Research Article

Why The Idea Of Purpose Won't Go Away

Mary Midgley c1


Biologists' current habit of explaining each feature of human life separately through its evolutionary function – its assumed tendency to enhance each individual's reproductive prospects – is unworkable. It also sits oddly with these scientists' official rejection of teleology, since it treats all life as a process which does have an aim, namely, to perpetuate itself. But that aim is empty because it is circular.

If we want to understand the behaviour of living things (including humans) we have to treat them seriously as subjects, creatures with needs, tendencies and directions of their own. The supposedly objective idea of a world of objects without subjects is an unprofitable fantasy.

(Online publication September 22 2011)

Mary Midgley was a senior lecturer in Philosophy at Newcastle University. Her books include Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1978), Heart and Mind: The Varieties of Moral Experience (1981), Animals and Why They Matter (1983), and most recently The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene (2011).