Darwinism, Darwinian, Darwinist

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

Oh, and Abe Lincoln too.

For Darwin’s birthday, I want to discuss the uses of the terms “Darwinism, Darwinian, and Darwinist.” Many have written about this and many don’t like any of those words, some seem to equally dislike all three. A couple of years back, writing for the New York Times, Carl Safina said,

Equating evolution with Charles Darwin ignores 150 years of discoveries, including most of what scientists understand about evolution. Such as: Gregor Mendel’s patterns of heredity (which gave Darwin’s idea of natural selection a mechanism — genetics — by which it could work); the discovery of DNA (which gave genetics a mechanism and lets us see evolutionary lineages); developmental biology (which gives DNA a mechanism); studies documenting evolution in nature (which converted the hypothetical to observable fact); evolution’s role in medicine and disease (bringing immediate relevance to the topic); and more.

By propounding “Darwinism,” even scientists and science writers perpetuate an impression that evolution is about one man, one book, one “theory.”

I don’t fully agree. Darwin proposed, discussed, and integrated into his theories of evolution the idea of inheritance. Yes, Gregor Mendel independently demonstrated an atomistic theory of inheritance and worked out key features of that process, essentially creating the concepts of “gene” and “allele” as we often use them today. Having said that, Mendelian inheritance turns out to be a very incomplete picture and more often than not is inadequate in real use. The difference between what we now know about inheritance and what Darwin needed to develop much of his evolutionary thinking isn’t really all that large. Darwin certainly did address developmental biology, in that he understood that life forms underwent changes within the lifetime that were controlled by the same factors that shaped any feature of those organisms. And so on.

In particular, Safina states that the term “Darwinism” puts too much emphasis on the contributions of one person and one book and one theory. But Darwin wrote more than one book on Evolution, and he proposed more than one theory. Mayr says there were five theories and makes a reasonable argument for that. Darwin even foresaw, though he did not develop, higher level behavioral theories such as kin selection.

Safina goes on to note that “We don’t call astronomy Copernicism, nor gravity Newtonism” and otherwise warns against the “ism”-ish nature of a word like “Darwinism” reminding us of Marxism, capitalism, Catholicism, and racism.

Before I go any further, I want to strongly agree with Safina and others who have eschewed the term “Darwinism” but not for most of the reasons stated. Darwin was a key figure in defining evolution, and for the most part, the “evolution” we know of today is Darwin’s evolution plus, not a form of evolution that required the overthrow of Darwin’s ideas. Newton was wrong. We can use the word “Newtonian” to refer to a subset of physics that work like Newton said they worked but only on a very limited scale. Newtonian mechanics does not describe how the universe, or reality, or matter and energy work. Newtonian physics changed from a theory of everything (dynamic and physical) to a mere approximation that is fundamentally flawed. Copernicism, as it were, more so. Darwinism (to use that term for just a moment) is still at the core of modern evolutionary thinking.

The reason to eschew the term “Darwinism” is for that final reason mentioned above: isms are sucky. So I’m fine with that. But evolution as we know of today is a Darwinian thing to a much much greater degree than physics as we know of it today is Newtonian (or for that matter, even Einsteinian!).

So, I’m happy to be a “Darwinist” but I’d prefer to use the term “Evolutionary Biologist.”

There is another term that people have elected to toss out for similar reasons: Darwinain. That is an error, and most biologists who would happily agree with Safina (and me) in avoiding Darwinism use Darwinian all the time. The term Darwinian refers to one part of Darwin’s body of theory: Selection. We say that during neurogenesis, neurons over produce and over connect, and then, over time, undergo culling based on use. Neurons that are used are retained, those that are not go away. It is said to be a Darwinian process, because it is a selection process in which over production is followed by selective retention or survival. There are other examples of Darwinian process that occur in biology, and of course, they happen outside of biology and the term is often used, including but not limited to the nefarious idea of Social Darwinian process.

And now, for your reading and listening pleasure, a few Darwinian blog posts:

A podcast celebrating Darwin’s birthday. The first part is great but the part with me starts at 15:10.

A few essays focusing on Darwin’s Voyage on The Beagle

photo of Darwin by kevinzim


  1. #1 rick povero
    February 12, 2013

    ** “Darwinism” overloaded with ambiguity

    “Darwinism” is proudly used by Britons.

    In the US it is used as term of disdain. Fundies — as text worshipers — can not understand that in science there are no revealed texts — that textual exigesis is not a scientific skill. They imagine that by attacking a 150 year old text, some refutation exists of modern evolutionary theory (MET).

    Also in the US, “Darwinism” can refer to the Ango-American pseudo-sciences of social darwinism which incorporated 19th and 20th century preudices — racism, ethnic inferiority, genetic roots of poverty and class boundaries, sterilization of mentally ‘defective’ persons and ‘degenerate’ groups. The Nazis paid attention.

    So, in the US, “Darwinism” won’t work as a synonym for MET.

  2. #3 Leards Boswell
    February 12, 2013

    Darwin was a life support system for a hairy face. An angry old turtle herder who had nothing better to do than convince others of his own misery and anger at God by dragging them down the path of satan. Happy birthday darwin. Hope hell isn’t too hot for ya.

  3. #4 Human Ape
    February 12, 2013

    Boswell, of course your comment was satire. Nobody could be that insane.

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