Evolution as a Religion
Strange hopes and stranger fears

by Mary Midgley

This is a book review of Evolution as a Religion: Strange hopes and stranger fears, by Mary Midgley. Methuen, 1985, ISBN 0-416-39660-7. (Midgley also wrote Beast and Man.)

This book pursues some of the themes in Beast and Man. Midgley has no problems with evolution as a piece of science but diapproves of evolution as a religion. The book examines and criticizes the doctrines of this faith and their immediate effects on science and worldviews.

She is, of course, aware that evolution is not a religion in any official sense, but she devotes time to making a careful comparison of attitudes between the faithful of conventional religions and those of unofficial sects such as evolution and Marxism. She feels the similarities are enough to justify her theological approach.

This approach involves what she calls the "drama" attaching to many scientific theories. Other dramatic theories are, for instance, quantum mechanics and relativity (with their surrealism) and the Big Bang (than which it is hard to get more dramatic). Even the clockwork universe of classical physics had a stern and austere drama.

"Drama" such as this is inevitable because science is done by people, who have imaginations and emotions. There is nothing wrong with it – it can be a spur to inspiration – as long as it is recognized and controlled. When it goes unrecognized, it can breed a whole mythology, a spuriously scientific worldview that misrepresents and sometimes even corrupts the real science it is based on. This, Midgley claims, is what happens in evolutionary religion.

Midgley distinguishes two main denominations of evolutionary religion, optimistic and pessimistic. She disapproves of both as equally inaccurate, but acknowledges that, as one might expect, the optimists do less damage than the pessimists.

The optimists believe in "the irresistible escalator" that drives Life (or even the Universe and Everything) onward to greater and greater achievements.

The pessimists believe in "Nature, red in tooth and claw" and the "survival of the fittest," and see the world as essentially competitive.

The optimists tie themselves into knots when they try to justify their definition of evolutionary "progress" – or they would if they stopped to try. Often, they assume that intelligence is the obvious goal of evolution, and frequently go on to assume that the pinnacle of intelligence is scientific talent ... making for an embarrassingly self-centered evolutionary religion.

More important than this complacency is the value theory behind it, that cleverness is the central good of life – not just human life, but all life. This encourages very muddled, and sometimes pernicious, thinking about ethical behavior toward other animals, non-clever people, or anyone else who does not have the fortune to be at what they have chosen as the cutting edge of evolution.

Some sectarians within the optimistic denomination have faith in genetic engineering as the key to the next great evolutionary advance (typically by engineering super-scientists). Midgley explores some of the ethical problems that idea brings up.

Scientifically, the problem with this denomination is that evolution does not, in fact, exhibit any unambiguously progressive direction nor would its theory lead us to expect that.

The pessimists used to include heroic people like Thomas Huxley, who regarded civilized and ethical behavior as necessarily opposed to a fundamentally cruel and vicious natural order. Now, pessimistic evolutionism appeals to people who advocate egoistic ethics.

They tend to suppose that "enlightened self-interest" has somehow been proven to be more scientific than any other ethical principle, on the supposed grounds that organisms universally compete with each other for resources.

Midgley points out that (1) there is no logical connection between the ecological relationships between or within species and ethical principles, and (2) real science does not show us competition as the only relationship between organisms – though making that discovery has been impeded by the prejudices of the pessimists.

By a neat chance, each denomination of evolutionary religion get criticized using a table illustrating a basic shortcoming of the denomination.

The evolutionary pessimists, basing their ethics on competition and enlightened self-interest, typically base ethical behavior on the theory of the social contract. Midgley finds the social contract theory inadequate for the whole of ethics:

Writers who treat morality as primarily contractual tend to discuss non-contractual cases briefly, casually and parenthetically, as though they were rather rare. ... We have succeeded, they say, in laying most of the carpet; why are you making this fuss about those little wrinkles behind the sofa?

This treatment confirms a view, already suggested by certain aspects of contemporary politics in the United States, that those who fail to clock in as normal rational agents and make their contracts are just occasional exceptions, constituting one more "minority" group – worrying no doubt to the scrupulous, but not a central concern of any society. Let us, then, glance briefly at their scope, by roughly listing some cases which seem to involve us in non-contractual duties. (The order is purely provisional and the number are added just for convenience.)

Human sector
1. The dead
2. Posterity
3. Children
4. The senile
5. The temporarily insane
6. The permanently insane
7. Defectives, ranging down to "human vegetables"
8. Human embryos

Animal sector
9. Sentient animals
10. Non-sentient animals

Inanimate sector
11. Plants of all kinds
12. Artefacts, including works of art
13. Inanimate but structured objects – crystals, rivers, rocks, etc.

14. Unchosen human groups of all kinds, including families, villages, cities, and the species
15. Unchosen multi-species groups, such as ecosystems, forest, and countries
16. The biosphere

17. Arts and sciences
18. Oneself
19. God

No doubt I have missed a few, but that will do to go on with.

Going back to the optimists, she notes that this unexamined worship of cleverness is part of a large family of over-simple dichotomies that rule the world of thought, including the province of rationalism:

I have been arguing that the contrast between science and religion is unluckily not as plain, nor the relation between them as simple, as is often supposed, and have been discussing some elements which can equally form part of either. Thoughtful scientists have often mentioned this problem, but a great many of their colleagues, and of the public generally, cling to the reassuringly simple opposition. What often seems to happen is that a great number of different antitheses are mixed up here, and used rather indiscriminately, as each happens to be convenient, to give colour to the idea of a general crusade of light against darkness. We could group them roughly like this:

science vs. superstition
blind conformism

common sense
vs.    intuition

materialism vs. idealism
mind-body dualism
commonsense agnosticism

vs. soft
vs. tradition
vs. free will
vs. teleology
vs. rationalism or metaphysics
vs. credulity
vs. feeling or emotion
vs. subjective
vs. quality
physical science 
vs. the humanities
vs. reverence
vs. holism
vs. poetry
vs. female
clarity vs. mystery

A mental map based on this strange group of antitheses, a map which showed them all as roughly equivalent and was marked only with the general direction "keep to the left," has for the last century usually been issued to English-speaking scientists with their first test-tube and has often gone with them to the grave. In spite of its wild incoherence, it still has great influence, though at least two recent developments within science itself have lately shaken it, and more are to be expected.

(Midgley refers to quantum mechanics and discoveries about the interdependence of the brain hemisphere.)

Comment from Ann Broomhead:

From my readings about evolution, and laments about the frequency of basic misunderstandings about it, I have come to the conclusion that we need to make two basic changes in how we present it.

1. Instead of referring to the Evolutionary Ladder or the Evolutionary Tree, we should refer to the Evolutionary Shrub, and point to humanity as one of the leaves over here on the right, fairly near the top.

2. Instead of using the glib "survival of the fittest", we should use the downright awkward (but more accurate) "non-survival of the least fit".


Midgely, by the way, dedicates her book "To Charles Darwin, who said none of these things." That is, Darwin himself was not guilty of either evolutionary optimism or evolutionary pessimism. "Survival of the fittest" was a phrase coined by, I think, Herbert Spencer (anyway, not by Darwin). Darwin himself usually spoke only of "adaptation."

Your shrub model is, indeed, favored by science writers like Stephen J. Gould. Putting humanity somewhere other than the top is a good idea. For that matter, drawing the thing sideways might help.

One problem with the whole tree diagram is that it tends to imply that earlier bits got "left behind" unless it is drawn carefully, when, in many important cases, such as bacteria, they are thriving as nicely as ever.

(Back in Beast and Man, Midgley points out a related problem in evolutionary logic – deciding what counts as survival. She remarks that the oldest amoebae are, in a sense, still "personally" present. "There's survival for you!" she remarks.)

Here is a sample from Evolution as a Religion:

In what sense can two such abstract entities as science and religion (or morality) be said to clash? Mere accidental personal feuds between their followers is not enough to justify this language. They can surely only clash where they compete, where they represent rival attempts to perform the same function. How far, if at all, can science and religion do this?

There is, of course, a well-known set of cases where they seem to do it, namely, where religion is invoked against science on a point of empirical fact. The literal acceptance of archaic Biblical ideas on cosmology is an obvious case. Creationists who attempt this are taking on a scientific task, as indeed they now recognize by their preference for talk of "creation science." But their reasons for undertaking it flow not from religion as such, nor even from Christianity, but from their own peculiar conception of the Bible as literally true and divinely dictated. Other Christians object to this view strongly, on the obvious grounds that it is needless, and moreover that the Bible, in spite of its grandeur, contains many things which conflict not just with science, but with morality, with history, with common sense, or with each other. If there were a god who had dictated the whole of it, he would certainly not be one we ought to worship. Biblical writers seem, then, to have been as fallible and imperfect as other human beings, and moreover to have used – as would naturally be expected – a mythical and metaphorical way of writing where that was suitable, instead of making the quite irrelevant attempt to be modern physical scientists. The central objections to fundamentalist literalism are religious, moral, and historical ones. If they are right, this is a case where "religion" does not clash with science unless something has gone wrong with it already on its own terms. The religion which does clash with science has left its own sphere, for bad reasons, to intrude on a scientific one. It is bad religion.

This kind of case is relatively familiar and well understood. In this book, however, we shall be more concerned with the opposite kind, which has been less noticed. We shall look at doctrines which are believed to be scientific, but are not actually so, and whose persuasiveness seems to be due to their serving some of the functions of a religion, even though they are seen by their promoters as being hostile to "religion" as such. Sometimes indeed they are put forward consciously as substitutes for religion, able to replace it in public acceptance. This project would hardly make sense if they were not seen as performing in some sense the same function, that is as being somehow religious doctrines in their own right, aimed essentially at the spiritual nourishment and salvation of the human race. The effect is doubly strange. These doctrines not only lack suitable arguments to recommend them in their new, salvationary role. They also conflict with the genuinely scientific theories which are supposed to provide their roots and to justify their name. Like "creation science" they offend against the laws of their own country of origin even before attempting to conquer a wider territory. Bad religion is being answered by bad science. If we ask "by what myths do people today support themselves?" we shall often find that they do it by myths which they wrongly suppose to be part of science.

Midgley then considers Dobzhansky's suggestion that religion's sphere is "meaning," while that of science is "fact." She concludes that science needs meaning and morality, and religion need fact too much to make this neat division.

She then discusses her reasons for treating evolutionary outlooks as religions:

The reason why it seems worth while to refuse to draw a firm line here, and to go on considering these borderline areas impartially, is that where religious elements arise outside their familiar limits, we are liable to miss the special shapes which they contribute to the systems they affect. For this reason, I think that to say that Marxism or evolutionism, or indeed art or science, is serving as a religion, can be a useful way of speaking today. It is not like saying that golf is someone's religion, which is probably just a joke, and at most means only that it is the most important thing in his life, the thing to which the rest gives place. Here there is not likely to be any system of thought arguing that golf ought to take precendence, and giving reasons why it should do so. Moreover, devotion to golf is likely to have only a negative effect on those parts of life which take place off the golf-course. It leads to their being neglected, not to their being differently conducted. But the other candidates we are now considering do have these thought-systems and that wider impact. They are, not accidentally but by their very nature, dominant creeds, explicit faiths by which people live and to which they try to convert others. They tend to alter the world.

What is the general standing of such secular faiths? When they first began to appear in the nineteenth century, they had an obvious attraction for idealistic people because they were not then tainted by any such grim record of political misuses as they attached to Christianity. By now we know their black possibilities better. But their appeal, which rests on their power to make sense of a threatening and chaotic world by dramatizing it, has certainly not grown less. That makes them more frightening still. What is to be done about them?

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011