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A Philosophical Question...
Does Evolution have a Hard Core ?

Paul Gosselin

In the creation / evolution debating game one creationist strategy is to point out that evolution is not science and is held uncritically and dogmatically by a large number of evolutionists, as are myths or religious beliefs. One standard evolutionist response to this critique is to deny this and offer as proof the changes the evolutionary theory has gone through since 1859. Then one will find discussed the transition from Darwin's approach to Evolution (19th century heredity theories) to that of neo-Darwinism (mendelian genetics + mutations) or, nearer to our times, neo-Darwinism (slow gradual accumulations of mutations) to "punk eek" (punctuated equilibrium as proposed by SJ Gould & Niles Eldrige -> "Hopeful monsters"). On the face of it, this may seem a sufficient response, but only until one takes a closer look at how science operates. This is the sort of thing raises evolutionist's "righteous indignation" at creationists (who mix science and religion). Evolutionists would use the following argument:

Creationists would respond in pointing out that scientific journals often have an implicit "statement of belief" that screens what will or will not get published. The only way to find out what this statement of belief is, is to do an experiment and submit an unorthodox article. It goes without saying that authors of articles working within the dominant theory will never notice this particular requirement and one should expect them to vehemently deny it's existence. The unexamined life is sometimes less complicated... Actually I've learned about such matters the hard way as a few years ago I wrote an article in social anthropology on the ideological/mythological aspects of evolution which I submitted to a French journal of religious studies. This journal had already published articles on myth in contemporary society (but nothing on evolution of course), so I thought there might be an opening... I contacted the editor and he was interested in such an article. I sent it in and in the peer review process it was given for review to two experts on evolution (evolutionists) and guess what... ? Basically, they flushed it down the toilet! The editor of the journal didn't have the guts to go against these experts, so the only option was to go someplace else...

Imre LakatosBut, back to more general issues... Another angle on the scientific status of the theory of evolution is one taken by an interesting philosopher of science, the late Imre Lakatos. Lakatos did most of his work in the sixties and early seventies and viewed science as operating on two levels. He calls scientific theories, scientific research programmes. These involve two main elements; first of all a hard core (or 'negative heuristic') and, secondly, a protective belt (or 'positive heuristic'). The 'hard core' of a scientific research programme is composed of a number of metaphysical hypotheses, which direct the research, but are not, and cannot be submitted to experiment themselves. The 'protective belt', however, is a group of models that which are developed on the basis provided by the hard core'. These are then used to account for empirical problems and CAN be submitted to experiments. Very often in the course of developing a scientific research programme, the models in the 'protective belt' will need some fine tuning, and, occasionally, major adjustments. At times they may simply be thrown out and deemed of no further use. The 'protective belt' of a scientific research programme can then be understood as a buffer zone or a research programme's 'digestive system' which takes care of anomalies, that is facts that don't easily fit into the theory. At times, though, the ‘protective belt' just can't account for the anomalies and thus secondary hypotheses will be brought in to account for them. The basic issue is that the 'protective belt' can be modified at any time to provide an explanation for recalcitrant phenomena. Lakatos, in the following quote, illustrates these two concepts (1978: 50):

Once this is understood, then one can look at evolutionism in a different way. As we pointed out previously changes in evolutionism such as the transition from Darwinism to neo-Darwinism in the early 20th century or, in the late 20th century, neo-Darwinism to "punk eek" would fit right in with modifications and adjustments being done on evolution's 'protective belt'. So if evolutionists assume these changes are indicative of science, the next question to be asked, however, is: “What is the basic group of metaphysical beliefs that could be called evolutionism's 'hard core' ?” As Lakatos points out THESE beliefs ARE held quite dogmatically, they are NOT subject to experiment nor do they change over time, nor are they subject to criticism. Usually they are implicit presuppositions that everyone takes for granted. Their epistemological status, then, is quite comparable to Genesis 1, or the Gilgamesh Epic or the Rig Vedas, etc. They are then, in anthropological terms, mythology. They are then beliefs quite comparable to belief in witches, the afterlife or angels.

Ok, so what is evolutionism's 'hard core' ? There are at least two main metaphysical beliefs (held as presuppositions) underlying the theory of evolution:

Now some shrewd evolutionist's may take heart that since evolutionary theory has a hard core and may claim that this is a confirmation that evolution is a scientific theory. Well this balloon can be punctured too if the following points are considered:

1) Such a view glosses over an important fact: the mythical aspects of science itself:

A French article, by the philosopher of science Mario Bunge, discusses the basic metaphysical presuppositions (or beliefs) involved in scientific research, or what, from Lakatos' point of view you could call the 'hard core' of science itself. Bunge divides the metaphysical presuppositions of science into two groups. The first group he calls the "hypothèses gnoseologiques" (basically, epistemological presuppositions, defining what can we know). Bunge describes five of these (Bunge 1976):

As far as general metaphysics goes, Bunge lists (among a multitude of presuppositions found in specific theories), ten presuppositions implicit in the scientific cosmology concerning the world/reality around us and it's properties. Here are a few:

Concluding his article, Bunge remarks that in his view (1976: 205):

Scientists, in general, are not aware of these presuppositions, but that doesn't diminish the crucial role they play in the development of the scientific method[5] (use of experiments to understand the world around us). I expect that Bunge may not approve of my use of the term "cosmology" (but then again he might...), but the points he makes above already bring to light a reality that neo-positivistic theories (and ideologies inspired by this theory) would rather not come to the attention of a wider public. Science involves metaphysics and metaphysics is a part of religion[6].

2) Most scientific theories have little or no ideological implications.

This is actually the most important point. Try and see if you can derive any philosophical or ideological implications from, let's say for example, light being either a particle or wave phenomenon. What ideological difference does it make ?? Not much. This isn't to say that some philosophical genius couldn't concoct something, but it would likely be forced and probably it wouldn't be a mass-market product[7]. Evolutionism, on the other hand, like one of those all-purpose cleaners advertised on North-American TV, has a multitude of ideological uses it can be put to (often with horrendous results). So this is the specific spot where evolutionism parts ways with most scientific theories. Ian Barbour points out just a few examples of the multi-purpose ideological roles evolution has already played in the past (1966: 413):

Some Concluding Food for Thought

In my research on the demarcation problem, I have noticed philosophers of science attempting to balance (usually unconsciously) a consistent demarcation criteria (science/non-science) against the the disruptive effects that it's application might have with regard to the academic status quo (and evolution in particular)… Few philosophers of science will even touch such matters, but (perhaps unintentionally) Imre Lakatos does offer us a peek at how one might go about balancing these schizophrenic demands (in Motterlini1999: 24):

"Let us call the first school militant positivism; you will understand why later on. The problem of this school was to find certain demarcation criteria similar to those I have outlined, but these also had to satisfy certain boundary conditions, as a mathematician would say. I am referring to a definite set of people to which most scientists as well as Popper and Carnap would belong. These people think that there are goodies and baddies among scientific theories, and once you have defined a demarcation criterion. you should divide all your theories between the two groups. You would end up. for example, with a goodies list including Copernicus's (Theory1), Galileo's (T2), Kepler's (T3), Newton's (T4) ... and Einstein's (T5), along with but this is just my supposition Darwin's (T6). Let me just anticipate that nobody to date has yet found a demarcation criterion according to which Darwin can be described as scientific, but this is exactly what we are looking for."

So basically, the demarcation problem is a fun mind-game philosophers enjoy playing, but when they realize the implications regarding the theory of evolution, they quickly back off... Too many applecarts could be overturned...


Barbour, Ian (1966) Issues in Science and Religion. Englewood Cliffs NJ, Prentice-Hall 470 p.

Bunge, Mario (1976) Les Presupposes et les Produits metaphysiques de la Science et de la Technique contemporaine." pp. 193-206 in "Science et Metaphysique." Dockx, Settle, et autres editors. Ed. Beauchesne Paris 254 p

Jaki, Stanley L. (1967) The Role of Faith in Physics pp. 187-202 Zygon Vol.2 no.2 June

Lakatos, Imre (1978) The methodology of scientific research programmes. Cambridge U. Press Cambridge UK 250 p.

Motterlini, Matteo ed. (1999) For and Against Method. Imre Lakatos and Paul K. Feyerabend University of Chicago Press 161 p.


[1] - This is due to the fact that since the processes/mechanisms postulated by evolutionary theory are usually stupid, that is undirected, time then is transformed into the "magic wand" effect. When you throw out an Intelligent Agent, you're stuck with pining your hopes on (near) Infinite Time to get anything done.

[2] - This explains the fundamental importance of experiments.

[3] - Christians and other theists would not except the universe though.

[4] - Excluding Big-bangism one would suppose...

[5] - But it does reflect on the philosophical awareness of most scientists.

[6] - Or worldview. For further reading on this issue see Jaki 1967.

[7] - Except perhaps in California.