Evolutionism is a philosophical atheistic worldview distinct from the science of evolutionary biology, and it is not a term that will be used by scientists who engage in scientific work.
As a doctrine, evolutionism tries to explain every aspect of the world within the realms of astronomy, chemistry, and biology. According to computational cell biologist Kathryn Applegate, it is evolutionism and not evolutionary theory that is problematic, “The real danger is not evolutionary theory, then, but Evolutionism – the all-encompassing worldview” (1).
Evolutionism denotes a relationship between atheistic naturalism (a philosophy) and evolutionary theory (a scientific theory). The atheistic proponent of this view believes that because organisms change over time and increase in complexity it somehow supports an atheistic-naturalistic narrative.
Evolutionism has its critics. One major critic in the form of Biologos, a religious evolutionary organization who holds to the opposite, namely theistic evolution, rejects evolutionism. They observe how the term denotes an “atheistic worldview that so often accompanies the acceptance of biological evolution in public discussion. Evolutionism is a kind of scientism, which holds that all of reality can in principle be explained by science” (2).
Most philosophers and perhaps most scientists view scientism as problematic for it leaves much of human experience of reality without explanation. However, perhaps it was the 20th century famous author C.S. Lewis who captured the distinction between evolutionary theory and evolutionism most appropriately. He implored to,
“[D]istinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth…. [biological] Evolution covers more of the facts than any other hypothesis at present on the market and is therefore to be accepted unless, or until, some new supposal can be shown to cover still more facts with even fewer assumptions,” however, argues Lewis, evolutionary theory “makes no cosmic statements, no metaphysical statements, no eschatological statements” (3).
If Lewis captured the essence of evolutionism then one might wish to point to a practical example. Perhaps a good case is evident within the words of paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson who once penned that,
“Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned. He is a state of matter, a form of life, a sort of animal, and a species of the Order Primates, akin nearly or remotely to all of life and indeed to all that is material” (4).
In accordance with Lewis’s explanation, this line of thinking by Simpson is full of what one might deem “cosmic” and “metaphysical” statements. Because evolutionary science is not in the business to make such statements then it would seem than Simpson has transitioned beyond science into some other realm. As such, Simpson goes beyond science to feed scientific data into it a materialist and atheistic philosophy. As Biologos has noted, evolution to the atheist is far more than merely evolution as the science. The late philosopher Marjorie Grene saw similarly, noting that for atheists,
“Darwinian theory has itself become an orthodoxy, preached by its adherents with religious fervor, and doubted, they feel, only by a few muddlers imperfect in scientific faith” (5).
However, as philosopher Michael Ruse (an atheist himself) has noted, it is not only atheists who view evolution in this way, and often it includes the ideological opponents, namely, creationists (particularly of the young Earth type) (6). Not only do many atheists view evolution as an equivalent to atheism, thinking that it replaces God or otherwise rules out God’s involvement in the development of life, but so do many Christians (7). Ruse is honest in his analysis,
“there is indeed a thriving area of more popular evolutionism, where evolution is used to underpin claims about the nature of the universe, the meaning of it all for us humans, and the way we should behave… I am saying that this popular evolutionism – often an alternative to religion – exists.”
But, as Ruse rightly warns,
“we who cherish science should be careful to distinguish when we are doing science and when we are extrapolating from it, particularly when we are teaching our students. If it is science that is to be taught, then teach science and nothing more.”
1. Carneiro, R. 2003. Evolutionism in cultural anthropology: a critical history. p. 2–3.
2. Biologos. How is BioLogos different from Evolutionism, Intelligent Design, and Creationism? Available.
3. Lewis, C.S. 1967. Christian Reflections. p. 85.
4. Simpson, G. The Meaning of Evolution. p. 344.
5. Marjorie, G. 1974. The Knower and the Known. p. 187.
6. Ruse, M. 2003. Is Evolution a Secular Religion. Available.
7. Biologos. What is Evolution? Available.