Philosophy with Attitude

Is evolutionary theory a worldview (Weltanschauung)?

According to many fundamentalist Christians, especially those in the field of creation "science" or intelligent design "theory", it is. But evolution is just a theory, like the theory of gravitation, or quantum theory, or the theory of plate tectonics... yet one rarely (if ever) hears about a "gravitational worldview" or a "plate tectonic worldview." There seems to be a basic misunderstanding in the Creationist camp about exactly what evolution is and is not, and because of those misunderstandings, evolution is misconstrued as being a comprehensive worldview. The goal of this misconstruction is to attempt to invalidate evolution because it is inadequate as a worldview. I propose that since evolutionary theory is not, in fact, a worldview, it is unreasonable to invalidate its findings by that method.

What is a worldview?

I hate to start with a definition, but "worldview" is a term I had not personally encountered until I began corresponding with a 14-year-old girl who goes to a Christian Fundamentalist school. Her class was doing a project on various worldviews, and she had chosen evolution as her topic, because, as she said, "in class we were studying the Christian and Utopian worldviews, and evolution is basically the opposite of Creationism, so I just figured it was a worldview." That got me to thinking, can evolution really be considered a worldview?

The American Heritage dictionary (upon which is based) defines a worldview as follows:

  1. The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world.
  2. A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group.

Miriam-Webster defines it more broadly:

Even Christian sites have a similar definition -- this one is from an article in

In combining the above definitions, one may understand a worldview as being a broad philosophical perspective on life and the universe.

What is evolution and evolutionary theory?

The term evolution, in contrast to evolutionary theory, describes the act of change through time. One can say that computers, cars, languages, and societies have all undergone evolution. Yet these are not examples of or evidence for evolutionary theory, which deals solely with biological entities. It is a mistake to call evolution itself a worldview, because the term is not applicable in that sense.

Broadly, evolutionary theory it is a scientific theory that provides an explanation of how life on earth has changed and diversified over time. Like other scientific theories, it is not a static dogma, but has grown a great deal since it was first proposed by Darwin in 1859. And like other theories, there are things that it can and cannot do.

The theory explains the many mechanisms by which evolution has occurred, via natural selection. In a synthesis with biochemistry, genetics, and biology, it proposes ways in which early life may have originated on earth, and how early life blossomed into the forms we see today. Just as the theory of plate tectonics ties together the science of geology, evolutionary theory ties together the biological sciences by providing explanations for the phenomena we observe.

There are things that evolutionary theory does not do, however, because of its nature as a scientific theory. It does not state anything about the existence or non-existence of a god or gods, despite creationists' claims that it is inherently atheistic. While this claim is partially true, in that science itself is a study of the natural world and the proposition of naturalistic explanations for its functioning and existence, science actually makes no claims about the existence of a deity. Science works through observation of the natural world. Science cannot prove the existence or non-existence of a god, since, being super-natural, it is outside the realm of nature and cannot be observed, measured, or quantified.

(As an aside, there is no rule that a scientist cannot also be religious; I know plenty of scientists who believe in the Christian god, and even some biology professors who are born-again Christians and go to an evangelical church. They see no conflict between their careers in science and their personal spirituality, because the two realms are essentially separate. Science explains natural phenomena, while religion provides their lives with a spiritual dimension. While it is not a naturalistic position, and not one I personally endorse, it is entirely parsimonious to believe that God does exist, and created the laws of nature to command the universe. Nothing in science states that this is inherently untrue.)

Is evolutionary theory alone comprehensive enough to be a worldview?

Because evolutionary theory is "merely" a theory that explains how life has arisen and changed on earth, it says nothing of the universe as a whole -- where it came from and where it's going (these two are in the realm of cosmology), or what mankind's place in the universe may be. It does not provide one with a personal meaning of life, nor does it, on its own, suggest a course of action for humanity. It does not preclude the existence of a supernatural creator, nor negate the possible personal importance of such a figure to individuals. Because of these factors, I do not believe it is broad enough to be called a comprehensive conception of the world, as in the Webster's definition; nor does it meet the criteria in either of the American Heritage definitions.

Since evolutionary theory is not a worldview, it is not reasonable to attempt to invalidate it on that basis.

Are there worldviews that include evolution?

Absolutely! Naturalism and materialism use scientific principles to explain the existence of the universe, including evolutionary theory (along with the other theories of science), and they take the extra step of proposing that the supernatural does not exist. Because they do provide a comprehensive framework of ideas, they may be defined as worldviews, and it is entirely appropriate to contrast them with other worldviews, such as Christianity and fundamentalism.

I believe this is the direction that the creationists should take if they wish to make truly relevant arguments. I believe that they chose to critique evolution by itself because it is poorly understood by the general public, as well as being controversial enough to generate significant interest on their part. If they were intellectually honest, they would take the extra step of critiquing a philosophy that can truly be described as a worldview, rather than a theory that is not in itself comprehensive enough to meet those criteria. It may speak of creationists' desperation in their cause that they choose to persue this red herring, rather than making reasonable arguments.

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