47 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
This an excellent book that explores the meaning of life!, 9 Jan. 2002
Review of Midgley, M. Science and Poetry 2001. London: Routledge
The Graduate School of Business
University of Strathclyde
Having just read and enjoyed Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science. 2001.Edited by Robert Aunger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, I found Science and Poetry to be an equally useful and broader addition to the debate over the connection between the natural sciences and sociology. The aim of the book is to see how the ideas of science and poetry might be brought together to elucidate the problem of 'personal identity' - 'who and what we are' (Introduction p: 1).
Midgely covers three areas of interest in her book. First, in the section 'Visions of rationality' she adds morality, emotion, imagination, visioning and bounded rationality to the traditional view of wholly rational scientists and of science as the source of the ultimate explanation of life. Second, in the section 'Mind and Body: The End of Apartheid,' she discusses the problem of consciousness and the need to become more conscious of consciousness. Here she criticises science for reducing humanity to social atomism, thus making the concept of society questionable. Third, in her last section, 'In what kind of world,' she re-introduces the role of morality and civil rights, arguing that we have a duty to help other citizens. To make her point she uses the concept of Gaia, which she states, unlike most excursions of science into the social world, has a moral and religious element, a multi-level non-atomistic view of the world, and an emphasis on the need to act collectively to stop global warming. In building her argument, Midgely makes the point that to differentiate so strongly between science and non-science is unhelpful. Neither is rational and both are part of the whole. Similarly, it is unhelpful to differentiate between living and dead, because in Gaian terms the whole planet is alive.
To be critical, as an evolutionist I feel the book unjustifiably dismisses the claim that evolutionary theory has the potential to be a theory of everything. That said, I do agree with Midgely's critique of the use of the word selfish and the overuse of the concept of competition in evolutionary thinking. Using 'selfish' when referring to memes and genes (the units of selection of genetic evolution and social evolution respectively) is unnecessarily emotive. Instead, Midgely suggests, somewhat ironically, that a more scientific term, such as "selectable." would be preferable. Equally, the incessant use of the term "competition" distorts the field because, in fact, units of evolution often co-operate in order to improve their chances of survival.. I do feel, however, that she fails to see the broader picture painted by evolution. In particular, she ignores the argument from memetics that pieces of social knowledge can survive by virtue of being non-rational only in some contexts, through emotion and humour, or indeed, by a social context being defined by what is meaningful within it. Equally, the author seems to dismiss the perspective created by the evolutionist Dawkins and detailed in his book, Un-weaving the Rainbow; that understanding the system we operate in does not have to meant that we underestimate its poetic beauty.
Lastly, Midgely perhaps could have pointed out that the notion of Gaia is very much in keeping with evolutionary theory. Namely, that social life, physical life, geological change, planetary and universe dynamics are part of one huge complex system that has no foresight but instead has evolved to produce variation that may or may not bring the system back in to dynamic equilibrium. Hence, evolution as a process does not 'care' about whether we humans by inventing cars, an attractive meme, are causing changes that occur more rapidly than the ability of our genes to adapt to them. Thus, the air that we breathe (see increase in asthma) will, unless checked, cause a change in climate that will threaten our very existence. Evolutionary theory simply states that other variation will be produced that will take be better suited to that new system. What the system 'cares' about is self-perpetuation, in whatever form. Indeed, evolutionary theory argues that this is why this, myopic and unguided system, rather than any other system that has foresight, has survived to the point of domination.
Consciousness and morality in evolutionary terms thus become a matter of humans being aware of the dynamics of evolution. In particular, we need to be aware of our role in altering those parts of the system that alter our chances of survival within it. Morality and consciousness, viewed in these terms, become truly "selfish." Whether we do anything about our own survival is another matter, and in my view, will only occur when become less anthropocentric about who and what we are.