Does biology need the theory that all life shares a common ancestor?


If Darwinism could be removed from the science of biology, would it suffer? Lots of evolutionary theories would disappear, for sure, but I can’t think of any form of applied biology that needs Darwinism in order to be effective. And I cant think of any scientific principle that is utilised in applied biology that needed Darwinism in order to be discovered, understood and developed.


What is ‘Darwinism’? I was speaking recently with 2 biologists. One was falling in love (incomplete verb) with the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES), quite flowery rhetoric by this biologist. She passed me a lemon at the end of our meeting, which came from her garden. The science is interesting even if it is challenging many past assumptions and current assumptions held by those with a rather small ‘basket of goods,’ as economists like to say.

The other is also a historian of biology, and the answer was so starkly in contrast to the first answer (could we say it was more full of life?), heaping down rebuke upon revisionists and poseurs with sharp, accurate and detailed assessments not just of facts, but also of the people speaking them, the context, the surrounding evidence that leads to understanding a ‘field’ of study far beyond just doing something within the field itself. Taken in that light, to even ask the question of 'If Darwinism… [add anything]" comes across as presumptuous (neutrally meaning full of assumptions) at the start. The historian needs to check her or his facts of history that were recorded and that can now be seen by some of us in various media regarding the original Modern Synthesis (MS) or now the Extending/-ed Modern Evolutionary Synthesis (EMES). BL can have more focuses on showing such contributions, even while keeping a distant distance from them.

There are then not many worries about conflating whatever is currently called ‘Darwinism’ or Neo-Darwinism in whichever district thse particular linguistic term is being uttered. It is easier to rest it as an aside, rather than central.

So I would like to see “If Darwinism…” unpackaged please, as if it is something that exists in peoples’ minds - to be able to see better what it is that you are asking. This BL place apparently has few (not none) antagonisms with Darwin himself, as a naturalist (proto-scientist) of his time. They seem even to really like Darwin at BioLogos, whohoo, Charles! Am I not misunderstanding this aspect of BL corp. culture?

What if maybe less than 5% of BioLogos readers would start with anywhere near the definition of ‘Darwinism’ that I would start with? Of course, it is highly probable that hypotheticals could be “discoursed” (oops), but not clear who can make it out from hypotheticals to actual defining “Darwinism” that satisfy even 1/2 of every person “discoursing” here.

So why then even raise the specter of “Darwinism” at BL, as if the IDM any longer can be allowed to set the terms of the engagement, at all rather than simply putting it aside and just (c’est la vie) letting it be?

(Phil) #3

That is sort of like asking if Newtonian physics is needed in the study of astrophysics. Very little I learned in my bachelors degree program is directly needed in my day to day life and work, but it was necessary to build a foundation of understanding for what I now use. I suspect most fields are similar.
A question that arises of course, is why would you want to set evolutionary theory aside (I’ll state it that way rather than use the word Darwinism, which is a whole different discussion)?

(George Brooks) #4

I have become used to explaining to some of our detractors that the BioLogos position is not Darwinism, but the Science of Evolution run by God.

Flipping the coin to the other side, I’m not particularly worried that “BioLogos minus God” is, say, “equal to Neo-Darwinism.”

@Al-Khalil’s comment is pretty much perfect: “What if maybe less than 5% of BioLogos readers would start with anywhere near the definition of ‘Darwinism’ that I would start with?”

Would any pro-science folks care to take a position on Darwinism(s) vs. Neo-Darwinism(s) ?

(Brad Kramer) #5

FYI @gbrooks9 is not a staff member, so his definitions of the BioLogos position need to be taken lightly.

BioLogos believes that evolution is the best scientific explanation of how life diversified. Darwin has obviously had a huge impact in developing this theory, although of course his ideas are not infallible and evolutionary theory has progressed a lot since then.

“Darwinism” is one of those terms that tends to mean whatever people need it to mean. If by Darwinism you mean, “someone who agrees with the basics of Darwin’s theories,” then yes, BioLogos agrees with Darwinism. I don’t see any good reason to take “Darwinism” as some sort of metaphysical statement about God’s action (or non-action) in nature—especially since Darwin himself didn’t see any conflict between his theories and belief in a Creator. (Yes, he did have trouble understanding how to reconcile evolution with some elements of traditional Christian theology, but that’s another conversation).

For instance, we wouldn’t say, “the BioLogos position is not Einsteinian, but the Science of Relativistic Space/Time run by God.” The sentence wouldn’t make any sense, not because we don’t believe God is the ultimate source of all space and time, but because the distinction is artificial and unhelpful (and also incoherent).

(sy_garte) #6

@Dredge The question should be turned around. Is there anything in biology that could be understood without Darwinism, and the answer is very little. From molecular and cell biology, to physiology, genetics and systematics, to animal behavior and plant physiology, all of them depend on Darwinism. In fact, biology is a special science, because in biology we get to ask not only what and how (which chemistry and physics can also ask) but WHY?. And the answers to why questions in biology, are derived from Darwinism. Without it, we are left with data that makes no sense, and is frankly hard to even believe. So, I hope that clarifies things, and I would be happy to provide more details and examples if you would like them. There are lots of other biologists here, who could also do the same.

(Curtis Henderson) #7

This is very similar to asking the question “Do I need to know the physics and engineering of internal combustion engines to drive a car?” Obviously (and thank goodness!), I don’t need a functional working knowledge of this in order for me to make use of the applications supplied by internal combustion. Similarly, the process of evolution does not need to be fully understood (or even appreciated) in order to make use of applications supplied by evolution. I do concede the point that for many direct applications of the biological sciences, the underpinnings of evolution are not essential. But under certain circumstances, it is incredibly helpful to understand those underpinnings. For example, development of effective antimicrobial drugs relies heavily on the predictable patterns of resistance development (due to natural selection). Understanding of gene regulation networks also often involves predictions based on evolutionary theory. Those are just a couple of examples I can think of off the top of my head.


Work in pest control (herbicide, pesticides & etc,), infectious agents and cancer take evolutionary mechanisms into consideration.

One can study some areas of chemistry without directly invoking quantum theory but certainly quantum mechanics underpins much of our deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms involved. For example, one can see that the elements appear to group in periodic patterns (e.g. periodic table) but you don’t really understand why these patterns exist without understanding orbitals.

(GJDS) #9

Every branch of science has operated within certain paradigms, and almost every branch has undergone periods of upheaval that eventually led to a new paradigm. Those who practice in a particular field are aware of this, but generally the public has a vague notion of some change. Branches such as Chemistry (and Physics) have made radical/fundamental changes (often with bitter arguments) and these fields have progressed as a result.

I am not a biologist, so my remarks are very general on this - yet I have formed the impression that what we regard as Darwinism is a combination of evolutionary biology and an ideology that has been welcomed with great enthusiasm by materialists/atheists. Perhaps it should be termed Darwin/Huxley-ism. As a result of this, I think there has been enormous resistance within the bio-community to accept any fundamental change to evolutionary biology, even when many breakthroughs, and debates, would support such change. I think this has been to the detriment of the biological sciences.

(Curtis Henderson) #10

What breakthroughs and debates do you have in mind? Personally, I do feel there is a portion of ideology associated with the theory of evolution, but I can’t think of any examples of detriment to biology.

(GJDS) #11

I draw on my experiences beginning from my student days, when (as I recall) evolutionists were adamant on a linear progression from ape to man, to changes from a missing link to now pop-genetics, the disturbing views on how life began, to the Piltdown man scandal, to the weird notions of white man superiority, to the inability to link with any certainty genotype-to-phenotype - I think some of these errors were motivated by ideology, others are simply the way fields of science deal with speculation.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #12

Maybe you are not aware of the conflict between James Lovelock, the father of modern ecology, and Richard Dawkins, the spokes person for today’s Darwinism. If evoluti9on and ecology are at odds, how can we expect to cope with the climate change crisis that confronts our world.

Let me try to explain the issues that confront us inter terms of evolution and evolutionary theory. Please understand that I am a member of the BioLogos community in as far as I am a frequent blogger on these pages and have been for the past few years, but I do not represent the BioLogos organization. Brad Kramer has done that.

I am a critic of Darwin, but that does not mean that I do not respect his contributions to science, but there are limits to those contributions and his theory id not Gospel. The best thing Darwin did was to make a clear distinction between two basic aspects of evolution, Variation and Natural Selection.

As most people know Darwin did not make the connection between genetics and Variation, people after him did and this became the basis of Darwinism as we know it. On the other hand Darwin did use the population theories of Thomas Malthus as his basis for Natural Selection. These ideas which are the basis of Survival of the Fittest, however have not been scientifically verified, so cannot be called true science.

Survival of the fittest is based on struggle and conflict, while ecology is based on mutuality and harmony. Survival of the Fittest is based on a Zero Sum world, while Ecology is based on a Non-Zero Sum world.

Science in the form of EES seems to be moving beyond traditional Neo-Darwinism. We need to incorporate ecology into evolution by basing Natural Selection on this basis. This is good for science and this is good for theology, because Life is not founded on struggle and conflict, but love and cooperation.

(Curtis Henderson) #13

I’ll start by admitting that ecology is far from my specialty, but I’m not real sure what you are proposing. I do know ecology includes predator/prey relationships, parasitism, and competition (both intra-species and inter-species), none of which would generally be considered as harmonious.

(George Brooks) #14


Roger, I know you like to portray the issues of Evolution into a right/wrong - - black/white - - dimorphism.

But if you would substitute the term “survival of the fittest” with the more general term of “natural selection”, you accomplish your goal of making Evolutionary theory more practical and broader in scope.

In stead of just speaking to rivalry and competition, you would automatically be including the issues of

  • adaptation to changes in ecology,
  • marginal increases in reproductive success, as well as
  • intra-species competition, and
  • inter-species competition.

Everything you’ve ever wanted to be discussed in Evolution is being discussed by highly trained academics in the field of Evolution.

But if you continue to “Google” the phrase “Survival of the Fittest”, you are mostly going to find discussions of that brutal perspective.

(Brad Kramer) #15

FYI @Relates has never blogged for BioLogos, he just comments a lot.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #16


You are correct in saying that predator/prey re4lationships are part of symbiosis. It is not struggle for scares resources as Darwin claimed. Lions are not in competition with zebras to grass and zebras are not in competition for lions for meat.

Lions flourish when zebras flourish, when there is plenty of water and grass. Lions do not flourish when zebras do not flourish, when there is little grass and water. Lion help the zebras and the zebras help the lions, and the ecology benefits from full use of all its resources.

Humans are predators who grow and harvest many kinds of prey animals. Both humans and the animals benefits unless the animals are kept in inhumane conditions. We are grow and harvest many kinds of plants that we eat and enjoy, again to the benefit of all.

Many parasites have a positive symbiotic relationship with their hosts. Humans have literally billions of symbionts living in us and on us. They are parasites of a kind, but they are a part of us and we cannot live without them.

You must look at each situation separately and scientifically to determine its true character, rather than the appeal to emotions that many Darwinists such as Dawkins uses. If you want to discuss dubious examples, that is fine. For instance the AIDS virus is one, but that virus began in the Green Monkey where is was relatively benign. It only became deadly when it jumped species.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #17

Thank you for that correction.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #18

Natural Selection is not a matter of choice. It is a scientific process which works under specific parameters. Those parameters are based on symbiosis.

I did not create the concept of survival of the fittest. Huxley did and Darwin accepted it as descriptive of what he was understanding of Natural Selection, which he also characterized at the War of Nature (against nature.)

Some things, particularly in science, are right or wrong and this is one of them. East is east and not west. North is north, and not south.

(George Brooks) #19


  1. Nothing I have said has anything to do with natural selection being a choice. So I don’t know why you bring it up.

  2. Nothing I have said suggests that you created the concept of Survival of the Fittest. But I have recommended that you should avoid the phrase if you want to avoid the writings that go with it. Most academics of Evolution prefer the phrase “Natural Selection” over Survival of the Fittest because it is more all-encompassing.

  3. I’m not sure the phrase “Natural Selection … is a scientific process” is your best choice of words. Perhaps “a natural process” is a better phrase?

(Hugh Farey) #20

The trouble with the term ‘survival of the fittest’ is that the word ‘fittest’ has altered its general meaning from ‘best fitting’ to ‘strongest and/or cleverest’. There is an anecdote doing the rounds in some evolutionary circles about pheasant shoots in the UK. Nowadays, new blood is introduced to a pheasant estate on a regular basis, but this was less common 100 years ago, when the pheasants for next year were bred from those which escaped being shot this year. As pheasant shooting was a fairly comprehensive slaughter at the time, the pheasants who lived to tell the tale were mostly those too scared, too ill or too ‘unfit’ to fly, rather than those few ‘fit’ ones which flew too fast or too high. Over the years, these shoots were less and less satisfactory, as, in this case, ‘survival of the fittest’ actually meant the same as ‘survival of the feeblest’!