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