The Scientific Activist

Evolution is an established scientific idea, the unifying theme of biology, and an important field of study. “Darwinism”, on the other hand, is a term used misleadingly by creationists to attack ideas they can’t counter on fact alone and misguidedly by journalists unwittingly assisting this process. With that in mind, the recent essay by Carl Safina in The New York Times entitled “Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live” seems a bit irrelevant:

By propounding “Darwinism,” even scientists and science writers perpetuate an impression that evolution is about one man, one book, one “theory.” The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The point is that making a master teacher into a sacred fetish misses the essence of his teaching. So let us now kill Darwin.

But our understanding of how life works since Darwin won’t swim in the public pool of ideas until we kill the cult of Darwinism. Only when we fully acknowledge the subsequent century and a half of value added can we really appreciate both Darwin’s genius and the fact that evolution is life’s driving force, with or without Darwin.

I’m not sure where one finds this “Cult of Darwinism”, but if such a thing does exist, I doubt you’ll find it populated by scientists. Safina might be reacting to all of the fanfare surrounding the upcoming Darwin Day on February 12th. As 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, this year’s festivities have been getting more attention than usual. And fair enough: it would be quite insane to argue that Darwin wasn’t an incredibly influential scientist.

Maybe this “Cult of Darwinism” is made up of science historians. If so, they would only be doing their job, as Darwin could only be ignored in some sort of horribly revisionist history of biological science. That’s really what it comes down to: Charles Darwin–the man, his journeys and studies, his ideas–are primarily of interest in terms of the history of science. The idea that modern scientists practice–or even talk about–“Darwinism” is totally preposterous.

In a sense, Safina is correct: Darwinism should be killed. And, to that end, scientists have already done their part. Unfortunately, though, it’s being kept on life support by creationists as one of their favorite red herrings.

Check out Pharyngula for a more detailed criticism of Safina’s essay.


  1. #1 Anibal
    February 17, 2009

    Having passed the “acute darwinitis” (´though it was a pleausure to have it) it is true that “darwinism” is related to many undesirable ideas (social darwinism, eugenesics…), and of course, evolution or biology is not just Darwin.

    I´m with U. Kutschera when he proposed to change “darwinism” for: the Darwin-Wallace principle of natural selection.

  2. #2 Evolution of Hearing
    November 29, 2009

    Darwin is the person who got us thinking about evolution. That’s why he’s the face of evolution, like Einstein is the face of relativity and Newton is the face of classical physics. Many of their ideas were correct, but some were not. But disproving some ideas of Darwin’s (or Newton’s, or Einstein’s) doesn’t mean that in principal what they were promoting was without merit.
    Creationists who think they debunk all of evolution by pointing out some wrong ideas of Darwin’s would be akin to someone thinking they disproved all of classical physics because they found something wrong with Newton. Not so!

  3. #3 Jason
    December 3, 2009

    The ‘cult of Darwin’ does not exist amongst scientists, but it has been promulgated in part by the popularizers of science. Its membership is a combination of those who wish to be up on the latest thing without understanding it in too much detail, and those who sense an attack on scientistic values and feel the simplistic emotional need for a poster boy.

    The truth is, science should never have demeaned itself by debating with creationists — people who take the bible literally don’t even understand their own religion correctly, how on earth could they be expected to understand science? The opposite of Darwin cultism is not creationism (or ‘intelligent design’) but simple common sense.

    Darwin is a valuable figure in the history of human thought and he continues to provide us with lots of grist for the investigative mill. He doesn’t need to be turned into some kind of saviour figure! This business of putting people on banknotes isn’t as smart as people think… how many who quote Adam Smith have actually read him? No more than he would have approved of blind market-worship would Darwin have approved of blind evolution-worship. He gave us a tool, not a creed.

    To get caught up in ignorant debate demeans everyone.

New comments have been disabled.