Quasi-religious Belief in Darwin and Darwinism: “Straw-Men” Scientist Believers Everywhere

Jun 1, 2020

Narratives that describe models of how the world works involve some form of idealization, but all models are subjective and influenced by many human factors including the location, period of time, and profession of the narrator. Charles Darwin is a particularly fascinating case. Many scientists have tended—and continue—to idealize him as a person and a scientist, as well as his evolutionary ideas, in particular those related to “adaptationism” and the “struggle for existence.” In fact, many still defend that there is no need for any kind of new or even “extended” evolutionary theories: what we have from Darwin, or from the subsequent “Modern Synthesis,” is enough, as if the thousands of studies made in the last decades, including the discovery of the DNA, the genomes of humans and other species, or the crucial evolutionary role played by epigenetics, did not add anything relevant to how we understand biological evolution. Interestingly, such reactions are somehow comparable with those of some religious leaders that, when certain scientific discoveries contradict narratives of a religious text, argue that these are just “minor” details that do not put those narratives into question. An example concerns certain adaptationist narratives, which as Gould noted cannot be falsified: by assuming a priori that a structure has to have an “adaptive function,” even when hypotheses that the function is A, B, C, or D are contradicted, one tries to show that perhaps the function is E, or F, and so on, instead of being at least open to the hypothesis that perhaps those “negative results” mean that the structure has no current “adaptive function.” Such circular reasoning is deeply related to another common feature of humans-the-storytelling-animals: our continuous search for “purpose.” As the founder of biology, Aristotle, famously stated, nature “does nothing in vain”—a teleological notion that deeply influenced Darwin, and continues to influence us. The aim of this paper is not to criticize Darwin—I profoundly admire his life, travels, persistence, naturalism, and brilliant ideas such as that of natural selection. Instead, here, I discuss subjects such as adaptationism and the notions of progress, purpose, and “struggle for life” and their links to racism and misogyny to call attention to the remarkable parallel between religious thinking and the inflexible way in which many defend Darwin’s, Darwinist, or Neo-Darwinist ideas, even when such ideas might have contributed to enduring biases and prejudices within both the scientific community and broader society.