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

Before Darwin, animal and plant breeders had for millennia know about variations in organisms and how to exploit them using various techniques of artificial selection to produce heritable changes in a population. This is “evolution”, although no one called it that, pre-Darwin.

Apparently Darwin took the principles behind artificial selection and adapted it to the natural world. to explain how natural selection favoured a certain variation to produce a heritable changes. This principle is no doubt very useful in applied science, but as for the rest of Darwinism - the Tree of LIfe/Common Descent - it is scientifically useless and amounts to nothing more than a historical curiosity (and let’s not forget that tales such as whales evolving from a deer provide comforting bedtime stories for many an atheist).

It’s highly probable that had no one ever heard of Darwin and his book, the principle of natural selection would still have found it’s way into the science of biology, as it had been proposed by at least one of his contemporaries (Wallace). So did biology need Darwinism to advance? I don’t think so.

Could you please explain the difference as you see it between natural selection and Darwinism? The term Darwinism is rarely used in the scientific literature, so I honestly don’t understand the difference as you perceive it. A quick pubmed search showed 226 articles with “Darwinism” in the title, 1590 with “natural selection”, and 80,578 with “evolution”. I also am having trouble understanding why you seem to be fine with Wallace’s version of evolution, but object to Darwin’s.



Just to clarify the matter … the question of Biology needing Darwinism was not intended to be interpreted as “Did biology need the man Darwin?”

The question you should be answering is: “Does biology need the principles that underlie what is called Darwinism?”

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Hi Dredge -

Your approach has me puzzled. As those who care passionately about the truth, our first order of business in natural history is to determine what actually happened, without regard to how it might be misused by misguided souls. Would you agree?

Thus it is reasonable and useful to ask: does the paleontological and genomic evidence point to a common ancestor for hippos and whales, or are they as different as mosquitoes and tulips? This is a question that careful research can answer, just as the good folks at 23andme can tell me based on a DNA sample about my own natural history (e.g., whether I have any ancestry from the South Pacific Islands or not).

Insights from natural history/evolution can prove useful in a wide array of domains. For example, it helps epidemiologists create more effective influenza vaccines. It helps ecologists understand how endangered a species truly is.

You are right to note that science can be misused, though.

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This message sticks out to me as ‘one of these things is not like the other one’ in this thread. Sy_Garte seems to have a different view of Darwinism than everyone else here. If not, let’s try to clarify why he says some of the things he does. As I understood from reading profile, Sy_Garte is a biological scientist emeritus. So his biological knowledge should not be questioned at least by non-biologists. What seems to me questionable is Sy_Garte’s intended meaning of ‘Darwinism.’

Sy_Garte wrote: “Is there anything in biology that could be understood without Darwinism, and the answer is very little.”

To me, this is simply untrue (& a bad paraphrase of Dobzhansky 1973 at that!). Here we must distinguish Darwinism from Darwinian evolution; these are clearly not the same thing. But maybe they are to Sy_Garte, which is why he says such things that to me, and it seems to most others here, are obviously untrue. Sy_Garte seems to view ‘Darwinism’ differently from everyone else who wrote in this thread, except perhaps for Dredge, who is anti-Darwinism and also anti-Darwinian evolution (seemingly almost anti-Darwin anything).

Can we try to find some middle ground or put Sy_Garte’s apparently outlier definition of Darwinism on the table so that he doesn’t continue to think that “depend on Darwinism” and “derived from Darwinism” are common phrases for non-ideologists to keep using?

What I see in Garte’s language is conflation of ideology with science. Does anyone else note this difference? I think distinguishing these 2 terms could also help people like Dredge, so they see it isn’t an all or nothing lovefest with Darwin at BioLogos. Critical of Darwin’s mistakes and shortcomings, not even Sy_Garte need label himself a ‘Darwinist’ anymore, as he seems to still willingly call himself now. If this is wrong, then be welcome to correct me.

A Christian Darwinist, then, is the preferred definition Sy_Garte seems like he would necessarily impute to any Christian who is a biological scientist (and perhaps non-biological scientists too?). But that doesn’t seem necessary to me or others I’ve spoken with about this. Hopefully Sy_Garte will explain what he meant and what he means without trying to turn us non-Darwinists into Darwinists.


Until everyone agrees on the difference between “Darwinism” and “Darwinian Evolution”, I don’t see how you are going to convince anyone. When I read the word “Darwinism”, I immediately think someone means “Darwinian Evolution”.

So, if you have two different definitions, respectively, for these terms, please post it - - or we’re going to go around in circles until we speciate!

“I can’t think of any examples of detriment to biology” - Curtis Henderson

Trofim Lysenko and Lysenkoism is the easy answer to your question. Have you read Lewontin’s 1991 “Biology as Ideology”? Or Alexander & Numbers eds. “Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins”?

It’s quite difficult to deny the influence of ideology in biology although showing the empirical facts of ideological misuse can be rather difficult sometimes. And yet lack of knowledge about that influence is still a scar on this conversation.

Be welcome, Curtis, to report here on what you discover about ideology and biology should you do any reading on the topic.

People on this site are asking me to do too much work for them. Anytime I state that a distinction is necessary, people ask me to do the work for them. Sorry, I’m a busy man, in my prime working years, and not retired with time to spare. So please, stop asking me to do the work for you when you could do it yourself and come to your own conclusions.

If you don’t consider yourself a Darwinist, George, then we have at least some common ground. Why not explain to Sy_Garte why you don’t consider yourself a Darwinist and why you think it’s possible to be a Christian, even a Unitarian, and reject ideological Darwinism, even one who is a biological scientist? That might help.

I’m not trying to “convince everyone.” Most people here seem to understand already, except for Sy_Garte, so that is why I raised this. Not just to write a monologue here about my views and definitions as if BioLogos hasn’t thought about this before. Thanks for understanding.

p.s. I won’t write back to you today, George, as your volume here and mine obviously don’t match.

I also do not know what the original poster meant by Darwinism. What I do know is that I can’t do my work as a biologist without the concept of common descent and without the concept of natural selection.



Frankly, providing a definition is not that much work. Notice how I handle this problem:

  1. Provide dictionary definitions;
  2. Point out where the definition (or definitions) applies (or doesn’t apply);
  3. Conclude with how I fit in: doesn’t provide a long list of definitions:
"Darwinism: the Darwinian theory that species originate by descent,
[i.] with variation, from parent forms,
[ii.] through the natural selection of those individuals best adapted
[iii.] for the reproductive success of their kind. "
[Note: I separated the 3 clauses … in case someone wanted to tackle one in particular.]

The problem with this definition is that it is tone-deaf in reference to Evangelicals.

And while I’m sure there would be those who say ^ this definition is sufficient, I think we would benefit by simply agreeing that to leave out God in this definition is what makes this definition inadequate.

So I’m not a Darwinian in that I explicitly require a reference to God in the use and guidance of Evolutionary forces (analogous to God’s use and guidance of the water cycle to make rain) to make all the plants and creatures of Earth.

Shall we call someone in this category a BioLogos Darwinian? Or maybe it is best to call them “Evolutionary Theists” - - the tongue twisting, teeth clacking “Theistic Evolutionist” breaks me physically and spiritually.

As to you, @Al-Khalil, I usually see my postings here as therapeutic. And so I look to getting my “therapy” frequently. While you may object to having to do “work” for some of your posts, they are your objections, are they not?

How can you expect someone else to provide the premises for your objections? If you invest in the ground work (providing your preferred definitions or underlying assumptions), you are much more likely to get answers that are helpful - - to you and to your readers.

Otherwise, it’s just people talking past each other. And that would be bad therapy…

@Al-Khalil, I think I understand your point, and the source of the misunderstanding. Darwinism is often used as a philosophical worldview, and as such should be (as you say) distinguished from Darwinian evolution, which is a scientific biological theory. In that sense, my entire paragraph should have Darwinism replaced by Darwinian evolutionary theory. I think the reason I was not careful to do that is that I was reflecting the OP use of the word Darwinism to stand for Darwinian evolution, since the context of @Dredge’s post, including the title, makes it clear that he was writing about Darwin’s views in a specifically biological context. I therefore assumed that my argument would be taken in a strictly biological, rather than philosophical context.

It is still worthwhile to understand what exactly you mean by Darwinism, as I am only guessing here. If you still think that my comment is “simply untrue” after making the substitution I suggest above, then I am confused.

Of course, some might see the irony here, since I have been one of the people most interested in some of the newer evolutionary theories, sometimes called the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, and have expressed the opinion that these newer versions of Darwinian evolution should be added to the standard (so called Neo Darwinian) mechanistic explanations of evolutionary biology. With just a tad more research than looking at my profile, you should be able to find my blog posts (here and elsewhere) published papers and other written evidence of my actual views on evolutionary theory.

In the meantime, thank you for your correction to my comment, and in future I will try to be more precise in the terms I use. I should note that I have never used (or even heard of) the term Christian Darwinist before. I consider myself to be an Evolutionary Creationist, like many others at the Biologos forum. Please let me know if I have understood your comment correctly, or if you have more concerns regarding the meaning of my comment.

My question for you, involves your final sentence. Is a non Darwinist someone who rejects evolution, or someone who rejects Darwinism as an overarching philosophical view of how the universe operates? If the latter, I am with you, if the former, I am not.


I had an experiment ruined by common descent and natural selection. Those little bacteria pulled a fast one on me and suppressed an earlier mutation I’d introduced into the strain. I had to restart the work and collect data quickly, before suppressor mutants took over the culture again.

Tricky little buggers, those bacteria.



I would guess that that the bacteria did not suppress the mutation, but this particular mutation was not well adapted to the environment into which you placed it artificially. Maybe you missed a chance to determine what made Natural Selection to select that mutation out in your experiment.

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‘Suppression’ in this sense means acquiring compensatory mutation(s) that reduce the effect of the original mutations. (Wikipedia article here). Thus, the original mutation in the bacteria typically didn’t revert. Secondary mutations occurred, altered the phenotype and allowed subsequent generations carrying the suppressing mutations to out-compete the original strain.

This is pretty common in experiments where one propagates bacteria through many generations. Mutations continuously arise and change in frequency across the population within the culture vessels. This is actually the basis behind Richard Lenski’s long-term experimental evolution (LTEE) work where ‘waves’ of mutant populations emerge and disappear in a successive fashion.

Aside: There are times when you want to find suppressor mutations because they can reveal biochemical interactions you wouldn’t easily find through a systematic, directed search. In my particular case, I needed to work with a population that didn’t change because I was looking at a particular interaction that I’d set up with the initial mutation I’d introduced. The background variation interfered with the measurements I needed to take. It was like trying to record a bird song in my backyard while all my neighbors ran leaf blowers.

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I must say I was surprised by the replies to my post that expressed confusion over the definition of “Darwinism”. But this is no doubt due to my limited knowledge (ignorance) of the subject - I have no formal training in the biological sciences and this bumbling amateur has a lot to learn. Unfortunately, I will very quickly find myself seriously out of my depth on Biologos, which is the most professional “evolution” forum I’ve yet encountered. Nevertheless, I want to learn, so the plan is to persevere.

The definition of “Darwinism” supplied by George in post #30 seems manifestly inadequate to me. According to this definition, a creationist who believes in a literal interpretation of Genesis (ie, all life was created in six days (each of 24 hours duration) about 5778 years ago) would qualify as someone who someone who accepts Darwinism!

The defintion offered by my iPad, on the other hand, seems to me to be more satisfactory. It’s similar to the definition, but adds, “… leading to the evolution of new species differing widely from one another and from their common ancestors …”

By when I think of Darwinism, I think of the theory of evolution and the Tree of Life proposed by Charles Darwin in his famous book, plus subsequent theories of universal common descent - you know, humans evolving from a hominid, whales evolving from a deer, all life evolving from a single-cell organism, etc. This of course includes the enabling mechanism of variation/mutation coupled with natural selection.

Anyhow, back to my original point, which I will re-submit from a different angle and which also avoids the nebulous term, Darwinism:-

I am a (Catholic) creationist who believes that all life was created in six literal days, about 5778 years ago; and that there is an evolution-restricting “species” boundary (which might be more accurately be described as a “kinds” boundary) … and I am of the opinion that I would not have to compromise my creationist beliefs in any way to become a competent biologist - as in, applied biology (as opposed to “theoretical” biology).

For instance, the “common descent” alluded to by Steve in post #29 and the understanding of DNA ancestry, flu vaccinations and endangered species mentioned by Chris in post #24 are, in all likelihood, examples of microevolution that my creationist paradigm could easily accommodate. In other words, in order to become a competent biologist, I don’t think I would have to accept that man evolved from a hominid, or that whales evolved from a deer, or that all life on earth evolved from a single-cell organism over millions of years. Nor would I have to accept the evidence offered by the fossil record, genetics, morphology, embryology, etc that supports such macroevolution.

I am interested in what the fine minds and erudite souls that inhabit Biologos think about this idea. Thank you.

Excellent. Don’t be intimidated.


Well, there are competent biologists who don’t accept evolution. But that is a different contention than saying the entire field doesn’t really need the theory of evolution. I would imagine your level of competence as an evolution-denying biologist would vary depending on your field of expertise.

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I applaud your attitude, which is unfortunately quite rare. There are many professional scientists who post here frequently. They are glad to answer questions about the science. If you are here to learn, you will certainly do so. Too many come here to dispute when they obviously should be learning, instead. Welcome.

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[quote=“Jay313, post:38, topic:35756, full:true”]
I applaud your attitude … Welcome.[/quote]
Thank you … and thank you.

With respect, I’m skeptical that accepting that macroevolution occurs is necessary at any level of applied biology - but what would I know?

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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