Midgley Steps in it Again


You might recognize philosopher Mary Midgley as the author of this egregiously bad review, published in the journal Philosophy in 1979, of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. In the course of her lengthy review, Midgley managed to misunderstand and misrepresent virtually every aspect of Dawkins’ argument. Dawkins subsequently refuted her arguments in this devastating reply. In fairness, Midgley subsequently apologized for her intemperate tone here.

Well, it seems that Dawkins still has the ability to literally drive Midgley crazy. In response to this recent op-ed, co-authored by Dawkins and Jerry Coyne in the British newspaper The Guardian, Midgley wrote a remarkably misinformed letter to the editor. Click here (hers is the first letter). I analyze the situation in this post over at EvolutionBlog.


Thanks for the comments and the link Jason. I am looking forward to Dawkins reply - probably way more than Midgely is!

I have very few kind words to say about Midgely. Having read her original review of The Selfish Gene, I don’t even think it’s reasonable to say that “in fairness [she] subsequently apologized for her intemperate tone.”

If you look at her reply, she clearly makes her “apology” as a gambit to gain sympathy before launching into *another* tirade, which ignores all of the arguments raised against her, and continues to use derogatory descriptions of Dawkins’s arguments as “psychological egoism”, supporting Social Darwinism (Dawkins has repeatedly argued against SD), “shoddy psychology and a bogus political morality,” compares Dawkins to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and accuses him of “fatalism” (even while acknowledging that Dawkins wrote a compelling argument against fatalism!), and that the natural result of believing Dawkins’s arguments is “delusion” and “paralysis of the will” and “complete despair.” So much for tempering her tone of language.

But of course, the main problem isn’t actually the tone. It’s the utter misrepresentation of Dawkins’s views, even at times quoting him and then asserting that his argument means the opposite of what he has said. As far as I could see, the “apology” was hardly heart-felt – her main regret is that her tone might have cost her sympathy among her readers, not that she might have been abusive towards Dawkins and Mackie – and amounted to nothing more than a sympathy-grab before launching into another round of abuse and misrepresentation.

Why does it not surprise me that she is at it again?

And, JPD, I don’t think Midgely has the slightest fear of a rebuttal by Dawkins or anyone else. As her “apology” made clear last time around, the only counter-argument that actually touched her was that she had been insulting and abusive towards Mackie, who had recently died and could not defend himself. She made no attempt to deal with the other objections except to assert the objections were wrong (even going so far as to quote Dawkins saying the exact opposite of what she insists he believes, and then “proving” he means what she wants him to mean rather than what he says he means).

My favourite piece of broken logic comes from the second para. “I shall have very little to say directly about Mackie’s argument, since it was chiefly just a very fair and sympathetic exposition of Dawkins’ views.” That’s right. Midgely felt no need to address a fair and sympathetic exposition of the views she was attacking. You can’t penetrate that sort of mindset with anything as simple as intelligent argument.

We need another idiot telling people evolution is “entirely random” like we need another hurricane.

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When I’m in the UK, I’m a regular Guardian reader so I caught the Dawkins piece last week. But this morning, as I was reading in the sports pages the report about yesterday’s play in the 5th Ashes Test Match (an international cricket match between age-old rivals England and Australia, and the biggest thing happening in sport in the UK this summer) I was wryly amused to see this description of how the England captain lost his wicket:

Michael Vaughan then struck a blow against the Kansas Board of Education. It was 20 minutes to lunch when England’s captain tried tugging a short leg-break against the spin, hit it in the air as is his regrettably casual habit and was caught at midwicket: no evidence of intelligent design behind that shot.

Full Report (if you’re a cricket fan)

Frankly, it’s a very odd thing to see in the English sports pages and not many people (not even well informed Guardian readers) in this country would have understood the reference, but it was funny to see it all the same.

There were some more responses in the Thursday science supplement of The Guardian:


terminally offtopic:

http://www.thedenverchannel.com/new[…]/detail.html the almighty FSM approves.

Midgely Wrote:

The assumption that anything non-scientific is wrong can equally be applied to the non-scientific theory that life originated as the product of chance.

Isn’t she correct here? If no empirical test can affirm chance any more than intelligence, isn’t the conclusion of chance in this instance (or any other physical event) unscientific?

What would be a scientific test for chance? Can’t any argument against such a test for intelligence (e.g., Dembski) be applied against a test for chance?

It’s a willful misunderstanding of the mechanisms proposed. For “chance” in the sentence, substitute “[natural processes, in accordance with known natural law, without the necessity for supernatural intervention].”

Really, this is philosophy in the Stephen Meyer mold: Incoherence masquerading as profundity.

Mythos Wrote:

Midgely wrote:

The assumption that anything non-scientific is wrong can equally be applied to the non-scientific theory that life originated as the product of chance.

No, IDiot, neither Midgley nor “Midgely” wrote that. And no, the author (one David Wilson of Tauton, Somerset) is not right here; such assumption is invalid and Dawkins and Coyne don’t make it.

Isn’t she correct here? If no empirical test can affirm chance any more than intelligence, isn’t the conclusion of chance in this instance (or any other physical event) unscientific?

Who cares? After all, evolution isn’t “chance”. Evolution is based on SELECTION, which is the very OPPOSITE of “chance”.

ID/creationists seem to be, uh, too stupid to grasp that simple point.

Or else too dishonest to acknowledge it.

Mythos Wrote:

What would be a scientific test for chance?

The fact that most Vegas casinos are quite profitable.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Jason Rosenhouse published on September 8, 2005 4:52 PM.

Communications and Science was the previous entry in this blog.

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