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5.0 out of 5 starsEvolution as a Religion.
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 24, 2007
_Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears_, republished by Routledge in 2002, is a revised edition of a book by philosopher Mary Midgley which attempts to reveal the excesses and overbold prophecies of certain biologists (and other scientists) in their attempt to turn evolution into a religion. Midgley begins by noting that "I had been struck for some time by certain remarkable prophetic and metaphysical passages that appeared suddenly in science books about evolution, often in their last chapters. Though these passages were detached from the official reasoning of the books, they seemed still to be presented as science." Before going further though, it should be made clear that Midgley does not appear to be against the theory of evolution (properly formulated); indeed, she dedicates her book "To the Memory of Charles Darwin Who Did Not Say These Things", but rather to certain irresponsible statements and inferences drawn from it by certain scientists. Furthermore, Midgley is certainly not advocating Creationism (the belief in a literal "seven days") or Intelligent Design. (She references the work of the early Christian father Origen in this respect, showing the problematic in taking the account in Genesis to indicate a literal "seven days".) What this book is is simply reflections on some of these confusions made by scientists themselves and musings on the various philosophical underpinnings and implications of the theory of evolution. For a more detailed and convincing attack on the Darwinian account, one should consult the works of the Australian philosopher David Stove, particularly the book _Darwinian Fairytales_. Stove is a self-described "skeptic" in the tradition of David Hume and adheres to a common-sense approach in refuting the claims made by Darwinists, and furthermore, Stove is deeply indebted to this work by Mary Midgley in his own writings. Nevertheless, the writings of Midgley (while appearing to reject the traditional religious worldview) call into question many of the aspects of the modern scientific endeavor. Reactionary scientists and humanists generally will likely scoff at such ideas, but their refusal to actually consider the implications of their own researches (and especially the implications of their own religious prophecies) just serve to indicate how deeply in need of such questioning they are. It should also be pointed out that while this book was originally written as an essay in 1985, some of the claims may appear dated. However, since that time the practice of making overbold religious prophecies by noted scientists has only grown worse.
Midgley begins by arguing that unlike Darwin's account of the theory of evolution (supposedly, although Darwin himself had elements of both of these in his account), two distinct fallacies have arisen in the interpretation of this account: the "Social Darwinist" distortion (perhaps best expressed in the phrase "survival of the fittest" invented by Herbert Spencer) and the Panglossian or "Escalator Fallacy" (the naïve belief in progress, first put into form by Lamarck). Midgley also comments on the underpinnings of Darwin's own writings (showing the influence of his extracurricular readings on his worldview) and the apparent conflict between religion and biology (which is believed to arise out of a fear of biology). These two fallacies will continue to appear over and over again in the writings of noted Darwinists, despite the claims of Darwinists to have eliminated both of them from their accounts once and for all. Midgley next considers the supposed competition between religion and science (showing how these alleged demarcation disputes actually arise from a fallacy made by both the overzealous religious and scientists). Midgley considers for example the debate over evolution between Bishop Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley ("Darwin's bulldog"). According to the popular understanding of this debate, it is maintained that Wilberforce simply waffled and appealed to emotion. However, as Midgley shows this is not what occurred; instead, it should be noted that Wilberforce called for evidence (which at the time Huxley could not have provided) and actually presented a coherent argument (being somewhat of a scientist in his own right). Huxley was also the first to consider the idea of science as a paid profession and not merely a gentlemanly pursuit. Midgley then considers the question of evolution as religion. She explains how it is useful to speak of such things as Marxism as religion, and that no one argues that (alleged) non-theistic religions such as the original form of Buddhism are in fact religions, thus it should also be useful to speak of evolution as a religion. Midgley then goes on to consider the so-called "Escalator Fallacy", showing how this fallacy lies at the heart of much of the prophesying made by scientists. Indeed, much of the appeal of the uncovering of human genetics is rooted in the idea of the creation of an "Omega man" or a "superman" (often amounting to a supposed increase in intelligence). This idea of the "Omega man" was first proposed by the religious Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, but it was later co-opted by atheistic scientists who became overly enamored of the fallacy of progress. Midgley also quotes extensively from the works of Nietzsche in this regard (making note of the role of eugenics in the breeding of the "superman"). Midgley considers some of the problems involved in genetic engineering and quotes such Darwinians as E. O. Wilson to illustrate the "Escalator Fallacy" in their thinking. Midgley also shows how the ideal of the "superscientist" is maintained as the goal of human evolution. (The undertones to such utopian thinking are indeed ominous.) Following this, Midgley considers various remarks made by the physicist Steven Weinberg and the biochemist Jacques Monod, which amount to a form of existentialism, mimicking Sartre. For instance, Monod maintains that the universe is a meaningless and dangerous place in which man lives as an alien and that man's only solace is to be found in science (why science should provide a source of redemption is of course never adequately explained). Such remarks are certainly religious. Monod makes war against "animism" which is what he beliefs to be the fallacies of progress and Social Darwinism; however, his own statements retain traces of both. Midgley next considers some of the antitheses which are alleged to exist between science and other forms of thinking. She shows how much of this type of thinking is highly problematic. Following this Midgley turns to the fallacy of Social Darwinism. Obvious cases of this are to be found in the writings of Spencer, the American eugenicists, and Adolf Hitler, but Social Darwinism also continually creeps up in the writings of the sociobiologists. Social Darwinism amounts to an affirmation of the Hobbesian ideal, a view of nature as "red in tooth and claw", and support for the philosophy of selfishness. For example, there is the statement of noted sociobiologist M. T. Ghiselin, "Scratch an `altruist' watch a `hypocrite' bleed." Further, Social Darwinism has frequently been used as a justification for the most rampant excesses of individualism and laissez-faire capitalism. Midgley considers the question of selfishness in the writings of Dawkins (theorist of the "selfish gene") and Wilson (who claimed that life only existed so that DNA could make more DNA). Midgley shows how such claims regarding selfish genes are anthropomorphic and ill-founded. (A better demolition of Dawkins is provided in the work of David Stove.) Midgley then goes on to show the limits of individualism and the dangers of progress and the excesses of Enlightenment humanism. Midgley also makes some interesting remarks on rights and duties (the idea of "duty towards oneself"), the possibility of animal rights, and the need to rethink our position towards other species, ourselves, and the environment.
The thinking of Midgley in this book is important, because it reveals the religious underpinnings of many of the modern scientific notions (regarding progress and utopia or dystopia). Scientists who refuse to think critically about their endeavors run the risk of becoming inhuman. And, the damage that has been done by predatory excesses (both of individualism and laissez-faire capitalism) should not be underestimated. These are important words of wisdom that should be heeded especially by those who are least likely to listen.