Evolution as a Religion: Midgley

As we back away from the modern synthesis (see www.thethirdwayofevolution.com) and join the early pioneers in looking to evolution for new meaning, we will need adult help in reigning in our natural enthusiasm for all-encompassing theories of everything, based usually on very little. Fortunately, in Mary Midgley’s book (published 1985), we have it.

Though the book is a mere 190 pages, and chapters average a mere 10 pages each, still I am finding it a hard slog. Not because of the writing, the author has a delicious dry wit. The slog is because this is hard stuff. She is, after all, a philosopher, here more than in anything else of hers I’ve read. She is quoting from and critiquing a shelf-full of dense texts. She is broadly-informed about the humanities and the natural sciences and, to a non-philosopher like me, displays the necessary philosophical training and discipline. I feel in good hands.

I need those hands because I am developing my own theory of everything, based on a mere splash of knowledge about evolution. Her book is a lesson on the pitfalls to avoid. I recommend it to anyone else wanting to tell us what it means we evolved. I think this slender book would be an excellent resource for anyone anticipating having to make sense of the many theories that will no doubt surface once the modern synthesis is given up for dead.

To a surprising degree, in each of her 18 chapters Midgley does detail a particular way evolution has been made to masquerade as human destiny. And in a final chapter she arrives at a generalization I found profound, though it took me a while to get the point. She had already shown how thinking about evolution tends to get caught up in ideas of contracts. Now she suggests we can analyze theories of evolution in terms of rights and duties, rights we can claim from evolved nature, duties we owe to it. I confess this went over my head, but I think it can be a very potent first step in carving up a theory of evolution. In retrospect I surmised she'd find existentialism as denying both rights and duties, Christianity as giving us rights over nature in return for worship of its supposed maker, Darwin as allocating rights to those who survive competition to mate in return for enduring variation, and so on.

Granted, she has a "liberal" bias.

Some quotes, at random, to illustrate the concision and power of the writing:

...Dobzhansky, like Einstein and Newton, is the kind of scientist who emphasizes the inevitable slightness of the whole scientific achievement and its absurd disproportion to the vastness of what there is to be known, rather than the kind who claims (like Wilson) that the job is nearly finished...

The 'problem of altruism' keeps recurring. To solve it, a model is developed whereby each organism is really aiming at its own advantage, but finds it not in this life but in 'inclusive fitness', that is in having many descendents. In some way this is held to remove the anomaly, to show that nothing was really done for the sake of others after all.

The mystique of egoism and fatalism, then, is a real part of sociobiological writings. It cannot be shrugged off as a misconception. And because of its stridency it is extremely influential. It has done, and is still doing, enormous harm. It has confirmed the suspicions of social scientists and many others that there is something endemically depraved and sinister about all discussion of human life which uses a biological point of view and an evolutionary context.

...A vision which is reminiscent of the darker elements in some traditional religions displays the universe not--as modern science officially requires--simply as a linked set of physical processes, but animistically, as a field for the play of malign forces attacking or exploiting humanity....Forms based on population genetics place it either in the gene or in a mysterious, non-conscious analogue of motivation by 'selfishness', which is attributed to organisms themselves. Both pictures [this and a physical counterpart] are fatalistic. Though nominally they tell us to fight back, they also emphasize human helplessness and thus a sense of being wholly dominated by whatever 'selfish' entities are described as active in the proceedings...

Nietzsche, who was responsible for much of this new theology, took over from the old Thomistic theology which he plundered the assumption that all the rest of creation mattered only as a frame for man. This is not an impression which any disinterested observer would get from looking round at it, not do we need it in order to take our destiny sufficiently seriously.

The distortion that afflicts science when it is put into the place of religion is a central part of my theme. And it does not seem to me to be altogether an accident that attempts to remove religion produced a vacuum into which science was to some extent sucked.