Darwin as a False Idol

Sorry to beat a long-dead horse, but I thought I saw a leg twitch:

Atlantic Books have begun to publish this year a series of texts titled ‘Books that shook the world’, which, rightly, includes a new biography of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species by Janet Browne. And some new shaking definitely seems to be in order. Darwinism appears under increasing challenge as ‘creationism’ and ‘intelligent design’ continue to creep into curricula, particularly in the US and the UK.

That quote comes from Nigel Williams’s review of Brown’s book. Williams writes for Current Biology, a widely read journal that covers topics from all disciplines of biology.

What’s got me irked? In a word: Darwinism. ‘Darwinism’ is a meaningless term in biology. Yes, Darwinian selection has meaning (as a synonym for positive selection), but what the hell is Darwinism? Aside from a term creationists use instead of saying ‘evolution’, Darwinism is as vacuous a word as creationism is a science. Stop referring to evolution as Darwinism if you respect science. You’re using an anti-science talking point. And you sound like a dolt.


  1. #1 John McKay
    November 1, 2006

    I wrote a post on this very topic last month. My take on the words “Darwinism” and the even more cringe-inducing “evolutionism” is that the suffix “-ism” is an attempt to reduce them to the status of ideologies and therefore not real science. Americans tend to be suspicious of ideology and like to think that they are not ideological in their beliefs (they’re fooling themselves). By even introducing these words into the debate, Creationists and their allies manage to score a point before a single argument has been made.


  2. #2 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    November 1, 2006

    I’ve actually started hearing “Sciencism”. John is right, it’s the need by the anti-intellectual portion of our population to take a term that has no “ism” qualities (ideologies) and make it into an “ism” to give it some sort of evil moniker. That way they can yell Communism, Fascism and Darwinism all in the same spit spraying sermon. Taking the often dfficult to understand and mechanical proceedural nature of science and turning it into a belief system brings it down to a level that Joe Sixpack can get his brain and anger neatly around.

  3. #3 Mikey
    November 1, 2006

    Yeah, “Darwinism” is like calling physics “Einsteinism” or something. Oops, sorry – I have to go run to my multivariable Newtonism class.

  4. #4 The Ridger
    November 1, 2006

    It’s more like calling physics “Kelvinism” – harking back several centuries: it’s an “ism” AND it’s out of date!

  5. #5 Larry Moran
    November 1, 2006

    Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.

    Many biologists use the word Darwinism as a synonym for evolution. The most famous example is Richard Dawkins. Here’s what he says in the Blind Watchmaker,

    … I want to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence. This makes it a doubly satisfying theory. A good case can be made that Darwinism is true, not just on this planet but all over the universe wherever life may be found.

    This is typical Dawkins, and he’s not alone.

    The Dawkins’ worldview is sometimes called Ultra-Darwinian because it is based on the hardened version of the Modern Synthesis–a version that doesn’t admit to any mechanism except natural selection. That’s the sense in which other biologists refer to Darwinism. It’s the word that’s used to describe evolution by natural selection.

    As Ernst Mayr put it in his chapter “What Is Darwinism” in his book “One Long Argument,”

    Almost any modern biologist, when asked what the term Darwinism stands for, will answer that it stands for a belief in the importance of natural selection in evolution. This interpretation of Darwinism is so widely accepted today that it it sometimes forgotten how relatively new this modern version is.

    Stephen Jay Gould used the word Darwinism in exactly that sense in his famous Science paper of 1982 (“Darwinism and the Expansion of Evolutionary Theory”) and when he included it in the titles of two papers published in the 1990’s: “Tempo and mode in the macroevolutionary reconstruction of Darwinism,” “Individuality and adaptation across levels of selection: How shall we name and generalize the unit of Darwinism?”

    The Intelligent Design Creationists refuse to listen to these kind of distinctions. They delight in calling all of us Darwinists even when we’re not. They have their own agenda and will not be swayed by facts.

    The general public has picked up on this usage from all the people who promote design in nature. This includes the Ultra-Darwinians like Dawkins and his friends. In this case it’s due to ignorance and we have a chance to correct them.

    The correct term is evolutionary biology.

  6. #6 Richard
    November 1, 2006

    I do wish that Dawkins would stop using the term. It plays into the idea that Darwin is our god-head, and The Origin our sacred, inerrant text.

  7. #7 SanBernardino
    November 4, 2006

    “Darwinism” has an old history. In 1889, Alfred Russell Wallace published “Darwinism: An Exposition on the Theory of Natural Selection With Some of Its Applications”. I have a copy beside me right now.

    This book is available from Kessinger Publishing and, of course you can buy it thru Amazon.

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