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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Evolution and Philosophy

An Introduction

Copyright © 1997

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Evolution and philosophy have a relationship as old as the idea of evolution itself. This is partly due to the fact that science and philosophy only separated about the time evolutionary theories were being first proposed, but also because - especially in the Darwinian context - evolution was opposed to many cherished philosophical doctrines.

The first main criticisms of evolution lay in the idea that species were eternal types, and so by definition species could not change. More recently, criticisms have rested on the notion of science itself, that evolution fails to meet the standards of true science, views that also were expressed at the time of Darwin and earlier. If we are to understand these criticisms, we must understand the philosophy of science in some detail.

Many other topics of philosophical debate have been raised, and they are briefly reviewed: reductionism, progress and directionalism, teleology, naturalism, and evolutionary ethics. Not all of them are related to creationism, but all apply to antievolutionary arguments by those working from a humanities slant. Finally, the view has been put, even by philosophers like Popper who admire and accept evolutionary theory, that it is a tautology and metaphysical rather than science.

My conclusion is that evolution, especially the modern theories, is science at its best, and when it and the nature of science are considered realistically, evolution is not lacking from a philosophical perspective. This essay will deal with these philosophical questions and misunderstandings about evolution:

  1. Is the principle of natural selection a tautology? [The 'tautology' of fitness]
  2. Is evolutionary science real science? [The nature of science]
  3. Can evolutionary theory make predictions? [Predictions and explanations]
  4. Are species fixed types? [The 'species problem']
  5. Should biology be reduced to physics? [Reductionism and biology]
  6. Is evolution progressive or directional? [The ladder of progress versus the bush of evolution]
    Is there a goal to evolution? [Teleology in biology]
  7. Does science have to be 'naturalistic'? [Ruling out supernatural explanations]
  8. Does the theory of evolution impose a 'might is right' morality? [Social Darwinism]
  9. Is evolution a metaphysical system akin to a religion? [Worldviews and science]

I apologise for the wordy and heavily-referenced nature of this essay, but the field is complex and deep, and those who would understand the issues had better be prepared for some reading. Nevertheless, I have tried to broadly summarise the main issues. The references will give those just entering the subject a starting point.


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