Mary Midgley obituary: Moral philosopher and critic of Dawkins and academic imperialism

She was well into her 50s when she began publishing the work for which she would be acclaimed

Mary Midgley.  In 1979 she issued a scathing critique of Richard Dawkins’  popular book The Selfish Gene, taking issue with what she called his “crude, cheap, blurred genetics”.

Mary Midgley. In 1979 she issued a scathing critique of Richard Dawkins’ popular book The Selfish Gene, taking issue with what she called his “crude, cheap, blurred genetics”.


Mary Midgley

Born: September 3rd, 1919

Died: October 10th, 2018

Mary Midgley, a leading British moral philosopher who became an accessible, persistent and sometimes witty critic of the view that modern science should be the sole arbiter of reality, died on Wednesday, less than three weeks after her last book was published, in Jesmond, Newcastle Upon Tyne. She was 99.

Her death was confirmed by Ian Ground, who teaches philosophy at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, where Midgley taught for many years.

Midgley wrote more than a dozen books for a general audience, beginning when she was in her late 50s and continuing well into her 90s. Her last book, What Is Philosophy For?, was published by Bloomsbury Academic on September 20th.

“Not many authors can be known to publish a book in their 100th year,” the publisher said, adding, “Its quality and remarkable insights do not fall short of the brilliant mind that penned it.”

Midgley unhesitatingly challenged scientists such as the entomologist Edward O Wilson and the biologist, and noted atheist, Richard Dawkins. By her lights they practised a rigid “academic imperialism” when they tried to extend scientific findings to the social sciences and the humanities.

In place of what she saw as their constricted, “reductionistic” worldview, she proposed a holistic approach in which “many maps” – that is, varied ways of looking at life – are used to get to the nub of what is real.

One challenge came in 1978 in her first book, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, based on a conference she had organised on that slippery, perennial subject as a visiting scholar at Cornell University.

Critical reaction

She was later asked to revise her original manuscript to reflect her critical reaction to Wilson’s best-selling 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (“a volume the size of a paving stone,” she wrote later in a well-received 2005 autobiography, The Owl of Minerva). She described the field of sociobiology as a kind of reactionary “biological Thatcherism”.

Sociobiology – the application of gene-centred theories of natural selection to the social life of organisms – was not itself overly controversial, especially, as Wilson originally used it, in the study of ants and insects. Midgley, given her own interest in emphasising humans’ animal nature – that “we are not, and do not need to be, disembodied intellects” – praised parts of Wilson’s book.

What provoked her and others was his hypothesis that the tenets of sociobiology could be applied to humans. That idea, according to scholars, threatened to radically revise generally accepted notions of human nature.

In 1979, in the journal Philosophy, she issued a scathing critique of Dawkins’ widely popular book The Selfish Gene, taking issue with what she called his “crude, cheap, blurred genetics”.

In that book, Dawkins suggested that evolution is a product of an innate drive in genes to perpetuate themselves, “selfishly”, through the vehicle of a given species, and that the behaviour of living things is in service to their genes.

In a long career as a published philosopher, Midgley addressed a great number of subjects. Evolution, the importance of animals, the role of science in society, cognitive science, feminism and human nature all came under her scrutiny.

Church curate

She was born Mary Scrutton on September 13th, 1919, in Dulwich, England, to Lesley (Hay) and Tom Scrutton. Her father, a church curate, became a chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge, before the family moved to Greenford, now a suburb west of London, where he became vicar of Greenford and where Mary and her elder brother, Hugh (later a prominent art gallery director), grew up.

When she was 12 Mary attended Downe House, a progressive boarding school that had begun in Charles Darwin’s home, though it later moved to Ash Green, near Newbury.

She began classes at Oxford University in 1938 and quickly found herself in a heady academic environment. Her fellow philosophy students included Iris Murdoch, who became a good friend and eventually a Booker Prize-winning novelist; Philippa Foot, who became a leading moral philosopher; and Elizabeth Anscombe, who later went by GEM Anscombe as a published philosopher and was a prominent disciple of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s.

In 1950 Mary Scrutton married the philosophy instructor Geoffrey Midgley, whom she had met at Oxford. The couple had three sons in five years, during which time she gave up a teaching career and reviewed novels and children’s books for the New Statesman.

Senior lecturer

Midgley returned to teaching philosophy in 1965, as a lecturer at Newcastle University. She later became senior lecturer. It was while teaching there, well into her 50s, that she began publishing the work for which she would be acclaimed.

Not that she envisioned a long career of expounding on her philosophical views in a succession of books. She wrote more as a critic, she suggested, responding to what she heard or read.

“I keep thinking that I shall have no more to say,” she told the Guardian in 2001, “and then finding some wonderfully idiotic doctrine which I can contradict.”

Her husband died in 1997. She is survived by her sons, Tom, David and Martin, and three grandchildren. David Midgley edited the book The Essential Mary Midgley (2005).