Good riddance, Darwinism

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.

Olivia Judson, as she explains in her newest essay, also wants to be rid of the charged term. As John and Jonah have picked up on this, as well, although the general scarcity of the term among those who recognize evolution as a reality means that most are already agreed. The post is perhaps more important to those who have been misled by the persistent use of the word “Darwinism” by creationists, and I hope Judson’s article serves to set a few people straight.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    July 16, 2008

    Reportedly, even Richard Dawkins has had second thoughts about the D-word, now that the point has been raised.

    During the Q&A session one young man stood up and asked Dawkins why he used the term Darwinism when referring to the theory of evolution. While noting that it is still common to do so in England, most American scientists eschew the term because of the manner in which it plays into the hands of creationists. We don’t speak of Newtonism or Einsteinism, the young man pointed out, and referring to the theory of evolution as “Darwinism” might give some the mistaken view that evolution is nothing more than a religion or cult of personality.

    Now here’s the really amazing thing: despite being about 30 years the young man’s senior, Dawkins thoughtfully assented. He agreed that the young questioner had a point, one which he hadn’t fully considered before. Perhaps “Darwinian” has its place, but maybe “Darwinism” should be retired as too likely to be misconstrued. We in the audience saw a respected writer and science advocate who was willing to reevaluate himself and his choice of expression, and we all loudly applauded Dawkins’ open-mindedness and willingness to change. It was a great moment.

    I wasn’t there, and I haven’t heard anything else about it.

  2. #2 Glendon Mellow
    July 16, 2008

    Wow, how incredibly strident and smug of Dawkins to change his mind. (Someone’s going to say it.) In The God Delusion, Dawkins takes exception to cosmologists and physicists using the term “God” meaning the laws of nature.

    Those are some pretty compelling arguments. There are so many labels that can be bandied about. I also especially dislike “evolutionist”, Brian. In my head, I always associate “isms” with art movements or ideologies. Not facts.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    July 16, 2008

    I don’t mind Darwinian that much, possibly because my training in physics has accustomed me to terms like Newtonian and Einsteinian: to me, an -ian is less assertive than an -ism. The branch of physics called Newtonian mechanics is just a package of ideas generally associated with Isaac Newton. He didn’t invent all of it, and the mathematical tools we use today are slicker and more useful than the ones he possessed. You can solve a problem with Newtonian gravity in the morning and with Einsteinian gravity in the afternoon (the math is just harder for the second option). They don’t get jealous of one another.

    So, yeah, I’m basically OK with reserving “Darwinian” to talk about biological ideas which Darwin himself had or might plausibly have had. It could serve as a historical designation, in other words, for ideas which don’t use the apparatus of genetics, statistics, ecology, developmental biology, etc.

  4. #4 H.H.
    July 16, 2008

    Yeah, I was the one who wrote that bit about Dawkins which Blake quote above. In person, Dawkins comes across as one of the least “strident” and “smug” people you will ever meet. He’s actually very soft spoken, polite, meticulous in his use of language, intelligent, and generous with his time.

  5. #5 windy
    July 16, 2008

    So, yeah, I’m basically OK with reserving “Darwinian” to talk about biological ideas which Darwin himself had or might plausibly have had.

    A lot of people use “Darwinian evolution” for evolution characterised by gradual random variation and natural selection. I think it’s a handy term especially for pointing out analogies to non-biological systems but others may find it confusing.

  6. #6 themadlolscientist, FCD
    July 16, 2008

    I’ve thought for years that calling an evolutionary biologist a “Darwinist” is a lot like calling a quantum physicist an “Einsteinist.”

  7. #7 John Scanlon FCD
    July 17, 2008

    This reminds me of those Nisbet/Mooney ‘framing’ arguments; I’m generally not favourably impressed by the idea that we should stop using a term because some non-biologists will misunderstand it and use it as a pretext for straw-man attacks.
    OTOH, the comparisons made already with usage of Newtonian/Einsteinian (but non-usage of the corresponding isms) show why the case for ‘Darwinism’ is quite distinct from that of ‘Darwinian’. Also, the connotations of -ism and (some) -ist words have changed quite a bit over the past century, from a body of theory and practice to (more frequently) a dogmatic ideology, so Wallace’s Darwinism (or Haeckel’s Darwinismus) just don’t mean what they used to.
    Me personally (i.e. in my idiolect), I don’t ever use ‘Darwinism’, and by ‘Darwinist’ I would mean either a near-contemporary and follower, or later scholar of Darwin. e.g., one might say ‘Steve Gould was a Darwinist’ in the latter sense, but not the former, and certainly not in the sense of being a Darwinian, i.e. a latter-day believer in the power of natural selection.

  8. #8 John Scanlon, FCD
    July 17, 2008

    … and when I say ‘believer’ I refer, of course, to evidence-based belief rather than the other kind (which doesn’t deserve the term).

  9. #9 Christophe Thill
    July 17, 2008

    For me, the use of “Darwinism” is legitimate when referring to Darwin’s own views and ideas, including such outdated ones as pangenesis.

  10. #10 Laelaps
    July 17, 2008

    John; As I said in the post itself there is more reason to dump “Darwinism” than the fact that creationists love it. It seems to be rarely used these days anyway, and I don’t see much reason to pick it up. Like many of us have written this year already there is much more to evolutionary science than Darwin, so if you’re actively comparing competing ideas at the end of the 19th century “Darwinism” (compared with “Neo-Lamarckism”) might be useful as it does describe the state of the argument. Today it does not, however, and I don’t really see any compelling reason to keep it in use as a synonym for evolutionary science.

  11. #11 Glendon Mellow
    July 17, 2008

    H.H., I was kidding with the strident and smug comment. I wholeheartedly agree, Richard Dawkins has always seemed to me to be polite and articulate, even when my own blood starts pumping.

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