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mary midgley science and poetry

times literary supplement, 2 march 2001

'It may not be too much to say', EO Wilson wrote 25 years ago in his book Sociobiology, 'that sociology and other social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology'. In 1975, Wilson's claim created a howl of protest. Today the idea that all human activity can be explained by the natural sciences appears to many to be self-evidently true. The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield opened her recent acclaimed BBC series, Brain Story, with the suggestion that 'we can explain everything about ourselves by looking inside the brain.' According to John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, two of the founders of evolutionary psychology, 'Human minds, human behaviour, human artefacts, and human culture are all biological phenomena.'

For such thinkers the question of what it means to be human will eventually be solved like any other question about nature. Science, the evolutionary biologist Rob Foley suggests, 'turns every large philosophical and metaphysical question into what are often straightforward and even boring technical ones.' Recent dramatic advances in genetics, evolutionary biology, psychology and neuroscience, seem to be proving such arguments right. But, as Mary Midgley points out, however much we learn about our brain, our genes, or our evolutionary history, we will not learn fully what it is to be human. To make sense of our humanity requires not just science but poetry. 'Poetry', for Midgley, is defined not in its everyday sense, but is rather a description of all that is not encompassed by natural science – philosophy, history, sociology, politics, literature and so on.

The success of science has derived to a large degree from its ability to expunge teleology from the study of nature. Whereas the prescientific world viewed the universe as full of purpose and desire, the scientific revolution 'disenchanted' nature, transforming it into an inert, mindless entity. Humans, however, are not disenchanted creatures, possessing as we do both purpose and agency. Uniquely among organisms, human beings are both objects of nature and subjects that can shape our own fate. We are, as Midgley puts it, both 'earthly organisms, animals like others operating within a physical pattern' and 'agents, active beings who not only can but must choose what to do.'

The relationship between humans as physically determined beings, and humans as moral agents, is one of the most difficult problems for scientists and philosophers. But denying one or other aspect of our humanness is not a way of solving the problem. That, however, is just what many scientists in effect do. 'Traditional materialism', Midgley observes, 'asks us to believe in a world of objects without subjects, and - since we ourselves are subjects, being asked to do the believing - that proposal makes no sense.' The vulgar materialist view of a world without subjects is 'even less conceivable' than the Idealist view of 'a world without objects'.

In pursuing such a view of humanness, scientists and philosophers distort human life in two ways. First they reduce mind to matter. Such a monist view, Midgley argues, is as wrong as the dualist view of mind and body as separate kinds of stuff. In both cases, the mind is seen as a natural object, not as an expression of human subjectivity. 'The words mind and body', Midgley observes, 'do not name two separate kinds of stuff, nor two forms of a single stuff. The word mind is there to indicate something quite different - namely ourselves as subjects, beings who mind about things.'

The second way in which scientists and philosophers distort human life is by treating human beings as social atoms. It is a view that sees humans 'at the deepest level... not as social animals but as essentially solitary entities.' Social atomism, Midgley points out, is not a scientific viewpoint, but a philosophical and political assumption arising from an individualistic view of human life. And it is a unconvincing assumption, for what characterises human life is not just that we are individual agents, but that we are social beings. It is human sociability that provides the resources out of which emerges individual agency. There is, Midgley argues, an interconnectedness of human life beyond simply the interactions between individuals.

Why do so many scientists and philosophers distort human life in this fashion? Because they have come to believe, in the words of Richard Dawkins, that 'science is the only way we know to understand the real world.' It's a view that confuses the physical world with the 'real' world. Toothache, Midgley points out, 'is as real as teeth' and 'debt is as real as the house that was bought with it.' The real world contains 'electrons and elections, apples and colours, toothaches and money and dreams.' Different conceptual entities require different explanations; hence science - natural science - is insufficient to explain the human world.

There is much to commend about Science and Poetry, both in the character of Midgley's argument, and in the lucidity of her exposition. Its weaknesses arise from Midgley taking the argument, paradoxically, both too far and not far enough. She takes it too far because she projects the idea of 'interconnectedness' from the social to the natural realm. Attracted to James Lovelock's 'Gaia' hypothesis, which suggests that we should understand the Earth as if it were a living organism, Midgley criticises contemporary scientists, and in particular sciobiologists, for adopting an atomistic view of nature, just as they do of society. According to Midgley, the very language of sociobiology - 'selfishness', 'spite', and so on - endorses both an individualistic and an antagonistic view of nature.

Midgley here makes the same mistake as that which she has been so vigorously criticising: she confuses explanatory categories by assuming that the same kinds of explanations are valid for the social and natural worlds. The social is distinct from the natural, and the interconnectedness of the social world is qualitatively distinct from that of the natural world. An animal society, unlike a human one, can be understood simply as an aggregate of individual interactions. Such interactions have been successfully modelled in a number of ways, including through the use of game theory, and such concepts as kin selection and reciprocal altruism. With animals, in other words, unlike with humans, it is possible to understand - in fact, it is only possible to understand - 'altruism' as a product of individual 'selfishness'.

At the same time, Midgley doesn't take her argument far enough because she balks at the idea of humans as exceptional beings. Her argument that humans are uniquely subject and object, uniquely moral agent and determined being, suggests that humans are beings, while part of the natural world, are also distinct from it. Midgley's desire to promote a vision of humans as an integral part of nature leads her, however, to rail against what she calls 'narrow humanism' which sets human beings above the rest of nature. It also leads her to denounce the 'arrogance' of traditional science for its desire to 'conquer' nature. But how do we express our subjectivity - how do we become subjects - if not through 'conquering' nature, both within and without our selves? It's a pity that a book, the substance of whose argument provides a cogent defence of humanism, should end up promoting such anti-humanist sentiments.