Scientism and free-market jihad

For the past forty years, our vision of life has shrunk to one based on a selfishness born of scientism. It is time to embrace different ways of seeing the world. 

Mary Midgley
19 November 2014

"Not selfish: most trees and plants on which we depend for our oxygen live in a symbiotic relationship with underground fungi called mycorriza."Aspens in Arizona. Doug Dolde/Wikimedia commons. Some rights reserved.

Scientism is not a religion, but it is something almost as bad. It is the over-estimation of the importance of physical science, and the belief that it offers the answers to all our worst difficulties. The danger comes not from the facts about the world – which are indeed useful – but from the myths, the imaginative visions, that must underlie them.

Here, the powerful myth is the same one that fascinated the seventeenth century fathers of modern science. It is the vision of an all-powerful device (essentially clockwork) that rules human lives.

Lately, we have overlaid that myth with another: the myth of the “Selfish Gene”, popularised by Richard Dawkins. That is the story that humans, like all organisms, are not just mechanisms but mere puppets, driven by a set of inner demons interested only in their own advantage.

One of the really interesting things about this myth is that the stress on “selfishness” has no scientific basis at all. Genes do not work separately and individually, but in groups. As Dawkins has since pointed out, he could just as well have called his book “the co-operative gene”.

But would it, then, have become a best-seller? And could the book have contained the egoistical message which made it such a runaway success in the 1980s, the period that set us on the path to our neo-liberal, dystopian present?

What the myth actually did was to deepen and intensify a pugnacious, individualistic element in the concept of evolution, an element not strong in Darwin but already colourful in nineteenth-century social Darwinism.

For the past forty years, the voice of science has endorsed “selfishness” both as a metaphysical force and a political virtue. To match the rise of religious fundamentalism we have seen the rhetoric of scientism being deployed in support of what amounts to a corporate capitalist jihad.

Until the banking collapse of 2008 the fantasies of scientism continued to be widely accepted across the US and Europe. The language used to describe evolution became increasingly apt for describing a war of all against all. For example, organisms were classified into cheats, suckers and grudgers, and the talk was of war games, rival evolutionary strategies, Machiavellian tactics and the like.

All this distracted attention from really important discoveries which pointed quite the other way, notably those of biologist Lynn Margulis about the importance of symbiosis in evolution. Think, for instance, of the synergistic combination of different bacteria to form the cells within our own bodies – and the general interdependence of all living things on one another.

Endosymbiosis. Polyhedron/zh/Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.Believers in scientism have a still deeper difficulty about confronting the concept of Gaia, which treats the Earth system as a functioning whole, not as a showground for displaying conflicts.

Even though the facts about life’s role in the Earth’s harmonious functioning have begun to be accepted, the word Gaia is still resisted as being unseemly and unduly fanciful. This is surely an odd objection coming from scientists soaked in fantasies about warfare, but it does show how powerful the imagination is in science.

The fragile success of the space probe Philae that landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko recently has been widely celebrated as the start of a brave new era of space exploration. What a bitter irony that the same worldview risks extinguishing many of Earth’s most vulnerable human beings with its promotion of corporate-controlled biotechnology. 

Myths, or imaginative visions, are not alien weeds: they are natural parts of the ecosystem out of which science and its symbols have grown. But we need many myths, not just one, and we should be very careful about the ones we choose and follow.

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