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How Evolution Gets Used and Abused in the Science-Religion Debate

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The ideological uses of science very often become tangled up in the debate between science and religion. Theories that for the scientist do practical work in the laboratory to make sense of certain data, and help map out the direction for future research, can be deployed in the world outside for or against various political, social, religious or anti-religious agendas. In the process the science becomes socially transformed, the original meanings of words in scientific discourse conveying quite different connotations.

This trend goes back a long way, as well illustrated by the authors in the recently published Biology and Ideology: From Descartes to Dawkins (Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers, eds, Chicago University Press, 2010). The 13 essays in this volume illustrate the many and varied ways in which biology in particular 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 discern such uses and abuses of biological ideas. Whereas the twentieth-century abuses of genetics in eugenics and in racist ideologies are obvious and thoroughly described in the present volume, 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 Prof. Shirley Roe and Prof. Peter Hanns Reill. The supposedly "materialistic" biology that in France was utilized by the philosophes to subvert the social order in the eighteenth 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 entitled "Creationism, intelligent design, and modern biology," Prof. 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 original 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 benefited 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 bogey-man 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.

Ironically, as Prof. 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 more recent proponents of Intelligent Design. Opposite poles are often more similar to each other than either side might be prepared to admit.

In the hands of Prof. 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. In such claims, McGrath notes, evolution becomes exalted to a metanarrative, infused with the ideological rhetoric of atheism.

The ideological uses and abuses of science are bad for science education, because so often the science gets lost in the rhetoric. They are also bad for religion, because scientific theories are always provisional, open to refutation, and simply not up to the herculean task of refereeing between 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.

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