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Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins

Over the course of human history, the sciences, and biology in particular, have often been manipulated to cause immense human suffering. For example, biology has been used to justify eugenic programs, forced sterilization, human experimentation, and death camps—all in an attempt to support notions of racial superiority. By investigating the past, the contributors to Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins hope to better prepare us to discern ideological abuse of science when it occurs in the future.  

Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers bring together fourteen experts to examine the varied ways science has been used and abused for nonscientific purposes from the fifteenth century to the present day. Featuring an essay on eugenics from Edward J. Larson and an examination of the progress of evolution by Michael J. Ruse, Biology and Ideology examines uses both benign and sinister, ultimately reminding us that ideological extrapolation continues today. An accessible survey, this collection will enlighten historians of science, their students, practicing scientists, and anyone interested in the relationship between science and culture.

448 pages | 30 halftones, 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

History of Science

Philosophy: Philosophy of Society

Philosophy of Science


“These fascinating, well-referenced, discussions, covering such causes célèbres as Paley, Lysenko, and Dawkins, will surely be of value to the teacher and student, to practicing scientist and those interested in the relationship between science and society.”

David E. Packham | Metascience

“A gripping book on the grey area between the use and abuse of biology for ideological purposes. Eugenics, racism and sexism, apologias for theism, vitalism, and atheism are just a few of the agendas that have shaped, and been shaped by, biological theory. Describing extrapolations that have often added to the sum of human suffering, the essays here, from distinguished historians of science, are authoritative, compelling, and disturbing.”

John Brooke, University of Oxford



Table of Contents


Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers

Chapter 1. The cultural authority of natural history in early modern Europe

Peter Harrison

Chapter 2. Biology, atheism, and politics in eighteenth-century France

Shirley A. Roe

Chapter 3. Eighteenth-century uses of vitalism in constructing the human sciences

Peter Hanns Reill

Chapter 4. Biology in the service of natural theology: Paley, Darwin, and the Bridgewater Treatises

Jonathan R. Topham

Chapter 5. Race, empire, and biology before Darwinism

Sujit Sivasundaram

Chapter 6. Darwin’s choice

Nicolaas Rupke

Chapter 7. Biology and the emergence of the Anglo-American eugenics movement

Edward J. Larson

Chapter 8. Genetics, eugenics, and the Holocaust

Paul Weindling

Chapter 9. Darwinism, Marxism, and genetics in the Soviet Union

Nikolai Krementsov

Chapter 10. Evolution and the idea of social Progress

Michael Ruse

Chapter 11. Beauty and the beast? Conceptualizing sex in evolutionary narratives

Erika Lorraine Milam

Chapter 12. Creationism, intelligent design, and modern biology

Ronald L. Numbers

Chapter 13. The ideological uses of evolutionary biology in recent atheist apologetics

Alister E. McGrath




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