Science, Poetry and Gender

Not so long ago I gave a talk in Oxford about why I believe it is important for the public not to feel so distanced from science and maths that they are comfortable saying ‘I never could do maths at school’ or ‘you must be so clever to be a physicist’. Why is that acceptable in society whereas ‘I never could read Shakespeare at school’ would be regarded as beyond the pale? One listener asked me afterwards if I had ever read any of Mary Midgeley‘s work. The answer at the time was no, but I followed up his recommendation and have just been reading her Science and Poetry.

Like Gaul, this book comes in three parts. Crudely speaking, the first I found illuminating, the second irrelevant and slightly dubious on the subject of consciousness and the third too full of pious hopes (largely focussed on Gaian ideas) for my taste. So I had better just concentrate on the first part, the part that deals most explicitly with the book title and with my own interests. Some of what follows will however have been influenced by the narrative throughout.

For Midgley, a philosopher of the Mary Warnock and Elizabeth Anscombe generation in Oxford, writing books came late in life. She was 82 when this particular book was published in 2001, but age has not dimmed her language or the forcefulness of her views. For her, poetry encompasses prose just as much as the stuff poets actually write and from which she clearly feels scientists cut themselves off.  Of the book, she says in her introduction:

In particular, it asks how we can bring together our ideas of science and poetry within a whole that has a place for both of them. It investigates the strange imperialistic, isolating ideology about science which now makes this kind of connection seem impossible.

Really? Most scientists I know would not subscribe to this view of imperialism in their work (or writings).  As it happens, in parallel with reading her book I was also reading Caspar Henderson‘s wonderful Book of Barely Imagined Beings, a book that beautifully mingles the poetic and the scientific in shimmering prose that yet is packed full of detailed facts (and numbers) about the organisms he chooses for his bestiary. His book strikes me as an immediate counter-example to Midgley’s position. The juxtaposition of these two tomes made for fascinating reading, but certainly weakened my willingness to accept Midgley’s views. To pile on the evidence, the next book I picked up was Seed to Seed, by Nicholas Harberd. This is a book-cum-diary (as it happens, recommended to me by the author himself after this same Oxford talk I mentioned above) examining the life cycle of Aridopsis thalania, that I would say also effectively repudiates Midgley’s view that scientists can’t reach beyond their narrow world to bring science and the wider world into happy conjunction.

To take a specific example of Midgley’s pugnaciousness with respect to science and scientists, she has a long history of disagreement with Richard Dawkins. In particular she objects to his use of the word selfishness (as in The Selfish Gene) as being inappropriate to describe the motivations of complex organisms such as humans and their society.  This theme of scientists using language one-dimensionally to impose a view that she feels is (to quote her) ‘ludicrous’ and smacking of the imperialism she hates, permeates her text. But many scientists can also take exception to Dawkins’ rather black and white views: that in itself is not sufficient to distinguish the philosopher from the scientist. But I found it rather dispiriting to watch her paint all scientists with a single hue in this way. She seemed to feel we were all equally one-dimensional and stuck in our silos whereas she, and those of her ilk, were necessarily better capable (in her eyes) of taking a multi-facetted view of things. Well, maybe. But to dissect individual pieces of writing, each of which may be trying to convey one particular message, and to deduce from that that all scientists are unable to join the dots, strikes me as both untrue and not a sound deduction. It may be an interesting intellectual point to make, but not sufficient fodder on which to base a whole section of the book.

I also had a strong desire to direct her to physicists who are exhibiting an increasing interest in emergent phenomena and complexity.  These ideas of emergence seem entirely consonant with her desire for the whole to be seen as more than the sum of their parts. Although 20th century physics may have had much that was reductionist in it, there are increasingly whole swathes of it which are much less so. Speaking as a physicist who had to spend many years defending the idea that the research I did on biological systems was physics despite it being inherently complex, I know that in the not-too-distant past many physicists didn’t feel comfortable with that complexity. Maybe when she was writing the book that was still the prevalent view of those whom she spoke to or whose work she read. But it certainly isn’t so now, and that is not due to the philosophical drivers or virtues that she puts forward; it is simply that the field progresses. Maybe if she met some 21st century physicists she would feel that we were more in touch with her world view and less imperialistic than she feared.

She could also learn from 21st century physicists that coarse-graining, the process of analysing problems at different length scales as appropriate to the actual question in case leaving out the unnecessary details at other (smaller) length scales, is another key tool these days. This too seemed to be a concept she hadn’t come across as she repeatedly revolted against reductionism to the smallest component parts, which was what she equated with the physicist’s mindset. This she thought was a mindset that could only miss the cooperativity of how we ourselves, at all levels from our own cells and genes to our whole society, operate. Again, I just felt she hadn’t been exposed to the right physicists! She was damning us for a philosophy that is no longer rampant.

None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy the book or find it stimulating. I did. The part that I found most interesting was her historical overview of the language of science from Bacon on, something she refers to as ‘The Baconian onslaught on Nature’. Her view of this dominance and the feud she identified between Feeling and Reason that started around the time of the founding of the Royal Society and to which she traces the ongoing divisions between science (equated with Reason) and the Humanities (for which read Feeling) make for enlightening reading. I also found her interpretation of the way this has led to the gendering of science – which echoes that of Evelyn Fox Keller in her much earlier book Reflections of Gender and Science (which I touched on in an earlier post) – highly relevant to many of the issues that underline much of what I write on this blog in general.  To quote Midgley:

…gendered opposition between intellect and feeling was the point of Bacon’s claim about a ‘masculine birth of time’ and of Henry Oldenburg’s boast that the Royal Society would ‘raise a Masculine Philosophy’.

So a book with much food for thought, even if I simultaneously was irritated by it and frustrated by her ability to lump all scientists together as a monolithic group who all thought in the same – and to her eyes the ‘wrong’ – way.


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16 Responses to Science, Poetry and Gender

  1. I fear that this only confirms by view that philosophy has little to contribute to human knowledge. Many philosophers seem to have never come to terms with the age of enlightenment, and now show something of a chip on the shoulder. Perhaps it’s the ” ‘I never could do maths at school’ ” syndrome. (Yes, I know this is an over-simplified view.) I really don’t see how anyone who has read Dawkins could accuse him of not appreciating beauty.

    • Laurence Cox says:

      Agreed. I think that the worst charge that you can lay against Dawkins “selfish gene” is that he anthropomorphises the gene. Against this, you can argue that it does point up the existence of altruism as an emergent phenomena, which I think is useful. If you bar scientists from using words that originated in other contexts, you would also have to remove Stephen Jay Gould’s “spandrels”, which again provides a useful hook on which to hang an idea.

      With the possible exception of Michael Ruse, I cannot think of any philosopher who has made a useful contribution in this field since Karl Popper.

      • Jules Evans says:

        ‘Philosophy has little to contribute to human knowledge’.

        Except an account of human experience – ethics, aesthetics, culture, politics, and consciousness. Other than that, nothing at all.

  2. Tim Crane says:

    I feel the same about these comments by David Colquhoun and Laurence Cox as Athene does about Mary Midgley.

    • Tim Crane says:

      i.e. “irritated and frustrated by their tendency to lump all philosophers together as a monolithic group who all thought in the same way”

      • Tim, What do you, as a philosopher, feel about what Mary Midgley says? Do you share her views?

        • Tim Crane says:

          David, thanks for pointing out these blog posts

          In the first one you attack some specific objections to randomised control trials, and you express (quite understandable) frustration with the way postmodernist writers express themselves.

          The second one is an attack on the supposed evils of religion, and doesn’t have anything to do with philosophy.

          I would have thought that an enthusiast for evidence would look for a bit more of it before dismissing a whole discipline as ‘having little to contribute to human knowledge’ 🙂

      • Laurence Cox says:

        So Tim, are you really saying that scientists should be barred from using words like “selfishness” or “spandrels” outside their original context? Or is it that you think that there are philosphers since Popper who have made a useful contribution to the understanding of science? If the latter, where is your evidence?

        • Tim Crane says:


          (1) on spandrels, selfishness etc: of course not! I completely agree with you, no-one should ban scientists or anyone else from using words in whatever way they like.

          (2) Are there philosophers since Popper who have made a a useful contribution to the understanding of science? Of course!

          Popper is not a very significant philosopher, in my view — historically he has had a lot of influence in persuading many people of his totally misguided conception of what science is all about. But his ideas are very thin and implausible. Most of the serious work in philosophy of science ignores Popper.

  3. Tim Crane says:

    I agree with the essence of what you say here, Athene. I haven’t read this book of Mary Midgley’s, though; but I have read a number of others over the years. She’s very impressive in many ways.

    She has many interesting things to say but she is not very good at explaining why her opponents think what they do; there can be a tendency to create distorted pictures of her opponent’s views, which are then easy to knock down.

    However, maybe her target in some of these writings is not the reality of science as such, but the popular presentation of scientific knowledge in the media and popular culture — the ‘there’s a gene for criminal behaviour’ stuff. This kind of monolithic ‘science can explain everything’ view is quite common among science journalists I think. But since I haven’t read this book I don’t know whether this is what she is talking about there.

    • No I think she was definitely attacking scientists not science journalists in this book. It may well be that she would feel in the last dozen years since she wrote her book that physicists have become less reductionist – she should!

      But it is the assumption that we are somehow incapable of feeling that annoys me too, as well as implying scientists collectively are not be able to write ‘holistically’ – a word I used over Twitter that upset some readers. She merely reinforces the ‘there is this great divide between those of us who feel and those who can only reason’ view that is too simplistic and ultimately dangerous to everyone. By implication, she has a mental pecking order where scientists (all of us) sit below philosophers. It is similarly annoying to the statement I once read by the novelist Lucy Ellman who said ‘The purpose of artists is to ask the right questions, even if we don’t find the answers, whereas the aim of science is to prove some dumb point.’ I don’t think she understood what science was at all!

  4. It would certainly not make sense to try to stop scientists for using everyday words in a technical sense. The always have done so. Words like likelihood, manifold, spin have specialist definitions and, as long as the context makes it clear that they are being used in the specialist sense not the everyday sense that’s fine. If we had to invent a new word every time, science would be even harder to read.

  5. Jules Evans says:

    Hi Athene

    I’ve just read it as well. Not a perfect book – I felt the thesis got lost a bit in the middle, and then, as you say, she seemed suddenly to suggest we create a new Gaian religion, which was a bit of a leap (how? who would be the priests? what would be the rituals?).

    I don’t think she is dismissing scientists en masse – firstly, she seems to have a lot more time for physicists than biologists (she likes the humility and openness of Einstein, for example). Secondly, the entire last bit of her book is a sort of hymn to James Lovelock, so there’s clearly at least one scientist she reveres.

    I also think she actually likes Richard Dawkins’ writing, and seems to respect his love of poetry – it’s his reductionism she objects to, and the social atomism she argues it leads to.

    It reminded me of Jonathan Haidt’s last book, the Righteous Mind, which also criticized the Selfish Gene for leading to social atomism, and which also suggested we need better myths / metaphors to bind us together. Haidt’s book was written a good 13 years after Midgely’s, so she was ahead of the curve on that. It’s strange, though, that she doesn’t really mention George Lakoff’s work on metaphors – it would have fit well with her thesis.

  6. Brigitte says:

    When I read this article on faith and reason (Reason is just another faith) by Mary Midgley in New Scientist a few years ago, I felt really really uneasy:
    And I still do in the context of recent debates about isssues related to science and religion, scientism etc.It seems to me that some philosophers and some science popularisers enjoy building up strawpeople like scientism, reductionism, science as authoritarian religion, scientists as unfeeling robots that they then destroy at leisure. This does, however, not contribute to (if one is still allowed to use that phrase) the public understanding of science. On the contrary, it entrenches unfounded and/or totallyoutdated stereotypes.
    By the way, when Dr Who said to Brian Cox that physicists don’t appreciate poetry in The Science of Dr Who, quite a few scientists in my family were duely upset

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