Author of Beast and Man and Wickedness, moral philosopher Mary Midgley has been described as ‘the UK’s foremost scourge of scientific pretention.’
Life and Work
Mary Midgley began studying Classics and Philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford alongside several other notable minds of her generation, such as Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Mary Warnock. She is a renowned ethicist and moral philosopher who has written extensively on science and human nature. The Guardian newspaper has called her ‘the most frightening philosopher in the country’ a title which she has earned through her vociferous attacks on scientism and reductionism.
Much of her work has confronted the growing tendency to elevate the sciences to an almost god-like stature. She makes a strong case that science can only explain a small amount of the huge number of complexities which make up life. This has brought her into contention with other public thinkers, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, whose ardent beliefs in science Midgley criticizes for leading them into the same errors as the religious zealots they attack.
Another major focus of Midgley’s philosophical output has been whether or not human nature is a biologically ingrained aspect of the self. She has spent many decades of her career deftly adjudicating between the view that all humans share a common, genetically determined make-up, on the one hand, and the relativistic response that there is no intrinsic nature that cannot be molded by environmental factors.
Taking both of these streams of criticism into account, one might be led to believe that she is deeply at odds with the predominant scientific worldview. However, her friendship with and support for James Lovelock, the scientist who developed the Gaia hypothesis, tells us a lot about her positive beliefs. Lovelock provides an example of a scientific approach that is much more in line with Midgley’s views in that it avoids the Scylla of scientism – pace Dawkins – and the Charybdis of reductionism. Midgley’s corpus can be seen as clearing a path between these two pitfalls, so as to delimit the amount of confidence that is (often blindly) placed in the claims of science.