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Biology and Ideology

Nick Spencer

Denis R Alexander and Ronald L Numbers (eds.)
Chicago University Press, 448pp, ISBN: 9780226608419


Given how obvious it is that the way we study life should affect how we live it, and vice versa, it is astonishing that the link between biology and ideology should be so underexplored. Yet so it has been, as the introduction to this absorbing collection of essays explains.

There are at least two reasons for this. The disciplines of the history and philosophy of science grew in anti-religious soil in the nineteenth century. As a result, they were determined to emphasise the alleged disinterested objectivity of science in contrast to the grubby, subjective untruths of religion. Ideology was banished to the wilderness.

Second, and more justifiably, 20th-century scientists sometimes encountered particularly crass examples of ideologues trying to prove the ideological basis of science - Marxists demonstrating 'the socio-economic roots of Newton's Principia Mathematica' for example. Many naturally rebelled against the idea that there could be any legitimate connection between biology and ideology.

Yet, connections there are aplenty, as Biology and Ideology reveals. This revelation is no hatchet job. The authors do not secretly wish to discredit biology by showing that it is really all just ideology in respectable clothes. Indeed, the editors make a point of saying that 'if this collection… has any message, it is that biological ideas promoted in good faith within the academy can find eventual non-biological application in ways remote from the original goal of the scientific investigator.' It is a point worth emphasising given that some of the more colourful anti-evolutionary rhetoric in the US claims that Darwinism is little more than an ideologically-driven justification for atheism, racism and genocide.

To its credit, Biology and Ideology: From Descartes to Dawkins is not simply From Darwin to Darwin. Given the immensity of Darwin's achievement, it would be easy for the authors to have focused their attention more or less entirely post-1859, with perhaps a few cursory remarks to set the scene. They do not, and the volume's five pre-Darwinian essays contain some of its best contributions.

Peter Harrison's is one. It looks at 'the cultural authority of natural history in early modern Europe', observing that early humanist scholars denigrated natural history. 'What is the use… of knowing the nature of quadrupeds, fowls, fishes and serpents and now knowing… man's nature?' asked Petrarch. It was Christianity that reformed this view, party for the right reasons - Francis Bacon (among others) insisted that natural history would help comprehend and celebrate God's glory - and partly for wrong ones - the wars of religion caused such a crisis of authority, that Nicolas Malebranche (among others) remarked, 'one insect is more in touch with Divine wisdom than the whole of Greek and Roman history,' to which he might have added, what many thought, 'and the Bible and the church'.

Jonathan Topham's contribution is also particularly good. He looks at the high point of the English tradition of natural theology in the early 19th century, characterised by William Paley and the Bridgewater Treatises. This tradition, which claimed to read God off nature largely without the aid of revelation, was supposed to have been smashed to pieces by Darwin. In actual fact, history was not that simple (it never is). Topham shows that English natural theology became a great deal more sophisticated in the first 30 years of the century (basically between Paley and the Treatises) as it adapted to the emerging disciplines of geology and morphology, a sophistication that was implicitly recognised by Darwin himself when he chose to use a quotation from a Bridgewater Treatise as an epigraph to The Origin of Species.

Michael Ruse's essay is a third high point. He looks at the long-standing and often confused relationship between evolution and social progress and divides history into three stages. In the first, pre-Darwin, evolution was less a science than the outgrowth of an optimistic culture. Progress ran through its veins. In the second, although now a serious science whose founding father was adamant that it was not progressive, evolution by natural selection was co-opted into socially progressive agenda. In the last, the theory having been revolutionised by genetics from the 1930s, the scientific agenda was supposed to have won through, banishing the idea of progress for ever. In reality, Ruse argues, most contemporary professional biologists, although denouncing the idea of evolutionary progress in their scientific work, remain thoroughly wedded to the idea, simply relegating it to their popular writings.

One of the volume's strengths is that it does not limit itself to England. Shirley Roe contributes a fine essay on biology, atheism and politics in 18th-century France, making the point that, in contrast to the tradition of English natural theology which was used largely to defend the political status quo, the French philosophes drew on the supposed materialism of biology to challenge Roman Catholicism and the Ancien Régime it upheld. Nikolai Krementsov explores the sad story of Darwinism, Marxism and genetics in the Soviet Union and Paul Weindling the gruesome tale of eugenics and the Holocaust.

Frustratingly, these two are the volume's weakest contributions, not exactly bad but too heavy on narrative and too light on analysis.

The volume ends on a familiar note, with Alister McGrath doing his customary gracious demolition on Dennett and Dawkins. His essay contains the delicious gem that is the Journal of Memetics (if you don't know, don't waste time finding out), founded in 1997, decided to shut up shop in 2005, unable to gain scholarly acceptance. The story reminds us that our blindness to the relationship between biology and ideology remains as powerful as ever it did, but that careful scholarship, such as this book provides, can at least expose that relationship to the light, and watch its more obtuse or harmful examples crumble.

Nick Spencer