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Mary Midgley belongs to the extraordinary group of women philosophers educated at Oxford during the war, when the men who might have bullied them were absent from the university, either defending their country from the Nazis or betraying it to the communists, according to taste. A contemporary of Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Warnock and Philippa Foot, she has not enjoyed the recognition accorded to those illustrious women, despite being a major philosopher whose work has had a far-reaching impact. One reason might be that she was a late developer, publishing her first book, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, in 1978, when she was already 59 years old. Another reason is that she has not devoted much attention to the areas of philosophy that are regarded in academic circles as central - language, knowledge and metaphysics - and focused instead on the question of the nature of Man. This was, for the Greeks, the central question of philosophy, and remained so until the logical atomists and positivists swept it from the table.

Midgley's view - and it is one with which I concur - is that philosophy, in leaving the question of human nature to the biologists, has betrayed its mission. Beast and Man is devoted to showing the way in which the science then known as sociobiology (but which would be called "evolutionary psychology" today) has misdescribed what is distinctive in the human condition. This is a theme that Midgley has pursued in subsequent books - notably The Ethical Primate: Humans, Freedom and Morality and Evolution as a Religion - taking to task those like Richard Dawkins who believe that the science of genetics contains the clue to understanding the emotional and moral life of human beings. For Dawkins and his many followers, we are "survival machines" in the service of our genes, and must be understood through the "adaptations" that are perpetuated in our behaviour - adaptations which are rarely unique to us since they can be traced to the evolutionary environment that we share with other species.

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D. Hanley
October 19th, 2013
9:10 AM
I'm sorry but this article really misinterprets the key points of Dawkins 'Selfish Gene'. For instance the passage, "...the reduction of human charity to the thing called 'altruism'.." is just not at all what was being addressed in the book. Dawkins points out that humans are unique in that the have developed faculties like conscious foresight which allows them to act in complete opposition to their genes e.g. contraceptives. Altruism is clearly defined in the book. The behaviours are those which statistically exist over evolutionary time. Of course charity is a richer human behaviour that can be understood with subjects like psychology. The frustrations part of all this is that these arguments are of such poor quality that even though they have been so thoroughly dismantled 30 years ago (Dawkins' original reply to Midley in Philosophy), some persist in making them. Criticism is fine but understand the concepts behind what you are trying to criticise.

Steve Davis
February 16th, 2009
11:02 AM
But Joachim, I did not refer to any use of the word "purpose" by Dawkins. I pointed out that his vehicle metaphor implies purpose, where none can exist.

Joachim de Lyon
February 14th, 2009
12:02 AM
Steve, your 'purpose' comment demonstrates that you are not familiar with the basics of modern evolutionary biology. Terms like 'goal' and 'strategy' and even 'design' are frequently used in evolutionary biology but are never meant to imply intentionality or foresight. They are a shorthand used by biologists. It saves them the tedious work of spelling out the evolutionary dynamics each and every time they talk about the operation of natural selection. Most, if not in fact all, introductions to evolutionary biology will fill you in on this and Dawkins happens to go to great lengths to explain these matters in his popular works. Contrary to the impression created by the likes of Midgley, TSG does not present some sort of radical new theory, but a vivid exposition of scientific orthodoxy.

Steve Davis
January 12th, 2009
5:01 AM
But Robin, one does not have to be a biologist to see the flaws in The Selfish Gene. Dawkins wrote "genes have no foresight, they do not plan ahead" then two pages later wrote that genes build organisms purely for the survival of the genes. For a purpose in other words. Midgley's criticism was too mild I think.

Robin Hilliard
January 8th, 2009
10:01 PM
What amazes me is that apparently well-educated people like Midgely, and so many more, have such strong opinions concerning things of which they hold only the most vague understanding. Why not practice the intellectual honesty that requires one to learn about a topic, and to learn about it deeply, before pronouncing upon it? Anything less is uninformed at best and downright deceitful at worst.

Michael Drake
December 28th, 2008
4:12 AM
In re "the sentimentalists for whom that distinction [i.e., between humans and other animals] is imperceptible": I should have thought the distinction about as subtle as the observation that visiting gratuitous cruelty upon sentient creatures for sport is morally retarded. But then I suppose "fashions" are relative, aren't they?

Gareth Davies
December 27th, 2008
11:12 AM
As Roger and Midgley point out and the comments here largely confirm people want to hold on to their comfortable enchanted perspective. Any one who points out that we are not in Oz but in Kanzas will be called a wicked witch whether they have broomstick or a microscope.

December 26th, 2008
10:12 PM
So what! No philosophy however insightful can put a dent in the iron cage created by the ideology of scientism. An iron cage in which we are all trapped. Plus the ideology of scientism and its reductionist assumptions permeates and patterns every minute fraction of our culture including what is usually called religion. And has done so for 200 years now.

Mong H Tan, PhD
December 25th, 2008
10:12 PM
RE: Richard Dawkins vs. Mary Midgley -- I think it's about time that any competent philosophers of Science and Religion should revisit the full corpus of Richard Dawkins' pseudoscientific writings since the publication of his first neo-Darwinist reductionism book "The Selfish Gene" in 1976. Mary Midgley was one among the first philosophers who "sensed" it coming, and fired the first shot against Dawkinsism in the then making -- the pan-ultimate Dawkinsian Scientism or "Atheism without conscience" par excellence of the 21st century from the Oxford University -- please see Dawkins' 2006 book "The God Delusion"! Best wishes, Mong 12/25/8usct4:11p; author "Gods, Genes, Conscience" (iUniverse, 2006); "Decoding Scientism" and "Consciousness & the Subconscious" (works in progress since July 2007).

Alex Morgan
December 25th, 2008
8:12 PM
Midgley on her earlier review of Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene': "Apology is due, not only for the delay but for the impatient tone of my article. One should not lose one’s temper, and doing so always makes for confused argument." - Midgley, M. (1983) 'Selfish Genes and Social Darwinism', Philosophy 58, 365-377.

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