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.