Evolution as a Religion: a book review


Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears by Mary Midgley (1985, revised edition 2002)

I recently read the classic Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears by English philosopher Mary Midgley. In the introduction to the revised (2002) edition, Midgley explains the motivation for the book as follows: “I had been struck for some time by certain remarkable prophetic and metaphysical passages that appeared suddenly in scientific books about evolution, often in their last chapters. Though these passages were detached from the official reasoning of the books, they seemed still to be presented as science. But they made startling suggestions about vast themes such as immortality, human destiny and the meaning of life.” (p. viii). As an example, she quotes the molecular biologist William Day: “He [man] will splinter into types of humans with differing mental faculties that will lead to diversification and separate species. From among these types, a new species, Omega man, will emerge … as much beyond our imagination as our world was to the emerging eucaryotes.” (p. 36).


Mary Midgley

Such “prophetic and metaphysical passages” are also familiar from the fictional works of Olaf Stapledon and H. G. Wells. Midgley argues that they represent bad science, twisted to have characteristics of a religion, such as assigning meaning to life (pp. 15, 71). The myth of the “Evolutionary Escalator,” extrapolated to some glorious imaginary future, is one example. Nothing in evolutionary science justifies this view, comforting though it may seem (p. 38). Furthermore, past attempts to accelerate the process by breeding an “Übermensch” have not ended at all well (p. 9), and more recent proposals are also disturbing (pp. 48–49).


The “Evolutionary Escalator” or “March of Progress”

Midgley claims that prophecies based on the “Evolutionary Escalator” myth “are quite simply exaltations of particular ideals within human life at their own epoch, projected on to the screen of a vague and vast ‘future’ – a term which, since Nietzsche and Wells, is not a name for what is particularly likely to happen, but for a fantasy realm devoted to the staging of visionary dramas. In their content, these dramas plainly depend on the moral convictions of their author and of his age, not on scientific theories of any kind.” (pp. 81–82).

In contrast, Midgley quotes a more pessimistic perspective from the physicist Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desk for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” (pp. 86–87). This perspective is very different from that of the evolutionary optimists, but it does share a certain scientist-centric bias.

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravin, shriek’d against his creed, –

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.’

(from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H., LIV and LV)

Midgley is particularly negative about the “red in tooth and claw” view of evolution, which emphasises competition as against cooperation. She sees the “selfish gene” concept popularised by Richard Dawkins as an example of this. In a 2007 interview with The Independent, she claimed “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.


Honeybees are great cooperators (photo: Todd Huffman), and symbiosis is common in nature

Indeed, when an organism succeeds by occupying a new ecological niche (as, for example, urban coyotes do), there need not be any competition at all (at least, not initially).


A coyote in an urban niche (photo: Dru Bloomfield)

Extreme forms of sociobiology comes in for particular criticism from Midgley. They produce, she claims, bad science: “Environmental causes are neglected without any justification being given, and so are causes which flow from an individual itself during its lifetime … In human affairs, both these areas are of course of the first importance, since they cover the whole range of culture and individual action.” (p. 151). She is far from being the only scholar to make such criticisms.

Less common is the way in which she blames the growth of creationism on the rhetoric of sociobiologists themselves: “The project of treating the time scale of the Genesis story literally, as a piece of history, is an amazing one, which serious biblical scholars at least as far back as Origen (AD 200) have seen to be unworkable and unnecessary. The reason why people turn to it now seems to be that the only obvious alternative story – evolution – has become linked with a view of human psychology which they rightly think both false and immoral.” (p. 172).

See also this talk by Midgley, related to a more recent book on a similar topic:

In essence, Mary Midgley strongly supports scientists when they do science, but does not always accept the results of scientists doing philosophy (and especially moral philosophy). This little book sounds a helpful note of caution for those scientists who have become interested in philosophical speculation.

* * * *
Evolution as a Religion, by Mary Midgley: 4 stars

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