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Darwinism as Hegelian Dialectics Applied to Biology

Michael Egnor
Image: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, by Jakob Schlesinger / Public domain.

Many of us in the intelligent design movement have a sense of déjà vu when we watch the nightly news — censorship and intolerance of intellectual diversity have taken over our public square. ID folks know well what it’s like to be on the receiving end of anti-intellectualism and censorship — we’ve been censored and professionally cancelled for decades merely for asking questions about Darwinism and for proposing science that didn’t fit the Darwinian narrative. 

I have a friend who is an internationally respected biologist and Evangelical Christian who tells me that he strongly supports ID but he dares not say a word about it publicly, because it would end his career. Now cancel culture has moved out of the lab and the classroom and into our public square. The ID experience with Darwinian repression seems like a dry run for the America’s metastasizing cancel culture. Expelled has come to all Americans. 

 What is it that ties all of this together? Darwinism is framework for much of this change in our country. Let me explain.

Nineteenth-century Darwinism was much more than a revolutionary scientific theory. It was hardly a scientific theory in any meaningful sense. Natural selection, as atheist philosopher Jerry Fodor has pointed out, isn’t a meaningful level of scientific explanation. It’s barely more than a tautology. Natural selection is an “empty” theory — “survivors survive” has no genuine explanatory power. As ID pioneer Phillip Johnson observed, Darwinism was really a new philosophical theory. It was the view that there is no teleology — no purpose — inherent to nature. Purpose in biology, Darwin insisted, is an illusion. Differential survival alone can explain “purpose” in nature. Darwin proposed that all of the specified complexity in living things is the product of undirected differential survival. 

Darwinism is the denial of purpose in nature. Purpose, according to Darwin, is an illusion. Biology appears to have purposes — hearts pump blood, kidneys excrete urine, etc. — but the purposes are merely the outcome of natural selection — survival of the fittest. Darwinism purports to explain how a story can be written without purpose and implicitly without an author. 

Metaphysics More than Biology

Darwinian natural selection is metaphysics, more than biology. Darwin borrowed some of his metaphysics from Aristotle, without attribution and probably without understanding. For Aristotle, nature is characterized by change, and change is actualization of potency — nature is the continuous realization of potentialities. Trees can grow, and do grow. Oxygen can catalyze respiration, and does so. Mammals can give birth to offspring, and do. Hearts can pump blood, and do. Natural selection is the extension of this metaphysical principle of change — of actualization of potency to act — to the evolution of species. A litter of pups is a litter of potential adaptations. Natural selection makes potential adaptations real. Natural selection actualizes potentialities generated by genetic variation. Survival of the fittest is Aristotelian potency and act applied to evolution. 

But Aristotle differed from Darwin in a fundamental way: for Aristotle, nature has purposes. Nature is pulled along by purposes — by final causes built into nature. For Aristotle, elevation of potency to act (material and formal cause) make no sense without inherent direction in nature. To understand a thing, you must know each of its causes — material, formal, efficient, and final cause. 

In fact, for Aristotle, purpose — final cause — is the most important cause. He called it the “cause of causes.” Hearts circulate blood; they don’t secrete bile. Eyes subserve vision, not hearing. The cornerstone of biological knowledge is knowledge of the purpose a biological process serves. Evolution, in Aristotelian terms, is blind without purposes. For Aristotle nature is grounded on purpose — change in nature is directed to ends.   

Chance and Necessity

For Darwin, change in nature is undirected — for Darwin, “chance and necessity” completely explains life. Natural selection is actualization (survival) of potency (genetic variation) — and variation and selection are the complete explanation for biological adaptation. For Darwin, nature does what it does without the need for a Mind to give it purpose. 

Darwin expropriated Aristotelian potency and act and stripped it of purpose. For Aristotle, nature is an orchestra with a Conductor. For Darwin, nature is a casino. 

Natural selection of random genetic variation is the cornerstone of Darwin’s theory. Darwin borrowed from Aristotle, at least Implicitly — he never indicated that he understood that his theory of natural selection is an adumbration of Aristotelian potency and act. Darwin also borrowed, in a profoundly important way, from Hegel. Hegel proposed that the evolution of the history — evolution understood in a spiritual sense — is driven by a continuous struggle between ideas and their negations — between thesis and antithesis. This elemental struggle is resolved by synthesis — the adaptation, so to speak, gained by the outcome of the struggle of contraries. This dialectical process, for Hegel, is the engine of change in the world. 

Darwinism is Hegelian dialectics applied to biology — or you might say that Hegelian dialectics is Darwinism applied to history. Hegel and Darwin explain history and biology as dialectics — as the process of struggle and survival. Natural selection is materialist Hegelianism. Hegel and Darwin proposed that history and biological evolution (respectively) are a dialectic competition — a struggle of thesis with antithesis which yields synthesis (adaptation), and repeats endlessly. 

Yet Darwin was a materialist and a functional atheist. Hegel was an idealist and a Christian. How were they reconciled?

Reconciled by Marxism

The reconciliation was in Marxism. Marx and Engels openly acknowledged their debt to Darwin — the Darwinian basis for Marxism is undeniable — they understood economic and class struggle as analogues of Darwinian natural selection Marx saw history primarily in terms of economics, but the predicate of Marxist theory is atheistic materialism.  

Marx, who was a rabid atheist and materialist (much of which he derived from Feuerbach), needed Hegel’s dialectic to explain history, but he also needed materialist metaphysics and scientific confirmation of the applicability of dialectical struggle to nature. Marx obtained his scientific validation of dialectical materialism from Darwin. Marx and Engels understood (correctly) that Darwin did to evolutionary biology what they did to economic history — they explained progress as a process of undirected struggle. In the Darwinian and Marxist view, biological and economic progress can be fully explained as cycles of thesis-antithesis (struggle) resolved by synthesis (survival). No purpose — no God — is needed. 

For Darwin, as for Hegel, all progress is violence. Thesis and antithesis is a struggle — evolution and history red in tooth and claw—and adaptation and progress — synthesis — is inexorably the fruit of violent struggle. 

Marx built his system on Darwin, Feuerbach, and Hegel. But real history didn’t fit Marxist “scientific” theory — the first communist state was Russia, which jumped (contrary to Marxist theory) from feudalism to communism, without a capitalist interlude. Lenin understood this and proposed that Marxist dynamics could be moved along by a vanguard of intellectuals. The similarity to the eugenic view  — that Darwinian evolution can be moved along by artificial selection (human breeding) — is noteworthy.