Vernon + Midgley + evolution = FAIL

February 8, 2011 • 10:41 am

What a dire combination:  Mark Vernon, ex-Anglican priest and now purveyer of aphophatic Christianity (remember the Holy Rabbit?), and Mary Midgley, famous for completely misunderstanding modern evolutionary biology and for attacking Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene on completely ludicrous grounds.  (See Dawkins’s response here.) In a prime case of the bland leading the blind, Vernon is editing a new book series about heretics, and, lo and behold, the first victim is evolution:

The first book in the Heretics series is a broadside against neo-Darwinism by an eminent British moral philosopher. Mary Midgley’s The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene typifies what Heretics will present, says the editor of the series, Mark Vernon: “New ideas tend to be the products of heretics, so that you could say that Jesus was a sort of Jewish heretic; and you could say that Buddha was a sort of Hindu heretic; Einstein was a sort of Newtonian heretic, and so on—Darwin was a Paley heretic.”

Vernon says he is designing the series to give voice to thinkers who have long been battling a tradition in science, philosophy, or religion.

And what is Midgley’s “contribution”? As always, it’s the claim that neo-Darwinism is a nefarious and selfish enterprise, and that the word “selfish” in “selfish gene” is profoundly misleading and socially damaging:

She contends that neo-Darwinists distort Darwin’s view of individualism as biologically influenced but essentially social.

Midgley argues that the neo-Darwinist perspective rests on an ethos of free-enterprise competition distorted by “the supposedly Darwinian belief in natural selection as a pervasive, irresistible cosmic force” that operates in social and metaphysical realms as well as in physical, biological ones. It results, she writes, in “unbridled, savage competition between the genes” that operates with mythic force within any individual body.

As much as the logic behind the complex scientific conceptions of neo-Darwinism, Midgley takes issue with the metaphors neo-Darwinists use, starting with Dawkins’s title for his best-selling 1976 work of science popularization, The Selfish Gene. Such metaphors matter because “our imaginations feed on striking myths like this much more than we notice,” she writes in the new book.

Midgley has often argued that saying a gene is “selfish” is not only a metaphor, because metaphors are never “only” anything. Rather, neo-Darwinists’ forceful, reiterated metaphors underpin a fatalistic drama of “helpless humans enslaved by a callous fate-figure” that, like all such myths, conveys meaninglessness and a “sinister” advocacy of “unqualified egoism” that she thinks has been socially catastrophic.

Of course a metaphor can be “only”!  Dawkins intended the word “selfish” to mean that, during the process of natural selection, genes behave as if they are selfish.  That metaphor has been immensely fruitful, helping (along with the work of G. C. Williams) promote the gene-centered approach to evolution, a perspective that has inspired reams of useful research. As for the rest of Midgley’s dumb contentions—that neo-Darwinism has been socially catastrophic, evil, and the like—there’s not a shred of evidence, just the lucubrations of a superannuated philosopher.

What other books does Vernon have in store?  There are three, all, predictably, works of accomodationism:

One is by Tim Crane, a University of Cambridge philosopher of the mind and metaphysics. His working title is “Against Humanism” and he “has a bone to pick with organized humanism,” says Vernon.

Also in the works, he says, is “a quite straightforward credo” from Mary Warnock, whom the Guardian newspaper described in 2005 as “Britain’s chief moral referee for the past 30 years.” Vernon says: “She greatly appreciates religious traditions and particularly religious music and she’s written about how moving she finds religious music—that it suggests that something powerful is being communicated—but she doesn’t believe that what is being communicated is God.”

Finally, says Vernon, Julia Neuberger, a rabbi, social reformer, and Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, is at work on a new book about “how a number of characteristics of Reform Judaism, which is her tradition, may be of great benefit to us who live in a plural world. For example, it’s assumed in Judaism that you’ll argue with your fellow Jews and disagree with them, and yet you’ll still have a sense that you belong together.”

The author of this piece, Peter Monaghan, notes that Midgley is “often called the greatest living British moral philosopher.” Now, I’ve followed only her writings on evolution and not her other works, but it’s hard for me to believe that someone who is so misguided about natural selection can be an intellectual giant in philosophy.  Doesn’t critical thinking transfer from one area to the other?

Note that this free publicity for misguided attacks on evolution appears in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is rapidly becoming a vehicle for faitheism and accommodationism.

70 thoughts on “Vernon + Midgley + evolution = FAIL

  1. So that makes me a heretic?
    How flattering.
    Must be really getting under their skin that the stake is no longer in use.

    1. Reminds me of a definition I heard some where:

      An strident atheist is a heretic that can no longer be burned at the stake.

    2. I am honored to be in the company of Giordano Bruno.
      I have to say it is amusing that they try to insult us with the word heretic. Seems they didn’t get the memo that the holy inquisition was over.

    1. It so happens I’m reading The Selfish Gene for the first time right now (chastise me later) and I can tell you she certainly didn’t read the preface where RD explains *why* the title is the way it is and what we should make of it.


  2. [Mary Warnock] greatly appreciates religious traditions and particularly religious music and she’s written about how moving she finds religious music—that it suggests that something powerful is being communicated—but she doesn’t believe that what is being communicated is God.

    I’m afraid I still don’t get the point.

    Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is one of the most glorious musical works ever penned. It just so happens to draw from the Christian mythology, but so what?

    Wagner’s Ring cycle is another unparalleled masterwork. It draws from Germanic mythology.

    Many composers have drawn inspiration from Greek mythology, especially Orpheus. I can’t remember how many great operas (including the first opera ever written) have been written that tell his story.

    Shakespeare created some myths of his own that have, in turn, inspired true greatness.

    Why the obsession with Christian mythology as if it’s something privileged?



    1. The point is that Straw Atheists appreciate none of those things. The Straw Atheist is blind to any values of metaphor, myth, symbolism, or any art, literature, or other culture that uses them. The Straw Atheist considers Mr. Spock to be extravagantly emotional, and dreams of the day when he can ban all art or literature that so much as alludes to religious beliefs (the actual religions, of course, having long since been persecuted out of existence in Straw Atheist Utopia).

      Thus, the writer gets the best of all words. She avoids the messy business of defending the factual accuracy of religious claims, instead basking in the glorious role of defending all that is good and right in human culture and civilization from the emotionally stunted Straw Atheists who threaten it. Or who would threaten it if they, you know, actually existed.

        1. Absolutely not! Straw Atheists are only for theists, faithiests, and accomodationists.

          They test-marketed some Straw Accomodationists for the Gnu market, but it seems the real ones are still so plentiful and easy to munch on that there wasn’t much demand.

    2. I love some of the better classical Christian-themed music, for example Handel’s “Messiah”. It would be equally good, possibly better, if it were about Thor, with lines drawn from Marvel comics instead of the KJV.

      A good piece of music doesn’t make its mythic theme (if any) true. It’s the same for other types of art, of course.

      1. I wonder what apologists who use the “look at all the great religious music/art” argument would say if they bothered to do some research and found that much of Haendel’s Messiah is recycled from music he had written previously, which set NO texts, religious or otherwise.

        The opening chorus from the Weihnachtsoratorium was recycled by Bach from the opening chorus of one of his secular cantatas, celebrating the installation of some secular noble (a female noble, IIRC).

        1. I wonder what they would say about all the traditional folk songs that aren’t about religion?

          Or all the classical pieces that are known only by number, with no subject matter at all?

          1. Or almost any of today’s pop music, the texts of which are very nearly exclusively carnal in nature.

            It’s such a silly argument, it almost deserves no rebuttal. But it’s sort of amusing to think of how someone like Midgley might react to being told that their precious Religious Music was not dictated by Gawd himself for the express purpose of Shewing Forth His Grandeur, but instead culled from (gasp!) already existent instrumental dance suites! Oh the vain, human, fleshiness of it!

    3. …religious music … suggests that something powerful is being communicated—but she doesn’t believe that what is being communicated is God.

      Just as well, eh, or
      a) no atheist could appreciate religious music
      b) it wouldn’t be communicating anything

      What a peculiar statement! I assume by “religious music” she means “Christian music”.

      1. I truly think that, with all my heart, she has unquestionably zero idea of what she really believes.

      2. The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote in several of his essays that his favorite choral work was Haydns’ Creation. In fact, he participated in performances of the work as a member of a chorus in the Boston area. This despite the fact that he was an atheist. Clearly, the Creation is a religious based piece of music, albeit not strictly Christian music (maybe Judeo/Christian as the story line was taken from the Hebrew Scriptures, namely the 1s book of Genesis).

  3. Oh god! How on earth does Vernon manage to get anyone to listen to him? The man doesn’t have much of a brain at the best of times, but why would they allow him to edit a series of books — and with this premise? This is beyond belief!

    Actually, Mary Warnock, despite her softspot for English Christianity of a very liberal type, and her love of English Church music, is very sound on most things. Her defence of Christianity (or religion in general)is a bit off the wall, in my opinion, but it is a bit of English nostalgia. I don’t think her case that religion is necessary for stability in society holds water, but anything from Mary Warnock will be interesting. But Mary Midgley?! She was always highly overrated. Is this whole Vernon phenomenon indicative of a lowering of academic standards in England?

    1. You have to go to Roger Scruton for the real English Nostalgia argument: in a nutshell, the CofE mythology may well not be true but it was good for keeping the plebs in their place.

      1. Seneca expressed almost the exact same sentiment a couple millennia ago: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”



    2. [Previous comment appears to have vanished :-(]

      Eric, I agree – people should not get their Warnocks and Midgleys mixed up! Mary Warnock is great – she came over to Belfast a couple of years ago for a debate on assisted dying, and the religiously-influenced prigs at the *University* refused to let the debate take place on their property. In the end, the local Unitarian minister (who is a great guy and regularly prompts the spittle-scattering ire of many other Northern Ireland clergy by being a vocal supporter of gay rights) loaned the church for the debate, which was excellent, and right next to the University itself.

      As far as I can see, Mary Warnock’s soft spot for Christianity isn’t too far from Richard Dawkins’ view of “cultural Christianity”, although it’s maybe a bit different from my view of Atheistic Christianity ( ) which I would strenuously argue is not accommodationist, but subversive.

      Mary Midgley, on the other hand, is an embittered arrogant old trout who has never been able to summon up the integrity to admit that she wrote a review without reading the book, or even subsequently trying to understand it after her bluff was exposed.

  4. His working title is “Against Humanism” and he “has a bone to pick with organized humanism,” says Vernon.

    What’s wrong (or accommodationist) about picking a bone with organized humanism? I know that Larry Moran seem to loathe the term. A good many of the self-identified Humanists I run into are themselves accommodationist, or seem to making Humanism into another creed to which allegiance is owed. Sod all that; I much prefer being a disorganized humanist.

  5. The idea that defenders of religious tradition would dare to claim the mantle of “Heretic” is just so f*cking (what’s the swearing policy here btw?) offensive I can’t even respond coherently. GAAAAH

  6. I can’t help myself anymore. I start to giggle every time I see a photograph of her face somewhere in the vicinity of the words “selfish” & “gene”.

    1. Midgley is like Freddy Kruger on this: Nightmare on Selfish Gene Street, part 97: Freddy’s Selfish, and That’s Dawkins’ Fault

      I suppose it will get remade as long as there’s money in it.

      How can someone supposedly so smart misunderstand a straightforward book like The Selfish Gene so badly?

  7. Ooh hey Jerry – that thing about “geek” and “nerd” being self-flattery? I disagree, but “heretic”? Now that’s self-flattery.

    It’s so typical of Mark Vernon to pretend that sucking up to religion is “heresy.” Typical of Vernon and of royalists in general. “Ooh get me, I’m so brave, saying that religion is really quite nice.”

      1. So mutation (non-uniformity) and selection (choosing, heresy) is inherently bad?

        I see a problem here.

    1. Well, obviously you’ve said everything that needs to be said, summed it all up neat and tidy, and any further comment would be superfluous. You should feel deeply flattered.


    2. Oops, I didn’t mean to fish for compliments! Just kept turning up today all eager for a conversation and then as soon as I joined in, everyone got up and moved to a different table. Tragic, you must admit!

  8. Quoth Jerry:

    “Doesn’t critical thinking transfer from one area to the other?”

    No. In theory it should, if it’s to be accurately labelled, but it doesn’t – apparently all it takes is a frickin frozen waterfall to feck it up into shards. But you knew that.

    But I’m flabbergasted that Midgley is being painted as some kind of intellectual giant. Perhaps in her weird cerebral Lilliput, metaphors can/should be taken literally, but most grown adults aren’t so fucking obtuse.

    1. I second that, I would even argue (with no evidence) that it’s even more surprising that our primate brains can apply rational thought at all to any topic.

      One example that springs to mind would be James Watson and all the truly insane racist, sexist things this brilliant biologist has said (

      Another, more edgy example might be the rhetoric for gun control espoused by the author of this blog and pretty much everyone who votes as I do. I don’t have the evidence nor the time nor interest to look for it, but I’m pretty sure guns in the US aren’t really the pressing social problem most city-dwelling liberals make them out to be. As someone who is agnostic about guns (don’t own one or really want to) and who actually loves cats, I would rather see cats and their murderous effects on native fauna banned than guns. To be clear, I really don’t want either banned, just trying to make the point that cats probably have a bigger social cost.
      But back my main point: irrational bias is a ubiquitous feature of the human brain. Thank god science can nip it in the bud a bit.

      1. “Another, more edgy example might be the rhetoric for gun control espoused by the author of this blog and pretty much everyone who votes as I do.”

        I don’t think it’s “pretty much everyone”. It might be a majority of people who regularly vote Democratic but if so it’s not a large one.

  9. Dawkins does have an elegant turn of phrase sometimes: “One cannot be expected to read every word of a book whose author one wishes to insult” – boom! Clovis Sangrail might have said that

    1. Clovis – ‘I think oysters are more beautiful than any religion. They not only forgive our unkindness to them; they justify it, they incite us to go on being perfectly horrid to them . . . There’s nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster.’
      Chronicles of Clovis, 1911

  10. Dawkins intended the word “selfish” to mean that, during the process of natural selection, genes behave as if they are selfish.  That metaphor has been immensely fruitful…

    It may have borne metaphorical fruit, Jerry, but that is not how Dawkins intended it. He makes this very clear in his reply (p. 557):

    We do not even mean the words in a metaphorical sense. We define</i altruism and selfishness in purely bevaviouristic ways:

  11. Dawkins intended the word “selfish” to mean that, during the process of natural selection, genes behave as if they are selfish.  That metaphor has been immensely fruitful…

    It may have borne metaphorical fruit, Jerry, but that is not how Dawkins intended it. He makes this very clear in his reply (p. 557):

    We do not even mean the words in a metaphorical sense. We definealtruism and selfishness in purely behaviouristic ways:

  12. I’ve read a lot of Midgley, she is never out bashing “Neo-Darwinism” in general, i.e. the modern synthesis of Mendel and Darwin. She is bashing targets like crude reductionism and the common practice of people getting too carried away with their metaphors.

    The main reason she was after Dawkins was for sentences like this, famously written in The Selfish Gene:

    This brings me to the first point I want to make about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. … If you wish to extract a moral from it, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.

    Midgley pointed out that this sort of talk is indefensible, and is making claims about human nature (we are born selfish) that are not defensible biologically or ethologically, and that clearly this is not “just a metaphor” either. It’s Dawkins getting carried away with his very exciting (in the 1970s) idea and applying it where it doesn’t belong.

    But maybe she was just the delusional old coot the gnus consistently make her out to be (without ever reading any of her many books)?

    Let’s see what Dawkins now says about that very passage:

    Let me repeat and expand the rationale for the word ‘selfish’ in the title. The critical question is which level in the hierarchy of life will turn out to be the inevitably ‘selfish’ level, at which natural selection acts? The Selfish Species? The Selfish Group? The Selfish Organism? The Selfish Ecosystem? Most of these could be argued, and most have been uncritically assumed by one or another author, but all of them are wrong. Given that the Darwinian message is going to be pithily encapsulated as The Selfish *Something*, that something turns out to be the gene, for cogent reasons which this book argues. Whether or not you end up buying the argument itself, that is the explanation for the title.

    I hope that takes care of the more serious misunderstandings. Nevertheless, I do with hindsight notice lapses of my own on the very same subject. These are to be found especially in Chapter 1, epitomized by the sentence ‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish’. There is nothing wrong with teaching generosity and altruism, but ‘born selfish’ is misleading. In partial explanation, it was not until 1978 that I began to think clearly about the distinction between ‘vehicles’ (usually organisms) and the ‘replicators’ that ride inside them (in practice genes : the whole matter is explained in Chapter 13, which was added in the Second Edition). Please mentally delete that rogue sentence and others like it, and substitute something along the lines of this paragraph.

    (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. ix, 30th anniversary edition)

    Mentally delete that rogue sentence and others like it? This is an admission of error. Good for him, and for scholarship in general. So at least in one case, Midgley was right, and Dawkins wrong. Maybe she’s not such a crazy old coot after all.

    (And anyone, for anyone interested in what Midgley actually thinks: (1) all her philosophy about human nature and morality is grounded, in the end, in Darwin, particularly “Descent of Man”; (2) she is a leading proponent of the position, very unpopular in many parts of philosophy and the social sciences, that we need to bring Darwin and biology to bear to understand humans; (3) she is leading proponent of the idea that philosophers have to take animals, emotions, instinct, etc., seriously — which typically they do not do. She’s about the most biological, Darwinian philosopher that’s around. It’s just that she’s not a Dennett-style everything-is-Darwinism, and-religion-is-evil-too philosopher, and criticizes people who get too carried away with simplistic schemes. This tends to invite criticism from those who prefer simplistic schemes.

      1. To expound, she’s talking about one sentence in the introduction to a biology book published in 1976, a sentence that is not in any way part of the foundation of “new” atheism. How is this not attacking a straw man?

    1. So at least in one case, Midgley was right, and Dawkins wrong.

      But that one case (even a few like it) hardly justifies — or excuses — her wrongheaded criticism of the book as a whole!

    2. Sorry Nick, but can you provide a similar level of detail as to where Midgley just criticises that sort of talk?

      Obviously I’ve not read as much as you, but as I recall it she threw a pretty general and wide ranging shit-fit over any use of the word selfish in connection to biology; even when used to describe purely mechanical effect of genes on their own survival.

        1. Thanks, it was throwaway lines like, “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish”, I was thinking of (surely that depends what you a using the term selfish to describe?), but really its wholly crap like “Dawkins, however, simply has a weakness for the old game of Brocken-spectre moralizing – the one where the player strikes attitude on a peak at sunrise, gazes awe-struck at his gigantic shadow on the clouds, and reports his observations as cosmic truth.” which really give you the measure of her (as well as providing some of the finest and most hilarious projection I’ve ever encountered).

          If she spent a quarter of the effort explicating clearly what her objections to the Selfish Gene concept are, as she does trying to sound erudite; while personally attacking the author of these ideas which she so disagrees with, she might not have the dreadful reputation for vacuity and viciousness which she has.

          Still, no one ever went broke by having a go at Richard Dawkins, so she clearly can’t be that nuts.

          1. She seems to think that, because Dawkins writes about atheism, every book he’s ever written is a philosophy book even when it looks like a science book.

      1. A direct quote from one Prof. Coyne, in the article to which these comments belong.
        Why do I have to explain this to you?

  13. I am reminded of P.B. Medawar’s remark about the attractions of ‘philosophy fiction’ to ‘a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought’. (Dawkins on Midgley)

    1. Ooh…I know a lot of people who fit that description. That mismatch plagues a lot of English departments, in my view – a hell of a lot of people there think well-developed literary and scholarly tastes are analytical thought.
      I’m looking at you, Stanley Fish.

      1. So?

        You can take a person out of the church, but you can’t always take the church out of the person.

        I’ve been an atheist for more than 30 years, & I’m still put out by people “taking the LORD’s name in vain.” I can’t shake off some of the things that were inculcated by my Catholic childhood.

  14. Midgley has often argued that saying a gene is “selfish” is not only a metaphor, because metaphors are never “only” anything.

    Metaphors are never “only” anything. That’s it. The existence proof.

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