Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Evolution as a Religion

Mary Midgley is one of the great ornaments of contemporary philosophy, a graceful, clear, penetrating and sensible thinker and writer. So I expected to enjoy, and be enlightened by, her Evolution as a Religion and, mostly, it was so.

The book was originally published in 1985 and is now republished in a revised edition. It is a critique of the tendency for evolution to take over the functions of religion and other deformations of Darwin’s insights.

Midgley is not against imagination or imaginative symbols in science: on the contrary, it is essential to it (p.4). What concerns her is the way physical scientists are often unpractised in general thinking, particularly historical thinking, and so can be vulnerable to specific deformities of thought in a way social scientists and practisers of humanities are not – Creationism for example (p.27). Midgley systematically critiques the smuggling of religious modes of thought into science: not that she is in favour of any presumed simple antipathy between science and religion (p.34).

Midgley takes us through some, alas, all too easy deformations of the Gaia hypothesis. Plus chiliastic delusions about using science to transform people and society. Or turning science into the only source of definitive thought (pp 104ff).
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Midgley dissects and demolishes talking intentionally about genes – all that “selfish gene” nonsense (pp 136ff), or talk as if genes directly feed into behaviour (p.46). She is particularly against gene utopianism, as if direct creating a “genetic menu” for parents or whoever is other than a profoundly silly idea (p.54ff). The perversion of Darwin’s thought into various social nostrums – fatalism, exaggeration of conflict, denial of social motives, etc – is a persistent target (pp 138ff). As is sociobiology generally.

Dawkins being too clever by half
Richard Dawkins, Mr Selfish Gene, likely bears some responsibility for the Intelligent Design nonsense.

Dawkins, in his titles (most famously The Selfish Gene) and in his prose talks about genes as if they are purposive, as if they have intentions, rather than being simply functional. Moving from being functional to being intentionally purposive is the shift from something doing something in a purely functional sense to deciding to do something. The power of the concept of natural selection, what Daniel Dennett calls Darwin's Dangerous Idea, is that it shows how purely functional processes can produce outcomes which look purposive. Indeed, they can even produce actual purposive beings (us).

The trouble is, in order to grab our attention, sell more books and write in congenial ways, it is more fun to talk about genes as if they did have purposive intentions, rather than simply functions (which, if they are successful, get replicated to perform said functions all over again, and again, and again ...). Something philosopher David Stove also criticised Dawkins for.

But if you are going to talk about genes as if they have intentions, and genes are the central mechanisms of biological development, then the central elements of evolution are being talked about as if they have intentions. So Dawkins et al leave a bridge open in their use of intentional language that makes it easier for Intelligent Design folk to seem "scientific". All the Intelligent Design folk do is talk about a Macro intentional designer rather than a mob of micro intentional designers. But the language of intentional design has already been imported in via Richard Dawkins et al.

Selfish Gene indeed.

And, since the distinction between the gene-as-type and gene-as-instance (what philosophers call 'tokens' as per the type-token distinction) is also continually glided over, you even have effectively immortal intentional designers. So, in that sense they make life easier for Creationists-in-Scientists'-clothing. (Though one of the striking things is that Creationists clearly feel they have to try and don the garb of science, which says interesting things about what notions of authority are contemporaneously powerful.)

Comes from being clever instead of being accurate.

That Dawkins explains what he “really” means does not abolish the effect of resorting to such striking, because misleading, metaphors.

But there is another way Dawkins in particular has engaged in unintended (but fairly predictable) consequences. As Karen Armstrong argues in her very readable and perceptive The Battle for God, a lot of the fundamentalist impulse is, in fact, a defensive one: a feeling that the very notion of serious religious belief is under threat. Dawkins very much belongs to that group which delights in publicly humiliating and denigrating religious belief, and then gets all outraged when the religious start getting organised and fight back. If you go out of your way to poke an ant-hill with a stick, you shouldn't be all that surprise if some ants try to run up your leg.

So, if you argue natural selection somehow proves religion is wrong, it is an obvious move by the religious to try and blunt your weapon or (even better) turn it back against you. In which case, it is a really bad idea to hand them intentional-language "wiggle room".

Back to sense
It is a mark of Midgley’s virtues as a thinker that she sees how the apparent consequences of Darwinianism have driven people to Creationism and its derivatives:
The project of treating the time scale of the Genesis story literally, as a piece of history, is an amazing one, which serious biblical scholars at least as far back as Origen (AD 200) have seen to be unworkable and unnecessary. The reason why people turn to it now seems to be that the only obvious alternative story – evolution – has become linked with a view of human psychology which they rightly think both false and immoral (p.172).
On the way through, Midgley has plenty of enlightening side discussions, such as the problems with moral scepticism (pp 96ff). That unbelief has its own characteristic vices – such as arrogance, perversity and self-dramatization (p.126). The virtues and limitations of social contract theories (pp 178ff).

I found these discussions enlightening and persuasive. What I was less impressed by was Midgley’s pervasive ecological and other pessimism. A pessimism that is very popular in intellectual circles but wildly overblown. In particular, her linking of capitalism to environmental damage is far too simplistic (actually existing socialism has a far worse record of ecological damage than liberal capitalism). It is obviously easy for tax-paid academics who never risk their own capital in commercial activity to agree that they are morally and intellectually superior to money-grubbing amoral merchants (philosophers have been playing that game since Plato and Kǒng Fūzǐ: medieval Christian priests loved playing it), but that does not make the prejudice against commerce any less tedious: indeed, sad in such a penetrating thinker.

After all, fears are far easier to invent than wants. When Midgley writes about folk consuming for symbolic and imaginative reasons, the same point can be made even more forcefully about the diet of fears and pessimism. Which are even more defined by imagined futures than the various genetic utopias and other deformations of Darwinism she so ably critiques.

But those are just irritating asides, not disabling flaws. Indeed, a failure to apply her critique and intellectual penetration widely enough, not a failure of the critique as such. Evolution as a Religion is a fine work of penetrating, yet accessible, philosophy.

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