Olivia Judson believes that it’s time to jettison “Darwinism” from our vocabulary:
Why is this [Darwinism] a problem? Because it’s all grossly misleading. It suggests that Darwin was the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, of evolutionary biology, and that the subject hasn’t changed much in the 149 years since the publication of the “Origin.”
He wasn’t, and it has. Although several of his ideas — natural and sexual selection among them — remain cornerstones of modern evolutionary biology, the field as a whole has been transformed. If we were to go back in a time machine and fetch him to the present day, he’d find much of evolutionary biology unintelligible — at least until he’d had time to study genetics, statistics and computer science.
I agree, although my reasons are very different. My problem with words like Darwinism, Darwinist, etc. is that they badly confuse Darwin’s real legacy. Because “Darwinism” is a synonym for “evolutionary theory,” people have been led to believe that Darwin’s real scientific contribution was the idea of evolution. But that’s wrong. The most radical element of Charles Darwin’s masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, was not the concept of evolution. By 1859, evolution was already an old idea, promulgated by influential thinkers like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Herbert Spencer. Many scientists had come to the conclusion that biological species weren’t immutable, but were instead constantly changing in response to their environment.
What was most heretical about the Origin was its unrepentant materialism, the way it proposed a theory of everything that didn’t depend on any unknowable and intangible forces. For Darwin, what you could see was all there was. Even the most metaphysical things, like life itself, had physical explanations. God wasn’t dead, just unnecessary.
It didn’t take long before Darwin began applying this materialist stance to all sorts of sacred mysteries, from the beauty of wild orchids to the rococo stylings of the peacock tail. As always, he explained the sublime and fantastic in concrete terms, so that orchid petals were instruments of pollination and the peacock was a by-product of sexual selection. Even Man was “descended” from some other species: Darwin’s theory of life could accept no exceptions.
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.