It did strike me as strange, though, the way she dismissed Christianity on page 110:

The other account, the Christian one, explains morality as our necessary attempt to bring our deeply imperfect nature into line with God’s will. Its origin-myth is the Fall of Man, a choice which has rendered our nature radically imperfect in the way described—again symbolically— in the Book of Genesis. It is not surprising that these two simple accounts [Rousseuaian and Christian] have been popular. Simplicity itself is always welcome in a confusing world, and each of the does contains some real insights. But simple accounts cannot explain complex facts, and it is clear that neither of these can really deal with our questions. The Christian account shifts the problem rather than solving it, since we wtill need to know why we should acknowledge God’s authority. Christian teaching has of course plenty to say about this, but what it says is complex, and cannot keep its attractive simplicity once this question is raised.

I’m sure she has other reasons than this for thinking Christian answers are inadequate, but this one is odd. After a hundred pages on reductivism being too simple, urging us to look for multiple layers of explanation for multiple-layered questions, she complains that Christianity “cannot keep its attractive simplicity” once a question has been raised. What does she want? If Christianity kept its simplicity, surely she would reject it for that reason, too. But in fact she simply assumes it is wrong, without addressing its answers to the questions she has raised.

The second half of The Ethical Primate was less familiar territory and thus slower going for me. This is where she takes her commitment to wholistic humanness on the one hand, and naturalistic evolution on the other, and tries to wed them together to produce a meaningful ethic. It’s a wedding from which most other writers, like nervous grooms, have run flat-footed. I must return later to discuss why I do not think she has succeeded in hitching the two together, but I want to dwell a moment now on what did make sense about her approach. I’ve already stated the crux of it: she accepts the data of humanness. Theists have always recognized this data as real, from the first chapters of Genesis through more recent writers like C.S. Lewis (The Abolition of Man) and Wiker and Witt (A Meaningful World: How the Arts And Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature). Naturalists more commonly have seemed to reject it, at least as far as I have seen. Consider E.O. Wilson, whom Midgley quotes on page 5:

Human behavior—like the deepest capacities for emotional response which drive and guide it—is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function.

Similarly Richard Dawkins, quoted right after Wilson,

We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.

Midgley might say (though she did not do so here) that the reason this “truth” so astonishes Dawkins is because everybody knows it isn’t truth, and on some level he must know, too. “Folk psychology,” the common-sense everyday understanding we have of ourselves, is not so unreflective and pre-theoretic as, say, folk chemistry (cooking, for example). It’s been tested through the ages. We know what we know about ourselves, and this talk of “no other demonstrable ultimate function” and “blindly programmed to serve the selfish molecules” is unbelievable because we know better than to believe it.

Midgley wrote this book in 1994. Who since then has bought into her philosophy? There’s very little evidence that her objections have daunted Dawkins since then, or put any dent in Dennett.* Will Provine still says there is no such thing as free will, purpose, or ethics. Michael Ruse still considers ethics to be a “collective illusion of the genes.” Naturalism, in other words, continues its reductive ways. Especially in neuroscience, this tendency continues to show up frequently even in the news media and other popular press. Still, Midgley’s question is a great one: can human nature, as we genuinely understand it, be united with a naturalistic view of origins, and can that in turn lead to a coherent view of ethics? She thinks it can. My opinion on that will appear in another blog post in a day or two.

*Whether her opinions have harried Sam Harris or put a hitch into Christopher Hitchens—the other New Atheist “Gang of Four” members, as I call them—is a matter of conjecture, since they don’t write as much on these topics.

Series Navigation (Mary Midgley and Ethics):Mary Midgley’s Near-Answer To My Lifelong Question >>>
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6 thoughts on “Mary Midgley: Evolutionary Origins of Genuine Humanness?

  1. FWIW, if you’ve enjoyed Midgley’s _The Ethical Primate_, I expect you’d appreciate her _Evolution as a Religion_ (Routledge Classics / 2002) too. Another book that’s worth considering is Marilynne Robinson’s _The Death of Adam_ (Picador / 2005)….

  2. Midgley’s always an enjoyable read; her philosophical memoir, The Owl of Minerva, is extremely interesting.

    She and Dawkins have a long-running feud; in 1979 she sharply criticized him in an article, famously saying that previously she hadn’t bothered with Dawkins at all because she didn’t think it was worthwhile to break a butterfly on a wheel; but now serious thinkers were starting to buy into his fantasies. To which Dawkins famously replied that it was hard to match for its patronizing condescension; and he’s called her article intemperate and vicious.

  3. Hi Tom,

    Despite all the noise the New Atheists make, there are some relatively reasonable atheists out there. Mary Midgley is one. Thomas Nagel and Nancy Cartwright are others. Often it is apparent their atheism is at odds with their philosophy; there are many reasons people become atheists, not all of them reasonable. I pray our merciful Lord will look on them mercifully.


    P.S. I recently wrote about Nagel and evolution here: Reductionism and the Origin of Non-Species. Also, it might interest you to note that in a recent paper, Nagel defends ID.

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