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Biology and Ideology – From Descartes to Dawkins

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September 3, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Biology and Ideology – From Descartes to Dawkins

Today's entry was written by Denis Alexander. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Ever since modern science emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries it has been used and abused for purposes that lie well beyond science. Biology has been particularly susceptible to ideological manipulation and application, a trend that shows no sign of abating.

The varied ways in which this can occur have recently been documented by a group of historians of science, philosophers and theologians in a volume entitled Biology and Ideology – From Descartes to Dawkins (Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., Chicago University Press, 2010). The thirteen essays in this volume illustrate the many and varied ways in which biology has been utilized for a wide range of political, religious, and social purposes from 1600 to the present day. The purposes may be beneficial, benign, or harmful in their outcomes, but all are “ideological” in the broadest sense of not being intrinsic to biology itself.

With the benefit of hindsight, historians—more than others—are in a good position to see how biology can be used for purposes beyond science in ways not always obvious at the time. The 20th century abuses of genetics in eugenics and in racist ideologies are obvious and thoroughly described in the present volume by writers such as the historians Edward Larson and Paul Weindling.

Less obvious are the subtle ways in which the same biological ideas have been used during the same period for quite opposite ideological purposes in different countries, as described by Shirley Roe and Peter Hanns Reill in their chapters on the 18th century. The supposedly ‘materialistic’ biology that in France was utilized by the philosophes to subvert the social order in the 18th century was in Britain used as a key resource for natural theology, whereas in Germany it was being used politically as an analogy for the structure of nation states.

Today the ideological uses of biology continue on as much as they ever did. In his chapter titled “Creationism, intelligent design, and modern biology,” Ronald Numbers describes how the biological theory of evolution has been invested with ideological overtones, particularly in North America, ever since Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859. For some evolution became a philosophy that threatened to undermine notions of man “made in the image of God.” For others, evolution became a political threat to the social order, subverting campaigns to achieve greater rights for the oppressed.

This was particularly the case for the President Obama who never was: the thrice-defeated Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States and campaigner for liberal reform, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). Early in 1922, as Numbers recounts, Bryan helped to launch a crusade aimed at driving evolution out of the churches and schools of America. But Bryan’s motivation was as much political as religious. He had become alarmed by the way that the philosophy of “might is right” reputedly fueled German militaristic ambitions during the First World War. Benjamin Kidd’s Science of Power (1918), a book that influenced Bryan, purported to demonstrate the historical and philosophical links between Darwinism and German militarism.

It was Bryan’s campaign that helped launch the creationist movement of the early 1920s, leading in turn to the infamous Scopes Trial of 1925. The movement benefitted from another leading campaigner of the same era, the Canadian Adventist George McCready Price, who agreed with Bryan that the First World War, during which Germany put “the ruthless ethics of Darwinism . . . into actual practice,” provided ample evidence of the threat evolution posed to human freedom.

What Numbers brings out so clearly in his chapter is the way in which the theory of evolution was socially transformed into a bogeyman for virtually anyone who had an axe to grind. Rather than simply explaining the origins of biological diversity, it became an icon of materialism, or militarism, or atheism, or socialism, or capitalism. In fact evolution has been deployed since 1859 in support of almost every “ism” that exists, many of them mutually exclusive. All kinds of ideological barnacles became attached to the theory to the extent that the actual biology was obscured in the process.

Numbers goes on to document the way in which the late-20th century Intelligent Design movement likewise painted evolution in starkly atheistic terms, perceiving it as a materialistic threat to notions of design. Ironically, as Alister McGrath makes clear in his chapter entitled ‘Evolutionary biology in recent atheist apologetics’, the presentation of evolution by the ‘new atheists’ is in fact very similar to that of the creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design.

In the hands of Richard Dawkins, evolution becomes an ultra-Darwinian philosophy in rivalry with the idea of creation. Dawkins argues that there are at present only three possible ways of seeing the world: Darwinism, Lamarckism, or God. The last two fail to explain the world adequately; the only option is therefore Darwinism. “I’m a Darwinist,” writes Dawkins, “because I believe the only alternatives are Lamarckism or God, neither of which does the job as an explanatory principle. Life in the universe is either Darwinian or something else not yet thought of.” In such claims, McGrath notes, evolution becomes exalted to a meta narrative, infused with the ideological rhetoric of atheism.

What Biology and Ideology – From Descartes to Dawkins brings out so forcefully is the point that there “is nothing new under the sun.” As soon as a scientific idea or theory becomes influential and prestigious, then the tendency is for its prestige to be deployed for uses that go well beyond science. And where those uses go in apparently polar opposite directions, as in the comparison between creationism/ID and ultra-Darwinism, the opposite poles are often more similar to each other than either side might be prepared to admit.

The ideological uses and abuses of science are bad for science education, because so often the science gets lost in the rhetoric. They can be dangerous, as this volume so powerfully illustrates. They are also bad for religion, because scientific theories are always provisional, open to refutation, and simply not up to the herculean task of deployment for pro- or anti-religious arguments. Darwinian evolution, for example, just happens to be the inference to the best explanation for the origins of all the biological diversity on planet earth. It’s a stunningly successful theory, but it’s best just to let scientific theories do the job that they’re good at, and not invest them with ideologies that have nothing to do with the science.

Biology and Ideology – From Descartes to Dawkins (Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., Chicago University Press, 2010) is available from all good bookstores. The book, as well as Alexander's book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?, can be purchased online at www.faraday-institute.org at a discounted rate.

Denis Alexander is the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, to which he was elected a Fellow in 1998. Alexander writes, lectures, and broadcasts widely in the field of science and religion. He is a member of the International Society for Science and Religion.

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Rich - #29137

September 10th 2010

Hi, Jon!

I don’t know how long you’ve been around here, but we’ve been up, down and all around this “chance” subject, from both the scientific and theological point of view, on about 10 different threads over the last 6 months.  The sort of Biblical passages you’re pointing to, and the arguments you’re giving or implying, have all been covered in one way or another.  I can’t take the time to repeat the same analyses and rebuttals over and over again; you can find my arguments and those of many others under a thread by Kenneth Aring, under the whale evolution thread, under the Ayala thread, and under many others. 

My view isn’t new.  Charles Hodge, the great principal of Princeton and Calvinist theologian, found essentially the same theological difficulties with Darwinism (not “evolution”) in 1874.  His book, “What is Darwinism?” is on-line and I recommend that all TEs read it and grapple with the arguments contained therein.  However, I came to my position independently of Hodge, based on my own extensive reading of Darwin and modern Darwinians, in light of years of graduate and post-graduate study study in ancient and modern philosophy, theology, history of science, history of ideas, and Hebrew Bible. (cont.)

Roger A. Sawtelle - #29141

September 10th 2010


You are certainly right that many events particularly n the OT and particularly saving events are depicted as acts of God, but not all events.

Read in Exodus where it explains how and why the Hebrews became slaves in Egypt.  God did not do it. It happened for very human reasons, fear of a rapidly growing minority people and forgetfulness of what Joseph did for Egypt and the power of the pharoah.

If Evangelical doctrine holds that all events in the natural world are the direct result of God’s will and purpose, then it has forgotten the lesson of Job where YHWH allowed the lightning to kill his sheep and servants, the wind to kill his children and sickness to bring him great pain.  Yes, YHWH used these events to teach Job & us that righteous people do suffer & that trials bring growth in faith, but clearly YHWH was not the cause of these events.

Furthermore James clearly states that God does not tempt anyone.  If God does not cause events that tempt people, then Satan must still be at work.

I think that the USA is being tested right now.  Events have conspired to bring us to a place where we must move forward trusting in God, or turn back blaming one another.  Difficult as it may be we need to move forward.

Rich - #29143

September 10th 2010

Jon (continued from above):

You are a bright student of religion, and as bright student you must be aware that complex questions cannot be settled in 1250-character comments in a forum such as this, where the participants have widely different degrees of competence in science, religion and philosophy, and where the fundamental questions at issue have divided minds on the level of Aquinas and Barth.  Thus, you will know that, as a religion scholar, I cannot accept the unqualified statements in your final paragraph.  Each point you make would require much substantiation. You in effect dismiss the whole tradition of natural theology in a sweep of the hand, and you speak casually about the extremely difficult relationship between contingency and providence.  The fact that a theologian on the level of Hodge (who was a trained Bible scholar as well as a systematic theologian and certainly was aware of the points you are raising) found Darwinism problematic, ought to give you pause.  (cont.)

Rich - #29144

September 10th 2010

Jon (continued):

On intelligent design, full disclosure may help.  I’ve read (not skimmed) every major theoretical work by ID proponents, and I’ve read hundreds of critiques of their work (book reviews in science journals, blogs, articles in anthologies) and their rejoinders; I’ve watched many on-line debates featuring all the major players as well.  There is nothing in ID’s arguments for design detection that is incompatible with traditional natural theology arguments as put forward by Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and indeed by just about all Christians who have read Psalm 19 and Romans 1 and who are not Barthians.  It has long been held by the majority of educated Christians that *some* knowledge of God (of his existence, power, intelligence) is derivable from nature and reason.  This of course does not deny or lessen the need for revelation, as knowledge of Christ is *not* one of the things claimed to be derivable from nature and reason.

I also know from personal interaction with many ID people that most of them hold a high view of Scripture, so caution should be exercised in implying (if you are implying) that a high view of Scripture compels a Christian theologian to accept the Darwinian view of chance.

Jon Garvey - #29177

September 10th 2010

@Roger A. Sawtelle - #29141

Roger, 1250 words doesn’t give much space for nuancing (as says Rich above), but I didn’t say that God directly causes everything. Nevertheless, Scripture avoids the dualism inherent in attributing independednt action to Satan. So in Job, not only does Satan have to ask permission to persecute Job, but Job is bever aware of his involvement, and the book attributes his trouble u;timately to Yahweh (42.11).

Similarly Saul’s mood swings are described as “an evil spirit from the Lord”, not, presumably making God the author of evil but attributing to him overall sovereignty, providence and permission.

Jon Garvey - #29180

September 10th 2010

@Rich - #29144

Similarly I never sought to imply any lack of respect for Scripture from ID persons, still less that such a view of Scripture compels acceptance of Darwinian ideas.

But I do think the view of chance I suggest is compatible with evolution by natural selection (or any other natural process), without denying that for atheist evolutionists of all colours the idea of a God behind anything, let alone chance, is nonsensical.

I thoroughly agree with the end of your first paragraph (existence, power, intelligence etc) without admitting that it constitutes proof at a formal level - I believe Scripture puts it as evidence at a spiritual level, which is why unspiritual man denies it. This denial is, indeed, its limitation - in Romans 1 Paul uses the denial of natural revelation as a condemnation of idolatrous mankind.

The knowledge of Christ, agreed, can only come from revelation, which is why natural theology can only be at best a pedagogue to open people’s ears to the saving Gospel (as indeed Paul uses it when addressing Gentiles in Acts). But he is speaking to people who, from his arguments, already accept God’s existence philosophically, but do not know him.

Jon Garvey - #29181

September 10th 2010

Roger - apologies for typos. There’s probably some Freudian reason why Rich didn’t get any!

Rich - #29204

September 10th 2010


Thanks for your clarifications.  I thought that perhaps you were making stronger claims than you were.  I guess I am paranoid, having debated so long with so many TE/EC people who make absurdly strong claims (both for neo-Darwinism and for their personal theological opinions), that if anyone starts to sound like a TE/EC, I tend to read maximal claims into their words.  Sorry for misreading you. 

As for the compatibility of a chance-driven evolutionary process with divine providence, that is a difficult theoretical question, depending to some extent on definitions of chance and providence, and to some extent on how one conceives of God in relation to eternity and time.  There are also the not-inconsiderable number of Biblical verses which Calvinists like to trot out, which appear to picture everything, down to the last human choice, as irrevocably predetermined, in which case every mutation, too, would be predetermined.  This would make the arrival of man at a specific moment inevitable, and all appearances of “randomness” ultimately deceptive.  Darwin and Gould would hotly deny the presence of such “fake randomness” in nature.  They were talking about radical contingency.  So was Hodge, when he opposed Darwinism.

Jon Garvey - #29320

September 11th 2010

@Rich - #29204

I’d say the trotting out was done by Hyper-calvinists. Calvin himself, and the mainstream of Puritans, Reformed continentals and their modern descendants have a much more nuanced view of the interface between God’s will and physical actuality.

If you wouldn’t be able to tell fake randomness from real randomness how could you deny it, hotly or otherwise? But that’s not the way to put it - actual randomness, as defined in probability theory etc, is subservient in a way that only God knows to God’s will: God himself doesn’t do contingency, or . Just as unconstrained human action is said in Scripture to be subservient to God’s purposes (eg Peter’s prayer in Acts 4.27ff, Paul’s assertion to the Athenians in Acts 17.26 amongst a host of others).

If this did not form the background to Scripture’s presentation of God, some strange consequences would arrive - an example here: http://www.jongarvey.co.uk/download/pdf/Others971.pdf

Roger A. Sawtelle - #29352

September 11th 2010


You wrote, “Scripture avoids the dualism inherent in attributing independent action to Satan.”

While I do not entirely agree with you on this point, you do raise a very important theological/philosophical issue, which is the monism/dualism problem.  Most people seem to agree tha western dualism is not a satisfactory basis for a theology or philosophy.  The only problem is that its alternative monism is equally and perhaps less satisfactory. 

Monism points to no real conflict and change, while dualism points to too much conflict and erratic change.  Neither does justice to the Biblical dynamic view of history as the covenantal dialog of humanity with God Who is not only One, but is also Three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Rich - #29357

September 11th 2010


I enjoyed your little story on your web site.  It shows your understanding of the questions at stake in a creative way.

Of course, out of context, your story can be taken in more than one way.  Suppose someone had *only* your story, and none of your comments above, and knew nothing about your motives.  Then one could ask:  Is Abraham *disappointed* (as he at first seems to be) that God’s promises depend on human initiative, and thus aren’t “guaranteed” in the way he first assumed?  Or is he *relieved* to know that human beings have genuinely free will, and that what they do *matters*?  We can’t really tell, can we?  We don’t know what Abraham is thinking as he leaves the scene, and we don’t know whether he intends to continue obeying God and trusting his promises in the future.  Alternately, even if Abraham is truly disappointed, your story could be suggesting *to the reader* that the cause of Abraham’s disappointment (that God’s promises are not truly guaranteed) is actually a *good* thing, even if Abraham doesn’t realize it; otherwise, we would be mere puppets.  This is the interesting thing about stories; it is generally possible to read them in more than one way (sometimes several different ways).

Rich - #29362

September 11th 2010

Jon (continuing from above):

I think you indicated somewhere that you had done a good number of undergraduate courses in religious studies.  You are the kind of student I would love to have had more of.  Nothing delights a teacher more than to see a student not merely learning the material, but creatively appropriating it, as you have done.

Of course, Biblical verses can be read in more than one way.  When God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, does that mean that God has altered Pharaoh’s will, in order to destroy Pharaoh in front of Israel, as a lesson about his power to keep his promises?  Or is that just a dramatic device of the Hebrew poet, a powerful way of saying that Pharaoh changed his mind?  Or should we think in terms of certain pscyhological and anthropological studies of the ancient mind, and conclude that to the ancient mind, there was no distinction between Pharaoh choosing freely and God hardening; they were two different sides of the same coin?  If you read the verse in the first way (as some Calvinists are inclined to do), and if you apply that mode of reading to all such expressions, then all is necessity, nothing is contingent, and “random” events are not random. (cont.)

Rich - #29381

September 11th 2010

Jon (continuing):

Of course, I’m aware of the notion of “foreknowledge” and the metaphysical explanation of that foreknowledge in Boethius and others.  This might seem to allow for the combination of random events in nature with God’s certainty about the outcome.  So one can resolve the apparent contradiction between “randomness” in evolution and Christian creation doctrine by saying that God foreknows that evolution will produce man, even though evolution works through random processes; but that argument regards God purely as Boethian observer-from-eternity, and forgets that God is not just observer of nature but *creator* of nature, including the initial conditions which must be precise if man is to appear.  The Bible and Christian tradition are unanimous that God wills the existence of man, not merely the existence of some random process which might or might not produce man depending on the bounces.  God therefore must control the initial conditions to make man a *necessary* outcome, or else intervene now and then to counteract the randomness.  Either way, the neo-Darwinian account of evolution cannot be completely true—if Christianity is true.  But evolution itself can still be true if Christianity is true.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #29502

September 11th 2010


I read your story & found it interesting.  I too have some comments.

The main problem is the assumption that since God was not sure that Abraham would obey, God could not be sure He could keep His promise.  God’s faithfulness is not based on our faithfulness.  Abraham might have failed to obey, not because he did not want to, but because his love for Isaac overruled his love for God. 

Many were not faithful during the Exodus & God still kept the Promise of the Holy Land.  God’s covenant is not contingent on His knowing the future & how He will carry out His promises, nor is it contingent on the faithfulness of God’s people.  God ‘s covenant is based on God’s character of being faithful & true.

Next there is more than 1 level of meaning.  A’s attempted sacrifice is a strong contrast to God the Father’s sacrifice of God the Son on what is believed to be the very same place.  God does not ask us to do what God is unwilling to do.  God makes a way even when there is no way.

Finally this event demonstrates that God does not want His people to sacrifice their first born.  Abe was not surprised by God’s command.  God’s portion is the first fruits.  The Jews gave a sacrifice in place of their first sons.

Jon Garvey - #29659

September 12th 2010

Roger and Rich

I’m privileged you commented on my tale! It was written purely for myself because a brother in my church took the beginning of the sacrifice account as evidence that God really didn’t know how it would turn out. I was just following through some consequences if that were the case. As Rich suggests, the point was that God’s faithfulness and truth is of little consequence if he hasn’t enough power in the world to keep his promises. In Abraham’s case he promised him Canaan (and at least implicitly the salvation of the world through Jesus). The rest of Genesis shows a good selection of arbitrary events any of which could have made his promise worthless, were he not in an unstated way sovereign over events, which is kind of the point of the book.

I’m amongst those who think “foreknowledge” is an inadequate description of God’s rule. To know that something is coming and not have power to change it makes Fate the real power in the Universe rather than God. But even the Bible’s use of “foreknowledge” implies active power, as in the parallelism in Jeremiah 1.5.

So the “two sides of the same coin” view, to me, seems not just a quirk of ancient psychology but a key to understanding God’s work in the world.

Jon Garvey - #29660

September 12th 2010


I slogged away at an Open Theology College degree for several years whilst working full-time as a doctor and being a teaching elder in a growing church. I enjoyed it immensely and got to use some world-class libraries.

I took it through almost to diploma level (2 years FT equivalent) before the stresses caught up with me and I gave it up. Though it wasn’t wasted.

I do like to tell people I’m a couple of essays short of a diploma…

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