Down with "Darwinism" and those darned "Darwinists"

Adam Goldstein has a post over at the Evolution: Education & Outreach blog which discusses a forthcoming paper by Genie Scott and Glenn Branch (both of the NCSE). Scott & Branch follow Olivia Judson in calling for the abandonment of the imprecise term "Darwinism". This is certainly something I support, having echoed the idea in talks over the past few years. While the term has a certain historical and philosophical utility, it is practically useless as a descriptor for modern evolutionary biology. The term "Darwinist" is equally as useless. (I should add that my objection to the terms has less to do with their use as pejoratives by creationists and more to do with historical and philosophical sensitivity.)

The abstract for the paper reads:

Evolutionary biology owes much to Charles Darwin, whose discussions of common descent and natural selection provide the foundations of the discipline. But evolutionary biology has expanded well beyond its foundations to encompass many theories and concepts unknown in the 19th century. The term “Darwinism” is, therefore, ambiguous and misleading. Compounding the problem of “Darwinism” is the hijacking of the term by creationists to portray evolution as a dangerous ideology—an “ism”—that has no place in the science classroom. When scientists and teachers use “Darwinism” as synonymous with evolutionary biology, it reinforces such a misleading portrayal and hinders efforts to present the scientific standing of evolution accurately. Accordingly, the term “Darwinism” should be abandoned as a synonym for evolutionary biology.

Wander over to read it here.

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I have argued this through many blog postings over the last year or so. I put more weight on the removal of it's use as a pejorative, but I support the removal of an 'ism' from science as well.

I also might add that Ms Scott could suggest almost anything after her terrific performance in the Texass school debates and I'd likely agree:-)

Sounds like good reasoning. We don't call the theory of gravitation "Newtonism" and we don't call the theory of relativity "Einsteinism". So why should the theory of natural selection ever be called "Darwinism"?

Not that I ever have called it that. Is it an American custom perhaps?

Generally, the Americans who use it are creationists of one ilk or another, and they use it disparagingly. Oddly, the one scientist I am aware of who frequently uses it positively and even applies it to himself is Richard Dawkins (see this interview

I don't really have a problem using 'Darwinism' to mean 'natural selection'. Eg. "The evolution of this trait is probably not Darwinistic, but rather a product of genetic drift." Similarly, I don't think describing Lee Smolin's cosmological natural selection hypothesis as "Darwinian" is problematic or confusing. I'll have to put the paper on my post-exam reading list, though.


We don't call the theory of gravitation "Newtonism" and we don't call the theory of relativity "Einsteinism".

I imagine that's at least in part because both of those words sound funny. You hear people talking about "Newtonian physics" v. "Einsteinian physics" all the time, and nobody seems to have a problem with it.

By Alex, FCD (not verified) on 12 Apr 2009 #permalink

As every fule kno [oops, exeunt Molesworth mode] "Darwinism" was coined by Huxley to mean evolutionary ideas to get science and science education out from the control of the Church of England, at a time when he rather doubted if natural selection could achieve speciation and suggested an impractical standard of testing before it could be accepted as science. And it became a general term for evolutionism, including what we'd call Lamarckism.

Then about thirty years later neo-Darwinism was coined by Romanes as a term for the few remaining proponents of natural selection as a significant contributor to evolution, during what Bowler calls the "eclipse of Darwinism". Thus, it can mean any old sort of evolution theory, or specifically hardline proponents of natural selection as the sole explanation of adaptation, not looking at Dawkins in particular. Confused? There's a lot more than that....

By dave souza (not verified) on 12 Apr 2009 #permalink

I suppose the fact that I accept the theory that the continents have moved over time makes me a Wegenerist. And since I think the evidence supports the notion that the blood circulates through the body, I must be a Harveyist. Oh, and I'm also one of those evil Daltonists, believing in atoms and all. And a Copernicanist, of course. Not to mention radio waves, which makes me a Maxwellist. And genes, so I'm a Mendelist too. And I find reciprocal altruism and kin selection to be pretty well supported, so I'm a Hamiltonist and a Triversist. And I believe in oxygen, so call me a Lavoisierist. Plus the whole periodic table of elements, which makes me a Mendeleevist.

I mean, if we're going to make acceptance of a theory based on evidence into "-isms" derived from individual's names, why not go hog wild?