Midgley, M. (2001)
Science and Poetry
Routledge Press, London (review)

Although Midgley has written a number of books, this is the first of them I have read. With such a title, how could I leave it on the shelf? The text is lucidly written, thoroughly researched and presents an argument against the flaws in thinking that have occured during the histories of philosophy and science. Although known for her anti-meme-selfish-gene-Dawkins-stance, Midgley's specific interest in this instance is to raise the reader's awareness of the impact various perspectives within Science have had in bringing the natural environment into its present predicament.

I was quite surprised to find this environmentalism was the main thrust of the book as it was not until quite late in the text that this message became apparent to me. The book also contains a number of sub-texts highlighting problems Midgley perceives in various approaches scientists and philosphers have taken to understanding the world and in particular, the place of humans and consciousness. At significant points Midgley quotes from poets who have contributed to our understanding of the world, especially where they concern human experience, but in earlier times, also where they have graphically and convincingly presented broad world views. One of her pretexts for doing this is to show (unsurprisingly I suppose) that forceful and evocative language has always played a powerful role in convincing others of the worth of one's ideas.

The text has amongst its many themes the need to look beyond "atomistic" views of humans as isolated individuals interacting with one another only by necessity. Midgley suggests instead that we adopt a view that incorporates and embraces our position as (conscious organisms and) members of social groups subject to laws of our own invention. She insists that these inventions have as much impact on our lives as the interactions of molecules and that they are just as "real" as the phenomena studied by Physics.

Midgley wonders why many still insist that all of Science be reduced to the neatness so desirable in Physics. She follows the ideas of Newton, Descartes, Hume, Bacon, Darwin and Dawkins (to name a few) that lead to (or reinforced) such a desire. Human consciousness and the society that results from it are not like Physics, she argues. These interactions do not require the same kinds of explanations as those sought in Physics. Midgely outlines the history of thought that has led us through so many untenable hypotheses regarding (as Kauffman might put it) our home in the universe. I don't feel that this is idle Science-bashing. The book is intelligently written and carefully considered. (Note to self: re-read The Selfish Gene and see if I agree with Midgley about Dawkins' use of the term "selfish".)

The last section of the book steps neatly into environmentalism. Midgley indicates a need to look to philosophies that treat relationships of mutualism and symbiosis with at least as much seriousness as those that prefer to focus on competition. In particular she is keen on Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis.

Overall this book has much to recommend it. One thing bugs me particularly though. There does seem to me to be a need for an explanation for consciousness that demonstrates neatly how the phenomenon arises from the interactions of matter. Poetry doesn't allow us to synthesise the phenomenon and therefore is not suffient in this regard. Philosophy doesn't help to solve the problem of synthesis either. I think that an explanation that allows the phenomenon to be built from the ground up remains valuable, despite the contributions other ways of looking at the world offer.

In each case she handles, Midgley takes a balanced and considered approach to her arguments that certainly encouraged me to think carefully about what she had to say. I'd rate this book 4.5 stars. Its one of the most thought provoking I've read this year.

Some further online info. is provided elsewhere.

Alan Dorin, 11 May 06

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