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September 22, 2005


Jeff Harmon

I've studied both Midgley's and Dawkins' work with some depth, and have to say I conclude there are misunderstandings on both sides of the fence. Dawkins' rhetoric is circuitous, inconsistent, and irresponsible at times. His use of the term "selfish" as metaphor, then asking his readers not to actually consider the metaphor with its common meaning, was odd. Midgley also doesn't grant appreciation for the spirit of Dawkins' writings, when his rhetoric may be poor, that many of us are more comfortable granting. She also occasionally does not seem to grasp the science fully.

Your review evinces a strong familiarity with Dawkins, but a rather cursory understanding of Midgley. You might pick up "Evolution as a Religion" and give it a try. I think it is safe to presume you have not read it? Or perhaps you have, since you say the reviewer you quote fairly represents her views. I'm in the middle of it right now. Her ideas are not as simple as they might first appear; given the climate of hostility toward evolutionary biology these days, it's understandably easy to dismiss her quickly.

Jeff Harmon

Actually, now that I've read even more, I realize how reactionary and inaccurate the common understanding of Midgley's critique is. Mick, right here it's you who isn't getting it. First, quoting someone else from an Amazon.com review? Come on, that's frankly a weak tactic, and the reviewer DOES NOT fairly represent Midgley's views. Perhaps if you would actually make yourself familiar with Midgley other than secondary reviews, you might come away with an informed representation of them. Her point is about Dawkins' rhetoric, and she has some important and vital things to say here. I am a big fan of Dawkins and think he has a lot to contribute, but if you're not going to fall into the very same fault of which you accuse Midgley, then how about actually reading her work?

Mike Livesey

"The selfish gene conceit has been one of the most powerful and useful metaphors ..."

Well, metaphor it certainly is, but I think this description is very flattering. I'm sure it started off as a bit publishing hype -- after all, who would notice a book called, say, "The Local Gene"? -- that took on a life of its own and got rather out of hand. It could even be that, deep down, Dawkins wishes he had never used the word.

However, on the plus side it has served as a great wind-up!

craig gosling

The "Selfish Gene" concept caught my attention as a book title years ago and put it on top of my reading list. Darwin would have been delighted with the title and the concept. Darwin would have welcomed the multitude of advancements and corrections added to his theory.
Midgley attacks Dawkins because he is, unintentionally, the strongest critic of her personal theology. Unfortunately, she does not understand the biology of evolution and now admittedly confesses she has been a little harsh in her criticism, which means to me "don't take my initial and premature criticism of Dawkins too seriously."
I am glad Dawkins replied so thoroughly rather than ignoring her. The depth of his understanding of evolution and ability to explain it continues to amaze me.

John C. Fentress, PhD

I once took an English course in which Robert Frost, the American poet, challenged us with the question "What is a Meta For"? An interesting question to think about in this context.

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant and charismatic biologist who has helped clarify many aspects of our thinking about evolutionary processes (and before that, animal behavior). Mary Midgley has tidied up some misapprehensions about current evolutionary thought when extrapolated to higher-order (e.g. social) issues without due care. I would rather have the two of them sit down together, rather than be subjected to direct and indirect attacks. Two bright folks who disagree. Metaphors aside, how uncommon is that? Evolution is a solid fact, upon which all of biology is based. Full explanation of the detailed processes involved continues to challenge current research. Extrapolations across vastly different levels of organization is always tricky. I do not see any of this as a crisis but a framework that may guide future thought in productive ways.

Maybe I am a dreamer.

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