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Darwinian Ideology: A Worldview Lens without Bounds

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Conference: The impact of Darwinian Ideology on the Sciences, Education and Society

Darwinian Ideology: A Worldview Lens without Bounds

The pervasive influence of Darwin

Georges P. Carillet July 13, 2009

Charles Darwin is considered by many in the intellectual world to be the most influential person since the 18th century. Darwin’s name is inextricably linked to the various theories of evolution, but especially to ‘common descent.’[1] For the man on the street, Darwin’s name is synonymous with the word ‘evolution.’ Darwin’s influence is directly and indirectly discoverable in most any field of study, but particularly in the soft and hard sciences. Darwinism has become the interpretive framework, the lens through which most anything can be viewed. Darwin’s influence goes far beyond his explanation of what is observed in nature. Some of these implications were noted by Darwin himself; many of them developed later. On the other hand, he, as with many today who espouse Darwinian evolution, might not approve of all that has been claimed in his name.

In this year of celebration, both of the birth of Charles Darwin 200 years ago[2] and the publication of On the Origin of the Species 150 years ago,[3] Darwin’s theory of evolution’ is regarded by many scientists as something proven[4]; however, a growing number of scientists find much that is yet to be proven and that which is yet to be proven is vital to support the theory of common descent. The current theories of evolution cannot explain everything they claim to explain about origins. Some theories appear to explain some things rather well (in microevolution[5]) but other things not so well (in macroevolution[6]).

For decades, outright opposition to the traditional explanation of Darwinian and neo-Darwinian evolution[7] as the answer to the question of the origin of human life has come from various theistic circles which saw it as a threat to theism or their understanding of creation based on the book of Genesis. However, recent rumblings of discontent have come from within the Western scientific community, including from those who have otherwise been supportive of Darwinian evolution,[8] because of weaknesses they see in the theory.[9] They have not abandoned evolutionary theory altogether but they do not find neo-Darwinism a satisfactory explanation for the existence of all biological life.[10] Their ideologies were not the starting point of their discontent, for some were theists, some atheists, some agnostics.[11]  

These rumblings found their way into the popular media and conversations from pub to public square.  But everywhere the term ‘evolution’ suffers from a lack of definition and distinctions. The broad use of the term, particularly the lack of distinguishing between microevolution and macroevolution, leads to confusion and people talking past one another. Our conference is concerned about the ideologies that have been created on the basis of Darwinian evolution and philosophical naturalism, and their implications and results. It also calls into question the interpretation of the data that is used to support ‘common descent,’ suspecting that ideology is more influential than the data.[12]  Some evolutionists would strongly contend that this is not true of the majority of evolutionists in the West.[13]

The issues that lie behind the science and the interpretation of the scientific data are most often worldview issues. It is the interpretive element which gives rise to debate. The idea that even the hard sciences are totally objective in their interpretations and conclusions has been legitimately questioned for decades.[14] Though we grant that there is an objective reality subject to examination, we still must conclude that there is no such thing as self-interpreting data – the human element is the subjective element – thus there is a subjective element to science in the interpretive process.[15] This is where one’s worldview has a significant impact. It is because of the interaction between worldview and scientific data that ‘Darwinism’ has become so pervasive. The term has broad and questionable usage, which in part has contributed to its pervasive influence.

In popular media that touches on biological life at all, it is as if “Darwinism” is not just a theory of biological evolution, but a quasi worldview that, as Dawkins proudly announces, “explains everything.” [16]  It is the organizing and interpretive element or filter for various secular worldviews. In reality it is Darwinian naturalism that is the worldview influence. Herein lies the reason for so much heated debate in the West – the collision or collusion of the empirical and metaphysical, of science and philosophy, of science and the humanities, and science and religion. This is about interpretation, not objective data.  

In the West,[17] what began as a defensive tactic by atheists’ not letting “a divine foot in the door” (Richard Lewontin )[18] is growing into militant animosity toward theists by some prominent scientists who are atheists.[19] On the other hand, it has been argued that ‘creationists’ worldview commitments keep them from doing good science and facing biological facts.

The evidence for macroevolution is still subject to investigation and interpretation.[20] The influence of one’s worldview should be taken into consideration and not underestimated. This is true of both the Darwinian evolutionist and those who disagree with them. Those who oppose ‘evolution’ must be clear about what it is they oppose, and why.[21] Presuppositions are not necessarily bad (though they can be wrong), if they are known, confessed and accounted for.

Darwinism’s other “isms”

It is argued by some scientists and philosophers that Darwinian evolution is simply a biological theory and nothing more. However, it is not surprising that certain implications have been drawn from it. It has been argued that Darwin himself saw implications of his biological theory, including for what became known as laissez-faire social Darwinism.[22] Influential atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett described Darwinism in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea as a “universal acid; it eats through just about every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized worldview.” [23] “Darwin-ism” as an ideology has taken on such worldview force that it is used to inform or justify other isms.

Most Darwinists (but not all!) are unhappy when some Christian authors say that one concept Darwinism eats through is the sanctity of life. These authors associate Twentieth Century dictators with the influence of Darwinism. [24] Some murdering dictators allegedly found justification for their atrocities in such ideas as “survival of the fittest” and the lack of intrinsic value of life derived from Darwinian evolution. Such evil is not a necessary feature of Darwinian naturalism.  Darwinists can argue that they value life on some grounds irrespective of evolution. The point of my paper is that this biological theory has been used for implications far beyond biology.

Fifteen years ago I was shown a Sevastopol newspaper in which four readers responded to an article about the handicapped. Each of them appealed to Darwinian evolution as justification for their conclusion that abortion and infanticide were to be recommended to avoid bringing a handicapped person into this world and ‘inconvenience’ the parents. They argued that “survival of the fittest” meant that the handicapped should not be allowed to survive, and that the handicapped had no intrinsic value and no productive value that warranted their existence.

The desire to avoid any implications of Darwinian evolution is most recently seen in the project called “Rescuing Darwin.”[25] The project wants to rescue Darwinism from atheists, social engineers and others who take it beyond ‘science.’[26] Some of the ‘isms’ that fed on Darwinism or were derived from Darwinism are named in the project report:

Social Darwinism did not have the monopoly on interpreting evolution. Indeed, in its time evolution has been used in support of every "ism" imaginable, including socialism, capitalism, racism, eugenics, feminism, theism and atheism. … The key point is that, from the earliest times, evolution was understood – and sometimes rejected – as a philosophical, social or political theory, rather than simply a biological one.[27]

The authors of the report conclude that Darwinian evolution (micro and macroevolution) is supported by the ‘facts’[28] and the associated isms and opposition are caused by misunderstanding evolution[29] and misunderstanding religion (usually meaning Christianity). They cite both evolutionists and anti-evolutionists as not understanding evolution[30], or going beyond what evolution necessarily explains. Given their understanding,[31] there should be no problem in accepting both Darwinian evolution and theism, even Christian theism – not that one who accepts evolution will necessarily accept theism. But in their view, the one who accepts theism should have no reason to reject Darwinian evolution.

However one assesses the disagreements among evolutionists and the conflicts between them and those who reject Darwinian explanations of macroevolution, it remains true that evolution has been conveniently used to support conclusions that have tremendous implications for how life is understood and lived. [32]

Darwinian implications for faith and life

To the disappointment of the “Rescuing Darwin” project, Richard Dawkins (among a few others like him) has the media’s attention in the West. He has popularized Darwinian evolution, but even more so he has vigorously presented it as atheistic.[33] In the televised series, “The Genius of Charles Darwin,”

Dawkins draws three main implications from the theory of evolution. Firstly, that there are no goals, no morality and no purpose to the process of natural selection; secondly, that man is not distinct from any other animal; and thirdly, that nature is a bitter, ruthless struggle. These implications act in a deconstructive fashion. They are all reactions against Christian views.[34]

“Dawkins is adamant that the theory of evolution disproves the supernatural.” He believes that “this simple theory [evolution] really was capable of explaining everything about life.”[35]

Thus, contrary to the general tenor of the “Rescuing Darwin” project, Dawkins draws implications from evolution that not all evolutionists hold. Again, one can argue if such implications are necessary and warranted, but the point here is that Darwinian ideology has and does influence the sciences, education (see John Dewey) and society. “Darwinism” (or Darwinianism) is not just a biological description or explanation of what is observed;[36] from it various ideologies are extrapolated with tremendous influence and ramifications – some of them dangerous to life.

There is no sphere of science, society and education that has not been influenced by this lens. The influence of Darwinian evolution is so prevailing in the sciences that even when only adaptation is at work, the term “Darwinian” is used (for example, “Darwinian medicine”). [37] As a marriage between a scientific theory and an ideology,[38] Darwinism has given birth to a worldview lens without bounds.

Among many of its outspoken proponents, Darwinianism takes on the character of a religion in the sense that it holds some things sacred and not subject to debate or investigation. Emile Durkheim described religion as the power of a society to make things sacred or profane in the lives of its individual members. Sacred things are those objects and symbols, including principles and beliefs that must be preserved from violation because they represent all that is of most value to the community. [39] I suggest that the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution has this religious status among many of its proponents.

Both Darwinists and Anti-Darwinists, if they are interested in truth, must consider the impact of their worldviews on their understanding of the data the hard sciences investigate. The soft sciences often uncritically assume Darwinian evolution and its ideology in their studies. When an ideology is pervasive, it can become an obstacle to seeing anything else, possibly obscuring the truth and distorting the facts.

The intellectual virtues of fairness or justice, perseverance, empathy, integrity, and intellectual courage are sorely needed in matters that go far beyond the facts of biological life in the inferences drawn. Ideas have consequences.



[1] Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago. In Why Evolution is True, he summarizes Darwinism—the modern theory of evolution—as follows: “Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species—perhaps a self-replicating molecule—that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection.”

Coyne further explains that evolution “simply means that a species undergoes genetic change over time. That is, over many generations a species can evolve into something quite different, and those differences are based on changes in the DNA, which originate as mutations. The species of animals and plants living today weren’t around in the past, but are descended from those that lived earlier.” http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&printerFriendly=true&id=10661

[2] February 12, 1809

[3] November 24, 1809

[4] By proven is meant that the explanation is consistent with the known facts; there is not a better explanation that fits.

[5] Natural selection acting on genetic variations and mutations

[6] Common descent driven by unintelligent processes – the natural development of all living things from a single celled ancestor

[7] Neo-Darwinism: “Theory of evolution that represents a synthesis of Charles Darwin's theory in terms of natural selection and modern population genetics.” Britannica Concise Encyclopedia (http://www.answers.com/topic/modern-evolutionary-synthesis) Neo-Darwinism is sometimes used synonymously with the “modern evolutionary synthesis,” but some scientists draw a distinction due to each’s historical developments. “The modern evolutionary synthesis … is a union of ideas from several biological specialties which forms a logical account of evolution. … This showed that Mendelian genetics was consistent with natural selection and gradual evolution.” Wikipedia (http://www.answers.com/topic/modern-evolutionary-synthesis)

[8] There is not a single theory of evolution, but for convenience sake this paper will refer to “the theory of evolution” for purposes of brevity and simplicity.

[9] Most notably starting with Michael Denton’s book, A Theory in Crisis (1985)

[10] Various lists of named scientists who are skeptical of Darwinism are available, as well as polls. See Jonathan Witt, “Who’s Serious” in Touchstone, October 2006. He sites a poll at http://hcdi.net/polls/J5776/ and a list of 600 PhD scientists.

[11] At the macro level, some evolutionists did not find support for the Darwinist traditional view of gradual change, whatever the rate of change. In 1974 Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould published their conclusion that gradualism was virtually nonexistent in the fossil record; they offered an alternative, punctuated equilibrium; their theory was built on an earlier work by Ernst Mayr, 1954. This explanation for problems in the fossil record is still debated. Generally, problems with gradualism have not undermined the theory of natural selection. In 1996, Michele Behe published that gradualism cannot explain some things in microbiology and thus shows the limits of natural selection; as an alternative he suggests intelligent design. Denton argues that there is no evidence for biology’s fabled “tree of life” developing its branches through national selection and mutations.

[12] Of course, the ‘creationist’ also must be aware of the influence of his worldview (with its presuppositions) on his use of and interpretation of the data.

[13] For example, see the writings of Denis Alexander, a biochemist and neurochemist, such as Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2008) and Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2001)

[14] Debate in the 1990s between socialists and scientists raged as the “science wars.” At issue were the social and political influences on science. The so-called postmodern period has brought its set of questions to confront assumptions about the merit and role of the sciences, sometimes with validity, sometimes missing the point and making extreme conclusions. (Compare critical realism as an alternative.) Denis Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix, 238.

[15] To wit, Stephen Jay Gould, atheist, paleontologist: “Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.” Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes pp.254-5, W.W. Norton 1983, cited by Thomas Woodward, The Time of Opportunity – Discovering the Truth about Darwin (http://trinitycollege.edu/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=75&Itemid=130)

[16] “Evolution is one of the most fascinating ideas in all of science. It explains your existence and mine, and the existence of just about everything we see.” “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” NEWSWEEK dated Oct 5, 2009, published Sep 26, 2009 http://www.newsweek.com/id/216206?tid=relatedcl

[17] A few years ago I was told that in Ukraine and Russia, we do not see or hear such ‘extremism’ toward theism as comes from Dawkins in the West. What I do find among many university professors, though, is a dismissive attitude toward theistic ideas, such as Intelligent Design, or the activity of a Creator at any point or level in what is observed in this world. An atheistic worldview prevailed in Russia and Ukraine – at least officially and in the universities – for the better part of the Twentieth Century. Darwinian evolution was assumed to be true. Darwinian naturalism in turn supported the official policy of atheism.

[18] “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” Richard Lewontin, “Billions and billions of demons,” The New York Review, p. 31, 9 January 1997.

[19] Tom Woodward in Darwin Strikes Back (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), pp 50-56, cites examples of the animosity among some Darwinists:  Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross’ book, Creationism’s Trojan Horse, begins with “bitter hostility and rampant distortions.” The authors wail that Intelligent Design seeks to replace democracy with a theocratic state. Niall Shanks calls ‘creationists’ “extremists who hope to turn the clock of science back to medieval times.” Marshall Berman (in an October 2005 web article) says the theory of intelligent design is a threat to science and democracy itself … which replaces “sound science and engineering with pseudo-science, polemics, blind faith, and wishful thinking” and predicted that unless stopped, the ID folks would bring about “Dark Ages II.” Dawkins and Dennett are famous for their strident anti-theists comments.

[20] Please do not infer that I ignore or belittle the contribution that Darwin and his successors made and are making in the field of microevolution, but it is important that we do not confuse that which is demonstrable with that which is not.

[21] “It would be so nice if those who oppose evolution would take a tiny bit of trouble to learn the merest rudiments of what it is that they are opposing.” Excerpted from The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, by Richard Dawkins. © 2009 by Richard Dawkins.  http://www.newsweek.com/id/216140 Dawkins may be right about the average person, but he is condescending toward those who, indeed, understand evolution and still disagree with him.  Even noted evolutionists complain about each other’s lack of knowledge and understanding! Those in the Intelligent Design camp level the same accusation against their opponents: you misunderstand us and thus misrepresent us.

[22] David Tyler, “Darwin was an advocate of Social Darwinism.” Also, “Was Darwin or Spencer the Father of Laissez-Faire Social Darwinism?” Richard Weikart, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 71, 2009, 20-28 | doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2007.06.011. “Abstract: This article explores the way that Darwin and Spencer integrated laissez-faire ideas into their evolutionary biology, and how they then extrapolated from their evolutionary theories to social and economic thought. It argues that Darwin and Spencer developed laissez-faire social Darwinism independently, making both important progenitors of it.”

http://www.arn.org/blogs/index.php/literature/2009/06/10/darwin_was_an_advocate_of_social_darwini

[23] Google this quote and you will find how popular it is; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin%27s_Dangerous_Idea#cite_note-gould-16

[24] According to some sources, we only have to look at who and what has been inspired by Darwinian ideas to see the truth of Dennett’s statement: Marx, Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu, Kim Il-sung, Pol Pot, Hitler, and the eugenics movement (founded by Francis Gallon [aka Galton], Darwin's cousin). See documentation by European historian Richard Weikart in his book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary ethics, eugenics, and racism in Germany, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, USA, 2004; <www.csustan.edu/History/Faculty/Weikart/FromDarwintoHitler.htm>. See also the review, Sarfati, J., The Darwinian roots of the Nazi tree, Creation 27(4):39, 2005; <creationontheweb.com/ weikart>, and the articles at Q&A on Communism, Nazism and Eugenics at <http://creationonth.eweb. com/communism>.

[25] “Rescuing Darwin argues that Darwin and his theory have become caught in the crossfire of a philosophical and theological battle in which he himself had little personal interest. On the one side stands a handful of modern Darwinians who insist that evolution has killed God and ideas of design, purpose, morality and humanity. On the other side are their mainly, but not exclusively, religious opponents who, unwilling to adopt such a bleak vision, cite Genesis and Intelligent Design as evidence of evolution's deficiency.”

http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/Rescuing_Darwin.aspx?ArticleID=2846&PageID=6&RefPageID=5

[26] “This strategy of presenting Darwinism as science with no philosophical or ideological baggage deserves to be critiqued and challenged. Many of us argue that science necessarily implies a philosophical underpinning, and that metaphysical foundation inevitably affects the way science is practised.” http://www.arn.org/blogs/index.php/literature/2009/06/10/darwin_was_an_advocate_of_social_darwini

[28] Of course, there are scientists who are not happy with Darwinian evolution, and not all of them have a religious axe to grind. See “A Tale of Two Theories,” Tomas Woodward, for five major threats to Darwin’s theory of common descent: http://www.apologetics.org/ .

[29] Denis Alexander (Matrix, 291): “…Darwinian evolution, whatever may be the various ideological uses to which it has been put since 1859, is essentially devoid of either religious or moral significance ….”

[30] Consider the exchange between the following as just one example among some significant ones:

                In the New York Review of Books, Stephen Jay Gould criticised Darwin's Dangerous Idea for being an "influential but misguided ultra-Darwinian manifesto".

"Daniel Dennett devotes the longest chapter in Darwin's Dangerous Idea to an excoriating caricature of my ideas, all in order to bolster his defense of Darwinian fundamentalism. If an argued case can be discerned at all amid the slurs and sneers, it would have to be described as an effort to claim that I have, thanks to some literary skill, tried to raise a few piddling, insignificant, and basically conventional ideas to "revolutionary" status, challenging what he takes to be the true Darwinian scripture. Since Dennett shows so little understanding of evolutionary theory beyond natural selection, his critique of my work amounts to little more than sniping at false targets of his own construction. He never deals with my ideas as such, but proceeds by hint, innuendo, false attribution, and error." [Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism]

Gould was also a harsh critic of Dennett's idea of the "universal acid" of natural selection and of his subscription to the idea of memetics; Dennett responded, and the exchange between Dennett, Gould, and Robert Wright was printed in the New York Review of Books. [Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Dennett (1997). "'Darwinian Fundamentalism': An Exchange,"]

Biologist H. Allen Orr wrote a scathing review emphasizing similar points in the Boston Review, [Boston Review:Orr Reviews "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" by Daniel Dennett] to which Dennett later responded. [http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/orr.htm]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin%27s_Dangerous_Idea#cite_note-gould-16

[31] Historian of science, Tomas Woodward points out that “Whoever wields the power to define science sets the terms that will decide the outcome of the dispute.” Darwin Strikes Back, 53.

[32] “Darwinism is NOT a purely scientific theory. The science cannot be divorced from the underpinning philosophy. Projects like "Rescuing Darwin" are fundamentally flawed and philosophically naive.”

http://www.arn.org/blogs/index.php/literature/2009/06/10/darwin_was_an_advocate_of_social_darwini

[33] “If you’re a regular at this website, you’ve heard me complain about scientific organizations that sell evolution by insisting that it’s perfectly consistent with religion. … [They] have concluded that to make evolution palatable to Americans, you must show that it is not only consistent with religion, but also no threat to it. … Here I argue that the accommodationist position …, is a self-defeating tactic, compromising the very science they aspire to defend. ... By ignoring the significant dissent in the scientific community about whether religion and science can be reconciled, they imply a unanimity that does not exist. Finally, by consorting with scientists and philosophers who incorporate supernaturalism into their view of evolution, they erode the naturalism that underpins modern evolutionary theory.” Jerry Coyne, “Truckling to the Faithful: A Spoonful of Jesus Helps Darwin Go Down” In the very article that states this position, the author cites Stephen Jay Gould: “For if we ever begin to suppress our search to understand nature, to quench our own intellectual excitement in a misguided effort to present a united front where it does not and should not exist, then we are truly lost.” Coyne thinks that Darwinism is not compatible with theism. The oddity is that Gould thinks that they are compatible: “…Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs — and equally compatible with atheism, thus proving that the two great realms of nature's factuality and the source of human morality do not strongly overlap.” (http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/gould_darwin-on-trial.html)

http://richarddawkins.net/article,3767,Truckling-to-the-Faithful-A-Spoonful-of-Jesus-Helps-Darwin-Go-Down,Jerry-Coyne

[35] Pete Hartwell

[36] In the New York Review of Books, John Maynard Smith gave praise for [Daniel Dennett’s] Darwin's Dangerous Idea:

“It is therefore a pleasure to meet a philosopher who understands what Darwinism is about, and approves of it. Dennett goes well beyond biology. He sees Darwinism as a corrosive acid, capable of dissolving our earlier belief and forcing a reconsideration of much of sociology and philosophy. Although modestly written, this is not a modest book. Dennett argues that, if we understand Darwin's dangerous idea, we are forced to reject or modify much of our current intellectual baggage…”

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1703 /

[38] There is no agreement on what ‘science” is, but any two people should share the same definition for the sake of argument. Philosopher of science Larry Laudan notes: “There is no demarcation line between science and nonscience, or between science and pseudoscience, which would win assent from a majority of philosophers.” (Larry Laundan, Beyond Positivism and Relativism, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), p. 210)

[39] Emile Durkheim defines religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Elementary Forms for Religious Life, p. 44). Later he amends his definition: “first and foremost, a system of ideas by which men imagine the society of which they are members and the obscure yet intimate relations they have with it” (p. 227).

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