Mary Midgley. The Myths we Live By. Routledge Classics, 2011

This is a reprint, with a new introduction by the author, of a book first published in 2004, collecting together pieces written between 1992 and 2002. The unifying theme among the various articles is the role of myth in science. Midgley argues that myths old and new lie behind many ‘scientific’ claims and speculations. Of particular interest is her analysis of various scientistic visions which she sees as reinventing ancient dualism in new clothes, and projecting dramatic visions of transcending the human condition. The old non material soul is replaced with the new ‘software’ and so on, which like the old soul is assumed to somehow be able to survive and run better, more rationally and efficiently without the nasty old body holding it down.

She also critiques other dreams of transcending the human condition such as by genetic engineering, proponents of which also make fantastic and almost apocalyptic claims.

She sees also in much scientific, particularly astronomical, literature a survival of the ancient dichotomy between the ‘pure’, ‘sacred’ heavens and the ‘defiled’ and ‘profane’ earth and its grubby creatures. Abstract reasoning and the rarefied world of physics still has the continuing patina of the Platonic realm of pure archetypes and the crystalline spheres.

Mary Midgley also explores our relationship with wild nature, and suggests that the central fear of the wilderness is the wildness within, therefore much of the emotional power of the desire to ‘conquer nature’ is the need to master this interior wildness.

While she seems very aware of the mythic and religious baggage behind much of the science she disapproves of, she is perhaps a little less aware that similar motivations appeal to much of the environmental movement, where the notions that all the problems in the world are caused in effect by human sin, and there is a strong element of Puritanism and asceticism in the movement. It also has to be said that for most people on the earth Gaia is rather less benevolent than she appears to be to members of the dinner party classes in north western European countries with relatively benign climates and a notable absence of volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis and destructive tornadoes. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.

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