Review of "The Myths We Live By"

The Myths We Live By, by Mary Midgley. ISBN 0-415-34077-2.

You might not think it from the title, but this is largely a book about science (though not a book of science). Against the notion (perhaps something of a straw man) that science offers us an impartial view of the world and can answer all the questions that are really worth asking, Midgley argues that science is as much shaped by myths (of its own omnicompetence, of the world as a great machine, of all life as a Darwinian struggle, and so on) as any other department of life, and that its applicability in our world is limited.

Thus, Midgley attacks reductionism (of various kinds), "memetics", evolutionary views of culture change, and ambitious biotechnology programmes. She then proceeds to other topics that don't fall under the general heading of "objections to scientism", of which more below.

One of her preferred modes of argumentation, which explains the title of the book, is to claim that some notion, attitude or practice she dislikes owes its appeal to its consonance with some symbolic way we have of viewing the world; that the world isn't really that way; and, therefore, that the notion, attitude, or practice is ill-grounded and should be replaced. One of the big advantages of this approach is that one doesn't actually need any facts; the aim is merely to produce guilt by association, after all, and assertions about people's unconscious influences are easy to make and hard to refute.

Occasionally, she argues differently: some position she approves of is undergirded by a symbolic way we have of viewing the world, embodying deep insights which it would be folly to abandon.

The book makes some interesting points, but is vitiated by an endless parade of straw men introduced by weasel phrases like "many people seem to believe". It would be easier to take seriously her laments about scientism if she provided more evidence of its prevalence.

Another equally unwelcome recurring theme is pop psychoanalysis of the people Midgley is criticizing; this is really a special case of the myth-finding strategy described above. Most likely some of her explanations are insightful ones. Perhaps some of them are even correct. But she seldom offers any actual reason to accept them. In chapter 7 of this book, Midgley objects to the same procedure when it's done by others; she calls it "psychological reduction of motives" there. It doesn't seem to occur to her that she is describing her own behaviour.

Similarly, she seems to me disgracefully willing to adopt the most uncharitable interpretation possible of her targets' words. Thus, someone suggests (implausibly to my mind, but no matter) that it may be possible to survive the "heat death of the universe" by doing without physical bodies; Midgley takes that to signify "fear and hatred of the flesh". (She goes on to link this, even more bizarrely, with sexism. Her arguments at this point seem so strange to me that perhaps I have misunderstood them.)

So much for Midgley's critique of scientism. About two thirds of the way through the book, she changes tack a bit and looks at a marginally related issue: our relations with the rest of the natural world. I found this part of the book less irritating; it certainly has a lower density of straw men. Midgley's principal concern here is to argue for a more positive, more cooperative, less arrogant attitude towards (other) animals and natural environments.

The book is a conglomerate of several earlier essays and lectures. There are some unifying themes (for instance: rejection of oversimplification, sporadic analysis of myths allegedly underlying our bad thinking, and derisive psychoanalysis of scientists), but it still feels slightly bitty. This isn't helped by an occasional tendency to leave arguments unfinished. Perhaps I should take this as a compliment to Midgley's readers: she trusts us to be able to see where she's headed, and therefore doesn't need to fill in the details. But I fear it may just be sloppiness.

Midgley writes elegantly and clearly. She has some interesting ideas. It's a pity that sometimes it seems that she doesn't much care whether what she's writing is actually true.