Talk:Mary Midgley

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I think the intro gave a false impression - Midgley isn't particularly religious (in fact, I can't remember whether she's a believer at all), her concern is with science inappropriately attempting to supplant the humanities in general (The Myths We Live By is very clear on this, as is Evolution as a Religion - her beef in the second book is with scientists adopting a religious tone). She's also quite strongly pro-science in the appropriate areas - Beast and Man is certainly not anti-science, and in many ways is strongly opposed to prevailing thought in the humanities, often coming down quite firmly on the nature side of the nature/nurture debate, and against the idea (often found in some forms of humanism) that humans are entirely qualitatively different from other animals. She's very subtle, and this article is going to need quite a bit of expansion to capture what she's about. --  ajn (talk) 17:54, 15 August 2005 (UTC)

She is agnostic.--Vojvodaeist 12:03, 16 September 2008 (UTC)
Actually, she states quite frequently that she is an atheist, though agnostic ideologies may be evident. She welcomes the view of a diety, but she does not personally believe in one. I think the term she refers to herself is simply "nonreligious." (talk) 06:42, 6 May 2009 (UTC):::
I think that this view is completly correct.--Vojvodaeist 15:41, 6 May 2009 (UTC)

I agree. I also object to the introductory statement "Midgley strongly opposes reductionist and scientistic ideas, which attempt to make science a substitute for the humanities, a role for which she argues it is wholly inadequate." While she may oppose reductionist ideas, I don't think she opposes scientific ideas. Rather, she objects to popularly published but otherwise arrogant scientists who venture into philosophy without first taking the time to learn about the philosophy that they discuss. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 01:40, 6 November 2009 (UTC)


The article also needs expanding upon re: her dealings with Dawkins. Her original review of The Selfish Gene, for instance, is a brilliantly rubbish assault. It's rare to come across such venom in a published academic journal (usually people are far more polite when attempting to destroy work). It's even rarer when the assault is so outrageously misguided and ill-informed. Midgley seems at times to wilfully misread the book - actually, she seems more to have just read its title and skipped on its contents. The impression one might draw from the article at present is that her arguments were merely badly articulated in the review, rather than a blistering academic faux pas that I'm surprised she survived. However, as a biologist, I'm a bit non-NPOV on this one. --Plumbago 16:59, 16 August 2005 (UTC)

It's quite wrong to say Midgley is mis-informed. She is actually quite well-informed on genetics, and extremely well-informed on animal behaviour and on the history of thought on evolution.
God, no. How on Earth does such trash amass a fan following? (talk) 18:05, 26 January 2016 (UTC)
I wouldn't substantially disagree with Plumbago's assessment. However, much of the current criticism of the 25-year-old article is based on the second edition of The Selfish Gene, where I believe Dawkins toned down some of the simplistic "genes control us and make us selfish" stuff. Midgley was working from the first edition. I'm going to see if my library has copies of the original and the second edition (I have the second but can't find it). For example, it's hard to reconcile this, from Dawkins's article in Philosophy[1]: When biologists talk about ‘selfishness or ‘altruism’ we are emphatically not talking about emotional nature, whether of human beings, other animals, or genes. with this, which Midgley quotes as being from the introduction to the 1979 edition of TSG: If you wish... to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biologial nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. The argument's not just about Midgley getting it wrong, Dawkins isn't talking about genes in that second quote (the words Midgley elided, by the way, are "as I do", which is itself significant). --  ajn (talk) 17:45, 16 August 2005 (UTC)

As I recall (someone's "borrowed" my copy so I can't check), the 2nd Edition of The Selfish Gene contains the unaltered chapters from the 1st Edition plus two extra chapters (one of which is a useful condensation of The Extended Phenotype). I think Dawkins makes the point that was asked to update the text for the next edition but chose to add footnotes to it instead (these appear at the back of the book). I used to own a copy of the original edition (that too was "borrowed"), and as far as I recall, the 2nd Edition followed its text exactly.

As regards "genes control us and make us selfish", that's only ever been the parody of Dawkins (the closing line of The Selfish Gene states an aspirational opposite to this parody). He makes a broad outline of the "selfish gene" theory in remarks in both the opening and closing chapters, and one would struggle to interpret these in the way which Midgley does. In The Selfish Gene he does use altruism in both the common sense and in that used by biologists, but it's not difficult at any point to distinguish which he's using. Admittedly, I say this as a biologist, so perhaps it isn't as obvious as I think.

Well, it's not hard to show that, whatever he says in mitigation Dawkins thinks exactly that.
He does say:
- "Our genes may instruct us to be selfish, but we are not necessarily compelled to obey them"
the gene is clearly put forward as a locus of control - isn't it ?
No, not on a sensible and reasonably informed reading of the text in its entirety. Those who are not up to the task would do better to remain silent. (talk) 17:59, 26 January 2016 (UTC)
He does say:
- "If you look at the way natural selection works it seems to follow that anything that has evolved by natural selection should be selfish"
the genes are making us selfish - aren't they ?
Again, no. (talk) 17:59, 26 January 2016 (UTC)
I'm not sure why people think he's been misunderstood.
Perhaps it's because these confused (couldn't one just say wrong ?) ideas are closely associated with some true (though perhaps not world-shakingly original) things.
'The genes we have are those ones which have characteristics which have resulted in them being passed down ' followed parenthetically with '(regardless of the interests of other genes/individuals)' The parenthesised part is where the trouble is.
It may make the whole thing sound more exciting. It may sell books, but it doesn't add anything useful, it isn't true, and it isn't science. It no more belongs in the theory than an intelligent designer does.
This is all preparatory to working out a better way to develop this part of the article - There are real reasons for the comments Midgley made, they may not be to do with the biology particularly, but with the way that this metaphor of selfishness is used. BTW if I'm splurging this in the wrong place put a note here & I'll move it

Anyway, should my copy of The Selfish Gene materialise, I'll try to back up the above. And if I've the time, I'll have a go at editing the article itself. At the very least, the article should include a link to Dawkins' reply to Midgley for completeness (surprisingly, for an academic journal, I found both Midgley's review and Dawkins' reply freely available on the web). --Plumbago 08:35, 17 August 2005 (UTC)

I've made a start, which at least includes links to all the articles in Philosophy and can be expanded. I think it's worth examining this controversy from a philosophical viewpoint as well as a biological one, though (I'm a former scientist who works in engineering, I'm certainly not anti-Dawkins or anti-Darwin). The last sentence of TSG, which you mention above, is in one of the parts of the book which step outside biology and into the realm of philosophy (free will, consciousness, etc), with Dawkins making bold statements which don't really stand up to careful examination. This is exactly the sort of thing Midgley objects to, and her objections (as opposed to her misunderstanding of Dawkins's biological theory) are largely valid. Midgley is a philosopher who misunderstood an aspect of biology, but a lot of the scientists who criticise her have an equal misunderstanding of her philosophical objections. --  ajn (talk) 09:47, 17 August 2005 (UTC)

I like what you've done. It's definitely the sort of thing I had in mind. As for the philosophical side of it, I'd be interested to read that. Because of the confusion over the use of language in her paper, I can't work out what Midgley's philosophical objections are. I don't know though that Dawkins had much to say about consciousness and free will beyond his statements that we have them (and can thus over-rule the influence of genes and/or memes). I would say though that consciousness and free will aren't forever the property of philosophy - much of the former is gradually being brought into science (if it can be considered separately from philosophy). The latter will hopefully follow. Again, I say this as a scientist - no intellectual territory is beyond its reach!  ;) Anyway, looking forwards to seeing your future edits. Will try to make some myself. --Plumbago 17:23, 17 August 2005 (UTC)

I don't understand why a major philosopher is being reduced to her exchange with Dawkins, which, by the way, has been seriously misrepresented. I sincerely doubt if any of the authors here has actually read the Mackie-Midgley-Dawkins exchange in its entirety. I posit that sexism may be at work here. Midgley is a major, important philosopher who has contribued enormous to the philosophy of science and human-animal relationships. If any of you had read "Evolution as a Religion" you would've included the fact that the bulk of the book is entirely valid criticisms of scientists' extrapolations of evolutionary biology into the realm of faith and morals. Quote-mining how stupidly she interpreted Dawkins is a ploy -- reread the exchange and you will see that the quotes you have pulled seriously misreprested Midgley's position. For example, she KNOWS that Dawkins was trying to use "selfish" as a metaphor!!! Even simply reading the first paragraph carefully yields that Midgley is not as clueless as people say. Come on, let's give Mary more respect here.
Oh brother, she is major, and if she isn't the dark forces of sexism are clearly at work. (talk) 18:08, 26 January 2016 (UTC)
The article is hardly reduced to an exchange with Mackie and Dawkins. If it seems to underplay what she's done, by all means expand the article to include her other achievements. If the article's missing these, it's only because no-one's felt confident enough to add them. The text I've added reflects what I know of her from my (limited) reading of the subject.
As for quote-mining, her attack on Mackie and Dawkins is a pretty rich seam to mine. Describing it as "intemperate" (as the article currently does) is really rather tame. And I disgree entirely about misrepresenting her - she really does bend over backwards to misinterpret their views. If she does, as you say, know that Dawkins was trying to use "selfish" as a metaphor, she does a pretty good job of hiding it. And it's not as if Dawkins was obscure in his use of this language - right in the first chapter of his book (pages 2-4 in the 2nd edition) there's a section on what he means by it, and what his book is not about. He also explicitly separates describing nature and drawing moral lessons from it.
Anyway, that said, I really would appreciate additions to the article to expand on Midgley's work. I do agree that it's unfortunate if someone's life work is summed up on the basis of an exchange they had with someone else. But WP needs people to add text to fill in the gaps and round off articles on notable people. I can't really commment on her other work, but it sounds like you can. Cheers, --Plumbago 09:51, 21 March 2006 (UTC)

The comment "However, this particular line of argument confuses the randomness of mutation for non-random selection, and caricatures the neo-Darwinian modern synthesis as centring solely on natural selection when it openly includes processes such as genetic drift and neutral evolution. Ironically, in his 1986 book, The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins presented a similar caricature to illustrate what neo-Darwinism is not." is not sourced or NPoV - I've deleted it but perhaps whoever put it in could amend so that it is NBeale 12:08, 29 October 2006 (UTC)

It's a fair cop - reading it again now, it isn't NPOV. I originally added the text to try to balance the quote from Midgley immediately preceding it. I didn't source it because I didn't think (at that time) that anything it contained particularly needed sourcing (evolution is not random for instance). The quote from Midgley contains several essentially false or misleading statements (especially the "widespread discontent"), so while the text I added isn't ideal (to say the least), some sort of riposte seemed (and seems) necessary to me. Alternatively, perhaps the quote could be removed? It's not from one of her seminal works, so just leaving the link to it might suffice. Cheers, --Plumbago 09:46, 30 October 2006 (UTC)

Not a christian?[edit]

Why state explicity that she's not a Christian? She's also not a Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or Cthulhu cultist. --Uberisaac 14:55, 27 June 2006 (UTC)

Might be because of her views on evolution (not that being a Christian, again, has much to do with that). Good call though, I reckon edit it out. Cheers, --Plumbago 14:57, 27 June 2006 (UTC)
I think it's should be kept because she comes from a Christian family (daughter of a college chaplain), and has defended religion - if it's not there, it looks as if she's coming from a Christian perspective, which she isn't. --ajn (talk) 15:31, 27 June 2006 (UTC)
Perhaps it needs to be worded more carefully? I think the original complaint related to the specificity of the point (i.e. Christian), when it might be better to say that she wasn't religious or a follower of a particular faith. I do think it sounds a little bit odd, but it can't be edited out simply as I previously suggested (oops). --Plumbago 15:36, 27 June 2006 (UTC)
She is known to be an atheist or possibly agnostic, if I can remember correctly, she states that she came from a Christian family and when she told her father that she was not Christian, he told her "he was okay with it." I'll try to find the article now, if it was as such. (talk) 06:46, 6 May 2009 (UTC)


Hi there. I've just reverted "interpreted" to "misinterpreted" re: Midgley's reading of The Selfish Gene. I agree that the use of "misinterpreted" does sound odd (POV even), but her review of TSG makes for informative reading. Either she skim-read the book (or read only brief sections of it), or wilfully misread it (perhaps in response to the reception of the book in particular quarters). Given that the book makes it very (very) clear in the first chapter exactly what it is and isn't about (and specifically precludes Midgley's charges), it is difficult to see how it is open to interpretation in the manner posed by Midgley. Anyway, I just wanted to explain my revert. We can discuss it further here if you like. Cheers, --Plumbago 08:41, 3 August 2006 (UTC)

Of course you are right, Plumbago, but it's useless trying to argue with these lunkheads. (talk) 07:17, 25 April 2012 (UTC)
Ok - so what exactly is the nature of her misunderstanding ?
Dawkins says genes are selfish, and that the behaviour they produce must also be selfish
Even if its meaning were clear, the first would require demonstration. The second is obviously a non sequitur.
Is that the area where you think she's missed it ?
From her review of TSG (even just the start of it), it's very clear that she misunderstands the entire thesis of the book and, by extension, sociobiology in general. The quote included in the article from her review makes it clear that she does not even understand what is meant by "selfish gene". She interprets this to literally mean "genes are personally selfish" when sociobiology transparently uses this sort of expression in a technical sense (though one not so far from the common understanding). That Dawkins makes it very clear in TSG what he (and sociobiology) mean by such expressions (and does so at the very start of his book), makes one question Midgley's motives in the review. Hence the dispute. Having read many reviews of academic books over the years, I've never come across anything as ferocious and misguided as Midgley's - if you haven't read it already, I'd recommend it, together with Dawkins' reply. Cheers, --Plumbago 09:40, 7 August 2006 (UTC)

Am I take it then that you think that she failed to understand that Dawkins, when he used the word 'selfish' meant something metaphorical; that she did not understand that he intended to encapsulate in that word the attribute of survival without 'regard' to the interests of others. That she had failed to understand that the word used in that way was 'technical', and that this is why you refer to being a biologist, because being a biologist you are equipped to understand that technical meaning, which she had failed to grasp ?

Well yeah, that's what she is "still" saying! (talk) 07:18, 25 April 2012 (UTC)
Erm. I'm not quite sure what you're asking, but anyway. My contention above was that she failed to understand what was meant by "selfish" and "altruistic" in the context of animal behaviour even when explicitly told what was meant (e.g. "It is important to realize that the above definitions of altruism and selfishness are behavioural, not subjective. I am not concerned here with the psychology of motives"; pg. 4, TSG). Dawkins specifically addresses this point (and expands on it) in his reply to her review (among many other points he takes her to task over). It's one thing to misunderstand something that's written for a technical audience and may therefore not define all of its terms; it's quite another to misunderstand something when its terms are clearly spelt out in the opening pages (and for a non-technical audience!). Regarding my point about being a biologist, that was just to make it clear where I was coming from, so that people could call me where I was assuming something that needed explaining. With respect to understanding the "technical meaning which [Midgley] had failed to grasp", it really isn't a difficult concept at all (and certainly shouldn't be to a philosopher). Anyway, I don't know if the above helps. Hope it does. Cheers, --Plumbago 08:09, 8 August 2006 (UTC)

See - You're right that 'technical' meaning isn't hard to grasp, including to a philosopher. I wonder if anything would change in your understanding of her comments if you assumed that she did indeed understand exactly what Dawkins is saying, and what he thinks he is saying

Hmmm. Cryptic, eh? I'll try to respond. If I "assumed that she did indeed understand exactly what Dawkins is saying, and what he thinks he is saying", I'd have to seriously question her scholarship (I don't on the whole). That would require a wilful misunderstanding and misstatement of Dawkins' work on her part completely unbefitting publication in an academic journal. But something tells me you're not after this. Anyway, I think we should stick to improving the article. --Plumbago 15:16, 8 August 2006 (UTC)


The point I'm making is that HE is misunderstanding & misrepresenting what he is saying. He says things, then says "Oh, by the way I don't mean what I say to be taken in such and such a way", but he has nevertheless said it, what he says has effects on how people think.

Obviously, I completely disagree with this view. Your "quote" above sounds a little like remarks he makes near the beginning of TSG, but they are there to specifically make clear what is meant by the use of particular expressions. This is to clarify and define the terms used in the book. Otherwise the sort of apparent misunderstanding made by Midgley would be likely to happen. Of course, if one just reads portions of a book, one might well miss this sort of clarification. --Plumbago 12:24, 15 August 2006 (UTC)

Disavowal of something is not always enough. When a man says "Some of my best friends are Black" we don't necessarily believe that he is free of prejudices. If he says "we are born selfish" and "Gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour" we have to take it that although the ostensible subject of the book is a (poorly defined) characteristic of the outcome of competition (another metaphor) between genes over millenia, he is nevertheless making statements about people's motivations, and if you think what people think about this kind of thing doesn't matter, you need to look around more at what influences people's actions.

Perhaps you're the one who needs to look around more. And learn to spell. (talk) 07:23, 25 April 2012 (UTC)
Again, Dawkins is very clear on distinguishing selfishness as a subjective experience from selfishness in a behavioural sense. His point on emotional selfishness (your quote appears to be from the very end of the book; where he specifically discusses human culture) is simply that one would expect this in complex organisms as a function of underlying (and non-emotional) genetic selfishness. Note that he doesn't say that this is inevitable, but just argues that it's to be expected. One might disagree with the sweeping nature of this view, especially when one comes organisms such as humans which rely on learned behaviour, but that's a separate debateable point. --Plumbago 12:24, 15 August 2006 (UTC)

Dawkins reply starts by saying "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." That's exactly the point - he thinks he is just writing up a biological idea, but in fact of course he starts from and promotes a philosophical position.

I don't quite see why this is solely a "philosophical position". Dawkins is discussing behaviour, which is a biological feature of organisms. Why can't biologists address the mechanisms and motives underlying behaviour? Are you suggesting that morality, etc. are the sole provenance of philosophy? --Plumbago 12:24, 15 August 2006 (UTC)

She of course understood that he didn't think really that genes are conscious or motivated, but he repeatedly speaks as if they are, and as if the DGS (Dawkins Genetic Selfishness) which they manifest must neccesarily result in selfish behaviour at the ordinary level.

Um, no, he really doesn't, and if you really think so, you are beyond help. (talk) 07:23, 25 April 2012 (UTC)
If she understood this point, she did a pretty good job of disguising it. Making smart, obscurantist remarks about abstract elephants is not a sensible way to discuss either science or philosophy (not least because it's not at all clear that elephants, as sentient organisms, can't be abstract). And if her beef is simply about Dawkins' point that selfishness at a genetic level leads to emotional selfishness, then she should have focused more clearly on that point (and, anyway, as I note above, Dawkins doesn't say that this inevitable, merely likely). --Plumbago 12:24, 15 August 2006 (UTC)

If you doubt this is true reread the book.

Yes, I doubt this. And I've read the book several times over the years. It makes sense to me, and I continue to be unable to see Midgley's review as anything other than a rather extreme misunderstanding. My suspicion is that she was responding to a larger movement in science to study subjects previously in the domain of philosophy. Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology makes this "takeover" more explicit. In this context, TSG was a rather obvious and well-known target. But, of course, I say this as a biologist, and am simply guessing at Midgley's motivations. --Plumbago 12:24, 15 August 2006 (UTC)

There is often a problem when people work at a specialist subject, and semi-consciously - as it were in their peripheral vision - develop ideas around the margins about the implications or concepts that relate to their central work. When those ideas are called into question - as happened here, they naturally tend to think that it is the work that is in question rather than those peripheral ideas - which may however be very significant in the wider world.

Again, I disagree. While the history of Midgley and Dawkins' spat is interesting, let's look at what the result of it is : no change in the direction of sociobiology. Scientists continue to use the "language of emotions" in a well-defined technical sense to describe behaviour at a range of levels (from genes to organisms and above). Genetic selfishness is firmly established in the corpus of science, and both altruism and selfishness form the base of much productive research. Both TSG and The Extended Phenotype (its successor) have become established works in science, and are still frequently cited in the primary literature. This, I would argue, counters your interpretation of the fallout of Midgley vs. Dawkins. --Plumbago 12:24, 15 August 2006 (UTC)

I hope you think the article is improving, but I'm far from clear that we have done justice to this interesting discussion.

What I would like to see is more articulation of Midgley's philosophical views. Beyond disgruntled sniping at Dawkins, I'd like the article to cover more of her contributions to philosophy - whether it relates to her work in sociobiology or not. There is material there already, but there's as much on her spat with Dawkins. Interestingly, she embraces Gaia (as, to a degree, do I), but I've little idea from the current draft of the article why this is (and what is a "moral interpretation of Gaia" when it comes to it?). Also, the listing of her work is fairly comprehensive, but needs to be plumbed into the article better. These are the sorts of improvements I favour. Getting Midgley into philosophy templates would help too. Anyway, apologies that this debate has become so long-winded, that wasn't what I had in mind originally. Cheers, --Plumbago 12:24, 15 August 2006 (UTC)

"Chance" quote attributed to Dawkins[edit]

In the current version of the article, the quote "Chance certainly plays a large part in evolution, but this argument completely ignores the fundamental role of natural selection, and selection is the very opposite of chance" is attributed to Richard Dawkins (and was correctly queried yesterday by After a webtrawl, I can't find anything that links him to this particular quotation. However, I did come across the quote over at, but would be surprised if they used a quote by Dawkins but failed to attribute it. My suspicion is that editor who added it, Jim Nightshade, may have accidentally attributed it to Dawkins because it's exactly the sort of thing that he'd point out. Anyway, rather than just hack the whole paragraph out, I'm going to try to find something appropriate to replace it. The quote may be misattributed, but the point it makes is still valid. Cheers, --Plumbago 09:24, 2 August 2007 (UTC)

Too much emphasis on Dawkins and not enough about Midgely[edit]

Talk about sleight-of-hand in stealing the limelight. The last sentence and paragraph is all about Dawkins and does not conclude anything about Mary herself. Please forgive me if I am off target here but surely this is anything but a NPOV? Although her interaction with Dawkins is an important aspect of her career and the generation of her thoughts and theories, there does seem, at least to me, an undue importance placed on it here.

It seems that this page has become another outpost for a few readers hell bent on attacking anything that is anti-Dawkins, or at least shows inherent weaknesses in his philosophy and metaphysical assumptions. This page is supposed to be about Mary Midgely, surely if someone wants to know something about Dawkins they will go to the article about him.

If there are no objectors I would like to clean up the article, and remove all superfluous comments that seem to be there for no other reason but to lend support to ideological and political persuasions. Perhaps these comments would be better placed in a separate criticism section? Anyone agree?

Mindeagle 06:04, 9 August 2007 (UTC)

Hi Mindeagle. As you'll notice from the talk commentary above, this has been raised before. What the article needs is more detail on her contributions to philosophy away from sociobiology. As for the Dawkins material, it has got very little to do with either ideology or politics. That it occupies a prominent position in this article is due to it being (probably) the highest profile aspect of Midgley's career. I would suggest that focus is directed at elucidating the rest of her career, not least to put this spat with Dawkins in some sort of context. As a biologist, my "experience" of her is restricted to her attacks on sociobiology, but I'd be delighted to know of her other achievements. She has, after all, been a philosopher for a very long time, so must have a backcatalogue of study worth reporting. --Plumbago 07:46, 9 August 2007 (UTC)

Hi Plumbago. Please forgive me as I am a Wikipedia virgin contributor and I do not wish to detract from the contributions you have made, but at the same time I wish to expound on my previous comments and clear up any misunderstandings we may have formed.

Hi Mindeagle. No worries about offending me, that takes rather a lot.  ;-) I'm going to reply to your comments one by one if that's alright. It'll break your text up a bit, but hopefully be clearer too. Cheers, --Plumbago 12:56, 16 August 2007 (UTC)

As an interdisciplinary sociologist, philosopher and avid reader of trends in the history popular science, I think it is grossly naive and ignorant to assume that the Dawkins material has nothing to do with ideology and politics. A good place to start would be to familiarise yourself with Nietzche's "The Gay Science", Derrida's theories of deconstruction, Paul Feyerabend's "Against Method" and Leyotard's groundbreaking work "The Postmodern Condition", to understand the difference between evidence and description, grand-meta narratives, metaphysics, science and scientism. All metaphysics (anything that claims to know the absolute nature of reality - whether supernaturally or through the senses) is wishful thinking to some degree, and some of Dawkins weaker material, as does some of Midgely's herself fall into this category.

While I certainly accept that there's a lot to be said on the sociology of scientific practise, I'm unclear on how this can be applied to improve this particular article (that's why we're here after all). Could you perhaps be more specific? In my brief note above, I didn't say that politics and ideology never play an important role in science, merely that I couldn't see how they played an important role here. In the specific case of Midgley and Dawkins' spat, the most straightforward interpretation is that Midgley simply misunderstood the conventions of sociobiology (as evidenced by a series of rather ridiculous statements in her paper; of which the "abstract elephant" one stands out to me). This is certainly the view that Mackie and Dawkins took of her work, as evidence in their sourced replies. While I'm likely just blind to my prejudices, I can't see another way to view her critique - it's simply too baldly a clear misadventure to my mind. Anyway, if you could think of some way appropriately (c.f. WP:NOTE, WP:RS, WP:STYLE) reworking things, that'd be great. --Plumbago 12:56, 16 August 2007 (UTC)

It is also seems like a bit of an insult to Midegly and quite arrogant to equate her highest point in her career to her comments on Dawkins material. I also disagree with your implicit and thinly veiled assumption that "achievements" otherwise known as Academic accolades and awards are the sole determiner of value and worth in the history of ideas. She has published a lot of material, however, but perhaps she will go unrewarded because there are no vested interests from Royal societies or bio-tech companies funding this research or pushing forward a certain view of the World. Let us not forget that some of the greatest thinkers in the Western enlightenment tradition were ahead of their time and were only recognised for their groundbreaking achievements posthumously.

I was emphatically not insulting Midgley. I specifically noted that this was likely the "highest profile" portion of Midgley's career. In lots of cases (most, some would argue), the work that someone achieves recognition for is neither their best nor most representative work. I think this is almost certainly the case for Midgley, but I don't know enough about her other work to write appropriately about it for Wikipedia. I'm hoping that our discussion here leads to expansion on those aspects of her work that are not already covered here. As for our "greatest thinkers", well, if this is true in this particular case, the article desperately needs evidence of this. My suggestion (as a blinkered biologist) would simply be that this does not lie in Midgley's sociobiological work. But she seems to have done a lot of other work aside from this. --Plumbago 12:56, 16 August 2007 (UTC)

Now I might sound non-NPOV here but it seems to me at least from the island I am standing on that Dawkins has put a spell on his disciples of 'true believers', who are more likely to go about defending themselves in a reactionary way and preemptively attacking anything that might upset their reductionistic materialist Worldview, rather than taking a critical and honest look at their own assumptions in how they form their Weltanschauung. Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof, is essentially the essence of Galbraith's Law.

This is all very interesting, but it's not obviously helpful for improving the article. We're here to improve the article to give a better overview of its subject; an overview that is well-sourced and conforms to Wikipedia's neutral point of view and style conventions. Also, some of the issues you outline are really beyond the scope of this particular article. You might find editing articles such as reductionism much more rewarding. You've clearly got bigger fish to fry. --Plumbago 12:56, 16 August 2007 (UTC)

Please correct me if I have misunderstood here, but I interpret Midgely to be critiquing Dawkins view that a gene 'selects'. That is, that it has some sort of agency attached to it. Almost to the point that Dawkins is implicitly ascribing some sort of conciousness to the gene itself. i.e. the gene knows what it is doing and has 'intent'. The noun 'self' assumes a conciousness or awareness. Perhaps Dawkins biggest mistake was his choice of words, rather than his theory itself. Therefore, Midgely's criticism is valid, because words do form the way we view the "intention" of the natural world, especially to laypersons not versed in scientific discourse. There are 'genes' (a fact based on evidence) and then there are the ways we describe the genes and create a narrative from them. One must be careful to stay within the realm of science and not move into the realm of metaphysics ascribing cause and effect in humanistic terms.

Hmmmm. Genes do not have intent, nor does sociobiology ever argue that they do. By being involved in the construction of brains, they may give intent to organisms, but they themselves, being simply polymer chemicals, don't have intent. You are correct about the language issue though - although that's not a mistake on Dawkins part. He explains the conventions of sociobiology quite thoroughly in both The Selfish Gene and in his response to Midgley. They are really not hard to understand, and are in wide use in sociobiology (both then and now). Given that Midgley was ostensibly writing about sociobiology it's hardly sociobiology's fault that she miscontrues its technical use of language. Anyway, I think the article does a reasonable job explaining this confusion of language, but you clearly disagree. Perhaps with appropriate sources we can copyedit this portion? --Plumbago 12:56, 16 August 2007 (UTC)
Good comment, Plumbago. (talk) 07:12, 25 April 2012 (UTC)

Although I have no reason to disbelieve your sincerity nor do I wish to undermine any credibility of your knowledge of philosophical concepts and the evolution of Western "rationalist" thought, it does however, seem to me that a biologist contributing to an article on a philosopher is as odd as a plumber contributing to an article on a mathematician. However that said, it makes it all the more richer that we get a plethora of competing viewpoints here. I think this is what Midgely's work is all about in the end. Keeping us all honest through exposing the weaknesses in our assumptions in forming the world. I feel that if one was to summarise the narrative that is implicit in her work it is for us to move away from all totalitarian totalizing absolute 'theories' in both academia, politics and religion. Surely any theory or ideology that claims it is the truth and is un-open to criticism is the most dangerous delusional type of theory of all. As the Socrates once said "the unexamined life is not worth living". Perhaps the most unexamined object of all is ourselves to ourselves. Ah yes - "Conciousness" the last frontier of science. Dawkins might even end up surprising himself if he keeps steadfast in his search for truth in evidence.

Um, no, not when that philosopher has made a career of talking nonsense about biology. (talk) 07:12, 25 April 2012 (UTC)
Regarding my expertise on philosophy, this is Wikipedia - the encyclopedia that anyone can edit. So long as we all conform to the rules and guidelines, any of us can edit on any topic. On the specifics, as a biologist I feel perfectly comfortable editing an article about a philosopher who writes on biology. Regarding "totalitarian truths", again, I think this is beyond the scope of the article here. I would add though that, in my humble opinion, science is the most open, objective and self-correcting methodology we have for generating statements about "truth". By its very definition, it only ever approximates the truth, and no working scientist kids themselves that they know "the truth". They might get protective about their version of "the truth", even halt progress for a while, but eventually further study moves things forwards. But now I'm talking about something beyond the scope of this article!  ;-) --Plumbago 12:56, 16 August 2007 (UTC)

So I will keep my end of the bargain and in my spare time I will attempt to read more of her material and form a better understanding of her work and contribute more to this article. However in the mean time, what I would like to see is this article returning more to a NPOV. At least hiding the 'pro-Dawkins' rhetoric in a less obvious way than it currently is. Read the last paragraph again and be 100% completely honest with yourself. I am sure even a 15 year old high school student would understand that this is not a balanced conclusion. If we remove this paragraph or at least finish the article on Midgely, than I think we will be doing a better service to the credibility of Midgely, Dawkins and Wikipedia itself.

Well, the last paragraph in the section has a fact tag on it, so I'm not happy with it either. As for general balance, I'm (obviously) relatively happy with the current version. There is such a thing as being wrong, and Midgley's original article on Dawkins' (and Mackie's) work is that. Not in its entirety (Dawkins himself drew positive points out of it), but its core arguments are (to my mind) more or less ill-founded on a misunderstanding. Dawkins may very well argue his positions arrogantly, but it would very hard to read the tone of Midgley's original article as being anything other than the same but from the reverse position. Her statement about natural selection and the randomness of evolution that closes this section of the article is demonstrably incorrect, so could certainly be trimmed, but it is representative of her views. Anyway, plenty to discuss. Cheers, --Plumbago 12:56, 16 August 2007 (UTC)

What are your thoughts?

Mindeagle 04:48, 10 August 2007 (UTC)

I cannot agree that her comment about the "randomness" of evolution is demonstrably incorrect. She talks of evolution being presented so as to "[make]the world ... in some important sense, entirely random". Given the vagueness of the phrase "in some important sense" it seems to me that it would be impossible to demonstrate this to be incorrect. As it is that final sentence in that section looks like an outraged admirer of Dawkins has jumped in to answer one word of Mary Midgely's argument, in a combative and in no way neutral way.--Oldandrew 16:13, 8 September 2007 (UTC)

I don't agree ion the vagueness. It's perfectly obvious what she's getting at. And then a bit further on you Mary fans have the gall to write "given the incredible lucidity and insightfulness of her writing"! (talk) 07:12, 25 April 2012 (UTC)
You're right. I'm being over-zealous there. Regarding the final sentence, I've had a look around the web but can't find a source that connects it either to Dawkins or to Midgley's remarks. I think someone's just found something that articulates an objection to the unrelated creationist "evolution is random" argument. As well as removing the faux Dawkins quote, might it be an idea to not bother with Midgley's "randomness" one? Given the above, it doesn't seem ideal. But then it might summarise Midgley's viewpoint well. Cheers, --Plumbago 10:11, 11 September 2007 (UTC)

The randomness quote (and the Thatcherism one that has also been added since) seem to me to obscure the point of her earlier arguments. However, I might just think that because I really don't understand what point those quotes are making. 20:38, 28 September 2007 (UTC)

Doing justice to Midgley's work[edit]

I've 'discovered' Midgley this year (Heart And Mind, Evolution As A Religion, Utopias, Dolphins & Computers, Science And Poetry and The Myths We Live By so far) and I'd agree that the article doesn't do her justice. That said, I've yet to form a clear idea of what *would* do her justice, and wouldn't think of attempting anything until I've read all her work (and something of the surrounding controversies).

I'd guess a 'moral interpretation of Gaia' would be to move away from seeing ourselves in atomistic, social-contract terms and more as part of a whole.

Finally, the text of Science As Salvation is available here - - should anyone want to add a link to it.

Thanks - David Fraser —The preceding unsigned comment was added by (talkcontribs).

Hi David. Thanks for the web address - I've now added it to the article (in the publications section). As you can probably tell from the discussion here, it's generally felt that the article doesn't cover Midgley's work terribly well, so any help you're able to offer to expand the article on her would be very useful. Cheers, --Plumbago 11:41, 16 August 2007 (UTC)

I've also been reading Midgley recently ( Beast and Man, Wickedness, Science and Poetry) and I have to say that she deserves a better article than this. This article does seem skewed towards the Dawkins spat ( which I admit I have not read). However, perhaps the best way to remedy this is not to downplay the dispute but rather to include more information on other important aspects of her work. I'll attempt to summarise some of it below, bear in mind I'm paraphrasing greatly here.

The main points in Beast and Man (1979) are

1) Man has instincts. He is not, as some have argued, "Blank Paper" onto which any way of life can be printed.

2) Human Nature, however, is not ruled by a single overriding motive such as aggression or survival.

3) Comparisons of Man with other animals ( particularly the more social ones) can yield valuable insights into our own nature.

4) Evolutionary biology has become entangled with certain ideologies which exalt competition and individualism, leading to conceptual difficulties when thinking about human nature (most importantly, morality - see Wickedness below).

5) Language, culture and rational thought are not free standing structures ( which philosophers are free to play with and rearrange however they please) but deeply rooted in a system of natural values. Some ways of life simply do not make sense for Man.

Wow, such insights! Such profundity! What an incredibly original philosopher!! (talk) 07:14, 25 April 2012 (UTC)

Wickedness is a discussion of morality. It follows on from the arguments in Beast and Man to suggest that moral values are not arbitrary but natrually developing and essential to human beings. It critisises existentialism and other schools of thought which promote the 'Rational Will' as a free agent. I don't have my copy to hand, so I can't give that much detail.

As for Science and Poetry (2001)

1) Modern popular opinion puts Science and Arts in conflict and asserts that only one can be the 'right' way to look at things. This fragmentation is unhelpful, many different maps can accurately chart the same territory.

2) Science is a descriptive language and has its own mythology, stemming from earlier attempts to explain the world.( e.g. from the Greeks, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution).

3) Many of these myths create implicit assumptions in modern science which lead to exaggerated notions about reality ( e.g. Fatalism, Atomism, Mind-Body Dualism)

4) Theoretical models are often inflated beyond the context of the problems for which they were originally developed. There is a critisism of the notion of 'memes' as an unsuitable attempt to understand cultural activities in genetic terms.

5) Science is done for a purpose. There is always an underlying reason for investigation. To ignore this for the sake of some misplaced notion of 'objectivity' is not the proper approach. There is a disscusion on environmentalism, holistic science and the concept of 'Gaia' is explored.

Help me! I am going to faint from the incredible lucidity and insightfulness of Mary's writing! (talk) 07:14, 25 April 2012 (UTC)

If anyone thinks I've got this wrong, or misrepresented her position somehow, please feel free to correct me. Her autobiography, The Owl of Minerva is on my reading list and should prove quite informative. She went to school with Iris Murdoch and studied under Wittgenstein. I don't feel comfortable editing the article right now, maybe when I've got more time to do it justice.

A final point. It would be particularly unfair to characterise Midgley as some sort of naive hothead, given the incredible lucidity and insightfulness of her writing. I suggest that anyone who edits this page actually reads her work. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 02:28, August 26, 2007 (UTC)

Excellent. This is the sort of material that the article needs. Of course, it needs to be rendered into a form that conforms to the style conventions (i.e. isn't a bald list of points), but it's the sort of thing the article's been needing for ages. I could try to render it myself, but it'd be better if you could help with that. If you need any help from me, drop me a note. Cheers, --Plumbago 16:06, 30 August 2007 (UTC)

To the unsigned contributor. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of Midgely's work and contributing to this article. Much more NPOV and a strong, relevant and topically on-target conclusion. Perhaps the summary that you have shared here in the talk page could be included in the actual article. Your succinct points enable the time-sensitive reader to get a snapshot of her ideas without the need for verbose discourse. A long exposition of what in itself is simple implies imperfect understanding on the part of the reader. Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n'y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n'y a plus rien à retrancher. (Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.)

Cheers. Mindeagle 18:15, 2 October 2007 (UTC)

WikiProject class rating[edit]

This article was automatically assessed because at least one article was rated and this bot brought all the other ratings up to at least that level. BetacommandBot 23:35, 27 August 2007 (UTC)

WikiProject class rating[edit]

This article was automatically assessed because at least one WikiProject had rated the article as start, and the rating on other projects was brought up to start class. BetacommandBot 04:16, 10 November 2007 (UTC)

Selfish gene[edit]

I've moved the following here for discussion. It follows the claim that Midgley has misunderstood Dawkins:

"For example, Midgley misinterpreted Dawkins as using the expression "selfish gene" to literally mean that genes have a psychological dimension:

"Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological... [Dawkins'] 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."

There was no source for this being an example of Midgley misunderstanding Dawkins, and it would be bizarre for her to claim that genes have a psychological dimension. What she seems to be arguing is that Dawkins is imposing the language of emotion onto genes, then arguing back from that to making substantive points about the emotional life of man. That is, she is arguing that his point is not only circular, but that it involves a category mistake, and that he's changing the meaning of words as he goes along.

As the section seems to be OR, we'd need a source who argued that this is an example of Midgley misunderstanding Dawkins. SlimVirgin (talk)(contribs) 18:37, 3 January 2008 (UTC)

Well there is an obvious source for the claim that Midgely misunderstood Dawkins, namely Richard Dawkins himself. I can find any number of other people on the internet who agree with him and a few academic sources that also claim it. However, they all seem to follow his argument, often almost word for word (his side of events does seem common currency on the internet). We could cite such sources but it would not be NPOV unless we include Midgely's denial of this in her second article on The Selfish Gene. We could also source Andrew Brown who agreed Midgely misunderstood but describes his take on the debate in detail here: --Oldandrew (talk) 21:45, 3 January 2008 (UTC)

We would need a source that said exactly what the edit said, if we want to keep that point. The claim that Mary Midgley thought Dawkins was saying that genes have minds or emotional lives is extraordinary and would need a good source. SlimVirgin (talk)(contribs) 02:32, 4 January 2008 (UTC)
She's said it herself, over and over again, most recently in her favourable review of Fodor's book. (talk) 07:04, 25 April 2012 (UTC)
I'm not in favour of keeping it. Personally I think the entire section on Midgley's academic writing needs rewriting almost from scratch. Much of it was written originally as an attack piece and although the most biased statements have been removed and attempts have been made to correct inaccuracies it still suffers from the priorities it had when it was an attack piece (e.g. the impression is given that everything she wrote is about or at least relevant to Dawkins) and still contains inaccuracies that are not easily removed without further damage to the flow of the text (eg. the description of "Evolution As A Religion" as recent work.) I will at some point attempt to rewrite it properly, it's just a matter of finding time to do a thorough job rather than piecemeal revisions.--Oldandrew (talk) 10:04, 4 January 2008 (UTC)

Biographical Details[edit]

The biography has been altered (back) to suggest that her father was Chaplain at King's College at the time of her birth. According to her autobiography he was still a curate in Dulwich at that time. It has also been altered (back) to suggesting that her "sparring" with Dawkins is famous. This incident doesn't even make it into her autobiography. Most references I have found about it on the internet (other than the articles themselves) are hostile to her and many cite wikipedia as the source. Even Richard Dawkins refers to Wikipedia as the place to read about it:,1664,Against-the-grain-There-are-questions-that-science-cannot-answer,Mary-Midgley-The-Independent#71914 I think Wikipedia is being used here to present something prominently in a biased way. From the point of view of somebody interested in Midgley rather than in Richard Dawkins I'm not sure it should feature so prominently, particularly while the wikipedia account is inadequately sourced and clearly presenting only one side of the story. —Preceding unsigned comment added by Oldandrew (talkcontribs) 20:57, 3 January 2008 (UTC)

On second thoughts maybe the Dawkins argument is more important than I thought. I hadn't realised it was still ongoing 30 years later: —Preceding unsigned comment added by Oldandrew (talkcontribs) 21:27, 3 January 2008 (UTC)

If you'd like to remove it from the lead, I have no objections. If her father was chaplain at King's at all during her upbringing, it's probably worth a mention. SlimVirgin (talk)

(contribs) 02:33, 4 January 2008 (UTC)

I have changed the Dawkins sentence in the lead so that it still mentions him but it is now in the context of her broader work and not presented as a key incident in her life in its own right. I have also restored "Mods and Greats". Her degree is Mods and Greats but it is divided into two courses, of which Greats is the one where she would have dealt most extensively with philosophy.

It's usually just called Greats, though.
I don't mind the Dawkins reference the way you're written it, but it kind of kills the spirit of the thing. The point of the lead is to get people interested in the subject, but now the famous spat is reduced to "A number of her books and articles have discussed philosophical ideas appearing in books on popular science, including those of Richard Dawkins."
That doesn't exactly give the flavor of her saying: "I had not previously attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to "break a butterfly upon a wheel. But Mr Mackie’s article is not the only indication I have lately met of serious attention being paid to his fantasies," and D's reply that her comment was "hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic." :-) SlimVirgin (talk)(contribs) 23:06, 4 January 2008 (UTC)

I'm not entirely convinced that the point of the lead is to get people interested in the subject. Surely it is more important that it is accurate than interesting?

With regards the `famous spat' with Dawkins, I have read most of her books and articles and had not really come across it until I read the wikipedia article. The debate itself is a fairly minor aspect of her ideas and publications and I am surprised at the bias towards it in this article. There is nothing in the Richard Dawkins header about this debate and only a throw away remark under the memetics which does not even mention her article. If the Dawkins-Midgley debate is so famous, then maybe it deserves another page clearly linked from both their pages. Also as the section currently stands, it does no justice to Midgley's argument just Dawkin's criticism of it. Surely, the section on her page should be about her argument not Dawkins criticism of it. --Markprice81 (talk) 16:52, 7 January 2008 (UTC)


Correct me if my mathematics is wrong, but it says she was born in 1919, and also that she was 56 when Beast and Man was published. However, that book was published in 1978, and 1978 minus 56 is not 1919 (1922 is the correct answer). Of course, the time of year of publication can throw it off by a year, but not by three. So where is the error? I suspect the 56 myself. Richard001 (talk) 01:36, 12 January 2008 (UTC)

Well spotted, I have checked her autobiography and she says that she was born in 1919. Also checked the publication date for beast and man which is 1978. Will change the date to the correct one. --Markprice81 (talk) 18:31, 12 January 2008 (UTC)

Midgley on moral isolationism[edit]

A section (or at the very least a mention) of Midgley's cogent refutal of moral isolationism, as it appears in Heart and Mind, would probably be apposite. Crusoe (talk) 21:39, 21 September 2008 (UTC)

Midgley–Dawkins debate[edit]

In reference to this sentence in the second paragraph under the "Midgley–Dawkins debate" heading. "However, Midgley has disputed this view, pointing out that while Dawkins purports to be talking about genes - that is chemical arrangements , he nonetheless slides over to saying that 'we are born selfish' (The Selfish Gene, p3). This is simply false. He makes no such statement, nor even any equivalent statement. This is true of every page of "The Selfish Gene". As well as not occurring anywhere on or near page 3. It is certainly fair to attack Dawkins for what he does say, it is certainly not, to attack him for a statement he did not. —Preceding unsigned comment added by Ljungman (talkcontribs) 18:48, 12 July 2009 (UTC)

The paper criticized Dawkins' concepts, but was judged by its targets to be intemperate and personal in tone, and as having misunderstood Dawkins' ideas.-is this correct NPOV sentence?--Vojvodae please be free to write :) 17:36, 25 January 2010 (UTC)
And judged by many as apposite and timely criticism. I've read them all and they are not intemperate or personal. Her main attack is on the notion of replicators and the perpetuation of atomism. The link to neoliberalism is a legitimate link made by one of the UK's leading moral philosophers. ----Snowded TALK 18:20, 26 January 2016 (UTC)

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