Science and ideology

Isaac Newton was the first science “star” — someone who achieved great prestige as a result of their scientific investigations. His contemporary Alexander Pope famously wrote about him:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.

Newton himself was more modest of his own achievements, writing in a letter to Robert Hooke in February 1676:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

As with other eponymous words, “Newtonian” can be an adjective indicating a person, e.g., “Newtonian works” or something associated with a person, e.g., “Newtonian worldview”. Although Newton opposed the mechanistic philosophy of Descartes, in the 18th century a clockwork universe was sold as Newtonian. In short, Newton was co-opted for something he would have opposed.

We can describe this as Newton’s science vs. Newtonian ideology. It is the same today with Darwin. Although Darwin was a great scientist for his observational and rhetorical skills, his enthusiastic followers such as Huxley promoted an ideological Darwinism. Even today a one-two punch of Darwin and Darwinism makes people think they cannot question the ideology associated with Darwin.

Newton has fared well despite being superseded by later science. Perhaps the same will happen to Darwin but in the meantime the Darwinian ideologues will have done more damage than the mechanistic Newtonians.