Myths We Live By

Reading Mary Midgley’s “Myths We Live By” at the moment, having originally picked up on a review of it way back here.

Easy read, starts promising – mainly against misplaced narrow (physical) scientific views being adopted in human scale situations, and plenty of arguments against dualism and Descartes naturally. Tendency to return to “people are people”, with many aspects, no fundamental view. OK, but what next ?

She takes a very narrow “atomist” view of memetics, and a very literal view of Darwinian evolution, and proceeds to trash widespread adoption of these two fashionable viewpoints for explaining any and all human development. None too convincing for me; she seems to choose very narrow definitions when it suits her argument. She’s no fan of Dawkins, but then neither am I.

OK, so memes are not “fundamental” particles of culture, but then neither are genes quite as fundamentally distinct as recent science would have us believe. (She focusses on the discredited linguistic “phoneme” origin of the word, rather than the “gene” metaphor for some reason. She dimsisses Susan Blackmore, having Buddhist tendencies, as clearly unsound.) But memes are useful components to model with. OK, so the human world is not literally built of memes in any simple additive sense, they are assemblies with topological arrangements and relationships in time. Memes themselves compound, overlap and decompose into components, and yes some of the components may be indistinct and conceptual.

Similarly the evolution metaphor, she’s hung up on the narrow chance survival of the fittest view, with a very narrow view of “fit”, which should really be taken to mean fit with the environment. OK so in human affairs, there is a large human intentional and contingent element to the “chance” of survival and reproduction, with some control over the delivery and the environment. If you take the environment and agents into account, it still forms a very useful model. I think Midgley is perhaps missing her own argument. There may be nothing fundamental / metaphysical about memes and evolution, but who’s looking for that anyway ? They form a useful predictive and explanatory model, provided you hang all the relevant issues on them, and don’t take too narrow a view.

Her main theme is preaching against simplistic all-explaining views; things generally being more complex than that. OK, I’m with her there. I’m only half-way through; I’m hoping later on I’ll find she has something to say about complexity and the emergence of simple metaphors.

I also feel “Gaia” coming on ? I’ll be back.

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