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(1919-09-13)13 September 1919
|Died||10 October 2018(2018-10-10) (aged 99)
|Alma mater||Somerville College, Oxford|
|Beast and Man (1978), Animals and Why They Matter (1983), Evolution as a Religion (1985), Science as Salvation (1992)|
|Spouse(s)||Geoffrey Midgley (m. 1950, d. 1997)|
|Awards||Honorary D. Litt (1995), Durham University; Honorary DCL (2008), Newcastle University|
|Moral philosophy, animal rights, philosophy of science, ethology, evolution|
|Humans as ethical primates|
Mary Beatrice Midgley (née Scrutton; 13 September 1919 – 10 October 2018) was a British philosopher. She was a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Newcastle University and was known for her work on science, ethics and animal rights. She wrote her first book, Beast And Man (1978), when she was in her fifties. She went on to write more than 15 other books, including Animals and Why They Matter (1983), Wickedness (1984), The Ethical Primate (1994), Evolution as a Religion (1985), and Science as Salvation (1992). She was awarded honorary doctorates by Durham and Newcastle universities. Her autobiography, The Owl of Minerva, was published in 2005.
Midgley strongly opposed reductionism and scientism, and any attempts to make science a substitute for the humanities—a role for which it is, she argued, wholly inadequate. She wrote extensively about what philosophers can learn from nature, particularly from animals. A number of her books and articles discussed philosophical ideas appearing in popular science, including those of Richard Dawkins. She also wrote in favour of a moral interpretation of the Gaia hypothesis. The Guardian described her as a fiercely combative philosopher and the UK's "foremost scourge of 'scientific pretension.'"
Midgley was born in London to Lesley and Tom Scrutton. Her father, the son of the eminent judge Sir Thomas Edward Scrutton, was a curate in Dulwich and later chaplain of King's College, Cambridge. She was raised in Cambridge, Greenford and Ealing, and educated at Downe House School in Cold Ash, Berkshire, where she developed her interest in classics and philosophy:
[A] new and vigorous Classics teacher offered to teach a few of us Greek, and that too was somehow slotted into our timetables. We loved this and worked madly at it, which meant that with considerable efforts on all sides, it was just possible for us to go to college on Classics … I had decided to read Classics rather than English – which was the first choice that occurred to me – because my English teacher, bless her, pointed out that English literature is something that you read in any case, so it is better to study something that you otherwise wouldn't. Someone also told me that, if you did Classics at Oxford, you could do Philosophy as well. I knew very little about this but, as I had just found Plato, I couldn't resist trying it.
She took the Oxford entrance exam in the autumn of 1937, gaining a place at Somerville College. During the year before starting university, it was arranged that she would live in Austria for three months to learn German, but she had to leave after a month because of the worsening political situation. At Somerville she studied Mods and Greats alongside Iris Murdoch, graduating with first-class honours.
Several of her lasting friendships that began at Oxford were with scientists, and she credited them with having educated her in a number of scientific disciplines. After a split in the Labour club at Oxford over the Soviet Union's actions, she was on the committee of the newly formed Democratic Socialist Club alongside Tony Crosland and Roy Jenkins. She writes that her career in philosophy may have been affected by women having a greater voice in discussion at the time, because many male undergraduates left after a year to fight in the Second World War: "I think myself that this experience has something to do with the fact that Elizabeth [Anscombe] and I and Iris [Murdoch] and Philippa Foot and Mary Warnock have all made our names in philosophy... I do think that in normal times a lot of good female thinking is wasted because it simply doesn't get heard."
Midgley left Oxford in 1942 and went into the civil service, as "the war put graduate work right out of the question". Instead, she "spent the rest of the war doing various kinds of work that were held to be of national importance".
During this time she was also a teacher at Downe School and Bedford School. She returned to Oxford in 1947 to do graduate work with Gilbert Murray. She began research on Plotinus's view of the soul, which she has described as "so unfashionable and so vast that I never finished my thesis". In retrospect Midgley has written of her belief that she is "lucky" to have missed out in having a doctorate. 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."
In 1949 Midgley went to Reading University, teaching in the philosophy department there for four terms. In 1950 she married Geoffrey Midgley (died 1997), also a philosopher. They moved to Newcastle, where he got a job in the philosophy department of Newcastle University. Midgley gave up teaching for several years while she had three sons (Tom, David and Martin), before also getting a job in the philosophy department at Newcastle, where she and her husband were both "much loved". Midgley taught there between 1962 and 1980. During her time at Newcastle, she began studying ethology and this led to her first book, Beast and Man (1978), published when she was 59. "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."
Midgley was awarded an honorary D.Litt. by Durham University in 1995 and an honorary Doctor of Civil Law by Newcastle University in 2008. She was an honorary fellow of the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre at Newcastle University. In 2011 she was the first winner of the Philosophy Now Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity.
Ideas and arguments
Views on philosophy and religion
Midgley argued that philosophy is like plumbing, 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." Despite her upbringing, she did not embrace Christianity herself, because, she says, "I couldn't make it work. I would try to pray and it didn't seem to get me anywhere so I stopped after a while. But I think it's a perfectly sensible world view." She also argues that the world's religions should not simply be ignored: "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."
Midgley's book Wickedness (1984) has been described as coming "closest to addressing a theological theme: the problem of evil." But, Midgley argues that we need to understand the human capacity for wickedness, rather than blaming God for it. Midgley argues that evil arises from aspects of human nature, not from an external force. She further argues that evil is the absence of good, with good being described as the positive virtues such as generosity, courage and kindness. Therefore, evil is the absence of these characteristics, leading to selfishness, cowardice and similar. She therefore criticises existentialism and other schools of thought which promote the 'Rational Will' as a free agent. She also criticises the tendency to demonise those deemed 'wicked', by failing to acknowledge that they also display some measure of some of the virtues.
Midgley also expressed her interest in Paul Davies' ideas on the inherent improbability of the order found in the universe. She argued that "there's some sort of tendency towards the formation of order", including towards life and "perceptive life". The best way, she argued, of talking about this is using the concept of "a life force", although she acknowledged that this is "vague". She also argued that "gratitude" is an important part of the motivation for theism. "You go out on a day like this and you're really grateful. I don't know who to."
This understanding also links with Midgley's argument that the concept of Gaia has "both a scientific and a religious aspect." She argued that people find this hard to grasp because our views on both science and religion have been narrowed so much that the connections between them are now obscured. This is not, however, about belief in a personal God, but instead about responding to the system of life, as revealed by Gaia, with "wonder, awe and gratitude"
Gaia and philosophy
Midgley was supportive of James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis. This was part of her "principal passion" of "reviving our reverence for the earth". Midgley also described Gaia as a "breakthrough", as it was "the first time a theory derived from scientific measurements has carried with it an implicit moral imperative – the need to act in the interests of this living system on which we all depend.
In 2001 Midgley founded, along with David Midgley and Tom Wakeford, the Gaia Network, and became its first Chair. Their regular meetings on the implications of Gaia led to the 2007 book Earthy realism edited by Midgley, which sought to bring together the scientific and spiritual aspects of Gaia theory.
Midgley's 2001 pamphlet for Demos Gaia: The next big idea argues for the importance of the idea of Gaia as a "powerful tool" in science, morality, psychology and politics, to gain a more holistic understanding of the world. Instead, Midgley argued that we "must learn how to value various aspects of our environment, how to structure social relationships and institutions so that we value social and spiritual life, as well as the natural world, alongside commercial and economic aspects.
Her book Science and Poetry, also published in 2001, also includes a discussion on the idea of Gaia, which she argued "is not a gratuitous, semi-mystical fantasy", but instead is "a useful idea, a cure for distortions that spoil our current world-view." It is useful both in finding practical solutions to environmental problems and also in giving us "a more realistic view of ourselves". Gaia has, Midgely argued, both scientific and moral importance, which also involves politics. There is also a religious angle to Gaia.
On reductionism and materialism
Beast and Man was an examination of human nature and a reaction against the reductionism of sociobiology, and the relativism and behaviorism she saw as prevalent in much of social science. She argued that human beings are more similar to animals than many social scientists then acknowledged, while animals are in many ways more sophisticated than was often accepted. She criticised existentialists who argued that there was no such thing as human nature and writers such as Desmond Morris who she understood as arguing that human nature was "brutal and nasty". Instead, she argued that human beings and their relationship with animals could be better understood by using the qualitative methods of ethology and comparative psychology, and that this approach showed that "we do have a nature and it's much more in the middle.
Writing in the 2002 introduction to the reprint of Evolution as a Religion (1985), Midgley reported 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." Evolution as a Religion dealt with the theories of evolutionary biologists, including Dawkins, while Science as Salvation dealt with the theories of 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 the use of machines. She concludes: "These schemes still seem to me to be just displacement activities proposed in order to avoid facing our real difficulties." "[I]n exposing these rhetorical attempts to turn science into a comprehensive ideology," she wrote in The myths we live by, "I am not attacking science but defending it against dangerous misconstructions."
Midgley argued against reductionism, or the attempt to impose any one approach to understanding the world. She suggests that there are "many maps, many windows," arguing 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." She writes that it is helpful to think of 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."
She argued that, "acknowledging matter as somehow akin to and penetrated by mind is not adding a new ... assumption ... it is becoming aware of something we are doing already." She suggested 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."
Midgley wrote her 2014 book, Are you an illusion? as a response to Francis Crick's argument in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis that a person's sense of personal identity and free will is no more than the behaviour of nerve cells. She attacks the understanding inherent in this argument that everything, including a sense of self, can be understood through its physical properties. Instead, she argues that there are different levels of explanation, which need to be studied using different methods. This means that thoughts and memories are an integral part of reality for both humans and animals and need to be studied as such.
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, praising Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, and discussing how its ideas might be applied to moral philosophy. Midgley responded in volume 54 (1979) with "Gene-Juggling," arguing that The Selfish Gene was about psychological egoism, rather than evolution. The paper criticised Dawkins' concepts, but was judged by its targets to be intemperate and personal in tone, and as having misunderstood Dawkins' ideas. Midgley disputed this view, arguing that while Dawkins purports to be talking about genes—that is, chemical arrangements—he nonetheless slides over to saying that "we are born selfish" (The Selfish Gene, p. 3).
She wrote that she had previously "not attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to 'break a butterfly upon a wheel'. But Mr Mackie's article is not the only indication I have lately met of serious attention being paid to his fantasies." In a rejoinder in 1981, Dawkins retorted that the comment was "hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic." He wrote that she "raises the art of misunderstanding to dizzy heights. My central point had no connection with what she alleges. I am not even very directly interested in man, or at least not in his emotional nature. My book is about the evolution of life, not the ethics of one particular, rather aberrant, species." In volume 58 (1983), Midgley replied again, in "Selfish Genes and Social Darwinism": "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 ... [but my] basic objections remain."
The bad feeling between Dawkins and Midgley appeared not to diminish. In a note to page 55 in the 2nd edition of The Selfish Gene (1989), Dawkins refers to her "highly intemperate and vicious paper." Midgley continued to criticise Dawkins' ideas. In her books Evolution as a Religion (2002) and The Myths We Live By (2003), she writes about what she sees as his confused use of language—the sleight of hand involved in using terms such as "selfish" in different ways without alerting the reader to the change in meaning—and some of what she regards as his rhetoric ("genes exert ultimate power over behaviour"), which she argues is more akin to religion than science. She wrote in a letter to The Guardian in 2005:
[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.
In an interview with The Independent in September 2007, she argued that Dawkins' views on evolution are ideologically driven: "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." In April 2009 Midgley reiterated her critical interpretation of The Selfish Gene as part of a series of articles on Hobbes in The Guardian. In her 2010 book The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene, she argues that "simple one-sided accounts of human motives, such as the "selfish gene" tendency in recent neo-Darwinian thought, may be illuminating but are always unrealistic."
Midgley in art
Midgley is referred to in The Lives of Animals (1999), an unusual fictional work by the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee. The book has been likened to a cross between a short story and a philosophical dialogue, as Coetzee's protagonist, Elizabeth Costello, often speaks at length about philosophical ideas. Many reviewers expressed bafflement at the text, which has an enigmatic and riddling style. As one reviewer noted, "the reader is not quite sure whether he is intended to spot some confusion or contradiction or non-sequitur in [the protagonist's] arguments." Other critics however have noted many affinities between The Lives of Animals and Midgley's philosophy, and have used Midgley's ideas to make sense of Coetzee's famously confusing work.
The main character, who also appears in Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello, is concerned with the moral status of animals, a subject Midgley addressed in Animals and Why They Matter, and discusses at length the idea of sympathy as an ethical concept, a subject Midgley wrote about in Beast and Man. Andy Lamey wrote that the result of these and other similarities is that Coetzee's work "evoke[s] a particular conception of ethics, one very similar to that of the philosopher Mary Midgley. Such a view affords a central role to sympathy and is fundamentally opposed to a long-standing rival view, most clearly exemplified by the social contract tradition, which prioritizes an instrumental conception of rationality."
Coetzee and Midgley additionally shared a longstanding fascination with Robinson Crusoe. Coetzee retells the Crusoe story in his novel Foe, while Midgley wrote about Crusoe in her essay "Duties Concerning Islands." Midgley's essay argued for the idea that human beings can have ethical obligations to non-human entities such as animals and ecosystems, an idea also found in The Lives of Animals, Foe and many other works by Coetzee.
Midgley agreed to sit for sculptor Jon Edgar in Newcastle during 2006, as part of the Environment Triptych, along with heads of Richard Mabey and James Lovelock. This was exhibited at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2013.
- Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature. Routledge, 1978; revised edition 1995. ISBN 0-415-28987-4
- Heart and Mind: The Varieties of Moral Experience. Routledge, 1981. ISBN 0-415-30449-0
- Animals and Why They Matter: A Journey Around the Species Barrier. University of Georgia Press, 1983. ISBN 0-8203-2041-2
- Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay. Routledge, 1984. ISBN 0-415-25398-5
- with Judith Hughes. Women's Choices: Philosophical Problems Facing Feminism. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983. ISBN 0-312-88791-4
- Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears. Routledge, 1985; reprinted with new introduction 2002. ISBN 0-415-27832-5 This is dedicated "to the memory of Charles Darwin who never said these things."
- Can't We Make Moral Judgements?. Bristol Press, 1989. ISBN 1-85399-166-X
- Wisdom, Information and Wonder: What Is Knowledge For?. Routledge, 1989. ISBN 0-415-02830-2
- Science As Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning. Routledge, 1992. ISBN 0-415-10773-3 (also available here as a Gifford Lectures series)
- The Ethical Primate: Humans, Freedom and Morality. Routledge, 1994. ISBN 0-415-13224-X
- Utopias, Dolphins and Computers: Problems of Philosophical Plumbing. Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0-415-13378-5
- Science And Poetry. Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0-415-27632-2
- Myths We Live By. Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-34077-2
- The Owl of Minerva: A Memoir. Routledge, 2005. ISBN 0-415-36788-3 (Midgley's autobiography)
- editor. Earthy Realism: The Meaning of Gaia. Imprint Academic, 2007. ISBN 1-84540-080-1
- The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene. Acumen, 2010. ISBN 978-1-84465-253-2
- Are you an Illusion?. Acumen, 2014. ISBN 978-1844657926
- What Is Philosophy For?. Bloomsbury, 2018. ISBN 978-1350051072
- Biological and Cultural Evolution, Institute for Cultural Research Monograph Series, No. 20, 1984. ISBN 0-904674-08-8
- Gaia: The Next Big Idea, Demos publications, 2001. ISBN 1-84180-075-9
- Impact Pamphlet 15: Intelligent Design and Other Ideological Problems, 2007. ISBN 0-902227-17-3
- Selected articles
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