Heretics frequently advance traditions of thought by opposing them.
That is the thesis behind a new book series from the British publisher Acumen, whose titles are released in North America by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
The first book in the Heretics series is a broadside against neo-Darwinism by an eminent British moral philosopher. Mary Midgley’s The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene typifies what Heretics will present, says the editor of the series, Mark Vernon: “New ideas tend to be the products of heretics, so that you could say that Jesus was a sort of Jewish heretic; and you could say that Buddha was a sort of Hindu heretic; Einstein was a sort of Newtonian heretic, and so on—Darwin was a Paley heretic.”
Vernon says he is designing the series to give voice to thinkers who have long been battling a tradition in science, philosophy, or religion.
He is an eclectic scholar, himself. Vernon has written several books that bring academic and intellectual subjects to a more-general readership. While he occasionally teaches at the University of London as an honorary research fellow, he generally holds classes on such topics as death, friendship, love and “filling the God-shaped hole” at The School of Life, a shopfront organization in central London that he helped found.
Midgley’s new book continues her many years of taking neo-Darwinists to task because, she says, they distort the legacy of the great English naturalist who inspired them. Chief among her targets is Richard Dawkins, whose popular books on evolutionary biology and ethology have been hugely influential. She contends that neo-Darwinists distort Darwin’s view of individualism as biologically influenced but essentially social.
Midgley argues that the neo-Darwinist perspective rests on an ethos of free-enterprise competition distorted by “the supposedly Darwinian belief in natural selection as a pervasive, irresistible cosmic force” that operates in social and metaphysical realms as well as in physical, biological ones. It results, she writes, in “unbridled, savage competition between the genes” that operates with mythic force within any individual body.
As much as the logic behind the complex scientific conceptions of neo-Darwinism, Midgley takes issue with the metaphors neo-Darwinists use, starting with Dawkins’s title for his best-selling 1976 work of science popularization, The Selfish Gene. Such metaphors matter because “our imaginations feed on striking myths like this much more than we notice,” she writes in the new book.
Midgley has often argued that saying a gene is “selfish” is not only a metaphor, because metaphors are never “only” anything. Rather, neo-Darwinists’ forceful, reiterated metaphors underpin a fatalistic drama of “helpless humans enslaved by a callous fate-figure” that, like all such myths, conveys meaninglessness and a “sinister” advocacy of “unqualified egoism” that she thinks has been socially catastrophic.
Her book continues a public squabble she has maintained with Dawkins for more than 30 years. After he published The Selfish Gene, she energetically took him to task—with “inexplicable hostility” and “transparent spite,” he said. In “In Defence of Selfish Genes,” his long defense in 1981 in the key journal, Philosophy, which he reposted on his web site, Dawkins retorted then that whether his metaphors suited Midgley or not, they were understood and considered sound by biologists.
That Midgley remains vigorous in her denunciation of neo-Darwinism is itself remarkable, as she is now 91 years old. Often called the greatest living British moral philosopher, during World War II she was a contemporary and friend at the University of Oxford of three other women who would go on to become leading English philosophers—Iris Murdoch (1919-99), Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), and Philippa Foot (1920-2010). Midgley did not publish the first of her now-many books until the age of 59—she has always said that she needed time to think, first.
Her book includes an element of credo—in her case, her beliefs about how biology really interacts with morality—and that typifies the Heretics series, says Mark Vernon. He believes, he says, that readers of books by contrarian thinkers like to know something of how their authors arrived at their thoughts.
That approach will be developed in one or two titles each year, including three in progress.
One is by Tim Crane, a University of Cambridge philosopher of the mind and metaphysics. His working title is “Against Humanism” and he “has a bone to pick with organized humanism,” says Vernon.
Also in the works, he says, is “a quite straightforward credo” from Mary Warnock, whom the Guardian newspaper described in 2005 as “Britain’s chief moral referee for the past 30 years.” Vernon says: “She greatly appreciates religious traditions and particularly religious music and she’s written about how moving she finds religious music—that it suggests that something powerful is being communicated—but she doesn’t believe that what is being communicated is God.”
Finally, says Vernon, Julia Neuberger, a rabbi, social reformer, and Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, is at work on a new book about “how a number of characteristics of Reform Judaism, which is her tradition, may be of great benefit to us who live in a plural world. For example, it’s assumed in Judaism that you’ll argue with your fellow Jews and disagree with them, and yet you’ll still have a sense that you belong together.”—Peter Monaghan