Pharyngula

Darwin is already dead, and we know it

I strongly disagree with the arguments of this essay by Carl Safina, “Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live”, even while I think there is a germ of truth to its premise. It reads more like a contrarian backlash to all the attention being given to Darwin in this bicentennial of his birth. The author makes three general claims that he thinks justify his call to “kill Darwin”.

The first is a reasonable concern, that “equating evolution with Darwin” is misleading and can lead to public misunderstanding…but then Safina charges off into ridiculous hyperbole, that scientists are making Darwin into a “sacred fetish”, and creating a “cult of Darwinism”. It’s simply not true. I go through this every year, when I’m off to give a talks about Darwin around the time of Darwin Day, and there’s no deification going on anywhere. I talk about the central principles of Darwinism, which are still valid, but I also point out that he got many things wrong (genetics is the most vivid example), and that the science has advanced significantly since his day. I’ve talked to many other scientists who do the same sorts of lectures, and nobody portrays him as Saint Darwin.

As for equating evolution and Darwin, I deny that, too. I reject the label of “Darwinist” because my interests in the field are so remote and alien from what Darwin did that we really don’t have much in common — I care about evo-devo and molecular phylogenies and gene regulation and signal transduction, none of which invalidate Darwin’s ideas about selection and change and common descent, but which are such distant derivations of 19th century science that if Darwin were handed one of the papers in the field, he would find it incomprehensible. Again, this is a common experience among my colleagues: we respect Darwin as the discoverer of a set of general core principles, principles that have stood the test of time and are still incredibly useful, but we’ve moved on.

Safina makes a second and very common error: he claims that Darwin didn’t say anything new, anyway. There is a strange historical industry dedicated to finding omens and portents in other people’s writings that preceded Darwin, and it is entirely true that ideas like the transmutation of species were bubbling up all over the place in pre-Darwinian Europe. You can also find short passages in the works of virtually unknown authors that even hint at the process of selection. Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, was known as a bit of a heretic who contemplated the unity of all life, and Robert Chambers published his theory of evolution, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, in 1844, and of course Wallace was the co-discoverer of the idea of natural selection. If there had been no Darwin, his theory would still have emerged out of the ferment of biological thought going on in that century. But he still deserves full credit. Darwin is the man who realized the grand import of the idea; this was no casual mention of an interesting possibility, but a profound recognition that his explanation for the origin of species was going to have a sweeping effect on science and society, and a determination that he would document it thoroughly and well. Darwin also explained the concept lucidly, and with volumes of evidence, to such a degree that Thomas Huxley would say “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” upon learning about it.

Respect for Darwin is as much for the disciplined and scientific way he addressed the problem as it is for the discovery itself. When we celebrate Darwin, we are not cheering for a man who got lucky one day, but for someone who represents many of what we consider scientific virtues: curiousity, rigor, discipline, meticulous observation, experiment, and intellectual courage.

Safina’s third complaint is that we’ve discovered so much more since Darwin, that “Almost everything we understand about evolution came after Darwin, not from him”. This is trivially obvious. We could say similar things about Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Dalton, Lavoisier, Dalton, Mendel, any scientist of the past you can name. Mendel, for example, is a fellow I spend a week discussin in my genetics course to explain the simplistic basics…and then I spend the rest of the semester explaining that all of his postulates are so loaded with exceptions that they are often completely false in many real-world genetic situations. Yet at the same time his principles represent a powerful starting point for deciphering the complexities of genetics. Shall we throw Mendel out of the history books because 143 years of progress have reduced his seminal work to a relatively tiny blip in the volumes of evidence since?

Safina is taking a deeply anti-historical position, and I would go so far as to call it an anti-scientific one, as well. Science is all about the evidence for what we know, and explaining how we know it; announcing that Darwin must go is to throw out the foundation of our discipline, and teach disrespect rather than appreciation for our origins. It’s also damaging to public education: we can explain Darwin’s insights to the lay public, but it’s almost impossible to explain the details of modern research without relating it to the central questions that Darwin formulated 150 years ago.

So, obviously, don’t canonize, beatify, or apotheosize Darwin … but don’t throw him out, either. He is (not was) important.

Comments

  1. #1 Glen Davidson
    February 10, 2009

    but then Safina charges off into ridiculous hyperbole, that scientists are making Darwin into a “sacred fetish”, and creating a “cult of Darwinism”.

    Uh, Safina, Ben Stein is not the best person from which to get your information. Just so you know…

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  2. #2 Nec_V20
    February 10, 2009

    QUOTE
    I talk about the central principles of Darwinism
    UNQUOTE

    You are accepting the premise of the ID crowd.

    Would you talk of Einsteinism or Newtonism in physics?

  3. #3 Glen Davidson
    February 10, 2009

    And besides, Darwin didn’t explain gravity, thermodynamics, or the origin of life.

    Seriously, though, Safina’s got some point. I don’t especially like there being a “Darwin day,” I’d rather have a day about evolution. But reality pretty much demands that if a day is going to be devoted to the importance of evolution (and not incidentally striking against the anti-science forces), it’s going to have to be dedicated to a person, on or around their birth day.

    To some small degree, the IDiots have forced this to be about Darwin more than I would like. If Safina knows some way to combat stupidity without the necessity of focusing on central personalities, I’d be interested. Until then, let’s do what we can.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  4. #4 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    February 10, 2009

    What we have here is a failure to communicate. Are you suggesting that the Plastic Dashboard Darwin I have is wrong?

    I don’t care if it rains or freezes
    As long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus Darwin
    Sitting on the dashboard of my car.
    You can buy him phosphorescent
    Glows in the dark he’s pink and pleasant
    Take him with you when you travel far.

    Now excuse me, I’m off to eat 50 Boiled eggs.

  5. #5 Shaden Freud
    February 10, 2009

    There is no cult of Darwinism! There must be a fatwa on the infidel Safina!

  6. #6 PZ Myers
    February 10, 2009

    If I were giving a historical talk about Einstein or Newton, yes, I would talk specifically about their perspectives on physics. Likewise, when I talk about the history of evolution, I talk about the specific ideas Darwin laid out, and then go on to talk about modern expansion of the theory.

  7. #7 'Tis Himself
    February 10, 2009

    Darwin was a major light of 19th Century science. He expounded a new theory and explained it lucidly. He is worthy of respect for his efforts. However this is the 21st Century. Science as moved on since Darwin’s time.

  8. #8 Tom Woolf
    February 10, 2009

    PZ – I like the way you tear some fools a new one, yet patiently and clearly explain where others simply have gotten something wrong. You have a knack for distinguishing between the irrational bozos (with apologies to the original Bozo the Clown) and the simply un- or ill-informed.

  9. #9 Phoenix Woman
    February 10, 2009

    The whole “Darwinist” schtick is an effort by the anti-science crowd to pretend that biological science doesn’t exist, or that it hasn’t evolved since the 1850s. Calling people who hold with evolution “Darwinists” is like calling Catholics “Jews”.

  10. #10 Lana
    February 10, 2009

    I like the idea of a Darwin Day to honor a scientist rather than a politician or mythical character. Besides, we celebrate all holidays with food in my house – Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco De Mayo.

    I’ve having trouble coming up with an appropriate menu. Any suggestions?

  11. #11 Tom Woolf
    February 10, 2009

    Lana – maybe Turtle Soup?

  12. #12 Glen Davidson
    February 10, 2009

    I’ve having trouble coming up with an appropriate menu. Any suggestions?

    A lovely dish of marinated finch?

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  13. #13 The Science Pundit
    February 10, 2009

    PZ,

    I know this is going to come as a big shock to you, but Matt Nisbet loved Safina’s essay. What a shocker!

  14. #14 Ben
    February 10, 2009

    Creationists use the term “Darwinism” a hell of a lot more than proponents of evolution do.

    I think Safina’s point is correct (focus on the concept, not the man), but he has naively taken creationist criticism/caricature (i.e. “zomg darwin was an atheist guyz and also totally wrong!”) as an accurate portrayal of how intelligent people think.

  15. #15 Jackal
    February 10, 2009

    Perhaps we should stop celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday since civil rights have come a long way from his emancipation of the slaves. Maybe we should take Lincoln off the penny since there might have been other leaders at the time who could have seen us through the Civil War. Maybe we should start labling those in favor of human equality as “Lincolnists,” and proclaim that they don’t really want equality for women since Lincoln didn’t give women the right to vote. We could claim that they were pro Big Tobacco since Lincoln smoked a pipe (whether or not he actually smoked is irrelevant). Or maybe we can celebrate Darwin’s birthday without losing all sense of perspective and reality.

  16. #16 Joe
    February 10, 2009

    I read some of OTOoS in the early 70s, before I mislaid my copy of it. There is something that I wonder about. Did Darwin propose that all life was related? Biochemistry makes it abundantly clear that is true, today. It seems to me that, in Darwin’s time, one could argue that all mammals were related; but the data was lacking to link them with fish and plants. In Darwin’s time, common descent was a radical extrapolation.

    As for Wallace, he recognized “natural selection;” but, did he (independently) propose common descent of all organisms (as, I take it, Darwin did).

  17. #17 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    February 10, 2009

    A lovely dish of marinated finch?

    Perhaps l’ortolon?

  18. #18 'Tis Himself
    February 10, 2009

    Gooseneck barnacles are supposed to be good in soup.

  19. #19 Will E.
    February 10, 2009

    I just read that article a half-hour ago on my work break, and I had to mutter aloud to no one in particular, “Lame.” No one but a creationist uses the adjective “Darwinist.” The writer just seemed to be taking the “Look how I out-skeptic the skeptics! I’m the real rebel!” pose, but, you know, print both sides!

  20. #20 Holbachj
    February 10, 2009

    I should have mentioned the essay on Darwin which I felt did not do the subject proper justice. The article by Nicholas Wade was, I think, truer to his work and memory.
    All in all, we can no more dismiss Darwin as we can dismiss the religious lunatics. We are better for the former, and will possibly suffer from the latter by sheer numbers and degree of lunacy. Horrors.

  21. #21 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 10, 2009

    I spent half of the Sep-Dec 2008 semester at Nia Educational Charter school in Altadena rigorously teaching Evolution by Natural Selection to dozens of urban high school students, at least 1/3 of whom were 2nd generation Creationists. I’m slightly published in the field myself, and read many excellent texts (including your blog) on how to teach Evolution to those whose minds have been turned to Jello by previous bad teachers, Creationists, and lying Intelligent Design folks. But it was still very much a struggle. All in all, I managed to convince almost all of them to at least learn the truth, without taking that as a challenge to their (poorly thought through) religious beliefs. By the end, they were able to write short critical essays on topics that each selected differently from the 5-year-old Science cover story on “Evolution in Action.”

    One that infuriated the Dean was, in its entirety: “I do not believe that I am related to monkeys because they are hairy and nasty.” The Dean chewed out the whole class for 20 minutes, quite to my pleasure.

    On that I did like was the girl who wrote that the fact of chimps and humans having different manifestations of cancer despite there being fewer than 2 amino acids difference between the average Chimp protein and the average human protein, might not be due to Evolution as such, but because humans use cellphones and chimps do not, and cellphones might cause brain cancer. For the rest of the day I could not shake off the image of chimps with cellphones. But at least she was thinking.

  22. #22 Phoenix Woman
    February 10, 2009
  23. #23 Allen N
    February 10, 2009

    Tis:

    And your point would be what? Copernicus moved the Earth from the center but the rest of his model was wrong. Much less known was Keppler, who cleared out all the rubbish of epicycles. Does this mean that Copernicus was not important? He was the first to make the huge change and while science has moved beyond his views, it in no way diminishes what he did. Likewise, others have expanded on our knowledge of evolution but Darwin was the first to put it together as more than some musings aboaut species.

    Darwinism has become a code for the godbots but substituting evolution for Darwin only leads to Evilutionists. Another code word for non-believers.

  24. #24 Lana
    February 10, 2009

    Good menu suggestions but I know I won’t be trying l’ortolon. I only cook what I can buy previously killed. As far as I’m concerned meat comes from supermarkets.

    No, you may not tell me any different.

  25. #25 SC, OM
    February 10, 2009

    PZ Myers, 2-10-09 – “Darwin must go”!

    “I reject the label of “Darwinist” because…I care about evo-devo and molecular phylogenies and gene regulation and signal transduction,…which invalidate Darwin’s ideas about selection and change and common descent.”

    “[H]is postulates are so loaded with exceptions that they are often completely false in many real-world genetic situations.”

    “Science is all about the evidence for what we know, and explaining how we know it;…Darwin must go….”

  26. #26 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    February 10, 2009

    There is a huge difference between admiring a scientist who brought together and helped unify several different fields into one big idea, and giving that person a cult like status. However, the general public and creobots in particular seem to lend that cult status to important scientists like Darwin and Einstein. Since they give them cult status, they wrongly presume scientists do the same. They are very shocked when we tell them otherwise. They seem to think if they can trash Darwin, evolution will go away. That won’t happen, as there is just too much evidence for evolution, and Darwin isn’t needed for present day science.

  27. #27 Lana
    February 10, 2009

    Thanks, Phoenix Woman! (@22) And if I order in the next five hours, I can get it tomorrow. What did we do without the internets?

  28. #28 Glen Davidson
    February 10, 2009

    Did Darwin propose that all life was related?

    No, and there’s no obvious reason why all life would be related from evolutionary considerations:

    There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one,… Darwin Origin

    Indeed, that all life would be related is more to be expected from abiogenesis considerations, so long as life is not very easily produced abiogenetically–life may have arisen more than once, but more advanced types would likely eat later life.

    We might have found the imprint of a Creator in there being several forms of life which could not have evolved from each other. But we haven’t.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  29. #29 Phoenix Woman
    February 10, 2009

    By the way, the Darwin-Wedgewoods seem to have been an uncommonly moral and decent family. Charles and Emma were very good parents and their children were all sweeties; those that survived to adulthood grew up to add more luster to the family name.

  30. #30 Eduardo Padoan
    February 10, 2009

    “Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Dalton, Lavoisier, Dalton, Mendel”

    PZ, you’ve got a double-Dalton there.

  31. #31 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    February 10, 2009

    By the way, the Darwin-Wedgewoods seem to have been an uncommonly moral and decent family. Charles and Emma were very good parents and their children were all sweeties; those that survived to adulthood grew up to add more luster to the family name.

    I heard an interview with Darwin’s grandson Matthew Chapman. Seems like an intelligent man. His book looks interesting as well.

  32. #32 Molly, NYC
    February 10, 2009

    A point Saphina missed (IMO, at least): A big reason lovers of science celebrate Darwin is that it’s an exercise of solidarity against the anti-science (and really, anti-truth) crowd.

  33. #33 Bill Dauphin
    February 10, 2009

    PZ, you’ve got a double-Dalton there.

    Am I the only one who thinks this sounds like a style of piercing?

  34. #34 QrazyQat
    February 10, 2009

    That Lincoln guy, born the same day as Darwin, he wasn’t perfect was he? Does anyone think he was, once they get past the age of 10? Do we respect him and admire what he did then? Washington and Jefferson? Franklin?

  35. #35 Eduardo Padoan
    February 10, 2009

    If one day I have an extremely important scientific insight, work hard to demonstrate it coherently, and help change the way people understand nature forever, I would like one day in the year that people remember my contributions and discuss the implications of my work.
    By the way, today is my birthday.

  36. #36 AndrÚs Diplotti
    February 10, 2009

    PZ, you’ve got a double-Dalton there.

    Figures. Dalton had vision problems.

  37. #37 Kraid
    February 10, 2009

    The funny thing is that “Darwinism” is a straw man cooked up by the ID movement, as others have pointed out. Yes, the worship of Darwin and dogmatic adherence to his original ideas must be abandoned! Oh wait, nobody worships Darwin and nobody is claiming that his ideas were immaculate. We leave deification, divinely revealed dogma, and other such nonsense to the religious. Those of us who think rationally are OK with non-deities making imperfect models based on necessarily limited data.

  38. #38 Eduardo Padoan
    February 10, 2009

    #32 … Or this is exactly wht he is try to undermine. But “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance”

    #33 which kind of piercing? I’d love to show my PZ-like double-Dalton piercings.

  39. #39 TR Gregory
    February 10, 2009

    Don’t call it “Darwinism” by E.C. Scott and G. Branch, Evolution: Education and Outreach

  40. #40 woody
    February 10, 2009

    Would you talk of Einsteinism or Newtonism in physics?

    well, you certainly could, since one expanded upon and replaced the other.

    Darwinism supplanted LaMarkianism, for example, dinnit, on the basis of it’s improvement in explanatory power??

    Or is that a) wrong or 2) too obvious?

  41. #41 ShadowWalkyr
    February 10, 2009

    Darwin also explained the concept lucidly, and with volumes of evidence, to such a degree that Thomas Huxley would say “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” upon learning about it.

    Really, that’s pretty much what I said. No matter what the creationists say, evolution is pretty obvious once it’s been pointed out.

  42. #42 Yannis
    February 10, 2009

    I was a bit shocked to this essay written by Safina. I’m a grad student in Stony Brook’s school of marine science where Safina is located. His books, talks, and blog for the Blue Ocean Institute are all top notch, though sometimes border on the over-romanticizing nature.

    I may have to swing by his office later and ask WTF.

  43. #43 AGHubing
    February 10, 2009

    Eloquently stated, sir.

  44. #44 cactusren
    February 10, 2009

    So according to Safina, I shouldn’t have bothered teaching my intro geology class about Hutton and Lyell. I should have jumped right into all the details about how sometimes strata can be overturned, without bothering to teach the principle of superposition. Yeah, that would work really well.

  45. #45 John Stockwell
    February 10, 2009

    Carl Safina has bought into the notion that there is actually something
    called “Darwinism” that is an actual materialist philosophy. He
    somehow does not propose any evidence to support this notion. The
    reality is that the term “Darwinism” is nothing more than a political
    epithet hurled by anti-science proponents.

    Sure some people have a Darwin Day. We don’t have an Einstein Day, or a
    Newton Day, or in fact, do we actually have any day commemorating any
    scientist. We should though. Science is one of the pillars of our
    civilization. Let us celebrate all of science on “Darwin” day.

  46. #46 Al
    February 10, 2009

    I think a lot of folks here are WAY over thinking this essay. Safina is certainly not anti-science, I know this for a fact. What he’s trying to do is help get the public beyond the fallacy that Darwinism IS not the be all and end all of Evolution; indeed its barely the opening stanza. If non-science people could get that coincept, then they would immediately see how absurd the whole ID thing is and the ridiculousness might die a long-overdue death.

    This wasn’t a scientific article for a scientific journal, its an essay in the NYT for goodness sake, so lets not get too technical about picking over his argument. Rather than sledging him because of the manner of his essay, with which you disagree, AND preaching it to the choir on an evolutionist’s blog, either applaud him for trying to make a difference, or pick up a pen and write your own damn essay to your local paper – it will do a whole lot more good than anything any of us might say here.

  47. #47 Newfie
    February 10, 2009

    I was planning to dance around a bonfire of bibles and fling poo skyward in my worship of Darwin Day.

  48. #48 AmericanGodless
    February 10, 2009

    What bothers me about Carl Safina’s essay is that his repudiation of “Darwinism” and “Darwinian evolution” seems very much like the repudiation of the term “atheism” by so many non-theists, who hope that this will somehow make people like them better. In both cases, I feel, it is an attempt to keep the conclusions while divorcing from the process. I find myself often at odds with both atheists and evolutionists who appear to adhere to a point of belief, perhaps even knowledge, but not of understanding. I call myself an atheist because I understand why I take naturalism to be an extremely probable hypothesis. Darwin is important precisely because he was part of a society that had no understanding of modern genetics and developmental biology, and yet came to a carefully worked-out conclusion which is still at the core of biology (and naturalism) today. It’s important to understand how he (and we) got there.

  49. #49 Cronan
    February 10, 2009

    Safina is trying to do two things:

    1) Swing some of that lovely “Darwin” web traffic by his site
    2) Stir up controversy, thereby doing more of 1)

  50. #50 Ben Breuer
    February 10, 2009

    My (albeit limited) understanding is that “Darwinism” in the nineteenth century was a legitimate but ill-defined biological viewpoint, which covered basically any evolutionary theory including common descent, and sometimes not quite even that. Since Darwin had successfully demonstrated descent with modification, his name got attached to this general viewpoint. Later on, the term got associated with the more unsavory aspects that fire (some) current (ab)usage. Keeping those two applications of the term and Darwin’s own (carefully qualified) opinions apart is one heck of a task.

    And I’d say that Darwin indeed deserves to be celebrated, just like any other scientist who had a ground-breaking, if necessarily provisional idea. In the far future (100 years from now? 200?) when we’ll have a much more modified theory of biological evolution, Darwin’s ideas will likely form a part of it. This, and the fact that unlike many other famous people he seems like a genuinely nice, endearing person (with his allotted measure of flaws) and a careful thinker warrant celebrating him.

  51. #51 Laneman
    February 10, 2009

    So what would be a good substitution for the second Dalton? My suggestion is Maxwell.

  52. #52 Andrew
    February 10, 2009

    “but I also point out that he got many things wrong (genetics is the most vivid example)”

    I hear/read this statement frequently from modern biologists wishing to slough of the cultic taint of “Darwinism”, but –and it could very well be my ignorance– I don’t see how Darwin’s omission of “genetics” could possibly be labelled a “mistake” since there were no genes in those days.

    That he “didn’t know about the mechanism of transmission of heritable traits”, OK, but why would one use the word “wrong”?

  53. #53 Erp
    February 10, 2009

    First I have a preference for a more general science day or evolution weekend. But if you are going to have a Darwin Day and want a meal, it seems that plum pudding was traditional in the family. In 1834 his sister writes to him on the Beagle

    This is your Birthday; so I must begin my letter to wish you joy, and many happy returns of it (but not abroad) mind that.

    Papa who never forgets anniversarys remembered this day of course at Breakfast and sends you his best love & blessing on reaching 25 years. Poor old Nurse Nancy entertained me all the time I was dressing this morg with many lamentations over your absence on this day when you ought to be eating Plum pudding with us, & all the Servants say she has not failed to put them in mind of you; so as I have often told you before, you are not forgotten by the least of us.?

    Also Wedgwood is spelled with one ‘e’ not two and there are a fair number of odd characters in the Wedgwood-Darwin entwined clans. Michael Chapman is a great great grandson of Charles Darwin not a grandson (I don’t think any grandchildren are still alive and not many great grandchildren (Sophie Raverat, Horace Barlow,?Elisabeth Hambro)).

  54. #54 Kraid
    February 10, 2009

    Safina is certainly not anti-science, I know this for a fact. What he’s trying to do is help get the public beyond the fallacy that Darwinism IS not the be all and end all of Evolution; indeed its barely the opening stanza. If non-science people could get that coincept, then they would immediately see how absurd the whole ID thing is and the ridiculousness might die a long-overdue death.

    The appropriate response to the term “Darwinism” is to identify it as a faulty premise; “Darwinism” is a straw man. What Safina seemingly has done is accept the premise at face value, treating the straw man as real, and written his article from that standpoint. I think that’s what has people a little irked.

    When Safina phrases it like, “we need to kill Darwinism,” it frames the issue inappropriately. It implies that there’s such a thing as “Darwinism,” that “Darwinism” has some influence in evolutionary theory, and that the creationists have some merit to their argument because they’ve identified a chink in evolutionary theory’s armor.

  55. #55 JustaTech
    February 10, 2009

    This essay has also gotten a solid drubbing over at Slashdot, including the post of my new favorite website: http://www.transitional-fossil.com/

  56. #56 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    February 10, 2009

    Michael Chapman is a great great grandson of Charles Darwin not a grandson (I don’t think any grandchildren are still alive and not many great grandchildren

    Oops. Great Great Grandson (stupid me). But it is Matthew (if you were referring to my comment).

  57. #57 cactusren
    February 10, 2009

    Andrew @52: Darwin didn’t know anything of modern genetics, but did have some ideas about how traits were inherited (he discusses this more in The Descent of Man than in The Origin). Basically, he thought there was a blending of each of the parents’ traits in offspring, which we now know to be incorrect. So yes–Darwin was actually wrong on that subject, not just silent.

  58. #59 Ted Herrlich
    February 10, 2009

    I prefer Dr. Olivia Judson golumn http://judson.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/15/lets-get-rid-of-darwinism/

    “Calling evolutionary biology ?Darwinism,? and evolution by natural selection ?Darwinian? evolution, is like calling aeronautical engineering ?Wrightism,? and fixed-wing aircraft ?Wrightian? planes, after those pioneers of fixed-wing flight, the Wright brothers.”

    Ted Herrlich
    tedhohio@gmail.com
    http://sciencestandards.blogspot.com

  59. #60 Peter Ashby
    February 10, 2009

    Lana how about a range of dishes incorporating as many different classes as you can. Bacteria can be in something fermented like Soy Sauce, fungi and plants are obvious, try having seaweed, monocotyledons and dicotyledons etc. Then some molluscs, shellfish or calamari, prawns etc for arthropods, then fish (you can elaborate there too), amphibia (frogs legs!), reptiles etc. Prizes for whoever gets the most right.

  60. #61 NelC
    February 10, 2009

    What with this, and New Scientist‘s “Darwin Was Wrong” cover, iconoclasm seems to be in fashion this year. Brace yourselves for more of the same.

  61. #62 Geoffrey
    February 10, 2009

    I, for one, don’t think there is anything wrong with celebrating someone who was extraordinary, & who achieved something not many people have in the history of, well, not just science, but the world. Evolution by Natural Selection is such an incredible idea, & as both an idea & an approach, has done so much to illuminate our understanding of the natural world & the earth’s biodiversity.

    I admit it: I’m a Charles Darwin fan. His ideas interest me, & have, to quote Dawkins, “raised my consciousness to the power of science” as the best explanatory tool we have … So pardon me if I want to take some time to celebrate someone whom I think was pretty awesome, & who represents a lot of what’s awesome about being a curious, thinking person.

    (It’s also about time we have a day to celebrate a scientist, or science in general … The various Darwin Day celebrations are introducing a lot of children to science, & maybe one day they’ll grow up to discover something as cool as Evolution!)

  62. #63 RickK
    February 10, 2009

    When we surrender our water bottles and shampoo at the airline security gates, the terrorists win.

    When we fail to recognize an important figure in our understanding of our origins, the creationists win.

    But we can choose maintain our principles even when terrorists threaten our bodies and creationists threaten our minds. One principle is to honor those who’ve made significant contributions to human understanding.

    So..

    I don’t worship you, Mr. Darwin, but I raise my glass to you. With one idea, well considered and documented, you contributed more than any other single person to our understanding of our true origins. For that, you’ve certainly earned a hearty and unqualified “Happy 200th Birthday!”

  63. #64 Desert Son
    February 10, 2009

    Rev. BigDumbChimp at #4:

    Since no one else seems to have yet said it:

    I’m off to eat 50 Boiled eggs.

    No one can eat 50 eggs.

    No kings,

    Robert, with that ol’ Luke smile

  64. #65 Cuttlefish, OM
    February 10, 2009

    Darwin is not dead;
    His musical comedy
    Made the New York Times

    http://video.nytimes.com/video/2009/02/09/science/1231547271297/darwin-in-song.html?ref=science

  65. #66 Sastra
    February 10, 2009

    Safina’s complaint about scientists making Darwin into a “sacred fetish” may have been provoked by their common habit of having stuffed Darwin dolls propped up next to their computers. At least, I assume that’s what they all do, because I have one next to mine.

    But it’s not a “fetish,” and it’s not “sacred.” He’s just cute. Safina needs to stop assuming stuff.

  66. #67 Glen Davidson
    February 10, 2009

    Ooh, I just just this important message from the DI (again, due to trying to snag an Expelled DVD in a contest):

    Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin:

    Growing Majority of Americans Support
    Teaching Both Sides of Evolution Debate

    Just in time for Charles Darwin?s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of his Origin of Species, a new nationwide Zogby poll of likely voters indicates overwhelming public support for teaching the scientific evidence for and against Darwin ?s theory. The poll shows similar overwhelming support for giving students and teachers the academic freedom to discuss the ?strengths and weaknesses? of evolution.

    According to Discovery Institute?s Dr. John West, the poll results may shatter some preconceptions held by those in the media about who supports letting students hear a balanced presentation on Darwinian theory.

    ?Media reports insinuate that a right-wing conspiracy of know-nothings and religious extremists is afoot,? said West. ?But the new Zogby poll reveals a broad-based and well-informed public consensus for academic freedom on evolution. That consensus includes Democrats, Republicans, liberals, moderates, independents, and every race, gender, and age group. The Darwin Lobby has isolated itself from public opinion.?

    According to the poll, Democrats (82%) and liberals (86%) are even more likely than Republicans (73%) and conservatives (72%) to support the academic freedom of teachers and students to discuss the ?strengths and weaknesses of evolution.?

    The poll also shows a dramatic 9-point increase over 2006 in the percentage of likely voters who agree that ?Biology teachers should teach Darwin ?s theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.? Support for that position has jumped to 78%, up from 69% in 2006. The percentage of likely voters who favor teaching only the evidence for evolution suffered a corresponding decline of 7 points, from 21% in 2006 to just over 14% this year.

    ?Clearly, the Darwin-only crowd is losing public support,? said West. ?There seems to be a backlash against the strong-arm tactics that have been used in recent years to censor and intimidate scientists, teachers, and students who raise criticisms of Darwin .?

    Zogby International conducted the survey of 1,053 likely voters from 1/29/09 through 1/31/09. A more detailed summary of the poll results is available here.

    For more information, visit Evolution News & Views.

    What strikes me is how Safina echoes John West’s libel of scientists.

    Even more striking is that apparently West intends for education not to be “Darwin-only.” Since idiot-liars like himself conflate modern evolutionary theory with “Darwin” or “Darwinism,” I’m wondering, Gee, what can this possibly mean? Isn’t it just the strengths and weaknesses of “Darwinism” that you want taught, West?

    The fact is that he’s giving himself away, unsurprisingly. He knows that “weaknesses” are a code word for “ID bullshit,” only he isn’t supposed to admit it. But he did.

    And I’m sure that the poll does not reflect much knowledge of what scam the DI is pulling.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  67. #68 Die Anyway
    February 10, 2009

    {PZ}>”… and nobody portrays him as Saint Darwin.”

    Dadgummit PZ, I am not dismantling my shrine. Y’all may give up but I’m staying true and the candles are staying lit. Darwinian now, Darwinian forever!!!!

  68. #69 Snarker
    February 10, 2009

    Andrew #52

    “I don’t see how Darwin’s omission of ‘genetics’ could possibly be labelled a “mistake” since there were no genes in those days.”

    Really? How did they reproduce?

    (Yes, I know what you meant; I just couldn’t resist.)

  69. #70 Andrew
    February 10, 2009

    cactusren@57. Thanks, it was ignorance, though temporary, I hope.

    Darwin would not have correctly predicted the outcome of Mendel’s experiments…

  70. #71 Pieter B
    February 10, 2009

    I hope to get around to writing a comment on the NYT’s website this evening; my working title is “‘Darwinism’: The Evolution of a Straw Man.”

  71. #72 Jim Thomerson
    February 10, 2009

    Physicists and chemists name their units after great people in the field. Who knows the definition of a darwin? Have you ever seen the term used in the evolutionary literature? A darwin is a 1% change in the genetic make up of a population in one generation. I was told that in a systematics class in 1960; but have never encountered it again.

  72. #73 Diane G
    February 10, 2009

    I tended to agree with Safina, but thought maybe he was mainly addressing the way science/scientists should watch what they say to the general populace…

    IME biologists seldom use the term “Darwinism,” but frequently the adjective “Darwinian,” which to me is entirely different, & appropriate, esp. to separate “classic,” uh, Darwinism from all the subsequent elaborations. Personally I’ve always liked “the neo-Darwinian synthesis,” but I guess that’s kind of a mouthful…

    As has already been pointed out, words that end in “-ism” can sound too much like ideologies; they connote a sort of vested devotion to some set of concepts; they also open the door to “evolutionism,” etc. Yes, I know, there is atheism, et al…which sort of makes the point. Seems that “ism” brings to mind more a school of thought, as opposed to “-ology” and other roots. No, I’m not suggesting Darwinology..:-)

    And of course, “Darwinism” so easily links to the infamous “social-Darwinism…”

    So, perhaps we can at least agree that in popular debates it’s best to avoid “Darwinism,” and even more important to not let one’s opponents get away with it, either. The comparison to “Newtonism” is a good analogy to have at hand.

  73. #74 Glen Davidson
    February 10, 2009

    I’d like to know why I sacrificed so many babies if Darwin is dead.

    It’s not like I needed a backyard full of bones, and a bunch of mothers screaming at me.

    I had faith in Darwinism, and now PZ claims it was all for nought.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  74. #75 Ritchie Annand
    February 10, 2009

    Since ‘clast’ is from ‘broken’ and ‘blast’ is from ‘germ/embryo’ and ‘plast’ is from ‘form’, may I suggest we continue with our own form of Darwinian iconoblasm or iconoplasm?

    (I mean, since we can have osteoclasts, osteoblasts and osteoplasts, we are thus entitled to our own neologisms.)

  75. #76 baylisascaris
    February 10, 2009

    @#72

    The darwin doesn’t seem to me to be a very useful unit.. change on the genotype level doesn’t necessarily correspond to quantifiable change on the phenotype level.

  76. #77 Her Reference Ron Sullivan
    February 10, 2009

    All else aside?Cripes, what a pill, what a party-pooper!

    We seized the day and went over to the Cal Academy of Sciences for a Darwin Days talk, and actually learned a thing or two. Then we stopped in the rainforest exhibit and blissed out among the jungly plants and neotropical birds and butterflies. Holding a morpho on your finger long enough to watch its facial expression change a few times is one of those pleasures that blur any possible boundary between intellectual and physical.

    We were transfixed. We were sure we were going to get a parking ticket and we didn’t care. (We’re serious cheapskates.) When we finally got to the car, mirabile dictu, no ticket. Praise Darw? um, well.

    Nice thing about this sciencey stuff is that we don’t need saints.

  77. #78 machintellience
    February 10, 2009

    Rats! I guess this means that I can no longer refer to Darwin as the patron saint of biologists.

  78. #79 Sven DiMilo
    February 10, 2009

    A darwin is a 1% change in the genetic make up of a population in one generation.

    Charging in without googling, my impression was that a Darwin is a change of one standard deviation of a continuous phenotypic trait per generation.

  79. #80 windy
    February 10, 2009

    IME biologists seldom use the term “Darwinism,” but frequently the adjective “Darwinian,” which to me is entirely different, & appropriate

    I agree but did you read the whole article – Safina doesn’t like “Darwinian” any more than “Darwinism”.

  80. #81 Anton Mates
    February 11, 2009

    cactusren,

    Basically, he thought there was a blending of each of the parents’ traits in offspring, which we now know to be incorrect. So yes–Darwin was actually wrong on that subject, not just silent.

    However, as Dawkins points out, Darwin actually recognized examples of non-blending inheritance and once or twice voiced suspicions that this must be the norm.

    In one letter to Wallace, Darwin writes, “I know of a good many varieties which must be so called, that will not blend or intermix, but produce offspring quite like either parent.” He adds in a later letter that:

    I crossed the Painted Lady & Purple sweet-peas, which are very differently coloured vars, & got, even out of the same pod, both varieties perfect but none intermediate. Something of this kind I shd. think must occur at first with your butterflies & the 3 forms of Lythrum; tho’ these cases are in appearance so wonderful, I do not know that they are really more so than every female in the world producing distinct male & female offspring.

    And in a letter to Huxley he writes:

    Approaching the subject from the side which attracts me most, viz inheritance, I have lately been inclined to speculate very crudely & indistinctly, that propagation by true fertilisation, will turn out to be a sort of mixture & not true fusion, of two distinct individuals, or rather of innumerable individuals, as each parent has its parents & ancestors:? I can understand on no other view the way in which crossed forms go back to so large an extent to ancestral forms.? But all this, of course, is infinitely crude.

    That last letter was written quite early, in 1857; apparently Darwin never saw his way to fleshing out this speculation discrete inheritance.

    Apropos of nothing, I see in a letter to Hooker that Darwin is well aware of how you win arguments on the internet:

    Now do you agree thus far? if not, it is no use arguing, we must come to swearing, & I am convinced I can swear harder than you. [THEREFORE] I am right. Q.E.D.

  81. #82 Autumn
    February 11, 2009

    I have to interject here that for all of us who have read “Origen” (for it’s historical significance, not to keep up-to-date on findings in the field), I find the most amazing and presently relevant section to be the part where Darwin systematically addresses possible objections and problems with his hypothesis. Honestly admitting ignorance when there is not enough information, and postulating pathways that make the seemingly insurmountable plausible (even if he has since been shown wrong in the particulars, an explanation that is possible defeats the hypothesis of impossibility).

  82. #83 Diane G
    February 11, 2009

    #80Posted by: windy | February 10, 2009 10:33 PM

    IME biologists seldom use the term “Darwinism,” but frequently the adjective “Darwinian,” which to me is entirely different, & appropriate

    I agree but did you read the whole article – Safina doesn’t like “Darwinian” any more than “Darwinism”.

    Well, you’re certainly correct. I had read the whole article, but glossed over that part, I guess…so I don’t completely agree with Safina…

    I do agree with the comment that the Nicholas Wade NYT article (in the same series) was a very satisfying tribute to an amazing scientist. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/10/science/10evolution.html?ref=science )

    Posted by: Anton Mates | February 11, 2009 12:01 AM
    Apropos of nothing, I see in a letter to Hooker that Darwin is well aware of how you win arguments on the internet:

    Now do you agree thus far? if not, it is no use arguing, we must come to swearing, & I am convinced I can swear harder than you. [THEREFORE] I am right. Q.E.D.

    That’s priceless! Thanks!

  83. #84 RBH
    February 11, 2009

    Al wrote

    Rather than sledging him because of the manner of his essay, with which you disagree, AND preaching it to the choir on an evolutionist’s blog, either applaud him for trying to make a difference, or pick up a pen and write your own damn essay to your local paper – it will do a whole lot more good than anything any of us might say here.

    I did, in an interview in the newspaper (unfortunately, not published in their web edition but only in hard copy) in the conservative town in which John Freshwater is in the midst of a termination hearing. Among other things, I said

    Noting that evolutionary theory “provides a powerful explanation for the diversity of life on earth,” Hoppe also said that “… it makes no sense to talk about ‘Darwin’s’ theory — modern evolutionary theory has gone far beyond what Darwin wrote in 1859.”

    and

    The age of the universe really is 13.7 billion years, plus or minus a small error of estimate. The age of the earth really is 4.55 billion years, plus or minus a small error of estimate. Humans really are related to all other life on earth via descent from common ancestry … When the religious deny those facts they must deny reality and thereby make their religious beliefs hostage to a false picture of how the physical universe works. When that false picture is shattered it’s dangerous for religious faith.

    We really do need to go on offense rather than playing defensive whack-a-mole. Get out into the community, even into the churches. I did these last few weeks, doing three talks on successive Sunday mornings (on evolution, historical Christian responses to evolution, and evolution and morality) in a local church. Granted, it was a ‘liberal’ Protestant denomination, but so much the better: Now they’re equipped and even emboldened to say that the fundamentalists don’t represent all Christians here, and they know the basics of how evolution works and why it’s important. And like it or not, we need those allies in public school disputes like that we’re having here.

  84. #85 Valhar2000
    February 11, 2009

    Being able to epxlain how you know something, or how you learned it, or why you think such knowledge is reliable, is an integral part of the scientific enterprise. Thus, giving historical explanations of the basics of a subject to students is a perfectly good, even necessary, approach. It introduces them to the actual process of discovery, as it is carreid out in the real world, helps them understand the reasoning behinf commonly accepted ideas, and even helps them avoid common mistakes, by highlighting people who made the same mistakes before.

  85. #86 Scott Hatfield, OM
    February 11, 2009

    PZ:

    Last time I checked, the article was about ‘Darwinism’ rather than ‘Darwin’. The author was not saying let’s not commemorate Darwin’s achievements, merely set them in a context independent from implications of either hero-worship or membership in a religious cult.

    I think we’ve all become so afraid of being quote-mined on Darwin’s thought and status that we have a hard time objectively evaluating claims that are made about the old fellow. Sarafina makes no errors of fact, and his piece taken as a whole gives no comfort to the enemy. I think it is important to realize that the article was not necessarily addressed to people like you or me, but to the lay readership of the Times. The fact that Darwin did not conceive of evolution per se may come as a shock to some!

  86. #87 Sven DiMilo
    February 11, 2009

    Jerry Coyne is worth reading on this.

  87. #88 CosmicTeapot
    February 11, 2009

    Answers in Genesis are trying to counter the celebrations of Darwin in churches this Sunday.

    http://answersingenesis.org/get-answers/features/200-lost-years

    It would be interesting to see what impact they have.

  88. #89 Ray Ladbury
    February 11, 2009

    Personally, Safina’s arguments sound a little like those who criticize Lincoln for racism. By any criteria applied, Darwin’s contribution to the understanding of life was astounding. Given the time in which he lived, long before the mechanism of genetics was understood, it is nothing short of breathtaking. Do we understand more than we did then? I would hope so. Has biology begun to expand in different directions? Still, it’s amazing how many of the subsequent developments are adumbrated in Darwin’s answers to critics. We do ourselves a disservice when we uproot our understanding from the soil in which it grew.

  89. #90 Steven Sullivan
    February 11, 2009

    “Sarafina makes no errors of fact, and his piece taken as a whole gives no comfort to the enemy. I think it is important to realize that the article was not necessarily addressed to people like you or me, but to the lay readership of the Times. The fact that Darwin did not conceive of evolution per se may come as a shock to some!’

    Sorry, but it should possible to write an article about “Darwinism” for a ‘lay readership’ without raising as many red flags for ‘people like you and me” as Safina’s did. The lay reader might actually come away with the idea that there is a modern ‘cult’ of ‘Darwinism” among *scientists*, which is *utter bullshit*.

  90. #91 Big Red
    February 11, 2009

    I have to say that in my experience as a genetics major at cornell, that Darwin is in no way deified when his ideas are taught. Just as PZ, teachers at Cornell make sure to point out where Darwin was wrong and the shortcomings of his research. This doesn’t mean that Darwin shouldn’t be celebrated for being brave enough to stand up against certain backlash. Some say his recurrent medical problems were a result of constant worry about such backlash, and point to such concern as a possible reason for the delay in the publication of his findings. Isn’t that what defines a hero, someone who is willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of mankind? So why not celebrate a hero.

  91. #92 John Scanlon FCD
    February 11, 2009

    Nice hair, Carl.

  92. #93 Anonymous
    February 12, 2009

    the problem is that darwinism as a concept is a religious analog, a messianic perspective. Science tests hypotheses within a theoretical context, not in the shadow of some man. As CHRIST-ianity is the following of the teaching of the man CHRIST, the expectation is that all others do the same. This too is why attempts are often made to “discredit Darwin”, poking holes in subsidiary principles and observations, as though by undermining evolution’s “prophet” the whole scientific discipline will disband, as though some religion.

    Great man. Greater science.

  93. #94 Donald Sauter
    February 13, 2009

    Can I join the party?

    I’ve got just the right word that’ll make everybody happy: Something-from-Nothingism.

  94. #95 E.V.
    February 13, 2009

    Donald:
    Define the “nothing” you are referring to.

  95. #96 Carl Safina
    February 20, 2009

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