Darwinism as a metaphysical research programme (K. R. Popper)

I have come to the conclusion that Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research programme – a possible framework for testable scientific theories (p.167)

I do not think that Darwinism can explain the origin of life. I think it quite possible that life is so extremely improbably that nothing can “explain” why it originated; for statistical explanation must operate, in the last instance, with very high probabilities. But if our high probabilities are merely low probabilities which have become high because of the immensity of the available time (as in Boltzmann’s “explanation”), then we must not forget that in this way it is possible to “explain” almost everything. Even so, we have little enough reason to conjecture that any explanation of this sort is applicable to the origin of life. But this does not affect the view of Darwinism as situational logic, once life and its framework are assumed to constitute our “situation”.

I think that there is more to say for Darwinism than that it is just one metaphysical research programme among others. Indeed, its close resemblance to situational logic may account for its great success, in spite of the almost tautological character inherent in the Darwinian formulation of it, and for the fact that so far no serious competitor has come forward. (p. 168)

(Karl Popper, “Darwinism as a metaphysical research programme”, cited in Michael Ruse, Philosophy after Darwin: classic and contemporary readings, Princeton University Press, 2009)

6 thoughts on “Darwinism as a metaphysical research programme (K. R. Popper)

  1. Stephan

    It’s funny to find this quote here. I work on a paper about Karl R. Popper and the theory of evolution and I do not think that one can use Popper’s article or any of Popper’s works to support religious beliefs.

    Let me give you the VERY FIRST SENTENCE of the article that Mr Corduneanu, in my opinion, quotes out of context:

    “I have always been extremely interested in the theory of evolution, and very ready to accept evolution as a fact.” (p. 167 in the original publication of the article in “Unended Quest” (1976)).

    That was two pages before Mr Corduneanu’s quote. Now, let’s go to two pages after the quote. We have just learned that Darwinism is a metaphysical research programme:

    “And yet, the theory is invaluable. I do not see how, without it, our knowledge could have grown as it has done since Darwin. In trying to explain experiments with bacteria which become adapted to, say, penicillin, it is quite clear that we are greatly helped by the theory of natural selection. Alhough it is metaphysical, it sheds much light upon very concrete and very practical researches. It allows us to study adaptation to a new environment (such as a penicillin-infested environment) in a rational way: it suggests the existence of a mechanism of adaptation, and it allows us even to study in details the mechanism at work. And it is the only theory so far which does all that.

    This is, of course, the reason why Darwinism has been almost universally accepted. Its theory of adaptation was the first nontheistic one that was convincing; and theism was worse than an open admission of failure, for it created the impression that an ultimate explanation had been reached [!!!!!!!!!!!!!].”

    Finally, let me just add that Sir Karl Popper is an agnostic (see for instance the preface to “The Self and Its Brain”) and Michael Ruse “considers himself both an atheist and agnostic” (wikipedia, you might also refer to his youtube videos). Ah, what the heck, because the creationism bullshit seems to be supported here, let me give you my favorite quote from Michael Ruse in “Darwinism defended”:

    “I believe Creationism is wrong: totally, utterly, and absolutely wrong. I would go further. There are degress of being wrong. The Creationists are at the bottom of the scale. […] Scientific Creationism is not just wrong: it is ludicrously implausible. It is a grotesque parody of human thought, and a downright misuse of human intelligence. In short, to the Believer, it is an insult to God.“

    Now, let’s wait till this comment is deleted.

    Excuse my English and best wishes from Germany.

    1. 1. Reading your answer, I observed a logical fallacy called “Appeal to Ignorance” (“Ad Ignorantiam’): my intention wasn’t to support religious belief by presenting the limits of evolutionary theory. Please be kind and read my article as it is: Darwinism is a narrative of evolution, a metaphysical research programme. Every scientifical theory has a theoretical basis, a metaphysical ground (nothing bad in this). Knowing the epistemological system of Popper, I think you know how important is theoretical basis for scientific knowledge process (called Hypothetico-deductive model).

      2. We mustn’t make Popper say more than he did. He was attempting to make of Natural Selection (not Evolution as a whole process) something like an explanatory scheme that directs and suggests further research. His main point is that “Darwinism does not really predict the evolution of variety”.

      3. And we have to understand him as a man in an historical context, avoiding Fallacious Appeal to Authority. In ’70 Popper didn’t know nothing about ID, but he had some information about “crude” Creationism such as practiced by Henry M. Morris.


      “Early in his career, the philosopher Karl Popper (yes, cited by F and P-P) called evolution via natural selection “almost a tautology” and “not a testable scientific theory but a metaphysical research program.” Attacked for these criticisms, Popper took them back. But when I interviewed him in 1992, he blurted out that he still found Darwin’s theory dissatisfying. “One ought to look for alternatives!” Popper exclaimed, banging his kitchen table.” (Dubitable Darwin? Why Some Smart, Nonreligious People Doubt the Theory of Evolution by John Hogan, Scientific American, July 6, 2010).(please not that John Hogan is not a “friend” of Creationism or ID movement).

      5. If you are so interested in Darwinism, its scientific methodology, and how it is used for atheist propaganda as an ideology,(and if is so important to cite authors), I recommend to you

      Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins, especially chapter 13. “The ideological uses of evolutionary biology in recent atheist apologetics” by Alister E. McGrath,

      – to study something about the falsification of local realism,

      – please consider hypothesis that Darwinism is found to be a ‘degenerate science program’: “nobody to date has yet found a demarcation criterion according to which Darwin can be described as scientific” – Imre Lakatos, quote as stated in 1973 LSE Scientific Method Lecture,

      – ‘Before you can ask ‘Is Darwinian theory correct or not?’, You have to ask the preliminary question ‘Is it clear enough so that it could be correct?’. That’s a very different question. One of my prevailing doctrines about Darwinian theory is ‘Man, that thing is just a mess. It’s like looking into a room full of smoke.’ Nothing in the theory is precisely, clearly, carefully defined or delineated. It lacks all of the rigor one expects from mathematical physics, and mathematical physics lacks all the rigor one expects from mathematics. So we’re talking about a gradual descent down the level of intelligibility until we reach evolutionary biology.’ David Berlinski, “Expelled” movie,

      – “It is perfectly safe to attribute this development to ‘natural selection’ so long as we realize that there is no substance to this assertion; that it amounts to no more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena.” Noam Chomsky, “Language and Mind”, 1972,

      – please read why atheist as Jerry Fodor consider natural selection “it overestimates the contribution the environment makes in shaping the phenotype of a species and correspondingly underestimates the effects of endogenous variables.(“What Darwin Got Wrong”, Fodor, Jerry; Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo),

      – “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” (Charles Darwin, “On the Origin of Species”, 1859)

      1. Stephan

        Thank you for your response.

        Ad 1.:

        a) To be sure: the article that you criticize and quote as my “answer” wasn’t written by me.

        b) I don’t see the “ad ignorantiam”-fallacy. My professor taught me a few years ago that the fallacy is to take something as true just because you cannot disprove it. So the statement “There is no proof that God exists THEREFORE God does NOT exist” would be an example of an ad ignorantiam-error, just as “There is no proof that God does NOT exist THEREFORE God exists” would be an example.

        c) “[M]y intention wasn’t to support religious belief by presenting the limits of evolutionary theory”. However, I think that you are aware that most of your readers will suppose so and take your criticism on evolutionary theory as evidence for their own theories (and maybe in the end commit an ad ignorantiam-fallacy).

        Ad 2.: “[Popper’s] main point is that ‘Darwinism does not really predict the evolution of variety’.”

        To be clear: his maint point is what you said before, namely, that natural selection is a tautalogy and Darwinism therefore “only” a metaphysical research programme. If you look at the whole quote, you can see that the “variety”-sentence forms part of the tautology-argument and is not his main point:

        “Darwinism does not really predict the evolution of variety. It therefore cannot really explain it. At best, it can predict the evolution of variety under ‘favorable’ conditions.’ But it is hardly possible to describe in general terms what favorable conditions are – except that, in their presence, a variety of forms will emerge.”

        By the way, as you know, Popper takes the tautology-accusation back one year later:
        “I mention this problem because I too belong among the culprits. Influenced by what these authorities say, I have in the past described the theory as ‘almost tautological’, and I have tried to explain how the theory of natural selection could be untestable (as is a tautology) and yet of great scientific interest.
        My solution was that the doctrine of natural selection is a most successful metaphysical research program. It raises detailed problems in many fields, and it tells us what we would expect of an acceptable solution of these problems.”

        (Popper (1976): “Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind”,http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/popper/natural_selection_and_the_emergence_of_mind.html)

        By the way, here is a good summarization of all things Popper said about evolutionary theory:
        http://ncse.com/cej/6/2/what-did-karl-popper-really-say-evolution. I am aware that the author is not neutral, but one might still want to check out the quotes.

        Ad 3.: Yeah, sure.

        Ad 4.: Here we really have to look at the historical context: he was 90 years old at that time and probably senile. (That was a joke). Yeah, all knowledge is tentative – that was Popper’s stance his entire life. We have to continuously question all the theories and always look for alternatives. However, creationism or intelligent design is a very, very, very bad alternative. And Popper’s statement that “[o]ne ought to look for alternatives” does not imply that there are good alternatives, a fortiori that creationism/ID is a good one. If you suppose so, then calling your argument an “ad ignorantiam-fallacy” would be a compliment.

        Ad 5.: “If you are so interested in Darwinism, its scientific methodology, and how it is used for atheist propaganda as an ideology,(and if is so important to cite authors), I recommend to you…”

        a) I cited Popper and Ruse because you cited Popper qutoes from a book by Ruse. By bringing up Popper in the first place, you made the “Appeal to Authority”.

        b) As far as I can see, your recommendations are all criticisms on evolutionary theory. I do think that evolutionary theory is the best explanation so far, however, I did not come here to discuss evolutionary theory but Popper’s position on the scientific status of evolutionary theory. Nonetheless – I am talking to your readers here -, bear in mind that cricitizing evolutionary theory does not make creationism/ID any more true (remember that ad ignorantiam-error?).
        If you really want to support these theories, you would have to dismiss not only evolutionary theory, but evolution itself. And, quite frankly, questioning the fact that species evolve would be absurd. Of course you can always question anything and I do not want to be dogmatic, but there is just no room for debate here anymore; the debates have been held a century ago and the evidence is overwhelming and accumulating since then. If you do have doubts, then please visit a museum or a university or read ANY book or internet website on this topic that has not been written by someone who is either gravely
        misinformed or making a lot of money by saying what some people want to hear.

        c) One last general point: in your two comments you mention an “atheist propaganda” and the existence of “mass-media atheists”. I just wanted to ask you: do you really think that the status quo is in favour “powerwise” of atheism/agnosticism? I mean, I read a lot of arguments by christians, who like to put themselves in an artifical defensive position. In their arguments there exist a giant atheist/agnostic propaganda machine, an innumerous number of agnostics and atheists and a scientific conspiracy, all working together, unable to tolerate any kind of conviction that is not rationalistic, continuously attacking the Christians and trying to destroy the christian beliefs.

        However, if I then compare the means (money, personell, priviliges, membership, organization…) of the theists (let’s say, the church) with the means of the atheists and agnostics, I get the impression that it is rather the other way round. Furthermore, who would have an interest in any kind of propaganda / brain washing / misinformation / indoctrination? I don’t see any way in which the atheists and agnostics would profit from spreading disbelief, but a lot of ways in which the church and Christian agitators would profit, profit and have profited (e. g. financially) from spreading religious convictions.

        And finally, science: no, there is no conspiracy. Actually, I am a bit disappointed that so many scientists are rather emphasizing that their theories (for instance the evolutionary theory) can be reconciled with religious beliefs. In the end, if you were a scientist, why should you fight against beliefs? It does not heighten your reputation among your colleagues, you get a lot of bad words thrown at you, your gramma is disappointed in you… So why bother? After all, the time in which the church had the power to torture or kill any scientist and philosopher who questions their beliefs are over (thank God), so why waste time and energy fighting them?

  2. Stephan

    So that’s it? My comment is just deleted? This way you make sure that you will stay alone with others, it’s for the best of all of us.

    1. I’m sorry that I have falsified your theory (and I didn’t deleted your comment), but I think a man who wants to know should have more patience and not start with prejudices. (I was away, at some friends in the United States and therefore I couldn’t respond immediately). Here’s a Bible verse that is current and can help those who want to have a scientific attitude:

      Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:19)

      And please consider that in academia and mass-media atheists are those who refuse dialogue and like to stay alone with others, but this is not for the best of us and civilization (everyone can observe the “moral progress” of our times).

      Greetings from Canada.

      1. Stephan

        If I remember correctly, my comment was “awaiting moderation” and then disappeared. Normally, that’s a sign of the comment being deleted. If I am wrong (and apparently I am), then I’m sorry for saying you deleted my comment. On similar websites, non-affirmatory comments get deleted immediately, I wrongly thought your site was one of them.

        “And please consider that in academia and mass-media atheists are those who refuse dialogue and like to stay alone with others, but this is not for the best of us and civilization (everyone can observe the ‘moral progress’ of our times).”

        I don’t know what to do with all that since I don’t even know about which country’s “academia and mass-media” we are talking about. In Germany, although church membership is on a steady decline (partly because of the sexual abuse and corruption scandals), I seldomly see any atheists in the mass-media (unfortunately). We do have a debate about circumcision, though, but it will probably end in favour of it. The ruling party is the “CHRISTIAN Democratic Union (CDU)” and despite Germany being a secular state, the pope recently spoke in the “Bundestag” (the German parliament). So, the situation “for christianity” is pretty good here. Of course I am delighted to see that people question the christian savage-age dogmas nonetheless.

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