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Misuses of science

Biology and Ideology: from Descartes to Dawkins

Edited by Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers

CHICAGO UNIVERSITY PRESS, 450PP, £22.50 ■Tablet Bookshop price £20.25

extensively informed by advances in cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence, used to indulge a youthful fantasy. When he was bored he would lie on his bed imagining the release of a corrosive substance that destroyed everything it touched. He called it Universal Acid, and he liked to imagine it inexorably gobbling up the world: his house, town, state, the whole of North America, and so on, until the planet, the galaxy, the universe had been destroyed. In an interview he once ventured that he came to realise, in adulthood, that Universal Acid was no mere fantasy: it was true – it was Darwinism. Once released into the atmosphere of general culture it was set to alter everything. The notion of an idea that alters


everything corresponds to a commonly accepted definition of “ideology”. It is the thesis of Biology and Ideology, a crucially important and much needed book, that the biological sciences have for four centuries been exploited to generate a variety of distorted notions, some of them extremely destructive. Ideology is of course a weasel word, and the editors of this volume, Ronald Numbers and Denis Alexander (who directs the Faraday Institute at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge), provide a useful history of the term – from its classic Marxist association with the errors of capitalism to the postmodern usage of historians of science such as Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer (as expounded in their now classic book, Leviathan and the Air-Pump). Shapin and Schaffer argued that modern science and its scientific communities are so dependent on the state and its agencies that they therefore are never free of the ideological influence. Apart from the academic debates that continue to rage over the extent to which science can ever be value free, the basic insight of these authors is that biology has “been utilised for a wide range of political, religious and social purposes from 1600 to the present day”. In other words, the proper scientific bounds of biology have been breached, outwards, to manipulate whole societies, and inwards, to reshape biology in order to “prop up the ideology”. The range of this collection of essays by

experts in a variety of fields – historical, sociological, political, and religious – is impressive and far-ranging. The early themes include biology in the service of the natural theology of William Paley, the impact of Darwin and the emergence of the

01420 592974

aniel Dennett, the militantly atheistic philosopher of mind whose thinking is

Daniel Dennett: faithful to atheism

Anglo-American eugenics movements. Twentieth-century topics include Nazi genetics and eugenics, and the Darwinist aspects of genetics in the Soviet Union. Within the ambit of the history of ideas, the authors tackle such themes as evolution and the idea of social progress, Creationism, intelligent design and the use of evolutionary biology in current atheist apologetics. The prodigious impact of ideology through the popular books of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Daniel

Dennett (Breaking the Spell) is brilliantly handled by Alister McGrath. Their aim has been to invest Darwin’s theory with an aggressively atheistic purpose. As McGrath points out, evolutionary biology, in the hands of these two authors, becomes a “world view”. The evolutionary “narrative” is extended to embrace “the physical universe, human origin, human nature, society, psychology, values, and destinies”. What is involved here is the “failure to distinguish between good, sober, and restrained science, on the one hand, and non-empirical metaphysics, fantasy, myth and ideology, on the other”. As McGrath concludes: Darwinism thus becomes “a religion or theist faith tradition in its own right”. The take-home message of this volume is that we should be alert to the attempts of biologists to apply qualitative conclusions beyond the ambit of their science. The plea of the editors is that it is wise “to emphasise the limited scope of biological theories, generated to explain particular scientific questions, and to resist the ideological hijacking of scientific ideas to support all kinds of non-biological agendas”. This is a crucial book for anyone interested in the continuing debates about the capacity of science to make comments about religion and the existence of God. It should be in every school, college and university library, in the section covering science and religion. John Cornwell



Provides Scripture readings and Ignatian meditations for the Advent and Christmas season. With weekly themes, daily readings, prayers, and suggestions for a retreat day, this book offers a simple way to prepare for Christmas in the midst of the year’s most hectic season. A great companion to the successful website,

Ave Maria Press • 978 1 59471 251 7 • 96pp • PB • £2.50


An At-Home Advent Retreat, Cycle A RONALD PATRICK RAAB, CSC

Stories of the author’s life and ministry, interpreted alongside the Sunday Gospel readings, bring clarity to the profound challenges facing Catholics today. This at- home, self-directed retreat is based on the Sunday Gospel readings for Cycle A.

Ave Maria Press • 978 1 59471 254 8 • 96pp • PB • £5.99


From the Gospels of Matthew and Luke RUTH SANDERSON

Brings to life the story of the birth of Christ, from the breathtaking appearance of the angel Gabriel to the arduous journey of the three wise men, from Herod’s chilling decree to the return of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Nazareth. A beautiful gift book accompanied by luminous and detailed illustrations by the author.

Eerdmans • 978 0 8028 5371 4 • 32pp • HB • £9.99


Stories of Women Reshaping the World MEGAN MCKENNA

A book about hope, courage, imagination and compassion flourishing amid the challenges of daily life. Megan McKenna gathers inspiring stories from Scripture, from women around the globe, and from religious, folk, and wisdom traditions worldwide.

Eerdmans • 978 0 8028 6469 7 • 214pp • PB • £9.99

Available from your local bookshop or in case of difficulty from: Alban Books Ltd, 14 Belford Road, Edinburgh EH4 3BL, UK Tel: +44(0)131 226 2217 Fax: +44(0)131 225 5999 Email:

2 October 2010 | THE TABLET | 23

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