Mary Mid­g­ley

Com­bat­ive moral philoso­pher who took on Richard Dawkins and his con­cept of the ‘self­ish gene’

The Daily Telegraph - - Obituaries -

MARY MID­G­LEY, who has died aged 99, was one of Bri­tain’s lead­ing moral philoso­phers, though she was more ef­fec­tive in wield­ing philo­soph­i­cal ob­jec­tions to other peo­ple’s be­liefs than pro­mot­ing a co­her­ent philo­soph­i­cal view­point of her own.

She chal­lenged the var­i­ous re­duc­tion­ist fun­da­men­talisms or myths – re­li­gious, po­lit­i­cal, so­cial, but par­tic­u­larly sci­en­tific – which peo­ple use to in­ter­pret the world and as a ba­sis for moral rules. In­stead, she ar­gued, we should ac­cept that we must un­der­stand our­selves and the world from many dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, which make it im­pos­si­ble to re­duce moral ques­tions to one sim­ple syn­the­sis.

A fiercely com­bat­ive de­bater, Mary Mid­g­ley wrote her first book, Beast and Man (1978), in her 50s af­ter bring­ing up her fam­ily, and her ap­proach was al­ways in­formed by the down-to-earth com­mon­sense of moth­er­hood.

She launched her­self into the pub­lic arena in the wake of Des­mond Mor­ris’s The Naked Ape, tak­ing is­sue with Mor­ris’s premise that hu­mans were noth­ing more than an­i­mals, and with those philoso­phers and so­ci­ol­o­gists who pro­moted the idea of a hu­man be­ing as a tab­ula rasa at birth on which fam­ily and so­ci­ety im­printed a na­ture. Pro­tag­o­nists on both sides, she be­lieved, were im­pos­ing sim­plis­tic mytholo­gies on the com­plex re­al­ity.

Her scep­ti­cism about the nar­row “sci­en­tism” of writ­ers like Mor­ris took her, fa­mously, into a head­long clash with the evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist, Richard Dawkins. In 1979, fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of Dawkins’s The Self­ish Gene, Mary Mid­g­ley wrote a highly per­sonal at­tack in the jour­nal Phi­los­o­phy in which she ac­cused the sci­en­tist of an ex­treme de­ter­min­ism which traded ir­re­spon­si­bly and dan­ger­ously on peo­ple’s sim­plis­tic no­tions of hu­man mo­ti­va­tion: “Genes can­not be self­ish or un­selfish, any more than atoms can be jeal­ous, ele­phants ab­stract or bis­cuits tele­o­log­i­cal,” she wrote. “Since the emo­tional na­ture of an­i­mals clearly is not ex­clu­sively self-in­ter­ested, nor based on any long-term cal­cu­la­tion at all, he [Dawkins] re­sorts to ar­gu­ing from spec­u­la­tion about the emo­tional na­ture of genes, which he treats as the source and archetype of all emo­tional na­ture.”

Dawkins re­sponded by ac­cus­ing her of de­lib­er­ately fail­ing to grasp the con­cept of the self­ish gene, which was more about the sur­vival of cer­tain lines rather than the mo­tives of the genes them­selves. But Mary Mid­g­ley re­mained un­re­pen­tant. Dawkins, she be­lieved, “must have been aware of how the con­cept [of self­ish­ness] might be in­ter­preted and used”.

She went on to ex­pand these ideas in Sci­ence as Sal­va­tion (1992) and Evo­lu­tion as a Re­li­gion (1985), ex­am­in­ing how sci­ence had come to func­tion as a sub­sti­tute for re­li­gion, and demon­strat­ing how badly it, and sci­en­tists, had done the job.

When a sci­en­tific jugu­lar pre­sented it­self, Mary Mid­g­ley al­ways went for it with ra­zor wit. In the course of a di­a­tribe in Sci­ence and Po­etry (2001), in which she rub­bished Dawkins’s claim that “sci­ence is the only way we have of un­der­stand­ing the real world”, she apol­o­gised for al­ways quot­ing Dawkins. She did so, she wrote, not to per­se­cute the man, but in trib­ute to his good writ­ing: “Clear ex­pres­sions of im­por­tant mis­takes are very use­ful things.”

Mary Mid­g­ley had lit­tle in­cli­na­tion for Pla­tonic de­bates about pure logic or ul­ti­mate re­al­ity, and lit­tle time for the self-ref­er­en­tial ob­ses­sions of mod­ern philoso­phers about whether it is pos­si­ble to make moral judg­ments at all. What mat­tered to her was the Aris­totelian here and now – how men and women should live their lives.

In de­bat­ing moral ques­tions, myths (in­clud­ing, for ex­am­ple, Chris­tian­ity, the En­light­en­ment idea of Progress, or mod­ern sci­en­tism) were an in­dis­pens­able aid to or­gan­is­ing per­cep­tions and con­struct­ing moral ar­gu­ments from ba­sic premises. But pur­sued to an ex­treme, and to the ex­clu­sion of all other pos­si­bil­i­ties, they could also do harm by slant­ing our think­ing. In­stead, Mary Mid­g­ley ar­gued, we should re­gard ap­par­ently an­tag­o­nis­tic myths as com­ple­men­tary parts of a sin­gle search for un­der­stand­ing.

How­ever, when it came to defin­ing her own po­si­tion on the great de­bates of the day, Mary Mid­g­ley had a ten­dency to lapse into lib­eral plat­i­tudes. On the sub­ject of fem­i­nism, for ex­am­ple, she coun­selled against an ad­ver­sar­ial ap­proach, while em­pha­sis­ing the jus­tice of fem­i­nist com­plaints about male dom­i­na­tion. “Women,” she con­cluded, “need a lan­guage that they can use to their sons as well as to their sis­ters.” On the sub­ject of an­i­mal rights, she urged dras­tic mea­sures with­out ever ac­tu­ally spelling out what they were: “We need new think­ing, new con­cepts and new words, not just about an­i­mals, but about our whole re­la­tion to the non-hu­man world.”

She was born Mary Beatrice Scrut­ton in Lon­don on Septem­ber 13 1919, the daugh­ter of Canon Tom Scrut­ton, later chap­lain of King’s Col­lege, Cam­bridge, and a prom­i­nent paci­fist. Her mother, Les­ley, née Hay, was the daugh­ter of the en­gi­neer who built the Mersey Tun­nel. Mary had a con­ven­tional up­bring­ing in a large vicarage in Green­ford, now a sub­urb of west Lon­don, and was ed­u­cated at Downe House, where she lost her Chris­tian faith but ac­quired an in­ter­est in phi­los­o­phy af­ter read­ing Plato.

In 1938 she went to Somerville Col­lege, Ox­ford, as se­nior scholar to read Mods and Greats. Iris Mur­doch was in the same year. The philoso­pher, El­iz­a­beth An­scombe, was a year ahead of her, and Philippa Foot a year be­hind. Al­though she and Iris Mur­doch be­came close friends, Mary Scrut­ton found she did not have the cer­tainty of tem­per­a­ment to fol­low her into the Com­mu­nist Party. When the Ox­ford Labour club split af­ter the Hitler-stalin pact, she ended up on the com­mit­tee of the new So­cial Demo­cratic Club, with Roy Jenk­ins and Tony Crosland. It was, broadly speak­ing, a po­lit­i­cal and moral po­si­tion she would oc­cupy for the rest of her life.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 1942, Mary Scrut­ton joined the Civil Ser­vice and did her bit for the war ef­fort by work­ing at the Min­istry of Pro­duc­tion. Af­ter a brief and ap­par­ently un­sat­is­fac­tory stint teach­ing clas­sics at a boys’ pub­lic school, she re­turned to Ox­ford to con­tinue her stud­ies. In 1945, how­ever, she met Ge­of­frey Mid­g­ley, who was do­ing a doc­tor­ate in phi­los­o­phy at New Col­lege.

He found a job in New­cas­tle but af­ter a year they met again. They mar­ried in 1950 and she moved to New­cas­tle. She had three sons in five years and stopped work­ing, ex­cept for re­view­ing books for the New States­man. Later she lec­tured at the univer­sity.

Dur­ing her time at home, Mary Mid­g­ley was in­spired by the lib­eral philoso­pher John Rawls’s The­ory of Jus­tice, pub­lished in 1971 and re­vised in 1975, which sug­gested new ways in which phi­los­o­phy could be­gin to en­gage with the real – and po­lit­i­cal – world. She also be­came fas­ci­nated by the works of Kon­rad Lorenz and Jane Goodall on an­i­mal be­hav­iour, which ar­gued that so­phis­ti­cated though lim­ited com­par­isons could be made be­tween hu­mans and an­i­mals – in that hu­mans, like an­i­mals, seem to have in­her­ited pre­dis­po­si­tions that shape the way we look at the world and what we hope to get out of it.

Af­ter launch­ing her­self into the pub­lic de­bate about hu­man and an­i­mal na­ture, Mary Mid­g­ley was in­vited to spend a year at Cor­nell Univer­sity. Out of that came her first book, Beast and Man.

Af­ter re­tir­ing from New­cas­tle Univer­sity in 1982, Mary Mid­g­ley be­came a reg­u­lar star turn on the in­ter­na­tional sem­i­nar cir­cuit and a strong ad­vo­cate of the Gaia the­ory pro­pounded by James Love­lock. The con­cept was based around the no­tion of a self-sus­tain­ing sys­tem in which the liv­ing and non-liv­ing work to­gether to main­tain the con­di­tions of life. Among the many myths that hu­man be­ings use to make sense of the world, she found Gaia more be­nign in its im­pli­ca­tions for moral prin­ci­ples than oth­ers, sug­gest­ing that co­op­er­a­tion was at least as im­por­tant for the sur­vival of our species as neo-dar­winian com­pe­ti­tion.

Mary Mid­g­ley was a fre­quent guest on Ra­dio 4’s The Moral Maze. Her other pub­li­ca­tions in­cluded An­i­mals and Why They Mat­ter (1983), Wicked­ness (1984); The Eth­i­cal Pri­mate (1994); Gaia, the Next Big Idea (2001); Myths We Live By (2003); a book of mem­oirs, The Owl of Min­erva (2005); The Soli­tary Self: Dar­win and the Self­ish Gene (2010) and Are You an Il­lu­sion? (2014). Her last book, What Is Phi­los­o­phy For?, was pub­lished ear­lier this year.

Mary Mid­g­ley’s hus­band died in 1997. She is sur­vived by their three sons.

Mary Mid­g­ley, born Septem­ber 13 1919, died Oc­to­ber 10 2018

Mary Mid­g­ley: scep­ti­cal about ‘sci­en­tism’, she ar­gued that sci­ence was a poor sub­sti­tute for re­li­gion

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