The ideological uses of evolutionary biology – Alister E. McGrath

A must read book: Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins (Editors: Denis R. Alexander, Ronald L. Numbers, The University of Chicago Press,  2010)


Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers

chapter 1. The cultural authority of natural history in early modern Europe
Peter Harrison

chapter 2. Biology, atheism, and politics in eighteenth-century France
Shirley A. Roe

chapter 3. Eighteenth-century uses of vitalism in constructing the human sciences
Peter Hanns Reill

chapter 4. Biology in the service of natural theology: Paley, Darwin, and the Bridgewater Treatises
Jonathan R. Topham

chapter 5. Race, empire, and biology before Darwinism
Sujit Sivasundaram

chapter 6. Darwin’s choice
Nicolaas Rupke

chapter 7. Biology and the emergence of the Anglo-American eugenics movement
Edward J. Larson

chapter 8. Genetics, eugenics, and the Holocaust
Paul Weindling

chapter 9. Darwinism, Marxism, and genetics in the Soviet Union
Nikolai Krementsov

chapter 10. Evolution and the idea of social Progress
Michael Ruse

chapter 11. Beauty and the beast? Conceptualizing sex in evolutionary narratives
Erika Lorraine Milam

chapter 12. Creationism, intelligent design, and modern biology
Ronald L. Numbers

chapter 13. The ideological uses of evolutionary biology in recent atheist apologetics
Alister E. McGrath

chapter 13. The ideological uses of evolutionary biology in recent atheist apologetics – Alister E. McGrath (some quotes):

(…) My focus is on the ideological use of the biological sciences, especially evolutionary biology, in recent atheist apologetics, a topic which I believe is best considered under three broad categories: (1) the elevation of the status of Darwinism from a provisional scientific theory to a worldview; (2) the personal case of Charles Darwin as a role model for scientific atheism; and (3) the use of the concept of the “meme”—a notion that reflects an attempt to extend the Darwinian paradigm from nature to culture—as a means of reductively explaining (and hence criticizing) belief in God.
It is clear that this list of themes could easily be expanded; however, limits on space have caused me to focus on what I consider to be the most important elements in these works, illuminating the manner in which Darwinism is increasingly being presented as an ideology, rather than as a provisional scientific theory. (p. 331)

Darwinism as an ideology

One of the most interesting developments of the twentieth century has been the growing trend to regard Darwinian theory as transcending the category of provisional scientific theories, and constituting a “worldview.”  Darwinism is here regarded as establishing a coherent worldview through its evolutionary narrative, which embraces such issues as the fundamental nature of reality, the physical universe, human origins, human nature, society, psychology, values, and destinies. While being welcomed by some, others have expressed alarm at this apparent failure to distinguish between good, sober, and restrained science on the one hand, and non-empirical metaphysics, fantasy, myth and ideology on the other. In the view of some, this transition has led to Darwinismbecoming a religion or atheist faith tradition in its own right. (p. 331)

Richard Dawkins

(…) Now, at one level, this might seem to be little more than a reassertion of the role of the natural sciences in understanding our place within the world. Its obvious exaggerations might be explained away as reflecting the need to restate the legitimate role of the sciences in the face of the rival claims of the humanities or religion, especially in the light of postmodern attempts to deny any epistemic advantages to the natural sciences.Yet a closer reading of Dawkins indicates that this is not the case. Darwinism is not being presented as a representative element of the scientific enterprise, with a legitimate place at the round table of ethical and social debate. It is clearly understood as the defining account of reality.
Where most evolutionary biologists would argue that Darwinism offers a description of reality, Dawkins goes further, insisting that it is to be seen as an explanation of things. Darwinism is a worldview, a grand récit, a metanarrative—a totalizing framework, by which the great questions of life are to be evaluated and answered. For this reason, we should not be surprised to learn that Dawkins’ account of things has provoked a response from postmodern writers, for whom any metanarrative—whether Marxist, Freudian, or Darwinian—is to be resisted as a matter of principle. (p. 334)

The intellectual battle

(…) Yet perhaps the most significant of the developments noted in this chapter is the uneasy relationship that we have noted between two visions of Darwinism: a modest, provisional, and revisable scientific theory, an ally in our understanding of the world; and a triumphant worldview, which will sweep its rivals from the field of intellectual battle. As history makes depressingly clear, worldviews have an unhappy tendency to create in-groups and out-groups, orthodoxies and heresies, leading to dogmatic assertion where tentative questioning may be more appropriate. Darwinism appears to have an innate propensity to attract those who wish to attach it to decidedly non-empirical ethical, philosophical, and religious systems. We have, as this volume makes clear, seen this in the past. Recent trends suggest it will continue in the future.
Religious belief remains deeply embedded in today’s world, having obstinately refused to die the death that secularist readings of evolutionary biology predicted. In this chapter, I have explored recent metaphysical expansions of Darwinism, advocated by those wishing to adopt it as an ally in their attempt to achieve the final elimination, whether metaphysical or physical, of this irritatingly persistent phenomenon of religion. Yet to its critics, such metaphysically inflated versions of Darwinism seem to come close to becoming religions themselves. I hope I have raised important questions about how this expanded variant of Darwinism will develop biologically, theologically, and philosophically. Is this expanded vision of the Darwinian paradigm a useful and legitimate extension of approaches and methods from biology to human culture in general? Or does it represent an abuse of biology, an improper claim of biological hegemony over other disciplines, such as cultural anthropology? The debate continues, at both the scholarly and popular levels. We shall have to wait and discover its outcome. (p. 351)

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