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The Theory of Evolution Is Not A Straw Man, Mary Midgley June 14, 2010

Posted by Skippy in Observations, Religion, Uncategorized.
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Way back in graduate school, my dissertation had me read Mary Midgley’s Beast and Man. As I live and breathe, I cannot remember why—-I’m assuming it was for qualifying exams and had something to do with me presenting some kind of different argument about homosexuality and religion. As a philosopher, Midgley is highly regarded. However, she has a serious bone to pick with Richard Dawkins.

Apparently, she also has a bone to pick with all who find evolution a more persuasive argument for the origins of humankind than a belief that a universe-spanning superintelligence did it in six solar days before taking a siesta. In an “essay” (really, I’m being charitable calling it such) for the Guardian titled “The Abuses of Science,” Midgley is, I guess, trying to make a case for religion alongside science—-I say “I guess” because frankly, I can’t figure out what her thesis is. For example, here’s her first paragraph:

Science really isn’t connected to the rest of life half as straightforwardly as one might wish. For instance, Isaac Newton noted gladly that his theory of gravitation gave a scientific proof of God’s existence. Today’s anti-god warriors, by contrast, declare that Darwin’s evolutionary theory gives a scientific disproof of that existence and use this reasoning, quite as confidently as Newton used his, to convert the public.

Her first sentence is full of fail. She immediately sets “science” up in order to privilege religion as being that which completes science, but ignores the reality that science is connected to “the rest of life.” I assume she used a computer to type this missive. Guess what? Science!

Fig. 1: Science. It works.
Anyway, she then uses Newton to say that his theory of gravity was a proof of God’s existence. Well, that’s nicely arrogant—-sorry Krishna, Vishnu, Devi, and the rest of you guys. Newton wasn’t talking about you! She then in one sentence abuses evolutionary theory and atheists—-actually, that’s pretty deft; she commits two fallacies in one sentence! First, she doesn’t refer to atheists and agnostics and skeptics by proper titles—-she calls them “anti-god warriors.” Gee, what kind of rhetorical move is going on there, I wonder? She then implicitly characterizes proponents of the scientific theory of evolution as “warriors” out to “convert” the public. Yeah, because that’s what education about the scientifically testable hypotheses of human origins are: warriors out to convert the public.

Certainly, the theory of evolution does deal a significant blow to the Christian god—-after all, the religion pretty much hinges on this deity being so powerful, that it created everything. Further, human depravity and need all hinges on this deity’s power and position; in other words, once you unmoor the emergence of homo sapien from a mythological story of creation, then you’ve effectively called into question a bunch of other thorny problems, like the emergence of “sin” and the need for “atonement.” Nevertheless, that’s not what scientists and people who understand the theory of evolution are setting out to do, as Midgley asserts. So couching the theory of evolution and natural selection in religious terms is rather idiotic.

The rest of the article is a mishmash of nonsense. If her argument is that evolution does not singlehandedly disprove the existence of a universe-spanning superintelligence, well, all I have to say to that is, “Duh, of course not.” And no evolutionary biologist worth his or her degree would make that assertion. Some atheists assert the strong position (“There is no god or gods”), while others assert a “weaker” position (“I cannot say for certain whether or not gods exist”); however, most if not all would agree that the burden of proof lies with the theist. In other words, the theory of evolution alone doesn’t disprove the existence of a deity; however, it makes the necessity of a deity or deities being involved in the creation of human beings rather unnecessary.

Further, she distorts the position of atheists beyond recognition. Of course, deploying a term like “anti-god warriors” tends to do that, doesn’t it? Atheists’ beef with Christians and their deployment of the Bible concerning human origins isn’t about whether or not the texts are taken literally or allegorically. It’s whether or not those texts are used as scientific evidence and should be taught “alongside” the far more credible theory of evolution and natural selection. If Midgley wants to rail about an abuse of science, she might want to begin there.

The final paragraph of the essay is where she flies off the rails at warp speed:

Belief in God is not an isolated factual opinion, like belief in the Loch Ness monster – not, as Richard Dawkins suggests, just one more “scientific hypothesis like any other”. It is a world-view, an all-enclosing vision of the kind of world that we inhabit. We all have these visions. Though they are always loaded with lumber and often dangerous, we need them. So, when we try to relate and improve them we have to treat each of them as a whole. We would not be right, any more than Newton was, to start by taking our own standpoint as infallible.

Oh, dear. She’s employed a rather sophisticated form of the argumentum ad populum. You see, a lot of people believe in god, therefore, God. Right? Further, belief in god—-especially when presented in the affirmative—-does become a “scientific hypothesis like any other.” Mere assertion of the belief does not make it so. If that were the case, then theologians would be out of a job, wouldn’t they? Midgley can’t employ science (badly) as evidence of the existence of a god and then turn around and say “I don’t need no stinkin’ evidence!” She can’t have her theological cake and eat it too. Either theists have evidence and proof of the existence of their deity (or deities) that would conform to the expectations of scientific inquiry…or they don’t. And then to baldly state that “we need them”—-well, is she a philosopher or not? Surely she’s familiar with counterfactuals. This bald assertion that we need these worldviews which place a deity at the center of them is ridiculous—-clearly, there are people who do not.

After reading that article, I wondered what in the sam hill her actual point was. Was it to set the theory of evolution up as yet another “worldview”? Does she really want the biblical account of a six-day creation to stand alongside the exhaustively studied and documented theory of evolution? Or does she want all these big, bad mean old atheists to simply just shut up? Something tells me it’s the latter, especially as it concerns one Richard Dawkins.



1. kent - June 16, 2010

“You see, a lot of people believe in god, therefore, God. Right?” Um, no, not right AT ALL. That’s not what she’s saying, and it’s not within ten million miles of what she’s saying.

“After reading that article, I wondered what in the sam hill her actual point was.” Yeah. I got that. You have not understood Midgley’s article at all. That’s not surprising because it’s really difficult and complex … and, more than that, she’s assuming a whole bunch of things that she doesn’t make clear AT ALL in the piece.

She is a philosopher, not a columnist. She is used to the long form of writing. When forced to confine herself to the short form, she fails. It’s not that she’s stupid, it’s that she is trying to cram way way too many complex ideas into a tiny short piece, and they don’t all fit.

If you really want to understand Midgley, I’d start with her book “Wickedness.” Then read “Beast and Man.” I think those will give you a sense of her major arguments.

If you don’t really want to understand Midgley, I understand! It may not be worth it! But you should understand that she’s not stupid … and so any interpretation of her work that relies on or produces the conclusion that she’s stupid will always be a wrong interpretation.

2. Skippy - June 17, 2010

Did I say she’s stupid? Point out where I said she was stupid. I said her argument didn’t make sense–further, saying that she’s “used to the long form of writing” doesn’t excuse her from not making a lick of sense in this short essay. Pick one complex idea and work it out–don’t pick three and do all of them badly.

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