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”.
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.