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Denis Alexander
 on September 03, 2010

Biology and Ideology – From Descartes to Dawkins

Ever since modern science emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries it has been abused for purposes that lie beyond science. Biology has been especially susceptible to ideological manipulation.


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 at a discounted rate.

About the author

Denis Alexander

Denis Alexander

Denis Alexander is the Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow. He has spent the past 40 years in the biological research community. From 1992-2012 he was editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief, and he currently serves as an Executive Committee member of the International Society for Science and Religion. In his book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Alexander presents his belief in both the biblical doctrine of creation and the coherence of evolutionary theory. Alexander’s other books include Rebuilding the Matrix – Science and Faith in the 21st CenturyScience, Faith and Ethics: Grid or Gridlock? (co-authored with Robert White); and The Language of Genetics – an Introduction. Dr Alexander gave the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in December 2012 on the theme ‘Genes, Determinism and God’ to be published by Cambridge University Press 2016/17

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