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Olivia Judson is absolutely right – let’s get rid of the terms “Darwinist” and “Darwinism”. She writes, among else:

I’d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed. (The science would be in a sorry state if one man 150 years ago had, in fact, discovered everything there was to say.) Obsessively focusing on Darwin, perpetually asking whether he was right about this or that, implies that the discovery of something he didn’t think of or know about somehow undermines or threatens the whole enterprise of evolutionary biology today.

I am glad to see that John Wilkins, Jonah Lehrer and Brian Switek also agree with this, though each one cites a somewhat different reason for it. Many of those reasons have been put together into a table form (with deep explanations) by Wilkins before – a good reference for the future, something to bookmark.

Brian Switek says, and I agree that at least for us in the USA, this is the most pressing reason to abandon the terms:

I’ve never liked the term “Darwinism.” To me it has always been more of a watchword that might indicate that I was talking to a creationist, a term I generally do not encounter unless I’m reading or hearing an argument against a straw-man version of evolution. (I’m not a big fan of “evolutionist,” either.) It may have been useful in the past, when evolution by natural selection (as popularized by Darwin) was competing with other systems like Neo-Lamarckism and orthogenesis, but today it doesn’t have any relevance. (It should also be noted that A.R. Wallace wrote a book on natural selection called Darwinism. Despite his own work on the same subject he calls evolution by natural selection “Darwin’s theory.”) If anything it continues the myth that Darwin is the be-all and end-all of evolutionary science, and while he certainly deserves a lot of credit On the Origin of Species is not some kind of secular Bible where every word is dogma.

According to Blake Stacey (and I have heard this before), the terms is used much more widely in the UK, including, until recently, by Dawkins who should have known better about the power of words:

I’ve written before about the different ways people define the word Darwinism and its close relatives. The short version is that American biologists and other academics don’t seem too likely to use the word: they just like to say “evolutionary biology” and be done with it. In the U. S. and A., hearing the word “Darwinism” is a pretty sure sign you’re dealing with a creationist, or at least a person whose knowledge of science derives too much from creationist misinformation. Over in Britain, serious academics still use the word, as do people who appear fairly pro-science (maybe there’s some kind of national pride thing going on?). One can still see negative uses of the D-word over in the UK, of course, particularly from people who confuse “social Darwinism” with actual biology or radically misinterpret kin selection and the “selfish gene” idea, but sorting out all their problems would require a book of its own.

Perhaps, I thought, this is because Darwin was British, so there may be an element of national pride involved. But then, smalled nations with even bigger reasons to push national pride, would have gone further than this, yet I have never heard a Serb proclaim to be a “Teslaist” or “Milankovichist”.

I have ranted about this before (e.g., here, here and here). For instance, here I wrote:

Bashing evolution is an example of phatic language. Words like “Darwinist” and “evolutionist” that are never used by actual evolutionary biologists serve as code-words for belonging to the Creationist Village, just like saying “Democrat party” instead of “Democratic party” immediatelly signals one’s political party affiliation (GOP). These two words, ending with “-ist” also serve to provide equivalency between creationist belief and evolutionary methodology, infering that evolutionary theory is a religious belief instead of a method for understanding the material world. If the two are seen as two opposed religions, they can have a war on equal footing in which “my religion is better than yours” contest can take place and Christians, due to sheer numbers and the tight community spirit are confident in victory. This kind of rhetoric also allows the creationists to show up on TV as equals to evolutionary biologists, as the naive media misreads phatic language as logical language and, following the American fairness sentiment, indulges in destructive “He said/She said” pseudo-journalism.

And here I wrote:

I am not an “evolutionist”. I am not a “Darwinist”. I am a biologist. Thus, by definition, I am an evolutionary biologist. Although my research is in physiology and behavior, I would never be able to make any sense of my data (or even know what questions to ask in the first place) without evolutionary thinking.

As I am also interested in history and philosophy of biology, I consider myself a Darwinian. But not a “Darwinist” or “evolutionist” – those two words are Creationists’ constructs. They arise from the basic misunderstanding of evolution. Being religious believers they cannot fathom that people can operate outside of the realm of belief, thus they assume that evolution is a belief, akin to and in competition with their belief.

I do not believe in evolution. It is not something you believe in or not: it is something you understand or not. I judge the evidence. If I think it is fishy I will delay my judgement until more data comes in. If the evidence looks good, I will tentatively and temporarily accept it as correct until more data come in. Evolutionary biology is sitting on such large mountains of strong evidence collected over the past 150 years that it appears impossible that over the next 150 years we will be able to collect an equivalent amount of data challenging it in order to question the validity of evolutionary theory. It is one of the strongest supported theory in all of science. For all practical purposes, evolution (as in “common descent”) is a fact, an d natural selection is the strongest of several mechanisms by which evolution operates. There is nothing controversial about this.


Those two terms (“evolutionist” and “Darwinist”) have lately also been used on purpose, as code-words for their own audience. They understand that using these terms implies (and turns on a frame of mind in the listeners) that evolution is a religious belief. It is similar to the way I think of myself as a member of the Democratic Party, but Republicans prefer to use the Luntzism “Democrat Party”. It’s all about framing the debate.

Note a little difference between me and Olivia here. I want to preserve one of the three words – Darwinian, but only in the sense of “Darwinian Scholarship”, i.e., the historical and philosophical study of the history of evolutionary thought, rightfully centered around Darwin, and including the world he lived in – the Victorian England. Darwin is a gold mine for scholars. He was a little, let’s say, anal-retentive, so he preserved all of his correspondence, his papers, books, notebooks and diaries. Hundreds of biographies of Darwin have been published, in addition to book about Darwin, about the history of evolutionary thought, biographies of other players (e.g., Huxley, Wallace, Lamarck). I doubt that there is any other aspect of history that is known and studied more than British aristocracy of teh 19th century, so the context for Darwin’s life and work is well understood. The Darwinian Industry has enough material to keep thriving for decades to come.

However, another important reason is the one that Jonah Lehrer empasizes:

My problem with “Darwinism,” then, is the exact opposite of Judson’s. She dislikes “Darwinism” because she thinks the noun is applied too broadly, so that Darwin gets implicit credit for things like population genetics. But I think that “Darwinism” misleads because it causes people to underestimate Darwin’s real achievement, which is far grander than merely getting people to believe that species change. If “Darwinism” should be a synonym for anything it should be the ideology of unrepentant materialism, which is the underlying philosophy of modern science.

I completely agree. Actually, in a very old post I wrote something similar:

What we, who consider ourselves rational are, is not Aristotelian, but Darwinian. What????!!!!! Forget Darwin’s contribution to biology, or the misuse of his name by eugenicists and social-Darwinists of all kinds. The greatest contribution of Darwin is the way we in the Western world THINK! We require data! Give me information! Empirical proof! Statistics! At least give me polls! Before Darwin, people thought their great ideas in the seclusion of their homes and published books. It was my word against your word. Many philosophers became famous this way. Descartes and others started, earlier on, asking for empirical proofs but nobody provided them. Darwin did – he showed how philosophy is done! There were evolutionary theories before him, written by Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Chambers and others that were laughed out of court. Everyone took “The Origin” seriously because it provided a consilient set of proofs: not just internal logic of the argument (many earlier philosophies had that) but a link to the reality of the world. That was the Day One of the Age of Rationality. If asked who my favourite philosopher was, I would have said Darwin and lost the Presidency that very moment! But it is true. The Western world lives in a Darwinian worldview – the worldview of empiricism.


  1. #1 Coturnix
    July 16, 2008

    Oh, and this does not mean that we should forget him, or not use his name to popularize science, or not celebrate his achievement. Or build a new “Beagle”.

  2. #2 John McKay
    July 16, 2008

    It seems like a hopeless case. As Brian and Blake point out, in the US most scientists and science friendly people already do not use the terms “Darwinist” and “Darwinism;” Only creationists and their anti-science culture war allies use them. “Darwinian” is useful in discussions of the history of science, but only there.

    “Darwinist” and “Darwinism” are framing therms that immediately put the science side at a disadvantage. I wrote about his two years ago (http://johnmckay.blogspot.com/2006/10/on-darwinism-i-mentioned-this-in.html).

    Their use of the terms “Darwinism” and “Darwinist” aren’t the result sheer ignorance; it’s a carefully thought out propaganda strategy. An “-ism” implies an ideology or a dogma. It moves evolution out of science and into the land of politics or religion: though which is based on faith or blind adherence and not reason. Americans are trained to be suspicious of ideology and like to believe that their beliefs are practical and nonideological (whether they really are or not is another question). Just getting the word “Darwinism” before the audience gains them a few points in any argument. This is the same reason that some Creationists use the terms “evolutionism” and “evolutionist” to describe our side.

    There is also a certain amount of misdirection and even projection involved in this choice of words. ID and other forms of Creationism are faith-based dogmas and not reason-based scientific theories. ID itself is really nothing more than a marketing campaign for Creationism. It’s significant to notice that, following the first legal setbacks by Creationists trying to force their religious view onto school curricula back in the seventies, they changed the name of their belief from Creationism to Creation Science. While this name change may have been a useful propaganda move, they failed to convince the courts that their dogma wasn’t a religion and the far more sophisticated marketing campaign of Intelligent Design was born.

    By abandoning their own “-ism” name and applying and “-ism” to evolutionary science, the Creationists are using the age-old grade-school debating tactic of claiming “I’m not the poopy head; you’re the poopy head.” No amount of shouting will change the fact that they, and not we, are the dogmatic poopy heads.

  3. #3 James F
    July 16, 2008

    An excellent summary. I’d like to note that Ulrich Kutschera of the University of Kassel has suggested introducing the term “Darwin-Wallace principle of natural selection” (Nature 453:27, 2008), which neatly avoids the political implication of “-isms.”

  4. #4 DrB
    July 16, 2008

    The first sentence reminded me of this from a Simpsons episode:

    Ned Flanders: We want you to teach alternative theories to Darwinian evolution.

    Principal Skinner: You mean Lamarckian evolution?

  5. #5 PeteK
    July 16, 2008

    Interesting post, as always… Maybe “Darwinist” should be left to philosophical Darwinists, i.e. eugenicist. But then again, words are our servants, not our masters, and of course words evolve…(ironically, by Darwinian processes of artifical/natural memetic selection)

  6. #6 Pierce R. Butler
    July 16, 2008

    Olivia Judson is absolutely right …

    You only say that because you’re a committed, dogmatic Judsonist!

  7. #7 Ian
    July 17, 2008

    It’s good to see you write at length. A lot of your blogs are not yours per se, but references to others, and I realize this is part of your “job”, but it’s nice to see material at length based on your views and experiences!

  8. #8 Ian
    July 17, 2008

    Now I’ve read your blog (and links which were great!) offline I have another comment. I’m not saying you don’t have a point, but I think your comment on the “Democratic” versus “Democrat” is quite as black and white as you indicate.

    If you want to go the the Democratic Party web site you have to type http://www.democrats.org/
    You cannot get there by typing http://www.democratics.org/
    although that is a valid address.

    Also the Democrats usually refer to themselves as such. You never hear anyone referring to the “Democratics”!

    I’m sure it is used perjoratively, but I’m also sure there’s “language laziness” involved on here just as there is all over the English language. It’s rather easier to use the snappy “Democrat” than it is to use “Democratic”.

  9. #9 QrazyQat
    July 17, 2008

    It’s rather easier to use the snappy “Democrat” than it is to use “Democratic”.

    It is not easier to say “Democrat Party”, which is the verbal slight in question (as opposed to the possible — I suppose — but never actually used “slights” you mention). The use of “Democrat Party” is never done, as far as I’ve ever seen or heard, by anyone connected to the Democratic Party or one of their supporters; it is always used by rightwingers and GOP supporters. It also neccesarily marks the person who uses it as dishonest, and rather cowardly, in their use of slights, since they try to weasel out of their slight (as opposed to someone like me, for instance, calling someone as “Rethuglican”, which I recognise as an insult and intentionally use as one).

  10. #10 John McKay
    July 17, 2008


    I’ll assume that your comments were sincerely intentioned and you are not disingenuously trying to confuse the issue. What Bora referred to is really that black and white. The issue is not whether it’s okay to call an individual supporter of the Democratic Party a Democrat. That usage has a long history of common usage and is used by the Democratic Party itself. No one has ever said that the proper noun for an individual is “a Democratic.” The issue is whether it is an insult to call the Democratic Party the “Democrat Party.” It is.

    The legal name of the party is not the Democrat Party; it is the Democratic Party. None of the usual excuses for using another name apply here. There is no common nickname accepted by the Party like “Mormon for a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saint or “GOP” for the Republican Party. It is not an inside slang used by members of the Party, as in the case of white idiots who insist they should be entitled to use the word “nigger” because they heard some Black rappers use it and despite the fact that they are not Black rappers.

    It is ungrammatical; “Party” is a noun and “Democratic” is the correct adjectival modifier. It is also rude; any schoolyard bully knows that one of the easiest ways to get someone’s ire is to consistently and defiantly mispronounce their name. It goes at a person’s basic identity. It says, “you don’t say who you are; I say who you are.” This is why many people see Bush’s insistence on making up nicknames for everyone he meets to be a basically rude and bullying behavior. “Democrat Party” also distances the Party from the concept of being democratic. It’s just a name, a few syllables with no real meaning. That distancing is, of course, intentional for those who use “Democrat Party.”

    The use of “Democrat Party” by Republicans as an insult has long history going back to at least the 1930s (the OED notes at least one usage in the 1890s). A few Republican politicians and conservative commentators have used it over the years, but it didn’t really become common–indeed, pervasive like the talking point of the week–until the Newt Gingrich era and the studied contol of messaging that Gingrich and Frank Luntz instituted. I think the phrase popped up during the attempted rehabilitation of Joe McCarthy, who used it almost exclusively when referring to the party of Jefferson and FDR. For people with any sense of decency, that should be reason enough to avoid it. Gingrich and Luntz latched on to it and made it party of their official usage for Republicans.

    I’m not the only one who has explored this issue. Here’s Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker:

    There’s no great mystery about the motives behind this deliberate misnaming. “Democrat Party” is a slur, or intended to be–a handy way to express contempt. Aesthetic judgments are subjective, of course, but “Democrat Party” is jarring verging on ugly. It fairly screams “rat.”

    …and Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post:

    There’s also something grating and coarse-sounding about this abbreviated appellation, like saying “Jew” instead of “Jewish.” It is, conservative wordsmith William F. Buckley wrote in National Review in 2002, “offensive to the ear.”

  11. #11 Coturnix
    July 17, 2008

    What John said.

  12. #12 Eloheim
    July 18, 2008

    Nice piece, Coturnix. It all sounds pretty good to me.

    I have a related complaint. I’m not at all a huge fan of the word “evolution,” in itself. To me “evolution” implies the “onward and upwards” mentality that seems to be an archaic relic of a time when everyone saw all non-human animals as merely sub-HUMAN; like “we have souls and they do not.” To me, “natural selection,” is a much better choice, as it isn’t quite so full of hubris. (Of course, I may just be misdefining these terms though.)

    Now, certianly, some lineages of creature have, over time, found relatively greater reproductive success via anatomical simplification, so they seem NOT to be more “complex” than their forebearers. However, this brings to me a point I’ve often pondered. Is there a self-consistent and accepted definition of “complexity?” I recall reading some stuff about incorperating “entropy,” but I’ve also heard authors say that there are many different (and I would assume, mutually exclusive) concepts of “complexity.” So I’ve wondered if maybe (even if a universal definition could not be produced) there could still be one that would work well for the study of Darwinis…err..evolutionary biology (hehe).

    I bring this up mostly because one of my main areas of interest is utilitarian ethics, and it has always seemed to me that animals that are generally more (neurologically?) “complex” (e.g. humans) are capable of experiencing a relatively greater degree of suffering (and pleasure) than those that are less so (say mice, or ants, for example). I know I’m probably getting a little off topic here, but I think the aformentioned ideas and issues really tie in with the author’s concerns, or at least in my humble mind they do.


  13. #13 J.D.
    July 18, 2008

    Out of curiosity, how do you feel psychologists who reference themselves as Evolutionary Psychologists?

  14. #14 Coturnix
    July 18, 2008

    I have not written much about it, especially not recently, but you can check some of my older, somewhat relevant posts here, here, here, here , here , here and here.

  15. #15 themadlolscientist, FCD
    July 20, 2008

    “Democrat Party”

    That’s the gigamongonous celebration that happens after Obama kicks McCain’s sorry ass. :-)

  16. #16 M. Ricciardi
    July 25, 2008

    How odd an omission: have we (once again) forgotten Gregor Mendel?

    Mendel–the hermetic German monk–for years compiled hereditary data on his venerable pea plants…only to present his findings (twice) to his scientific “peers”, and be greeted with utter silence and non-comprehension. Sadly, his work forgotten and assigned to obscurity, nearly a hundred years would pass before it would be rediscovered–by students of Darwin.

    In this rediscovery this second-generation of biologists would find the missing key to Darwin’s theoretical flaw: the source of variation within species (not accounted for by natural selection).

    It was this subsequent merging of Mendelian Inheritance and Darwinian Selection that became the foundation of modern evolutionary theories; the “gene” was posited, and the later discovery of DNA (a coding molecule for inheritance/variation) a triumphant confirmation.

    I am not a biologist. I am, like Darwin, a naturalist. Or, if you wish: a neo-post-Mendelian-Darwinist.