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Mary Midgley, née Scrutton, (b. 13 September 1919) is a British moral philosopher. She was a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and is best known for her popular works on religion, science and ethics. She strongly opposes reductionist and scientistic philosophies and is especially concerned with attempts, as she sees it, to make science function as a substitute for the humanities, a role for which she claims it is wholly inadequate. Midgley has famously sparred with Richard Dawkins over selfish genes and memes, and has also written in favour of a moral interpretation of the Gaia theory.


Midgley was born in London to Lesley and Canon Tom Scrutton, the chaplain at Kings College, Cambridge. She was educated at Downe House School (originally based in the former home of Charles Darwin) and Somerville College, Oxford where she read Classics]. She married Geoffrey Midgley in 1950 (who died in 1997) and they have three sons. Both she and Geoffrey taught for many years at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and she still lives in the city. Both Midgleys attained the position of Senior Lecturer.

She wrote her first book, Beast and Man, at the age of 56. "I wrote no books until I was a good 50, and I'm jolly glad because I didn't know what I thought before then"[1]. Since then she has written a series of books and other publications, which have led to her being described as "fiercely combative", "the most frightening philosopher in the country" and "the foremost scourge of scientific pretension in this country: someone whose wit is admired even by those who feel she sometimes oversteps the mark"[1].

She also believes that she is "lucky" to have missed out in having to undertake a PhD. She argues that one of the main flaws in doctoral training is that, while it "shows you how to deal with difficult arguments", it does not "help you to grasp the big questions that provide its context - the background issues out of which the small problems arose"[2]. Midgley was awarded an honorary D. Litt by Durham University in 1995.

Thought and writingsEdit


Midgley sees philosophy as plumbing, that is, something that nobody notices until it goes wrong. "Then suddenly we become aware of some bad smells, and we have to take up the floorboards and look at the concepts of even the most ordinary piece of thinking. The great philosophers ... noticed how badly things were going wrong, and made suggestions about how they could be dealt with"[3].

Despite her upbringing, Midgley is not a Christian. However, she also believes that the world's religions can't simply be ignored or dismissed: "It is absurd to talk as if religion consisted entirely of mindless anxiety, bad cosmology, and human sacrifice"[1].

It turns out that the evils which have infested religion are not confined to it, but are ones that can accompany any successful human institution. Nor is it even clear that religion itself is something that the human race either can or should be cured of.

— Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (2004)

Midgley's first book, Beast and Man (published in 1978), was an examination of human nature and a reaction against both the perceived reductionism of sociobiology, and the relativism and behaviorism she saw as prevalent in much of social science. Midgley argued that humans were more similar to animals than many social scientists then acknowledged, while animals were in many ways more sophisticated than humans. Midgley also criticised the belief that humans could be understood in terms of their genetic make-up, as she interpreted Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (published in 1976) to suggest. Instead, Midgley argued that humans (and their relationship to animals) could be better understood by using the qualitative methods of ethology and comparative psychology.

Writing in the 2002 Introduction to the reprint of Evolution as a Religion (first published in 1985), Midgley reports that she wrote both this book and the later Science as Salvation (1992) to counter the "quasi-scientific speculation" of "certain remarkable prophetic and metaphysical passages that appeared suddenly in scientific books.. often in their last chapters." The first book dealt with the theories of evolutionary biologists (including Dawkins), while the second book dealt with physicists and Artificial intelligence researchers. Midgley writes that she still believes that these theories "have nothing to do with any reputable theory of evolution" and will not solve the real social and moral problems the world is facing, either through genetic engineering or using machines. She concludes: "These schemes still seem to me to be just displacement activities proposed in order to avoid facing our real difficulties."

In exposing these rhetorical attempts to turn science into a comprehensive ideology, I am not attacking science but defending it against dangerous misconstructions.

— Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (2004)

Her most recent publication is a philosophical autobiography 'The Owl of Minerva'. In it, Midgley writes of her family history, her personal development, her observation of her own family and its internal moral dilemmas (such as the debate over vegetarianism) along with her analysis and reflection on the issues of humanity.

On Reductionism and MaterialismEdit

She argues against reductionism or the attempt to impose any one approach to understanding the world as the only right way to see things. She suggests that there are "many maps, many windows" on reality are argues that "we need scientific pluralism - the recognition that there are many independent forms and sources of knowledge - rather than reductivism, the conviction that one fundamental form underlies them all and settles everything"[4] and that it is helpful to think about the world as "a huge aquarium. We cannot see it as a whole from above, so we peer in at it through a number of small windows ... We can eventually make quite a lot of sense of this habitat if we patiently put together the data from different angles. but if we insist that our own window is the only one worth looking through, we shall not get very far"[4].

She argues that "acknowledging matter as somehow akin to and penetrated by mind is not adding a is becoming aware of something we are doing already." and suggests that "this topic is essentially the one which caused Einstein often to remark that the really surprising thing about science is that it works at all...the simple observation that the laws of thought turn out to be the laws of things"[5].

Midgley and DawkinsEdit

In volume 53 (1978) of Philosophy (the journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy), J. L. Mackie published an article entitled The Law of the Jungle: Moral Alternatives and Principles of Evolution[6], praising Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, and indicating ways in which the ideas discussed by Dawkins might be applied to moral philosophy. Midgley responded in volume 54 (1979) with Gene-Juggling[7]. This article criticised Dawkins' concepts, but was judged by its targets as having been written in an intemperate and personal tone, and, in turn, was criticised by many biologists who considered that she had misunderstood Dawkins' ideas. For example, they objected that Midgley interpreted 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 ... 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, which he treats as the source and archetype of all emotional nature.

— Mary Midgley, (1979)

Mackie[8] and Dawkins[9] consequently responded to Midgley in volume 56 (1981). Both authors criticised her rudeness and argued that Midgley had misunderstood them. In volume 58 (1983), she responded to these criticisms[10], saying : "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. My basic objections remain. But I certainly ought to have expressed them more clearly and temperately".

The bad feeling between Dawkins and Midgley caused by this affair apparently remains4, and Midgley has continued to criticise Dawkins' ideas. In her recent writings, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (2002) and The Myths We Live by (2003), she has continued to attack Dawkins for what she perceives as his confused use of language, the sleight of hand between using terms such as "selfish" as technical in places and motivational in others, and the rhetoric he uses ("genes exert ultimate power over behaviour"), which she argues is more akin to religious sensibilities than science. Writing in The Guardian in 2005[11] she argued:

[There is] widespread discontent with the neo-Darwinist - or Dawkinsist - orthodoxy that claims something which Darwin himself denied, namely that natural selection is the sole and exclusive cause of evolution, making the world therefore, in some important sense, entirely random. This is itself a strange faith which ought not to be taken for granted as part of science.

— Mary Midgley, (2005)




Selected Articles:

Notes and ReferencesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Brown, A., Mary, Mary, quite contrary, The Guardian profile, 13 January 2001; URL accessed 9 February 2007
  2. Midgley, M., Proud not to be a doctor, The Guardian, 3 October 2005; URL accessed 9 February 2007
  3. Else, L., Mary, Mary, quite contrary, New Scientist interview 3 November 2001; URL accessed 9 February 2007 (requires subscription to read the full article)
  4. 4.0 4.1 The Myths we Live By, p. 27
  5. from Salvation and the Academics quoted in The Essential Mary Midgley, pp. 235-236
  6. Mackie, J. L. (1978) The Law of the Jungle, Philosophy 53, 455-464
  7. Midgley, M. (1979) Gene-Juggling, Philosophy 54, 439-4580
  8. Mackie, J. L. (1981) Genes and Egoism, Philosophy 56, 553-555
  9. Dawkins, R. (1981) In defense of selfish genes, Philosophy 56, 556-573
  10. Midgley, M. (1983) Selfish Genes and Social Darwinism, Philosophy 58, 365-377
  11. Midgley, M., Designs on Darwinism, The Guardian, 6 September 2005; URL accessed 9 February 2007

External linksEdit


sv:Mary Midgley
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