deifying Darwin? I think not

Yesterday one of the students in our 'Evolution' paper commented that those of us teaching the course were 'deifying' Darwin, which he felt was not a good thing. And if we were, it wouldn't be. To deify someone (or something) means to set them up as a god and worship them. And I can't think of any biologists who do that.

We do recognise the enormous value of Darwin's theory of evolution i.e. that organisms have descended, with modification, from earlier forms and that natural selection is an important mechanism driving that evolution. That concept underpins all of modern biology. But we don't worship Darwin for it – we respect him, as an able and insightful scientist who changed the way biologists see the world. And we recognise that he was, in some things, quite wrong (his ideas about inheritance, for example), and that his life was shaped by the time & the society he lived in (which is, of course, true of us all).

And we've moved on. The theory of evolution is sometimes referred to as 'Darwinism', with the implication that evolutionary biologists are still trapped in the 19th century in their thinking. But the modern theory of evolution has used Darwin's ideas and built on them, extending our understanding with knowledge from genetics, population genetics, palaeontology, embryology & developmental biology, biogeography, and the tools of molecular biology. And for all of that, 150 years of research, testing, analysis & debate have only confirmed Darwin's original theory.

PS for an interesting discussion of the role of individuals in science – and much more besides – you might like to read this discussion thread from PZ Myers' Pharyngula blog.

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