the essential MARY MIDGLEY

  • edited by david midgley

First published 2005 by Routledge
Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada by Routledge
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group

© 2005 Mary Midgley: David Midgley for Introduction, selection and editorial matter; James Lovelock for foreword
The right of Mary Midgley to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
The essential Mary Midgley / edited by David Midgley.
Includes bibliographical references and index.

  1. Philosophy, British - 20th century. I. Midgley, David,
    ISBN 0-415-34641-X (hbk)
    ISBN 0-415-34642-8 (pbk)



Soon, in historical terms, humanity will face a great and severe trial. An acceleration of the global change now under way will sweep away the comfortable environment to which we are adapted. Such events are a normal part of geological history; the last one was the Earth's move from the long period of glaciation to the present warmish interglacial. What is unusual and interesting about the coming event is that we are the cause of it and nothing as severe has happened for tens of millions of years.

Mary Midgley and I were present at a recent gathering in Devonshire of climatologists and other Earth scientists and engineers concerned with the consequences of this global change. The scientists delivered the grim message that some time during the coming century the Earth System, Gaia, will pass a threshold beyond which it is committed to irreversible and mostly adverse change. Once we pass this threshold, set by the level of carbon dioxide in the air of somewhere between 400 and 500 parts per million, nothing the nations of the world do will alter the outcome. We are in a sense like passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly down the St Lawrence River towards the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail.

You may wonder how such a scientifically literate society as ours could be in such a fix and why our scientists have not warned us sooner of these huge dangers ahead. Mary Midgley's writings explain with pellucid clarity how and why in the last two centuries, science and philosophy have been blind to the truth about the Earth and have failed to let us see that our planet is effectively a living entity and not merely a ball of rock with the air and oceans at its surface and life as mere passengers.

We are an argumentative tribal animal and we settle our differences by adversarial contest or war. Science and religion that should have shared their sense of wonder about our magnificent and beautiful planet have instead nursed their erroneous dogmas and fought for supremacy over the way we think. In the twentieth century, science won its pyrrhic victory and became the acknowledged source of wisdom about life, the universe and everything, including the Earth. How ironic that instead of regarding science as the supreme source of wisdom many, especially environmentalists, have turned away and now listen to astrologers, alternative scientists and indeed anything other than science.

They are not to be blamed for their rejection; the knowledge science offers is like the discourses of medieval monks, so coded as to be incomprehensible even to most scientists themselves. How many physicists are fluent in virology and how many evolutionary biologists know anything of inorganic chemistry? The last two centuries have seen the slow development of a cultural dementia characterized by a fragmentation of thought.

Mary Midgley traces the flaw that led to this cultural psychosis to an obsession with rationalism. In Newton's and even in Darwin's time, a scientist could wonder and be comfortable with religious faith and the fact that his ideas came through intuition. The distinguished French mathematician Henri Poincaré said: 'It is by logic we prove, it is by intuition we invent', but his countryman Descartes thought otherwise and insisted on the superiority of reason. In collegial moments, scientists will measure a savant's eminence by the length of time he holds up progress in his field. By this measure, Descartes was unusually eminent and Mary's writings reveal the extent to which Cartesian thinking led scientists to become almost exclusively reductionist and has led the unwise among them to claim that soon they will be able to explain everything, presumably by pure reason. The last two centuries have seen a triumph of reductionist science, which includes the discovery of the nucleic acid code and the partial but impressive understanding of the universe and the atom. All of it came from reductionist thinking. But the price paid for the successes of Cartesian thought has been the spurning of intuition, of holistic and systems thinking and, most recently, the failure for too long to see the Earth as a living entity able to self-regulate its climate and composition in a way favourable for life.

If you find it hard to believe that science is really as blind and disabled as this, consider how much scientists are beguiled by the truth, purity and beauty of equations. It is too easy for them to believe that the reduction of a hard-worked project to an elegant equation is the ultimate goal of science. The equation that relates the volume (V) of a sphere to its radius (r) is V = 4/3 * π * r^3; this is what most of us were taught yet how many of us ever use it? In the natural world things do not come like tennis balls as spheres, they come as pebbles on the beach and no simple elegant equation can ever describe them.

I find it strange that the word 'irrational' should be a pejorative when much of quantum physics is wholly inexplicable and so is the phenomenon of emergence that is so important a part of life and living systems. To understand our planet we have to see it as Mary and a small band of scientists, theologians and philosophers do, as something alive, something of great antiquity, almost a third as old as the universe. Although many scientists are beginning to see the Earth as a self-regulating system and incorporate the idea in their models, the failure of science in the twentieth century to understand the Earth led people to believe that nothing is more important than the good of humankind. Scientists, such as Einstein, and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and indeed intellectuals of all persuasion, shared this view. I share Mary Midgley's unusual wish to question the overarching value of humanism and to doubt that human rights are all that matters. We are part of the Earth, and as we are now discovering, our actions can affect the planet itself and its feedbacks ensure that we suffer or enjoy the consequences. She shows us how wrong it is of us to regard ourselves as some kind of supreme intelligence and the apotheosis of evolution. But it would be equally wrong for us to ignore our awesome responsibility as the Earth's first socially intelligent species. We are not the stewards of the Earth, not its owners or even its tenants; we are an integral part of it. We can be proud to have been the first to hold a looking glass for Gaia and let her see how beautiful she is, but we need to be deeply concerned about our power to put right the damage we have inadvertently done.

Therefore, I see this as a vitally important book and one that politicians everywhere should read, because only by seeing the Earth as alive can we properly confront the menacing threat of global change. We have but a brief time left.


Mary Midgley is a philosopher of unusually wide-ranging interests -- from the nature of human wickedness to the fallacies attached to the Anthropic Principle in cosmology. The present volume is an attempt to bring together a selection of her writings that show the continuity and connectedness of these diverse themes, so as to enable the reader to gain a grasp of her thought as a whole. In this Introduction I shall try to trace the connecting thread that leads from the initial impetus which motivated her writing through to her most recent work.

To attempt an assessment of the significance of Mary Midgley's work as a whole is at the same time to inquire into the meaning and importance of philosophy within contemporary culture and society, for one of the central features of her work throughout her career has been an abiding commitment to bringing philosophical thinking to bear directly on issues of practical concern. This commitment goes beyond an involvement in applied philosophy, in the sense of using philosophical methods to argue directly for the adoption of specific policies.

It is rather a concern, not with the pursuit of abstract truth for its own sake, but with the kind of understanding which informs the health and well-being of a culture or a civilization. And this might be a definition of philosophy, one that would perhaps be endorsed by some of its greatest practitioners (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Kant spring to mind).

At the start of this project, the publishers sent me as a model the parallel volume on David Bohm. On reflection, the connection thus made seemed to me highly appropriate; for despite working in apparently unrelated fields, both these thinkers are distinguished by their very important contributions to a crucial intellectual task of our time. This task is the restoration of the unity in our view of ourselves, and of our relationship to the natural world of which we are a part, which was dealt such a damaging blow by the rise of the conceptual outlook of scientific materialism. This world-view, with its constituent agendas of reductionism, dualism, atomism and mechanism, has dominated European thought for the last four centuries. It has now lost the rationale it had in the triumphant success of classical physics, since the new physics is quite inconsistent with the ontology and epistemology of materialism. But it continues, with immensely damaging effect, to dominate the contemporary intellectual landscape.

These damaging effects reach far beyond the confines of university departments; they distort our thinking on the crucial problems and challenges now facing humanity. Scientists like David Bohm, James Lovelock and Ilya Prigogine are now tracing the outlines of a new kind of science, able to provide insights into the complexities and subtleties of an essentially organic world which escape the relatively blunt instruments forged by Descartes, Galileo and Newton. But the seventeenth-century conception of Nature as a machine, able to be brought under control and 'fixed' by the skills of the engineer, still continues to occupy centre stage. The fantasy that bio-engineering, micro-electronics and nuclear fusion will provide solutions to the problems of ecological destruction, social disintegration and mass poverty is founded on a defective mode of thinking. The analysis of what exactly is wrong with such thinking, how it arises, and what alternative visions and concepts can help to correct it, is philosophy at its most socially relevant.

The sustained, wide-ranging and sensitive critique of the ideology of scientific materialism advanced over the past thirty years by Mary Midgley is perhaps the best known aspect of her work. But there is a great deal more to her thought than the exposure of the flaws in this world-view. Her starting point and constant locus of concern is the damaging effect which this, and other one-dimensional systems of ideas, have on our moral thinking. Trained as a moral philosopher at Oxford in the 1940s, a time when the narrow and hyper-specialized tendency of Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy was at its height, she has consistently challenged philosophers, as well as physicists, biologists and psychologists, to recognize the richness and diversity of human life and the natural world, to which no monolithic reductive theoretical viewpoint can do justice.

This methodological pluralism continues and develops one of the central insights which permeates the thought of an apparently very different thinker, whose name would not normally be closely associated with Midgley's, namely the later Wittgenstein. This is his concern with the persistent tendency in our thought to distort reality by using the conceptual tools appropriate to one domain to deal with a different one. 'A picture held us captive', says Wittgenstein. The effort to escape this bondage to compellingly simple pictures (metaphors, paradigms) requires the constant use of the philosophical imagination, and of a faculty of critical judgement independent of any preconceived theoretical position.

This is a very difficult endeavour to sustain, and one in which few of Wittgenstein's direct disciples have done anything like justice to the spirit of his inquiry. Moreover it is notoriously difficult to see how the invaluable, but negative, corrective power of such an approach can be completed by a positive doctrine broad and systematic enough to take the place of the theories under criticism. Accordingly, despite many excellent small-scale studies which showed the virtues of clarity, precision and freedom from theoretical 'baggage' which his influence had encouraged, English-speaking philosophy after Wittgenstein suffered generally from a failure to tackle large questions, and to engage constructively with other disciplines and with matters of concern to the general public, by whom it was largely dismissed as pedantic and irrelevant.

This was especially true in moral philosophy, where the preoccupation with the intellectual virtues of clarity and precision, at the expense of others such as moral seriousness and relevance to real life, was particularly damaging. In this value-system, ethics lacked the prestige of logic, epistemology and semantics; and much work done in the field, as well as being too abstract and restricted in its terms of reference to be of much value to the non-specialist, was also of very mediocre quality.

There were, however, honourable exceptions, among them a remarkable generation of women philosophers who had the signal advantage of an Oxford philosophical training largely free of the ego-battles of their male counterparts, then away at the Front. They included Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch and Mary Midgley, and their work was distinguished both by their deep moral seriousness and by a willingness to engage with real-world problems, going beyond the narrow limits which linguistic philosophy had set for itself. This work remained true to the spirit of Wittgenstein's quest to free philosophy from the paralysing effect of 'systems'. But until the publication, in 1978, of Midgley's Beast and Man, it did not show signs of giving rise to an overall intellectual structure that could take on the synthesizing and guiding role for which the discarded systems of Descartes, Kant, Hegel and the rest had been thought necessary.


Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature marked out (and developed with great clarity and thoroughness) a new kind of approach to moral philosophy, neither restricting itself to fine-tuning our ways of discussing piecemeal and local problems nor offering a new, simplistic reductive theory treating all particular moral questions as instances of one or two universal central principles. For Midgley, there is indeed a 'central' question in moral philosophy, a 'key' to its further development -- not in some final absolute sense, but as the primary location of the complex of problems which had blocked progress in the subject for the better part of a century -- namely the cluster of confusions surrounding the concept of Human Nature.

It is impossible for moral philosophy to get started without a conception of Human Nature, whether this is acknowledged or not. Whatever confusions and inadequacies are embodied in the model of human nature on which a moral theory is based will be reflected in error and incoherence in its substantive conclusions. In fact, this is true, though less obviously so, for philosophy generally. This crucial issue had been addressed by Wittgenstein in his late work, especially Philosophical Investigations (1953). He drew attention to the importance for philosophy of giving attention to very familiar, everyday facts about the kind of beings we are -- our 'forms of life', our familiar habits of building, trading, 'asking, thanking, cursing, greeting and praying'. Observation of the context within which our concepts, and the language we use to express them, arise can help to dissolve the illusory ideal pictures of ourselves produced by metaphysical theories. If we are to understand what 'knowing', 'perceiving', consciousness', 'certainty' or 'meaning are, we need to observe them, as it were, in their natural habitat -- in everyday human activity.

Thus Wittgenstein, who in his early work had carried the quest for a watertight, ultimately simple logical system to its extreme limit, ended by reversing the order of priority and giving primacy to the observations of everyday life as the 'ground floor' of our knowledge, on which the grand designs of science, mathematics and formal logic must be seen as resting (in contrast to Descartes, who had the building the other way up). In a characteristically telling metaphor, he describes the conflict between this idealising tendency of thought and the requirements of 'real life' language:

The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not the result of investigation; it was a requirement.) The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming empty. - We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground! (Philosophical Investigations, 107)

This reassertion of the primacy of everyday knowledge and experience, of the 'natural history' of human beings as the essential basis of the understanding of mental life and mental concepts, is an immensely significant move, which has far-reaching implications over the whole field of human thought. It is one which Midgley explores with great thoroughness throughout her work. In three related ways, however, she greatly extends the scope of Wittgenstein's insight. In the first place, Wittgenstein's concern was with logic, epistemology and the philosophy of mind, traditionally seen as the central areas of philosophy (largely because of the preoccupation with deductive reasoning as the paramount feature of our mental life). Midgley applies the 'natural history' approach to ethics, where its implications are still more far reaching, and in the process suggests a drastic re-evaluation of the significance of ethics relative to the rest of philosophy.

Second, where Wittgenstein drew his material from shrewd analysis of a few quite simple observations of everyday human activity, Midgley draws on a vast body of systematic and careful observations, scientific in the old sense of precise and methodical but not in the reductive theoretical sense. These are the findings of ethology, the systematic study of animal behaviour represented by the work of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Jane Goodall and others. Finally, by relating human nature and behaviour to its origins in the nature and behaviour of other animal species in this way, she goes significantly beyond Wittgenstein's important move of considering the human activities of interest to philosophers (perceiving, thinking, deciding, judging, etc.) in their wider context of human social life. In order to arrive at a genuinely balanced view of the latter, we need to locate it in its still more inclusive setting of the natural world as a whole. The task of helping us to gain a better awareness of our 'place in the world' was classically seen as central to the project of philosophy. In much twentieth-century philosophy, however, it was abandoned in favour of increasingly abstract and specialized theorizing, contributing to grave confusion and error within the wider culture.

This, then, was the project of Beast and Man -- first, to bring the concept of Human Nature back to the centre of the philosophical stage, where it belongs. Second, to show how the attempt to conceive it as radically separate from its origins in our evolutionary history has led to systematic error and confusion, with severely damaging consequences for our culture. And third, to map out an approach to philosophical questions, in ethics especially, which is consistent with this understanding of our nature, as a very particular kind of social mammal (as opposed to a Cartesian pure rational intellect in a machine body).

It is important to distinguish sharply between this approach to relating ethics and biology and that advocated by what is called 'sociobiology', and more recent variants such as 'evolutionary psychology'. Though these approaches do have the merit of acknowledging our continuity with other species, their strongly reductionist bias distorts their analysis of the common motivational structure of humans and other animals. This makes it essentially impossible for them to do justice to the higher intellectual and ethical capacities of humans (some of which are shared by other species). Despite the claim that these approaches offer a way to bring ethics into the domain of empirical science, they are in fact highly un-empirical, taking the fundamental selfishness of all human and animal motivation as an axiomatic principle. This fatally flawed assumption, held to follow from the principle of evolution by natural selection, is the essential premise of Social Darwinism -- a view which, Midgley is at pains to stress, is quite contrary to Darwin's actual views and was principally the brainchild of Herbert Spencer, himself not a biologist but a social philosopher of a somewhat mystical bent.

The assumption of selfishness as the basis of motivation is not ultimately redeemed by recasting the theory in terms of 'kin selection' or 'gene selection' (following Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson and others), for three main reasons. First, as Midgley makes clear, the use of the everyday vocabulary of human motives -- selfishness, spite and so on -- in this context is necessarily misleading. Although the sociobiologist may claim that these terms are being used in a technical sense which does not imply that the individuals actually have the motives that the everyday concepts refer to, the ordinary associations of the terms cannot be effectively severed from them in this way. And in fact, both Wilson's and Dawkins's writings, like those of many of their followers, are replete with instances of sliding back from the technical to the everyday use of these terms, so that they end up with what is in effect a traditional egoistic account of human motivation, which has no actual justification in the official version of their theories.

Second, the reasoning on which the axiomatic assumption of selfishness as the evolutionary basis of motivation is founded is itself unsound. It rests on a rejection of the possibility of altruism, since, supposedly, altruistic behaviour traits would necessarily diminish the survival chances of individuals possessing them (or, in the variant accounts, their genes or kin). This presupposes that such traits as 'a disposition to sacrifice one's life if another is in danger' are separate items, which could be genetically switched on or off in isolation from the rest of life, rather than consequences of a much more general overall integrated structure of motivation which makes possible the whole interwoven fabric of social existence.

The ubiquitous atomising tendency is at work here, in the form of the assumption that -- because we can refer to people's motives separately -- these motives are therefore in fact separate and independent items that, like Lego pieces, can be added and taken away without affecting the rest. The whole project of genetic or evolutionary psychology, and with it that of genetically engineering people for desired personality traits, rests on this philosophical howler, criticized in detail in Beast and Man, chapter 6, 'Altruism and Egoism'. Indeed, if it were true that our psychology is constituted by such Lego-like 'units of behaviour', each linked to a distinct gene, it would be impossible for altruistic behaviour to evolve, since social species themselves could never have come into existence.

The third reason, therefore, for rejecting the thesis that the principle of natural selection implies that all motivation must be essentially selfish is that it is inconsistent with the facts, as Kropotkin brilliantly demonstrated in his classic work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. In response to T.H. Huxley's version of Social Darwinism, Kropotkin argued convincingly that co-operation is in fact a more important factor in evolution than competition. This work, together with its even greater (and still more unjustly neglected) successor, Ethics: Origin and Development, is the true intellectual precursor of Mary Midgley's efforts to integrate an account of moral life into a genuinely scientific account of human nature. Both writers, incidentally, make the point, with extensive quotations from Darwin himself, that the Social Darwinist thesis and its contemporary descendants are foreign to the spirit and substance of Darwin's own work, both in their reductionistic reliance on a priori arguments rather than empirical observation, and in their attempt to bolster an egoistic view of ethics by appeal to the principle of natural selection.

Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay continued the project of mapping out an account of human nature consistent with our evolutionary roots with an exploration of the darker side of our nature. It was written as a counterpoise to Beast and Man, which had striven to overcome the culturally entrenched tendency to equate animal motivation with the rejected aspects of human nature, thereby distorting our picture of both.

Accordingly, the earlier book emphasized the common origin of the most valued aspects of human mental life, previously assumed to be the exclusive possession of humans. In Wickedness the leftover business' of examining human destructiveness and evil was thoroughly explored. The first task here was to make clear that there was a subject to be investigated. The contention that there is indeed such a thing as human wickedness comes into collision with several cherished assumptions of liberal theory. Reacting against the appalling oppression focussed around the notion of sin in traditional Christian society, there was a progressive tendency in Enlightenment and modern thought to 'deconstruct' the notions of wickedness, guilt and blame. Harmful acts came increasingly to be seen as the result of either genetic predispositions or social conditioning. Unfortunately, however, both alternatives share the drawbacks of depriving us of our concepts of freedom and responsibility, and thus fail to provide any basis for moral choice or moral development.

What is needed instead, Midgley argues, is to avoid the demonization that normally accompanies the recognition of moral defects in others -- a process of alienation and denial that entirely blocks any understanding of the stigmatized individual or group, and is itself one of the most potent sources of social evil. Instead we must seek to understand the inner processes of the wicked person, without taking from them the moral responsibility for their acts. The ensuing journey through the darker recesses of the human psyche is, to me, one of the most engrossing aspects of her work; its conclusion, in brief, is that wickedness is essentially a negative phenomenon, a failure to access some of the positive elements in our nature. Ironically, the power of the evil person often derives from what are normally morally positive qualities -- the diligence and conscientiousness of an Eichmann, the courage and intelligence of Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, the religious zeal of the protagonist in James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It is their lack of the complementary balancing motives of empathy, humility or self-awareness which turns these positive attributes into fuel for their destructive projects.

Having examined the 'Beast Within', Midgley completed this phase of her work with a more practically oriented look at the 'Beast Without' in Animals and Why They Matter. This and another book published the same year, Women's Choices (co-authored with Judith Hughes), were her only book-length contributions to applied philosophy strictly so called.

The account of the relation between human and animal nature offered in Beast and Man clearly has dramatic implications for the range of ethical issues surrounding our dealings with other species. The neglect of these issues is one obvious effect of the assumption of a radical opposition between human and animal nature. If animals (following Plato) are the embodiment of all that is base and unworthy in our mental life, or (following Descartes) if they are actually not conscious at all, it seems to follow that it is all right to inflict on them any treatment which it suits us to inflict. The issues of animal experimentation, factory farming and other forms of institutionalized abuse of animals have of course been a major focus of moral concern with the general public for a long time. At the time the book appeared, however, it was still a grossly neglected topic in academic philosophy, and Midgley's pioneering work played a significant part in its acquiring a much more prominent place in the arena of moral philosophy. The book was also a model example of applied philosophy, combining intellectual rigour and balance with great popular clarity and force of conviction.


The genesis of the highly original approach to moral philosophy developed in Mary Midgley's early writings was a reaction to the confining intellectual climate then surrounding the subject. She began teaching again in 1965, after a break of about fifteen years during which, among other things, she had raised three children and become absorbed in the study of animal behaviour. These experiences led to a profound dissatisfaction with the image of the human being which lay in the background of the Oxford analytic tradition that still prevailed in British philosophy. Though this tradition tended to see itself as having been emancipated from the errors of the past, as a result of the revolution in philosophical method brought about by Free and Wittgenstein, in this respect it was still heavily under the influence of the thinking of the great philosophers of the Enlightenment -- Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant and the rest.

Common to all these thinkers was a view of Reason, conceived essentially as the capacity for logical deduction, as the defining characteristic of the human mental constitution, as opposed to that of animals, who possessed perception and emotion, but not Reason. (It is not irrelevant to observe that these male thinkers often held not dissimilar views about the contrast between men and women - see the extract from Science and Salvation in Part Three, entitled 'The Remarkable Masculine Birth of Time.) The division between Reason and Feeling has been the source of a number of problems in moral philosophy throughout its history, and is the subject of Midgley's second book, Heart and Mind.

Traditionally, these faculties have been conceived as categorically different and mutually exclusive. Hume's classic dictum, 'Reason is the slave of the passions', identifies reason as the faculty of pure logical deduction, completely universal and objectively certain but without relation to 'merely contingent' matters concerning the particular constitution and needs of human beings, and emotion, by contrast, as an essentially arbitrary, blind impulse, devoid of cognitive content, a 'brute fact' which arises in us and which reason can perhaps guide and correct but which is fundamentally alien to it.

In contrast, Midgley stresses the inextricable unity of these and other facets of our nature; what it is to be rational (a 'rational animal' in the Aristotelian formula) is essentially related to contingent truths about the structure of human motivation. Because of the kind of creatures we are, there is a wide range of important motives which are natural to us, and which frequently conflict. Rationality consists in consciously and skilfully balancing these conflicting motives so as to do justice to the full range of our emotional, physical and intellectual needs, to the demands of family, society and self, and so on. The artificial division in this process between pure logical reasoning and 'mindless' feeling which Hume's formula implies cannot be made out in practice; in a characteristic trenchant metaphor, Midgley tells us that this is like 'trying to unscrew the inside from the outside of a teapot' (Heart and Mind, p. 102). Hence the principle of the 'Naturalistic Fallacy - that it is impossible to argue validly from facts to values - which Moore, following Hume, made the cornerstone of his ethical theory, is a red herring. To the extent that the mainstream tradition of moral philosophy in Britain and the United States took Moore's principle as its starting point, there was therefore grave need of a fresh start. In Heart and Mind and two subsequent works, Can't we Make Moral Judgements? and Wisdom, Information and Wonder, Midgley further develops the critique of this tradition commenced in Beast and Man. Again, therefore, the theme is unity; the model of binary logic - the analytical method - continually causes philosophers to try to treat separately things which can only be understood as aspects of an integral whole (Heart and Mind, Reason and Feeling, Fact and Value, Mind and Body).

This separation and fragmentation is the essence of the intellectual approach known as reductionism, epitomized in the principles set out in Descartes' Discourse on Method; the way to understand anything is to break it down into its constituent parts, identify their individual properties, and then deduce from these the properties of the whole. The source of this reductionist bias in philosophy is of course the pervasive tendency to regard science, and in particular mathematical physics, as the model for all rational thought.


The image of philosophy as the critique of the ideas which inform and guide society as a whole inevitably comes into sharp conflict with the widely held view that it is, or should be, science which performs this function. Since the Renaissance, when the position of religion as the pre-eminent source of this wisdom was first seriously challenged, the candidacy of science as successor to its vacant throne has gathered increasing momentum. A typical view, quoted by Midgley in The Myths We Live By (p. 14), is that of Nehru:

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people . . . The future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science.

Here science is, quite clearly, being identified with rationality generally. In this sense not only civil engineering and medicine, but also social policy and administration, law, architecture and in fact the whole sphere of organized practical life are implicitly included in 'science'. The failure to distinguish clearly between this somewhat metaphorical use of the word 'science' and the narrow and specialized one referring to the domain of controlled experiments and mathematical theories is one factor contributing to the emergence of 'scientism' - the view of science as 'omnicompetent', able to provide answers to all questions and solve all problems. Science becomes a kind of deity, able to bestow on us a miraculous salvation in which not only the large-scale evils referred to by Nehru, but all forms of ignorance and suffering, even including mortality, are overcome through the application of science and technology.

One of the principal virtues of science stressed by those who advocate it in the role of primary fount of wisdom for society is objectivity. From this point of view the principal failing of religion is that, not being in the required sense objective, the truth of its claims cannot be definitively decided by empirical tests. If religion seeks to lay down judgements about factual matters -- and this has often occurred -- such criticism is entirely warranted. But it oversteps the mark, and becomes dangerous, when accompanied by the failure to understand that there are other important kinds of thinking than purely factual ones. As Dobzhansky says (quoted in Evolution as a Religion, p. 15): 'Science and religion deal with different aspects of existence. If one dares to overschematize for the sake of clarity, one may say that these are the aspect of fact and the aspect of meaning.' If religion is at fault when it attempts to pronounce on matters of fact, science is equally so when it lays claim to authority in the domain of meaning. This is not to say that scientists are not entitled to express opinions on such matters, or even that they should not do so in the context of their scientific writings. But it should be acknowledged that in doing so they are doing theology or philosophy, not science, and that the relevant professional standards apply. The target of Midgley's criticism in two of her best-known books, Evolution as a Religion and Science as Salvation, is a recent genre of scientific, or quasi-scientific, writings in which scientists who themselves have little or no philosophical or theological training make sweeping pronouncements on philosophical matters, implicitly or explicitly appealing to the authority of science for their claims. A not unrepresentative example is the following passage from an acclaimed and widely discussed book by the cosmologists Barrow and Tipler (quoted in Science as Salvation, p. 22):

[We] are cosmologists, not philosophers. This has one very important consequence which the average reader should bear in mind. Whereas many philosophers and theologians appear to possess an emotional attachment to their ideas which requires them to believe them, scientists tend to regard their ideas differently. They are interested in formulating many logically consistent possibilities, leaving any judgement regarding their truth to observation.

As Midgley points out, the grandiose speculations which form the body of this work could not conceivably be tested by observation; furthermore, though the authors seem unaware of it, both the motivation and much of the content of their ideas relate to judgements of value and metaphysical assumptions which are not empirical matters at all. No attempt has apparently been made to relate their treatment of these questions to previous work by specialists in the relevant fields -- a procedure which they would unquestionably regard as disbarring from serious consideration a comparable attempt by a philosopher to speculate at large on questions of theoretical physics.

It is important that these are not just ad hominem criticisms of particular authors, but rather are endemic and in fact necessary failings in the entire enterprise of constructing a supposedly scientific alternative to religion. If the concepts and methods of science are assumed to be the right ones to provide answers to the questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life which have traditionally been regarded as the province of religion and philosophy, and if the methods already in use in these disciplines are different ones, then it follows that the deliberations of specialists in these areas are of no significance, and the conscientious scientist should ignore them.

The source of the trouble here seems to lie in the ever-increasing tendency towards specialization in education, particularly scientific education, over the past century and a half or so. On the basis that the exponential growth of knowledge requires a progressively finer division of intellectual labour, educational policy has increasingly been based on the assumption that students of science cannot (and therefore need not!) be expected to spend time acquiring a degree of familiarity with non-scientific disciplines. The effects of this policy are very far reaching, and are explored at length in Wisdom, Information and Wonder. The one which is relevant here is the tendency for such an education to make it difficult or impossible for scientists to grasp the possibility of forms of understanding different from the one in which they have been trained, leading them to assume that those engaged in other disciplines lack the capacity for 'real', rigorous (i.e. mathematical) thought. This phenomenon is well illustrated by the preceding quotation from Barrow and Tipler, and reflected in numerous quotations from influential authors (especially E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins) throughout Mary Midgley's writings on these topics.


From a philosophical standpoint, what is occurring is an example of the widespread and important problem of communication between alternative world views. Someone who has been educated more or less exclusively in terms of a particular world view will not normally be fully aware that this is the case, since this world-view will be transparent to them. The world as seen through this particular lens will appear to them to be just the world as it objectively is in itself. It is only by acquiring the experience of seeing the world through different lenses that this distinction comes to be understood.

History, literature, anthropology, physiology -- and indeed horticulture and watercolour painting -- all have their own categories and concepts, their own characteristic ways of perceiving and describing things, which enable those engaged in these studies to grasp their subject-matter in the most appropriate way. There is no one 'master science' to which all the others can be reduced, thereby rendering them unnecessary. This anti-reductionistic point is forcefully made by Midgley (in the context of discussing the problem of relating mind and body) with another striking metaphor:

We are not looking for the relation between two places on the same map. We are trying to understand the relation between two maps of different kinds, which is a different kind of enterprise. At the beginning of an atlas, we usually find a number of maps of the world. Mine gives, for instance, world physiography (structure and seismology), world climatology (mean annual precipitation, climatic fronts and atmospheric pressure), world vegetation, world political, world energy, world food, world air routes and a good many more. If we want to understand how this bewildering range of maps work, we do not need to pick on one of them as fundamental. We do not need to find a single atomic structure belonging to that one map and reduce all the other patterns to it . .. We have to see the different maps as answering different kinds of questions, questions which arise from different angles in different contexts.

But all these questions are still about a single world, a world so large that it can be rightly described in all these different ways, and many more. It is that background -- not a common atomic structure -- which makes it possible to hold all the maps together. The plurality that results is still perfectly rational. It does not drop us into anarchy or chaos.

The fundamentally important idea that there are different ways of seeing the world, which yet do not necessarily conflict with each other, is another central theme in Midgley's thought. It is related to another very important philosophical topic, namely the role of the imagination in knowledge. Imagination here does not refer to the capacity to represent to oneself things and situations which do not exist, but to the ability to form a connected vision of a range of phenomena, of the framework of relationships between them and the principles that operate in this particular domain. The target of Midgley's critique here, present as an important element in her work from the beginning but worked out in detail in Science and Poetry and further elaborated in The Myths We Live By, is another Cartesian division - that between Imagination and Reason.

The reductionist tradition, following Descartes, has tended to downplay the importance of imagination, equating it with the realm of fantasy and entertainment, and to view knowledge as exclusively the product of the senses together with reason in the form of logical deduction. Imagination, however, plays an absolutely central part in, for example, Kant's account of knowledge; it carries out the work of synthesis by which the individual elements of sense-perception are welded into a coherent, unified representation of an outer world. Without this unifying activity, Kant convincingly argues, we could not make any sense at all of the mass of sensations impinging on our sense organs.

Hume's conception of the self as an unorganized 'bundle of perceptions', all separate from and unrelated to each other, fails to provide a sufficient basis, not only for scientific knowledge but for any kind of coherent experience at all. This eighteenth-century empiricist account of knowledge has, however, remained influential within the philosophy of science, and still more so among scientists who are not trained philosophers, despite the widely accepted verdict that Kant's critique of Hume's atomistic model of the mind was wholly successful.

The tendency of recent philosophers to over-emphasize the analytic side of their discipline, while often overlooking the aspect of synthesis, is part of the general aspiration towards the intellectual values of science, as opposed to those of literature, which in earlier periods were regarded as equally its concern. Though she is known as a philosopher of science, Mary Midgley's background as a classical scholar, and her deep literary and historical sensibilities, have enabled her to bring another perspective to the subject. Her work serves as a reminder to the modern reader that the literary historical mode of understanding is just as essential to philosophy as the logical-scientific one.

The underlying reason for this is that these two radically different ways of apprehending the world are of equal and universal importance in human life generally. They belong to the deepest layer of our nature as conscious creatures. Understanding someone's character, through seeing the patterns of motivation and emotional response in his or her life-story, is as vital to human survival as understanding how to make fire or grow crops, and one cannot be substituted for the other. The linear, convergent, deductive style of thinking which is central to science is perfectly adapted for finding out what makes a clock tick, but almost useless for finding out what makes a person tick. Philosophy needs both kinds, and Science and Poetry is Midgley's most eloquent and sustained attempt to show how they relate to one another, and how they can be combined to produce philosophy that is at once sensitive and rigorous, able to take in a vista as well as analyse the structure of a leaf.

Imagination, then, is not to be seen as an optional extra in our mental equipment, providing spare-time entertainment for the mind in the form of poetry, paintings and religious visions, but as an essential element in all our knowledge of the world, not excepting the most rigorous scientific theories. Every such theory, in fact every attempt to make sense of any aspect of the world around us, necessarily proceeds from an overall vision of the phenomena in question. Thus Newton's investigation of optics was guided by the imaginative vision of light as a stream of minute particles; Huygens' by that of waves undulating in a fluid medium. Neither of these visions revealed the actual, fundamental nature of light as it is in itself, but both were capable of being used as tools for understanding many aspects of the phenomena, and of being refined and reworked to provide new tools yielding deeper insights and more precise predictions.

On a larger scale, all of our experience and thought is coloured by a more general set of concepts, images, metaphors and habits of thinking which go together to make up what Midgley calls a world-picture or a myth. It is important to stress here that the word 'myth', for Midgley, in no way implies that the ideas in question are false or lacking justification. Her use of these terms is comparable to Thomas Kuhn's notion of a paradigm, in the sense of an exemplifying image or model of a set of phenomena. But the use of the word 'myth' designedly draws attention to the central role of imagination in this process, and to the wider role that myths play in the rest of human life; our concept of 'how the world fundamentally is' (Science as Salvation, p. 7) has, historically, derived much more from poetry and religious teaching than from science, and the world-vision of classical science itself was drawn, to a far greater extent than most scientists today probably realize, from such poetic and mystical visions.

Perhaps the most influential and powerful vision, or myth, of this kind is that of atomism, the idea that all of the immensely and seemingly irreducibly diverse range of things in Nature are in fact just different arrangements of essentially identical, indivisible and inert particles. This view was developed by Greek and Roman philosophers at a time when there was no real question of empirical evidence for it as a scientific theory, and was worked out in comprehensive detail in Lucretius' epic poem De Rerum Natura (Of the Nature of Things), which Midgley takes as the starting point of her exposition in Science and Poetry.

Lucretius, then, was not primarily engaged in logical reasoning or in experimental research, but in using a literary medium to convey an imaginative vision of the nature of reality. He consciously promoted this vision as an alternative to other visions of reality associated with religious creeds, or with ethical philosophies other than his own favoured Epicurean system. So successful, however, was this world-view, when it later became the guiding vision for the enterprise of classical Newtonian physics, that many of its followers ceased to be aware that it is but one way of conceiving reality, and took it for the ultimate truth about how the world inherently is.

But the atomistic view of the world, for all its triumphant success in illuminating the workings of physical systems and the unprecedented material benefits arising from the application of this knowledge, has now ceased to serve us. It has become instead a straitjacket constricting and distorting our attempts to understand other aspects of the reality with which we need to deal. The catastrophic deficiency of the atomist world-view is its inability to encompass the essential characteristics of living entities. It views matter as essentially 'dead', passive and inert, and the universe as consisting of nothing but matter and empty space. Locked into such a concept of reality, it is not surprising that physical scientists come out with such bizarre statements as 'Inanimate things are innately simple. That is one more step along the road to the view that animate things, being innately inanimate, are innately simple too' (Peter Atkins, quoted in Science as Salvation, p. 48). This is a very clear case of confusing the conceptual scheme we use to investigate reality with the reality itself. If we insist on holding fast to the atomist myth, we are approaching the job of understanding living systems with the wrong toolkit, and it will land us in deep trouble. What alternative vision, or visions, can we turn to that can serve to illuminate the realm of living things in the way that is needed?


Atomism has been of inestimable value in helping us to understand those aspects of the world that can be understood without reference to the special, unique attributes of living things. For these purposes the conception of the world as comprised of dead matter was not a hindrance. But the impact of the technologies, ways of thinking and ways of life that have grown out of this materialist conception of the world has had a cataclysmic destructive effect on the world of living things, on the planetary ecosystem. The secular culture of the modern West is in fact unusual in viewing the cosmos as basically inanimate. Is it time to reconsider the possibility that the tendency of other cultures to regard the world we live in as itself alive is more than a primitive superstition and may contain a profoundly important truth?

James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, formulated in the 1970s as a response to questions arising out of space research on the possibility of life on other planets, answered these questions with a profound observation; in order to continue in existence, life on Earth has to intervene actively to maintain the physical conditions which are necessary for its preservation. It does so on a colossal scale, transforming incredible quantities of energy and matter in ways that keep the environmental parameters within limits which allow the processes of life to function. As Lovelock points out, this regulating tendency is precisely the same in principle as that by which the cells and organs of individual organisms work to maintain the parameters of their internal environment within a delimited range; very much like a cell or an organism, the biosphere as a whole is involved in self-sustaining metabolic activity. In a sense, one may say that it is impossible for life to exist on a planet that is not itself alive.

The Gaia concept was initially anathematized by official science, though eagerly embraced by ecological activists and those interested in spiritual alternatives to traditional religion. To the scientists, it appeared to violate fundamental assumptions of rationality; it was rejected as imputing purpose to the biosphere, as positing a mystical, transcendent entity - Gaia - who somehow interferes with the mechanical processes of causation to bring about her own ends. But of course such a view is no more required in the case of Gaia than it is in the case of individual organisms and cells, whose self-maintaining attributes are undeniable and are held to be ultimately explicable without reference to the purposes of a transcendent being. The processes to which Lovelock draws attention are explained (in broad principle) by perfectly un-mysterious relationships of dynamic equilibrium between the physical and chemical processes involved and the population dynamics of the organisms which contribute to these processes. The real problem with Gaia, one suspects, is that these scientists sensed that it threatened to provide an alternative image of 'how the world fundamentally is', an inclusive, holistic, pluralistic and essentially organic vision in which complex interactions, connections and relationships are the prime focus of attention, and the analytic, atomistic, reductionistic way of thinking fades into the background.

As well as colliding with the metaphysical assumptions which underlie reductionistic science, Gaia Theory presents a fundamental challenge to the ethical, social, political and economic ways of thinking that have grown out of this world-view. Here the central concept which is the target of Midgley's critique is the doctrine of individualism, another core theme in her work from the outset. This is the atomistic mode of thinking projected onto the social sphere, and was, together with the doctrine of the autonomy of reason, at the centre of the Enlightenment reaction against the oppressive social order instituted by medieval Christianity.

The liberating effect of the change arising from placing individual life at the centre of our system of values can scarcely be overstated. Nevertheless, like all ideologies, the ideology of individual freedom has a reverse side, which when carried too far becomes as pernicious as the oppression which it was a reaction against. The alienation and fragmentation which are at the root of so many grave problems in our society today are to a great extent a consequence of an over emphasis on individual satisfactions at the expense of communal ones. Individualism distorts social relations because it implies a view of human nature as fundamentally selfish; individualistic views of society and atomistic views of the natural world are of a piece, and the combination of the two has led to a catastrophic neglect of the dimension of wholeness, of the organic connections which make a living system (organism, society, eco-system, etc.) able to function. In her exploration of the possibilities of Gaia Theory as an alternative vision, or myth, around which to organize our thinking on these urgent questions, Mary Midgley has provided a framework for relating the scientific insights of Lovelock et al. to the deep problems afflicting our culture and society. Her attempt, in her most recent work, to reintegrate our understanding of human society into our view of our terrestrial home is in a deep sense a completion of the task begun in Beast and Man, showing the importance, for a sound understanding of individual human nature, of relating this to its origins in the natural world.



  1. The same can be said for the strange cult of 'memetics', which attempts to transfer this reasoning from the domain of inherited behaviour patterns, where there is at least a reasonable presumption of a physical basis which has a more or less atomic kind of structure in the form of DNA sequences, to that of culturally transmitted ideas, where there is none.

  2. The latter work has, at her suggestion, been omitted from this compilation because it is out of print and somewhat tangential to the main line of her philosophical development. This is not to minimize the importance of feminist issues in her work, which I hope is brought out adequately by the inclusion of the important analysis of the role of gender in the rise of the ideology of scientific materialism at the end of Part Three.