Philosopher Mary Midgley on Darwin Versus the Darwinists


Theos, a UK-based think tank studying religion and culture, conducted an extended interview with British philosopher Mary Midgley last year to commemorate the Darwin bicentennial. (2009 was the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.) Midgley and interviewer Nick Spencer discussed science as a historical enterprise, the political uses and misuses of evolutionary theory, and the “intelligent design” debate. (Hat tip to the Books and Culture newsletter for the link.) A brief excerpt:

Spencer: It’s fascinating isn’t it how, given the number of crises of faith his work catalysed, Darwin himself didn’t have one. The decline of his Christianity was gentle and gradual and it was no real loss. He certainly lived a life remarkably similar to that of the comfortable, liberal, rural Anglican clergyman he would have been had he gone ahead with his ordination.

Midgley: Yes, he did. I think that it was probably not much of a shock to lose his faith because of the kind of faith that he had, and he had not lost faith in the society, therefore, not in the ideals of the society. The thing he was not committed to doing was comforting the dying by telling them that they were going toheaven, wasn’t it?

My father became a pacifist because he was a Chaplain in the First World War for a short time, and he had to tell men in the trenches what they were dying for, and this was a poignant experience. I’m sure that will have been a thought that occurred to Darwin, and he was unwilling to do it. He had a lot of the clerical life, but he didn’t have that bit.

He says somewhere, doesn’t he, that eternal punishment is an abominable doctrine, sothere were enough really off-putting features in Christianity at the time for him not to betoo bothered if he had to put a great deal of it aside.

Spencer: His was a very propositional faith and when some of those propositions got challenged the whole thing collapsed. He was the first person to admit there was no particular emotional commitment; he distrusted the evidential worth of experience, and as [his wife] pointed out to him, your experience and your feelings are a very important element of religious life.

Midgley: Well, of course, it’s not only important in religious life. He wrote in his autobiography that he had lost a lot of the emotional side of life generally, and what he recorded and recognised clearly was already happening then – he lost his appreciation for music, poetry, landscapes, even scenery. He was becoming more and more obsessed by the need for formal proof, and the work of putting together the details of his argument obviously was important. But of course experience is also part of the evidence, of the data. You’ve got to accept what people tell you, and what they tell you is what they’ve experienced.

People talk about ‘scientific empiricism’, but it isn’t very empirical, it seems to me, because it’s so selective among the experiences that people have. It’s not interested in what you might call strong and positive experiences. The sense that all sorts of things are happening which we don’t understand is a very important element of experience, and anyone who doesn’t take that seriously is not going to get far.

Different approaches have to work together, you see. I’ve used repeatedly the analogy of the senses – we touch things and we also see them and smell them. Now, there’s no continuity between those things, but we use the relation between them to build the full picture. We know that there are optical illusions and also tactile illusions, and we use the one thing to correct the other.

John Ziman used a similar analogy with maps – a political map and a geological map describe the same phenomena but they are doing it in different ways, according to different questions. He highlighted how much we think in terms of diagrams and visua lthings as well. But there’s always a temptation to become wedded to one particular map, and I think the economic map is the one that is currently being taken to represent reality– the bottom line. When you find what the profit and loss is, that’s the reality. And it’s of course the one that’s really under attack at the moment.

Spencer: In Science and Poetry you point out that detailed thinking emerges from imaginative roots, and all science includes philosophic assumptions. I think that’s quite an unfamiliar thought to many people today. Do you want to unpack it a little bit, particularly in relation to Darwinism?

Midgley: Yes, we all have myths through which we explain the world. The word ‘myth’ is a bit awkward because it is sometimes used simply to mean ‘false’, but I find its other meaning very useful. I also talk about dreams and dramas and visions and so forth. Whichever way one talks about it, it’s about an imaginative background, a way of seeing a problem in the world which determines what questions you ask, how you select your questions. The idea that simply, honestly finding the answer to questions is all you need doesn’t work – you’ve got to have the right questions. I think that as the history of science has built up and emerged it’s become clear that this has been a very important factor at every stage.


4 comments on “Philosopher Mary Midgley on Darwin Versus the Darwinists

  1. Hank Rodgers says:

    Great article and comments, Jendi!, But…

    “…all science includes philosophical assumptions…”; and an important part of which are “…dreams, dramas, visions…”.

    Not sure CD would have signed on to that; though he may have agreed that these things were and are important, and contribute to improving the life experience; though he would probably have found them to be TOTALLY APART from science.

    I would, personally, like to think that CD thought of the vast unknowable; more knowable now than in his time, but still lacking. He must have thought, as I do, that there is nothing in evolutionary theory that necessary precludes “intelligent design”; and that evolution particularly reflects a most highly intelligent design possibility.

    But only a possibility, as unknowable to us as we are to the microscopic organisms that dwell within us; as we dwell within something bigger than we cannot (at least currently) possibly comprehend.

    The important thing was that CD disparaged all the “old books” and facile explanations upon which all too many of us base our prejudices and our actions.

    Still, he accepted the rules of nature, and strongly expressed more than once, that was not afraid to die; I would add: having lived (and contributed) so very well.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Yes, based on what Midgley says, Darwin probably wouldn’t have signed on to the importance of “dreams, dramas, visions…” but perhaps that was his loss! Part of the value of these nonscientific dimensions of consciousness, in my opinion, is that they can give us intimations of that “vast unknowable” that our cognitive minds are too limited to understand. We can experience the warmth of the sun without understanding the physics. Maybe our experiences of “God” are similar.

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