Pharyngula

Who’s morally pernicious?

I read this headline — “Mary Midgley argues that opponents of intelligent design are driving people to accept it” — and my first thought was that surely some editor had mangled the sense of an interview. No one could be that blatantly nonsensical. And then I read the first paragraph and discover that it was an understatement, and that Midgley is much more extreme.

People are not going to accept scientific fact if they think it is morally pernicious. When people are asked why they are persuaded by intelligent design, they often say that it’s the only alternative to scientific atheism and Darwinism which are pernicious moral doctrines; they see it as the only refuge from this anti-human bloody-mindedness. It’s at the level of attitudes to life that these choices are made. And people will think scientists as a whole believe this. As Professor Winston has said, science becomes discredited by this kind of stuff.

Well, yes, I suppose that is true. The peasants are also not going to accept the presence of Jews if they think it is morally pernicious — what decent human being would want to live anywhere near people who drink the blood of Christian babies, after all? They are going to be persuaded to join in the pogroms because they are going to see it as a refuge from subhuman parasitism, and it’s an entirely reasonable self-defense made on the level of moral choice. Need I point out that science then becomes discredited by the many Jews present in the field?

We have a couple of ways that we can respond to this kind of nonsense.

Some seem to favor the idea of waving around The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and, while deploring its content, suggesting that this a good reason to ask all Jews to lie low and avoid the spotlight for a while (i.e., permanently). We need to frame science as untainted by the Jews so we can get more people to accept it and to avoid other political obstacles. I have to agree: it certainly would make science more comfortable to anti-semites if we purged the Jews, and I suspect that scientific polling would back me up on that.

I wonder, though, if it might be better to oppose the false claims of the Protocols, rather than allowing the bigotry to limit what we’re allowed to say. Maybe we shouldn’t flatter the anti-semites by courting their approval. Maybe we should point out that the people who benefit from the pogroms seem to have a vested interest in portraying Jews as evil people, and that the swelling mobs of pitchfork-wielding people isn’t a justifiable response. Maybe instead we should undercut those lies by allowing Jews to be more vocal, standing up and revealing that they are good people, that they are our neighbors, our friends, even our relatives, and that they aren’t “morally pernicious” at all.

It’s even more ridiculous when this reasoning is applied to atheists. We aren’t facing death or dispossession for our ideas, but so far only a more subtle discrimination and attitudes like Midgley’s. This is exactly the situation in which we should be coming out and demonstrating the falsity of Midgley’s assumptions. It seems to me that if anyone is promoting enrollment in Intelligent Design creationism’s smear campaign against the taint of atheism in science, it’s the people who perpetuate the idea that atheism is morally suspect.

Accepting the critics’ claim of the “morally pernicious” status of their target is basically surrendering to a lie. Why does Mary Midgley want to honor a lie?

Comments

  1. #1 Reginald Selkirk
    September 20, 2007

    Dawkins says that natural selection is the only source of evolution.

    Defamation!

  2. #2 Brownian
    September 20, 2007

    I have only one question: who is Mary Midgley smoking meth with while fucking strangers in airport toilets and evading taxes?

    C’mon, you know it’s going to come out that she’s some sort of problem-gambling Oxy-addict who keeps shaved he-goats in the shed or something like that sooner or later.

  3. #3 Steve P
    September 20, 2007

    This crazy broad bashed Dawkins “Selfish Gene” over thirty years ago and obviously hasn’t learned anything since. They are having a good laugh over at richarddawkins.com about this as well.

  4. #4 G Felis
    September 20, 2007

    Okay, let’s correct some major confusions on this thread: (1) Mary Midgley is not a creationist, not even of the ID subspecies. (2) She is not some out-of-left-field nobody, but is a widely read and respected philosopher. (3) She is not herself a religious believer, although she does have an unfortunate tendency to embrace ideas and emotions that seem “deep and mysterious” that all-too-frequently infects professional philosophers, which I see as nothing more than rank mysticism. (4) She has in the past said some very sensible, interesting, and worthwhile things – even about science.

    That said, the excerpt from her new screed quoted by The Independent is COMPLETE DRIVEL. I’d say it contains the worst arguments I’d ever seen – if it actually contained any arguments. Instead, as far as I can see it contains all and only cheap rhetoric rather than any actual rigorous reasoning and evidence. What a load of bollocks!

    I will admit that there’s something to her position that Dawkins’ hyper-competitive panadaptationist perspective on evolution has a certain political subtext, its success or failure to explain natural phenomena is the only criterion by which it can be judged good or bad science, not its political implications or its rhetorical content! My judgment is that the “selfish gene” approach to understanding natural selection is bad science because it does fail to explain many important phemonena – although of course there are also lots of phenomena it does account for quite well. But that judgment MUST BE separate from the potential political and rhetorical uses to which the theory can be (and sometimes has been) put. Moreover, Dawkins himself has explicitly and repeatedly rejected those political and rhetorical appeals as the rank nonsense they are, and is quicker than anyone else to point out the naturalistic fallacy inherent in taking the brutal necessities of natural selection as any kind of moral compass.

  5. #5 MH
    September 20, 2007
  6. #6 David Marjanovi?
    September 20, 2007

    I don’t quite understand how scientific facts can be morally pernicious, anyway. How does a system in the universe or on the planet functioning in a natural manner affect anyone’s morality at all?

    By means of reality’s well-known liberal ( = morally pernicious) bias?

  7. #7 David Marjanovi?
    September 20, 2007

    I don’t quite understand how scientific facts can be morally pernicious, anyway. How does a system in the universe or on the planet functioning in a natural manner affect anyone’s morality at all?

    By means of reality’s well-known liberal ( = morally pernicious) bias?

  8. #8 David Marjanovi?
    September 20, 2007

    I don’t quite understand how scientific facts can be morally pernicious, anyway. How does a system in the universe or on the planet functioning in a natural manner affect anyone’s morality at all?

    By means of reality’s well-known liberal ( = morally pernicious) bias?

  9. #9 David Marjanovi?
    September 20, 2007

    I don’t quite understand how scientific facts can be morally pernicious, anyway. How does a system in the universe or on the planet functioning in a natural manner affect anyone’s morality at all?

    By means of reality’s well-known liberal ( = morally pernicious) bias?

  10. #10 David Marjanovi?
    September 20, 2007

    Wise up, chumps. Natural selection means using something that others are not.

    Nope, it means that the others have inherited a trait that prevents them from having as many surviving fertile offspring as you in the current environment.

  11. #11 David Marjanovi?
    September 20, 2007

    Wise up, chumps. Natural selection means using something that others are not.

    Nope, it means that the others have inherited a trait that prevents them from having as many surviving fertile offspring as you in the current environment.

  12. #12 Glen Davidson
    September 20, 2007

    Good God, even if what Mary says in the first paragraph is true, why does she blame Dawkins instead of the ranting liars at the DI? It’s certainly not Dawkins who says that Darwin is responsible for Hitler.

    Here’s some more egregious swill, interspersed with comments:

    Dawkins says that natural selection is the only source of evolution. But Darwin himself said that natural selection was not the only source of evolution.

    Yeah yeah, of course Dawkins doesn’t say that, but then we don’t agree with Darwin that acquired traits are inherited either (except epigenetically). She seems to agree with IDists that ours is the church of Darwinism, and if Dawkins deviates from whatever Darwin wrote, then he is wrong.

    Dawkins dramatises natural selection by the use of the word selfish. He says that natural selection means nature red in tooth and claw, but that’s not true. Natural selection means using something that others are not, like photosynthesis or a new food source, and we must not forget that co-operation is often terribly important for survival.

    You haven’t even read anything by Dawkins, have you Midgely? You’re coming awfully close to IDism when you just make things up like that.

    The ideology Dawkins is selling is the worship of competition. It is projecting a Thatcherite take on economics on to evolution. It’s not an impartial scientific view; it’s a political drama. It is wrong to link science with this one-sided contemptuous stuff, as if making out that people who disagree with him are idiots. There are many believing scientists. It’s very misleading to reduce the debate to this level.

    Why are you reducing “the debate” to that level? BTW, there’s no debate, not with non-ignorant and non-stupid people. And the only reason Dawkins speaks of the competition in evolution is because that’s the way it works, including where co-operation also operates. One of Dawkins’s points is that co-operation can come out of competition.

    Besides, it’s absurd for her to be claiming that Dawkins is pushing economics into science, when at least in America that ought to be a selling point. The creo churches are pushing red-in-tooth-and-claw economics, not Dawkins.

    Dawkins’ idea that religion makes people do appalling things is absurd.

    Why yes, it was wrong for our founding fathers to set up a secular gov’t to keep the perfidy of religion at bay. There was no Inquisition, Old Testament genocides, or Salem witch hunts.

    Where’d this woman ever get a degree?

    Whatever is the favoured thought system at any time, people doing appalling things use it to justify themselves. Marxism was used in this way, monetarist ideology is the same. It’s all political. When you build it up to cosmic doctrines, you’re taking on a much bigger responsibility.

    So, is Marxism causing many problems today? Focus, Mary, focus. Of course ideologies are used for ill much like religions, but the staying power of religion manages to influence the development of ideology. Hegel’s quasi-religious claptrap had a lot to do with the magical belief in dialectical materialism getting a foothold.

    Belief does not compete with science; it means different things.

    Let’s see, you were going to explain why ID arose, since it doesn’t compete with science, weren’t you? What happened, did you nod off into your little dream world again?

    Dawkins is very angry with anyone who says there are mysteries, but science cannot answer some questions.

    Um, sources? You know, I’d have thought you understood the need for evidence, but so far I have seen exactly none.

    We raise all sorts of questions beyond the material world. Then it’s understanding we’re after rather than information. These are not questions like “is there a box on the table?” but questions of inner life, that can’t be settled in the lab.

    Where’s the evidence that they can’t be settled in the lab?

    More importantly, so what if they can’t be answered at the present time? “Belief” without sufficient evidence is fine if people just want to hang their hat onto a belief without evidence. But don’t confuse the importance of how real answers are found with the fact that many people want fake answers, whether or not real answers have been found.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  13. #13 Blake Stacey
    September 20, 2007

    Actually, Inherit the Wind was far kinder to William Jennings Bryan (fictionalized as “Matthew Harrison Brady”) than was, say, H. L. Mencken at the time of the Scopes Trial. It portrays him as a populist hero whose greatest sin is the dogmatism which grew in his old age. He and the Clarence Darrow character (“Henry Drummond”) were close friends and allies, and can still enjoy a civil chat on a summer’s evening, although their differing notions of progress divided their ideas. Drummond criticizes Brady for incuriosity, but after his death, delivers a quiet eulogy: “A giant once lived in that body. . . but Matt Brady got lost, because he looked for God too high up, and too far away.”

  14. #14 Matt Penfold
    September 20, 2007

    “2) She is not some out-of-left-field nobody, but is a widely read and respected philosopher.”

    I am not aware of many who respect her very poor understanding of what evolution is. She certainly has not understood Dawkins’ message in “The Selfish Gene” which may explain why her criticisms of it are so silly.

    If other philosophers consider Midgeley to be a leading light in their field then philosophy has a real problem.

  15. #15 Ichthyic
    September 20, 2007

    We aren’t facing death or dispossession for our ideas,

    not correct.

    don’t forget the story about the woman and her family that were forced to move from their neighborhood because of discrimination against atheists.

    wasn’t that the documented incident that started that ridiculous panel of religiosos talking about how that family “deserved it because they should have laid low”. didn’t you, PZ, even have a thread on that very thing a few months back?

    we don’t want to think it has gone that far, but really, it’s been that way for quite some time.

    atheists ARE being dispossessed, and have been for some time.

  16. #16 JD
    September 20, 2007

    For those interested, here is one of Midgley’s articles from RIP (Royal Instit. of Phil.) that “rips” Dawkins:

    Gene-juggling by Mary Midgley

    and of course, Dr. D’s response:

    In Defence of Selfish Genes by R. Dawkins

  17. #17 thwaite
    September 20, 2007

    Mary Midgley is pretty fully described here. The excerpt which I recall from way back (and which hasn’t been retracted to date):

    Midgley responded in volume 54 (1979) with Gene-Juggling[7], believing that The Selfish Gene was about psychological egoism, rather than evolution. This article criticised Dawkins’ concepts, but was judged by its targets as having been written in an intemperate and personal tone, and was criticised by many biologists who said that she had misunderstood Dawkins’ ideas. For example, Midgley misinterpreted Dawkins as using the expression “selfish gene” to literally mean that genes have a psychological dimension:
    Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological… [Dawkins'] central point is that the emotional nature of man is exclusively self-interested, and he argues this by claiming that all emotional nature is so. Since the emotional nature of animals clearly is not exclusively self-interested, nor based on any long-term calculation at all, he resorts to arguing from speculations about the emotional nature of genes.
    – Mary Midgley, (1979)

  18. #18 Brownian
    September 20, 2007

    MartinM @#34:

    IIRC, she’s pushing 90. Really not the mental image I needed.

    For some reason, I assumed she was a member of the moral majority (ā la Haggard, Craig et al.) rather than an elderly philosopher.

    I know, I know, most of you can’t believe that I can jump to conclusions and run off at the mouth, but it can happen. And you were here to witness it.

    I case you read this, sorry Mary.

  19. #19 JD
    September 20, 2007

    Richard Dawkins posted today that Midgley has admitted she didn’t even read his book, “The Selfish Gene” when she wrote that blistering article (see my previous post) attacking it. So much for her honesty. Grim…sad…pathetic.

    12. Comment #71923 by Richard Dawkins on September 20, 2007 at 12:23 am

    Ullica Segerstrale, author of Defenders of the Truth, an excellently thorough history of the sociobiology controversy, interviewed Mary Midgley about her article in the journal Philosophy (http://www.royalinstitutephilosophy.org/articles/article.php?id=14). This was the article that I replied to and which you can see at http://www.royalinstitutephilosophy.org/articles/article.php?id=5).
    Mrs Midgley confessed to Ullica that she had not in fact read The Selfish Gene when she wrote that article. She has since backtracked from that confession, and I was inclined to believe her. However, looking at the above interview with Nick Jackson, it looks very much as though she still hasn’t read anything more than the title of The Selfish Gene.

    Richard

    Source: Dawkins’ post at http://www.richarddawkins.net (click)

  20. #20 Dídac
    September 20, 2007

    If you need a God in order to understand that harming deliberately and gratuitously other people is Bad, then you have a very serious problem. Nay, we all have a very serious problem.

  21. #21 JD
    September 20, 2007

    Richard Dawkins posted today that Midgley has admitted she didn’t even read his book, “The Selfish Gene” when she wrote that blistering article (see my previous post) attacking it. So much for her honesty. Grim…sad…pathetic.

    12. Comment #71923 by Richard Dawkins on September 20, 2007 at 12:23 am

    Ullica Segerstrale, author of Defenders of the Truth, an excellently thorough history of the sociobiology controversy, interviewed Mary Midgley about her article in the journal Philosophy ( http://www.royalinstitutephilosophy.org/articles/article.php?id=14 ). This was the article that I replied to and which you can see at http://www.royalinstitutephilosophy.org/articles/article.php?id=5 ).
    Mrs Midgley confessed to Ullica that she had not in fact read The Selfish Gene when she wrote that article. She has since backtracked from that confession, and I was inclined to believe her. However, looking at the above interview with Nick Jackson, it looks very much as though she still hasn’t read anything more than the title of The Selfish Gene.

    Richard

    Source: Dawkins’ post at http://www.richarddawkins.net (click)

  22. #22 Spaulding
    September 20, 2007

    Wow, it’s sort of sad the way she misunderstood The Selfish Gene. I would think she’d learn from that blunder that she wasn’t quite fit for a public platform discussing biology, and that it’s probably a good idea to read Dawkins’ works before sticking her foot in her mouth in attempted critique.

    In this new article, she’s again displaying her naive view of evolution and of contemporary theories of evolution (including Dawkins’ own position). However, to her defense, she does not at all support attitudes like “scientific atheism”=”morally pernicious.” She merely discusses the challenge that such an attitude poses to the public perception of science and reality. And she’s right about that, even if she directs the blame in what’s mostly the wrong direction.

    Regarding biology, you really need to stop, Midgley. It’s pretty embarassing when philosophers and critical theorists talk over their own heads about things they don’t understand (see also Searle, for example). It makes one think less of philosophers in general.

    A couple of posts have mentioned that this lady has done some good writing at some point. Would anyone more familiar than I with her work care to defend her? As far as I can tell, she’s an example of someone unwilling to correct her own scientific ignorance, yet has made a career out of writing about science.

  23. #23 Sastra
    September 20, 2007

    James McGrath wrote

    Either science implies atheism, as you seem to claim, in which case Midgley is right that your arguments drive people to the opposite extreme; or there is a genuine middle ground, in which case I would suggest that your opposition to those who seek to stake out such middle ground (such as the clergy letter project) is misguided.

    The “middle ground” is compartmentalization. Can you believe in both God and evolution? Yes. The two can be reconciled. As Michael Shermer put it, “You can believe in God and evolution as long as you keep the two in separate, logic-tight compartments. Belief in God depends on religious faith. Belief in evolution depends on empirical evidence.”

    But is evolution indicative of a disembodied Intelligence called God? No. If you follow evolution to its natural conclusion, no God. Just as when you follow chemistry to its natural conclusion, no Life Force.

    So science implies atheism to those who take God as a hypothesis about reality. It does not imply atheism to those who see the question of whether God exists or not as a moral issue, instead of a factual one. Morals based on what, though? On facts. Otherwise, theism is nothing more than humanism imbued with poetry and metaphor.

    So we atheists are supposed to push the idea that it’s a good thing to compartmentalize God into “a matter of faith?” A moral issue? When “having faith in God” means being open, loving, sensitive, and caring about others? And then they notice we have no faith in God? Cut our own throats, why don’t we?

    That “middle ground” isn’t going to work for us. That’s the area where people insist that believing in God isn’t like believing in a science theory, it’s like believing in beauty, love, and the value of kindness. It’s about being open to wonder and possibility. Right. So much for respecting the position of atheism, then.

  24. #24 Doug Chaplin
    September 20, 2007

    My own reading of the Independent article, which doesn’t really give much to go on, was that Midgley’s comment primarily centred round the word “selfish”. As I unnderstand it, (without having read her other comments on Dawkins’ work) she is saying that picking a metaphor which people associate with bad behaviour will resonsate more with people who don’t understand the science than any presentation of the science. Far more people know Dawkins called the gene “selfish” than have ever read his book. Hence people react viscerally towards his theory on the basis of a word with (im)moral connotations, rather than consider a theory that has nothing to do with morality. Indeed, Dawkins specifcally says that it would be a pretty poor guide to constructing morality. While I’m not at all sure this has anything to do with why people accept the nonsense of ID (I just don’t follow the logic there), I think there’s a more sensible point about choosing rhetoric carefully than most commenters here are recognising. Most people (gross generalisation mode on) are scientifically illiterate, and don’t react to the science, but the image. I make those comments as an evolution accepting Christian who gets really annoyed by both ID and creationism, so you may have to allow for my bias, just as I try to allow for yours. But a plea to think about the implications of the rhetoric of “selfish” as an emotional turn-off seems to me one worth pondering.

  25. #25 CJO
    September 20, 2007

    Dawkins’s new book is to be called “The somewhat-self-centered-but-really-a-pretty-nice-guy-once-you-get-to-know him Gene”

  26. #26 Mrs Tilton
    September 20, 2007

    Spaulding @63,

    Andrew Brown, who very occasionally comments here, wrote a book called The Darwin Wars that describes (among many other things) the exchanges between Midgely and Dawkins. Though he seems generally sympathetic to Midgely, Brown remarks that she got her biology about as wrong as one could possibly get it; all the more astonishing, as she was well aware she was no biologist, and so got one to help her. Brown’s book is very well worth reading.

    As for Midgely’s stuff, I’ve read very little of it, but liked Wickedness. I also have Beast and Man on the shelf somewhere, and must get round to it one day.

  27. #27 James McGrath
    September 20, 2007

    I am certainly OK with the idea of belief in God (which is not, in spite of Dawkins, limited to theism) as humanism plus an appreciation of metaphor! :)

    All I understood Midgley to be saying is that, if one believes there are only two options, a scientific worldview devoid of meaning and morality, and belief in the traditional theistic God coupled with ID or YEC. I didn’t understand her to be supporting the view that those are the only options. I only understood her to be criticizing both extremes for reinforcing the wrong impression that this is an either-or situation. I don’t think I’m misconstruing the quotation, but there may have been more to what she said than is quoted here. All I understand her to be saying is that, as long as scientists continue to give the impression that science itself shows life to be meaningless and undermines morality, people are going to run the other way, and all the evidence in the world will not convince them not to, since they are making a choice with their hearts and not their heads.

  28. #28 MAJeff
    September 20, 2007

    life to be meaningless and undermines morality

    Two separate issues.

    Humans give meaning to life. It has no inherent meaning in nature. That is not the same as undermining morality. Indeed, giving meaning to life is how humans have developed moralities. Morality flows from our sociality, not from any supernatural source.

  29. #29 Dan S.
    September 20, 2007

    This subject has become tiresome beyond belief, so I’m merely going to drop in a quote that PZ might perhaps appreciate. It’s from Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, as Thursday is instructing Goliath Corp.’s lab techs on the finer points of navigation in the BookWorld . . .

    I drew a rough circle near the Maritime Adventures (Civilian) genre. “We think that this area is heavy with detritus from an unknown genre – possibly Squid Action/Adventure – that failed to fully form a century ago. Twice a year Maritime is pelted with small fragments of ideas and snatches of inner monologue regarding important invertebrate issues that don’t do much harm, but bookjumping through this zone has always been a bit bumpy . . .

    Amusingly enough, [Warning: Mild Spoiler Alert] she soon finds herself aboard the steamship Moral Dilemma, trapped within . . . . {shudder} an ethics seminar lecture (no trolleys are involved, but life-saving but unaffordable medicines do make an appearance, among other things . . .)

    Midgely: ““For instance, I absolutely accept that a physical analysis of Atterberg’s Symphony No.2 in terms of vibrations and frequencies could be wholly accurate and complete in terms of physics. But I do not feel this requires me to deny that the Symphony in question can be viewed from another legitimate perspective and considered beautiful.”

    This sort of thing makes me want to ram a sharp stick into my eye. Honestly, lady, Whitman (“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”), Keats (“Lamia”) and even Poe (“Sonnet – To Science”) have said it very much better, while scientists/science-lovers have answered that sort of over-Romanticized obscurantist silliness well enough, I think. (Although it would be interesting to see a Keats-Dawkins debate over rainbow-appreciation – alas . . .).

    . . . the truth, which is obviously that God designed the universe with hypertext markup language protocols.

    Well, that explains a lot . . .

    I think that Haidt is incorrect to include conservative parameters under the umbrella of morality -

    Oh, I dunno – insofar that he’s taking a descriptive approach based on anthropological and psychological data, it seems to make a fair amount of sense – I mean, to say that primarily ‘conservative’ moral issues aren’t part of human morality is rather bizarre, when you think about it , and when one considers that the other parameters/pillars/wha’ever may well have been a big part of the’ standard model of morality,’ one might say – what would have been understood as corresponding to ‘moral concerns’ for most human groups throughout most of cognitively-modern human history – it seems even odder. (Unless, of course, the authoritarian/in-group/purity bits really become important only after, say, the rise of agriculture, or perhaps some other transition?)*.

    Anyway, off the top of my head, I suspect his questionnaires an’ all may – though poor design/phrasing – be missing some aspects of liberal morality. For example, ideas of purity/sanctity would seem to also be rather important for many liberals, but in different enough ways that his questions completely miss them, rendering them invisible. From a certain point of view, ‘conservative’ morality has an oddly privatized, inert, or perhaps overly literal view of sanctity/purity (subversive art? yawn); instead, liberal purity concerns (driven by non-harm and fairness, rather than in-group loyalty and respect for authority/hierarchy) attach to things like sweatshop-made clothes, perhaps racist/sexist language, pesticide-laden, wastefully produced (and exploited-labor-using food, etc. Which gets us into a whole ‘nother aspect of liberal (or would it make sense to distinguish between liberal and left) morality, which involves enormous loyalty to/respect for an in-group of a sort, but one that’s been stretched enormously wide, to encompass not just – at least in theory – the rest of the species, but also other species, to one or another degree, and even ecosystems and such-like.

    * Conversely, it’s always struck me as rather interesting not just that something along the lines of the Golden Rule is so widespread, but that it also seems as if it popped up in a variety of places possessing dense and diverse populations mingling in cities and empires, unless this is merely an artifact created by the nature of the evidence. In other words, that it’s not just a reflection of fundamental human empathy, but a specific set of cultural/historical developments utilizing it when basic family/in-group loyalty & attachment is no longer sufficient – because the social environment has gone so far beyond your local band or village – and some sort of patch is desperately needed. . .
    No doubt this is a very timeworn realization, but I never pay enough attention and honestly, I’m also the kind of person who makes the same excited realizations a couple times a year until they eventually start sticking . . .)

  30. #30 MAJeff
    September 20, 2007

    Midgely: “”For instance, I absolutely accept that a physical analysis of Atterberg’s Symphony No.2 in terms of vibrations and frequencies could be wholly accurate and complete in terms of physics. But I do not feel this requires me to deny that the Symphony in question can be viewed from another legitimate perspective and considered beautiful.”

    Someone wrote something that stupid? How does the first section even come close to implying the second? Hell, I understand the acoustics and physics involved in music, particularly singing, because I graduated with a BA in music, concentrating in voice. The fact that I understand how professional opera singers produce their art adds to my appreciation. The mad scenes of Donizetti or Bellini are amazing not only for their technical difficulty, but also for ther beauty and emotional impact. Understanding the acoustics of the Concertgebouw takes nothing away from my intensely emotional experience of hearing Mahler’s first symphony there (I was quite literally sobbing at the end of the performance)

    This woman is a fucking idiot!

  31. #31 Sastra
    September 20, 2007

    scatheist wrote:

    I’m a strong atheist in that I consider the so-called “supernatural” a totally artificial category invented by humans to permit their special miraculous explanations and their precious afterlife category.

    And I’m a scientific atheist, in that I consider the “supernatural” category to include all those top-down intuitions which consider mind, intentions, and values to be immaterial “forces” which exist above the physical, and act on them. So science can and did examine the supernatural, and it just didn’t pan out. That could change, of course, and supernaturalists hope it will — which shows that the bogus “science can’t deal with the supernatural” protective move came after the category was already there, it didn’t form it.

    But other than that, we’re pretty much in agreement, I think.

  32. #32 Andrew Brown
    September 21, 2007

    I have only just stumbled on this, and have no time to do it properly. But I know Mary M — and wrote the profile several poeple have cited here. I haven’t yet read her ID pamphlet. But I’m sorry to say that Dawkins is flat-out lying if he says that she did not read the Selfish Gene before reviewing it. It just isn’t true. I know this becasue it was almost the first thing he ever told me — I had just come from reading her pieces before interviewing him and rather tactlessly opened the conversation by referring to this.

    He told me the story then, attributing it to Ullica Segerstråle; Of course I checked it out with Midgley (whom I did not then know, I think) and of course she denied it.

    I got hold of US at her American university, and she confirmed that Mary Midgley had not at all confessed to not reading the book before reviewing it — it would be disgraceful if she had done — and Dawkins contacted me later to say that he, too, had spoken to US and they agreed that it was all a misunderstanding. Then, about three years later, we were both at a college supper in Oxford and almost the first thing he said to me was that MM had confessed not to reading the Selfish Gene. It’s not true. It is an unpleasant example of self-deception driven by vanity.

    When I look at this jeering mob here, shouting abuse at an 87-year-old woman, I understand a little more about witch trials. Even if you all are atheists.

  33. #33 Goatboy
    September 21, 2007

    Andrew,

    Assuming, for the moment, we take it as read that Mary Midgely’s comments on Richard Dawkins were made after an exhaustive reading of his work…

    Her comments are still a bunch of horseshit.

    “The ideology Dawkins is selling is the worship of competition. It is projecting a Thatcherite take on economics on to evolution. It’s not an impartial scientific view; it’s a political drama.”

    Even for a reader too stupid to comprehend his books, the ending of TSG and numerous other parts of Richard Dawkins writing are explicit in showing that statement to be a lie.

    If you’re enjoying learning more about Witch Trial’s, I suggest you look how often involved people’s willingness to believe easy lies told about others.

  34. #34 NC Paul
    September 21, 2007

    @Andrew Brown:

    I’m sure that Mary Midgley is more than able to withstand the slings and arrows of a blog comments thread, no matter her age. To suggest otherwise comes across as somewhat patronising.

    All the same, though her comments may have been garbled by the interviewer, she does seem to have misunderstood the point of ‘The Selfish Gene’ and hasn’t demonstrated any indication that she’s read anything Dawkins has written on altruism. As she might agree herself, if you get the facts of an argument wrong, you deserve to be criticised.

    That said – it’s clear that some of the commenters here didn’t bother to check who Mary Midgley was before hitting the Post button. Smoking meth and public toilets? This woman is not a religious fundamentalist.

    Think -> research -> think again -> write -> post.

  35. #35 C. Schoen
    September 21, 2007

    Would it not be fair and proper to ask that the commenters (& PZ) expressing derision at Midgley’s drawing such superficial and erroneous conclusions from the title of The Selfish Gene alone, actually be expected to read more than a few culled statements of hers in a London newspaper? Dawkins selfish gene argument is fairly subtle, and needs the explication of several pages to be understood, yes?

    Likewise, Midgley has written at great length and (in my opinion) erudition about (among other things) the subject of how scientific theories affect and are affected by culture. Don’t take my word for it. Read something. Many of her books are available used through amazon at a low price, and you won’t be sending her a penny.

    But please don’t jump to knee-jerk conclusions about someone you know nothing about, especially when premature conclusions and misunderstandings are exactly the thing you are fighting against.

  36. #36 David Marjanovi?
    September 21, 2007

    C. Schoen, scroll up to comments 31 and 54.

  37. #37 David Marjanovi?
    September 21, 2007

    C. Schoen, scroll up to comments 31 and 54.

  38. #38 Bernard Bumner
    September 21, 2007

    C Schoen (#102),
    It is somewhat patronizing to suggest that commenters are generally ignorant of Midgely’s wider body of work, and therefore unqualified to opine in this case. Whilst it doesn’t follow that being wrong in this case necessarily invalidates any opinion she might express, the context to this attack on Dawkins does suggest a level of intellectual dishonesty on her part, and indicates a disposition to construct strawman arguments. (Although it would seem, judging from the passion and vitriolic tone, that she does so earnestly.)

    The views purportedly expressed to Nick Jackson are entirely consistent with her previous attempts to address Dawkins’ work (see the RIP articles linked to above). That is to say that she, deliberately or otherwise, misstates and perverts both the matter and intention of his writing.

    To do so over the course of more than two decades, and in light of her grudging almost-apology after explicit correction of the factual errors in her original review of [i]The Selfish Gene[/i], seems very strange indeed. The most generous – but patronizing – conclusion is that she simply failed to understand [i]The Selfish Gene[/i] and [i]The God Delusion[/i]. It seems much more likely – given her apparent intelligence – that she makes moral readings of those works in support of her own agenda.

  39. #39 Ophelia Benson
    September 21, 2007

    There’s a good article on Midgley’s misunderstandings of Dawkins here.

  40. #40 mijnheer
    September 21, 2007

    C. Schoen and Andrew Brown: I agree. There are too many crude attacks here on Midgley by people who know next to nothing about her work. In my opinion she is a philosopher definitely worth reading, particularly on the subject of the ideological uses of science. (I say this as someone who teaches philosophy.) Of course, she’s not in Dawkins’ league as an evolutionary biologist — but then Dawkins is nowhere near being in her league as a philosopher.

  41. #41 Spaulding
    September 21, 2007

    @Andrew Brown

    I wasn’t aware of rumors that she had literally failed to read The Selfish Gene. My intent was to point out her gross lack of comprehension, as evidenced by her review.

    She falsely concludes that Dawkins denies the concept of kin selection.

    She misunderstands Dawkins’ use of the terms “altruistic” and “selfish” as implying conscious motive and moral intent on the part of the gene or the individual, though Dawkins frequently reminds readers that his use of these terms implies only the consequence of an item’s actions upon its own fecund survival, rather than postulating decisions or intent.

    Midgley’s misunderstanding is not limited to Dawkins’ statements on selection forces; she also misrepresents his personal philosophical reaction to these selection forces. Migley incomprehensibly interprets Dawkins as a moral advocate of selfish intent in human behavior. In fact, any philosophical musings in TSG present the opposite case, that Dawkins admires true altruism as a noble but rare event, one that is harshly discouraged by selection of replicators, but made possible through the higher moral consciousness of humanity. It’s significant to note that Dawkins’ philosophical and moral musings are a minor side point that occupies little space in a book focussed on the primacy of “gene”-level benefit in understanding selective forces. Midgley has apparently inverted Dawkin’s philosophy, and misconstrued it as the main thrust of the book. One gets the sense that she would shelve the book in the sociology or ethics section of a library, rather than the biology section.

    And quite frankly, her age has nothing to do with her ignorant misuse of a public forum or her laughable lack of comprehension while posing as knowledgable. Some of the comments above may have been a bit off-color, but calling someone on their bullshit isn’t a witchhunt, it’s rational criticism.

  42. #42 Mrs Tilton
    September 21, 2007

    Spaulding @114,

    I’d be very curious to see a blackline of the second edition of TSG (the one that I, and I suspect most of us here, have read) against the first edition, which is what Midgely will have read before she wrote “Gene Juggling”. I agree with Andrew Brown that, while Dawkins certainly didn’t mean what Midgely took him to mean, a lot of what he wrote practically invites one to make that misreading. I remember him carefully warning readers not to fall into that trap, not to take his metaphor too far; but were those warnings in the first edition?

  43. #43 Puddock
    September 22, 2007

    I’d heard of Mary Midgley before I read this post. She’s a well-known philosopher who writes books with titles almost as catchy as those of Richard Dawkins, particularly Utopias, Dolphins and Computers: the problems of philosophical plumbing which was enticing enough to get me to buy it.

    I didn’t read very far as I found a lack of rigour in her writing when rigour is just about the first essential of philosphical thinking. A similar touchy-feely attitude seems to pervade this article.

    Nevertheless, she addresses an important point. The current furore over the ‘Is the earth flat’ comments of Sherri Shepherd show that when pushed, many people WILL NOT give up the comfort of religion with all it offers in terms of an afterlife, punishment and reward (oh and freedom from having to think).

    I wrote a post about this in my blog The View from the Pond and I hope it’s okay to put a link here – http://theviewfromthepond.blogspot.com/2007/09/i-wanna-live-forever-but-it-aint-gonna.html

  44. #44 Bernard Bumner
    September 23, 2007

    C. Schoen (#108),

    Clearly, the most pugnacious commenters were somewhat ignorant of who Midgley is, and leapt to judgement too quickly, but it would be unfair to address those people rather than the multitude of others who are offering criticism on the basis of readng and understanding Dawkins’ work.

    I’m certainly not judging Midgley solely on the basis of this article, since it is entirely possible that comments were stripped of context,or that she was misquoted. The major basis for my criticisms is the series of RIP articles. She very clearly misread The Selfish Gene, and compounded the error by apologising – in a direct response to Dawkins’ rebuttal – for the tone of her original article, whilst utterly failing to address the factual errors.

    That earlier conflict sets a very clear context for the article referenced above, and is entriley consistent with the tone and nature of the comments attributed to her in it.

    The difference of opinion between Midgley and Dawkins – and don’t be so quick to assume that I’ve not done my research on this one – is based upon a consistent misreading of Dawkins’ work. Her first RIP article on The Selfish Gene simply reads as though she had utterly misunderstood Dawkins work.

    Midgely claimed, in her response to the Dawkins RIP piece, that his scientific terminology is dangerously semantically confusing – presumably, to excuse her own misreading. She then proceeded to misattribute semantic meaning to that terminology, where in every case that I can see, Dawkins has been at pains to define and restrict that terminology. She then argues that this is a consequence of Dawkins use of terminology – a practice which is so absolutely commonplace across the sciences as to be utterly unremarkable in this case.

    Given the clarity of Dawkins work, and his pains to restrict any gven argument, give the evidential background, and highlight the limits and underlying assumptions, then it is very strange that Midgely chooses to attack the author, rather than question the comprehension skills of the reader directly. Of course, there is an implicit slur on Dawkins readership, that they will be unable to make those semantic distinctions, despite the time taken to explain them.

    Even if we grant her point, she seems at time to forget her own caution about the potential for linguistic misinterpretation. She exploits the semantic confusion – which of her own creation – to make counterarguments against opinions which Dawkins simply does not express. This tactic is consistent in the early RIP articles, through to this piece (assuming the varacity of it). This piece, as per the RIP, is a litany of factually incorrect claims about Dawkins book. Almost every paraphrase she makes of Dawkins opinion is simply untrue, and most of her counterpoints are explicitly addressed in The God Delusion. This is dishonesty, where deliberate or not.

    She seems simply not to understand much of evolutionary biology, its terminology or theory, but nonetheless take issue with it (where she seems to think she’s only arguing with Dawkins).

  45. #45 C. Schoen
    September 23, 2007

    Bernard,

    Simply because Dawkins says “Don’t take this metaphor literally” a few times in TSG does not mean the matter is crystal clear. For one thing, he contradicts himself more than once when, despite his own caveats he writes things like “we were born selfish,” clearly meaning humans, not genes. In his essay in RIP he writes that he belives it “literally” true that organisms are “programmed” by their genes.

    Now about the specific versus common meaning of selfish. Elsewhere in TSG he writes that “genes exert ultimate influence over behavior.” Even if we accept the “behavioral” rather than psychological meaning of “selfish” as used by biologists, this still has ethical implications if you connect the dots. Genes are behaviorally selfish, organisms are programmed by their genes and genes exert ultimate control over organismal behavior. This seems to add up to organisms being genetically determined to act selfishly–in the behavioral, not psychological sense, true, but at the organismal level what’s the difference?

    Dawkins does write that we must “learn” to be altruistic as a society because our genes have predisposed us differently, but he does not explain by what means, if our genes exert “ultimate influence” over our behavior, we are to work against them.

    So it seems to me it is far from simple and obvious what Dawkins “meant” by his terms, which is probably why MM is still talking about it. As one commenter wrote above, Dawkins “practically invites” the misunderstanding.

    There is a lot of talk on this thread on how facts are facts, and not up for intepretation, which is an extremely naive point of view. There is no truly objective way of conveying information. All linguistic expressions are conditioned by context, subtext, and other cultural baggage. Especially when writing books for the general public it is important for scientists to keep in mind that words matter.

  46. #46 Bernard Bumner
    September 24, 2007

    C. Schoen,

    Well now, if Midgley – as others have – wanted to argue that The Selfish Gene is simply a poorly written as a text for the layperson, then that is a very different matter. As it is, she attacked the biology as much as the presentation of the biology, and this is the basis for many arguing that she made a moral reading of something which deserved only (dispassionate, critcal) scientific judgement.

    I think that Dawkins makes it clear that, although he ultimately thinks of organisms as vehicles for their genes, that the behavioural implications of this alone constitute a simplification of reality. He does state the limits of this model, in terms of the underlying assumptions, as well as its explanatory powers.

    However, the main point is not about who is technically correct – Dawkins is not an infallible authority, by any means – but Midgley’s misrepresentation of Dawkins views. This is much clearer in the article mentioned above, and her original RIP article (the apology piece is the one which leans much more heavily towards the semantic arguments – although, her objections to Dawkins’ jargon would be much more appropriately addressed to scientists in general, rather than anyone in particular).

    She states, for instance that Dawkins believes that natural selection is the only source of evolution, which is clearly not true – it is simply wrong to say this, and it is beyond doubt that it is wrong. Now, suppose we give her the benefit of the doubt, and allow that she herself may have been misquoted. However, we later encounter a point about Dawkins ignoring other froms of fanatical ideology to concentrate on religion, and yet Dawkins explicitly addresses this in The God Delusion. Do we, once again, allow the benefit of the doubt to Midgley? (I don’t know. But I’m fairly sure that I’d have created a lot of noise if I was as badly misquoted.)

    Even so, if we ignore the apparent factual errors completely , does her central thesis make sense? Well, I can see no evidence to suggest that she is correct – her hypothesis is plausible, I suppose. However, I’ve always thought that preachers, religious political organisations, and churches where the dynamos driving the ID movement – that it exists to support faith – rather than science and scientists driving people to seek religious explanations. It will be interesting to see what evidence she presents in her new pamphlet.

  47. #47 C. Schoen
    September 24, 2007

    Bernard,

    I think you’re trying to have it both ways. There’s very little biology to attack in TSG. The book operates on primarily a metaphorical level, and on those terms is wholly subject to philosophical criticism. Remember that the reason behind Midgley’s article in Philosophy was not the publishing of TSG itself, which had happened two years earlier, but the foundation TSG had provided for the philosopher J.L. Mackie to develop his proposition, in that same magazine, that “reciprocal altruism” is the optimum human morality. So the complaint that this is science, and not ethics, seems to have been pre-empted before the argument even started. The notion that someone would apply the doctrine to ethics is not at all alarmist, given that was already taking place.

    The metaphor of TSG is helpful to understand why populations tend to evolve in ways which resist being exploited by “cheats,” which was an important point to make in the 1970s, when group selection was called upon to explain why altruism could exist in a competitive landscape. But it is not a “factual” argument. Even talking about genetic “behavior” in a non-anthropomorphic way is metaphorical, since genes don’t actually behave at all, but rather are acted on by physical and chemical forces. Not to mention the fact that the way Dawkins defines “gene,” non-metaphorically, is a tautology (which he readily admits: “I have now defined the gene in such a way that I cannot help being right”). Furthermore the definition differs from the one used by geneticists.

    So it’s a useful thought experiment, elucidating aspects of neo-Darwinism that are not otherwise easily explained, but not one to be taken literally. As Gould wrote, genes themselves are not selected individually, but rather in organisms’ bodies–all of a piece or not at all. So, on a literal level, to say the gene is the “unit of selection” is not even factually true. I don’t think any of this is misrepresentation on MM’s part. (The Independent article is another matter, but it does seem the editor did not take pains to put her remarks in context. Either they were clearly off the cuff, in contrast with the thoroughness of her written arguments.)

    On natural selection as the “only” source of evolution, it’s true that RD has given lip service to the neutral theory and endosymbiosis, but anyone who has followed his work knows the regard he holds for natural selection. In his writings he uniformly attributes it with sweeping powers, describing it in almost mystical language. In fact, the very fact that RD is an adaptationist indicates that mechanisms other than natural selection must be marginal at best. A good interviewer or editor would have followed up to clarify her remark that “Dawkins says that natural selection is the only source of evolution.” But even if it is literally false, it does capture a certain aspect of Dawkins’ work.

    As for Midgley’s central point, that certain scientific doctrines strike many people as immoral, I think that’s clearly true. Religious fundamentalism has risen markedly in both the US and the Middle East over the last 75 years or so. It would be over-simplification to attribute this all to scientific materialism, but certainly that has played a role. You’re correct that the churches drive the ID movement, but what drives the churches?

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