Thursday, September 08, 2005

Midgley Steps in it Again

The Guardian has now published some letters to the editor in reply to the Dawkins/Coyne article I linked to a few days ago. Most of them are pretty weak, but there is one, by British philosopher Mary Midgley, that truly stands out. We consider it in full:

Why do Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, in attacking the theory of intelligent design (ID), deal only with the arguments of traditional creationists (One side can be wrong, Life, September 1)?

Off to a bad start, I'm afraid. Dawkins and Coyne do not discuss any of the arguments of traditional creationists. In reality they confine themselves entirely to the claims of modern ID folks, focusing especially on the bogus logic they employ to establish design. Go read the article and see for yourself. I wonder what article Midgley read?

Today's ID theorists are more sophisticated. They concede that natural selection plays some part in development and that creation is not recent. They do not speak of God but, more generally, of design. Their position is indeed confused but it surely needs to be addressed directly. Of course the theory has been seized on by the neocons as a straight vindication of the Bible.

Except for the part about ID folks being confused, this paragraph is total nonsense.

ID folks are only superficially more sophisticated than their creationist forebears, and that superficial sophistication comes primarily from their ability to throw jargon around with reasonable confidence.

Traditional creationists are also perfectly happy to concede that natural selection plays some part in evolution (development??). There is no distinction between creo's and ID's on this point.

ID's do not concede that creation was not recent. They take no stand on the issue, and are perfectly happy to include tradiitonal YEC's among their ranks.

As Dawkins and Coyne show in their article, any designer capable of the feats ID folks attribute to him would have to be supernatural. Furthermore, anyone who follows this subject for five minutes knows that ID reticence about God is a politically motivated subterfuge, plain and simple.

The ID position has been addressed directly in countless books and articles, and Dawkins and Coyne directly address an important part of it in their short op-ed.

And the neo-cons are not generally associated with the religious right. Not in this country anyway.

Incredibly, the letter is about to get worse:

But really, it signifies something much less simple. It expresses a widespread discontent with the neo-Darwinist - or Dawkinsist - orthodoxy that claims something which Darwin himself denied, namely that natural selection is the sole and exclusive cause of evolution, making the world therefore, in some important sense, entirely random. This is itself a strange faith which ought not to be taken for granted as part of science.

Golly! That Dawkins must be a real rebel, thumbing his nose at Darwin like that.

Midgley must surely be aware that no one in the history of the world has ever suggested that natural selection is the sole and exclusive cause of evolution. Everyone understands that there are a wide variety of mechanisms by which evolutionary change can take place. Natural selection is simply the most important cuase of adaptive evolution. Since much of Dawkins' scientific work deals specifically with adaptation, it is not surprising that he dwells on selection over other mechanisms.

And even if natural selection were the sole and exclusive cause of evolution, there would still be no important sense in which the organisms that evolve (the world??) are purely the result of random chance. The randomness of genetic variation ensures a lot of variabiliy in what emerges, but the regularity of natural selection strongly constrains what can evolve.

If the name Mary Midgley sounds familiar, it is probably because this is not the first time she has humiliated herself by commenting on matters evolutionary. Midgley was the author of this egregiously poor book review of Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, published, for some unfathomable reason, in the journal Philosophy back in 1979. Dawkins subsequently delivered a rhetorical evisceration of her work, which helps explain why she finds it so difficult to deal rationally with anything Dawkins writes. As an example of how things went, here's an excerpt from Midgley's review:

Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological. This should not need mentioning, but Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene has succeeded in confusing a number of people about it, including Mr J. L. Mackie.[1] What Mackie welcomes in Dawkins is a new, biological-looking kind of support for philosophic egoism. If this support came from Dawkins’s producing important new facts, or good new interpretations of old facts, about animal life, this could be very interesting. Dawkins, however, simply has a weakness for the old game of Brocken-spectre moralizing - the one where the player strikes attitudes on a peak at sunrise, gazes awe-struck at his gigantic shadow on the clouds, and reports his observations as cosmic truths. He is an uncritical philosophic egoist in the first place, and merely feeds the egoist assumption into his a priori biological speculations, only rarely glancing at the relevant facts of animal behaviour and genetics, and ignoring their failure to support him.

And later:

His central point is that the emotional nature of man is exclusively self-interested, and he argues this by claiming that all emotional nature is so. Since the emotional nature of animals clearly is not exclusively self-interested, nor based on any long-term calculation at all, he resorts to arguing from speculations about the emotional nature of genes, which he treats as the source and archetype of all emotional nature. This strange convoluted drama must be untwisted before the full force of the objections from genetics can be understood.

Mackie, incidentally, delivered his own demolition of Midgley's arguments here.

From Dawkins' reply:

I have been taken aback by the inexplicable hostility of Mary Midgley’s assault.[1] Some colleagues have advised me that such transparent spite is best ignored, but others warn that the venomous tone of her article may conceal the errors in its content. Indeed, we are in danger of assuming that nobody would dare to be so rude without taking the elementary precaution of being right in what she said. We may even bend over backwards to concede some of her points, simply in order to appear fair-minded when we deplore the way she made them. I deplore bad manners as strongly as anyone, but more importantly I shall show that Midgley has no good point to make. She seems not to understand biology or the way biologists use language. No doubt my ignorance would be just as obvious if I rushed headlong into her field of expertise, but I would then adopt a more diffident tone. (Emphaiss in original)

In fairness, Midgley subsequently apologized for her tone here.

And later:

It follows from such a behaviouristic definition of altruism and selfishness that ‘calculation’, whether long-term or not, is irrelevant, as is ‘emotional nature’. I assume that an oak tree has no emotions and cannot calculate, yet I might describe an oak tree as altruistic if it grew fewer leaves than its physiological optimum, thereby sparing neighbouring saplings harmful overshadowing. A biologist would be interested in calculating the genetic and other conditions which would be necessary for such ‘altruism’ to be favoured by natural selection: for instance, it might be favoured if the saplings were close relatives of the tree. Philosophers may object that this kind of definition loses most of the spirit of what is ordinarily meant by altruism, but philosophers, of all people, know that words may be redefined in special ways for technical purposes. In effect I am saying: “Provided I define selfishness in a particular way an oak tree, or a gene, may legitimately be described as selfish.” Now a philosopher could reasonably say: “I don’t like your definition, but given that you adopt it I can see what you mean when you call a gene selfish.” But no reasonable philosopher would say: “I don’t like your definition, therefore I shall interpret your statement as though you were using my definition of selfishness; by my definition your concept of the selfish gene is nonsense, therefore it is nonsense.” This is, in effect, what Midgley has done: “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological” (p. 439). Why didn’t she add to this witty little list, for the benefit of quantum physicists, that fundamental particles cannot have charm?

You get the idea. Evolution is where the action is, which is why every two-bit hack with a flair for a clever turn of phrase feels qualified to comment. Midgley, like so many others who publish on this subject, deems it unnecssary to first learn some science before writing with confidence about it.


At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good night! As an undergraduate with a strong religious background, even I understood Dawkins' thesis in The Selfish Gene. I certainly didn't fall for the ridiculous interpretation of Migley. It looks like her reading comprehension has not improved much.

At 5:13 PM, Blogger Steve said...

Nice work, by the way did you notice that your buddy Homunculous has a new post up over at Red State. Truly a horriffic display of ignorance.

At 7:43 PM, Anonymous Andy said...

An excellent post. Thanks.

One little quibble with your statement: "And the neo-cons are not generally associated with the religious right."

Perhaps there is some way that can be carefully parsed as a true proposition, but you'd be hard pressed to do so. Consider the US President (religious right) and Veep (neo-con).

At 1:55 AM, Anonymous frank said...

ID believers and Noah's Flood believers are usually the same. From a post at "Fundamentalists are particularly unhappy that ID leaves scientific skepticism about the flood completely unanswered. They are aware that the flood myth is vulnerable to serious scientific critiques, doubting that it could possibly have occurred. ID is not helpful to YEC believers, and they are very disappointed."

Genesis does not mention how plants survived the "Flood". Anwsersingenesis offers many theories, none of which has a Biblical source. The New Orleans situation offers a clear test of whether plants will survive being flooded for 10 days or 40 days.

The Noah's Flood theory is clearly ridiculous. But here we will see exactly how many tomato plants, flowers, bushes, etc. survived being under water for this time. This observable evidence will not support a Noachian Flood.

At 6:05 AM, Blogger ts said...

Midgley's "apology" (
is really a lot more than that; it's a rather well argued piece (unlike her original review) that that strongly attacks Social Darwinism, and points out some real problems with Dawkins' claim that he didn't engage in moral philosophy. You would have done well to address that later piece, and not the earlier one that Midgley herself admits was ill-tempered and confused. And I think that latter piece makes it clear what her real objection is when she talks about "random"; it's her distress over the fatalism she sees in the notion that we are robots enslaved to our genes. I think such distress over the facts of life is pointless, but I think Midgley does make a good argument that Dawkins himself tries hopelessly to escape the fatalistic implications of his own theory when he writes "We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth…We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism, something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world" -- as Midgley notes, this is "as futile as inviting a chess-machine to play leap-frog".

At 6:13 AM, Blogger ts said...

"Perhaps there is some way that can be carefully parsed as a true proposition, but you'd be hard pressed to do so. Consider the US President (religious right) and Veep (neo-con)."

Um, you can hardly use specific examples to counter an argument that a characterization doesn't hold generally, especially when there are numerous well known counterexamples (for instance, every Jewisn neocon).

At 6:26 AM, Blogger Santhosh said...

The reason why it is called "Intelligent" design is just to emphasize the intelligence of these great minds that could come up with such a divine design.

At 6:33 PM, Blogger Jason said...


A number of people have informed me of the latest from Homunculous, but I haven't yet checked it out. Somehow I'm not optimistic about what I'm going to find.


A poor choice of words on my part. I did not mean that neo-con politicians and religious right politicians do not associate with each other. I meant simply that the ideological commitments that tend to define the neocons (most notably a strong, interventionist US foreign policy) are different from theose of the religious right. Midgley was using the term neocon to refer to people defending the literal truth of the Bible. That sort of fundamentalism certainly is not part of the ideology of the leading neo cons in this country (people like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz or Charles Krauthammer, for example.)


Thanks for the information about Midgley's second essay. To be honest, I only skimmed her reply. I read her initial review carefully, as well as the replies by Dawkins and Mackie. It seemed clear to me that Midgley was in over her head, so I lost interest in her subsequent writing. I'll take a second look, though.

For a different take on Midgley's second essay, have a look at the comments to my mention of this post over at the Panda's Thumb:

At 7:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dawkins and Coyne do say much about fossil gaps (of which there are more amd more as more fossils are found (in the creo view)). This is more closely associated with other branches of creationism, although IDists use it as well. Midgley may not see that ID = specialization in certain parts of creationism (also true of other branches) because IDists try to tell the public otherwise.

Midgley must surely be aware that no one in the history of the world has ever suggested that natural selection is the sole and exclusive cause of evolution.

That was just about Wallace's position.

Since much of Dawkins' scientific work deals specifically with adaptation,

How was this determined?

But really, it signifies something much less simple. It expresses a widespread discontent with the neo-Darwinist - or Dawkinsist - orthodoxy that claims something which Darwin himself denied, namely that natural selection is the sole and exclusive cause of evolution, making the world therefore, in some important sense, entirely random.

Very strange. She attributes to biologists the oposite of what they say, then even worse equates selection with chance! It seems that she clings to a misconception of science that she dislikes.

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