what is this word, ‘darwinism’?

There’s a discussion going on over at Open Parachute around the word ‘Darwinism’. I want to talk about this word here because it’s one that’s often used in a pejorative sort of way by folks who don’t agree with the concept of evolution. In this context, ‘Darwinism’ is equated with evolution in a negative sort of way (often accompanied by the claim that ‘Darwinism’ denies the existence of god).

This made-up word, ‘Darwinism’, is often used to suggest that the whole of evolutionary biology stands or falls on the work and writings of Charles Darwin. This just isn’t so, & suggests a complete lack of knowledge of how biology has moved on since the late 1800s. (Or perhaps a wilful disregard of all that…) It also suggests that the users don’t really have a good idea of how science operates. More than once I’ve seen it said that because Darwin repudiated his own theory on his deathbed, this means that evolution’s wrong.

Well, duh. I say that on two counts, one more important than the other. For starters (less important in the scientific sense, but it still matters if you go for historical accuracy) – the idea that Darwin repudiated the concept of evolution is incorrect. wrong, untrue. And two – even if that canard were true, it doesn’t matter. Nothing changes. For the last 150 years scientists have been testing the theory of evolution. They’ve developed that theory, expanded it, enhanced it, but there are no data that suggest it to be wrong. Believe me, if those data exist, they’d be published. As EO Wilson has said, there’s a Nobel prize waiting for the person who can demonstrate that evolution is not the best explanation for life’s diversity. (I recommend reading Wilson’s essay in its entirety – it will amply repay taking the time to do so.) To quote Wilson:

[B]iologists, particularly those statured by the peer review and publication of substantial personal research on the subject in leading journals of science, are unanimous in concluding that evolution is a fact. The evidence they and thousands of others have adduced over 150 years falls together in intricate and interlocking detail. The multitudinous examples range from the small changes in DNA sequences observed as they occur in real time to finely graded sequences within larger evolutionary changes in the fossil record. Further, on the basis of comparably firm evidence, natural selection grows ever stronger as the prevailing explanation of evolution.

What about the claim that ‘Darwinism’ denies the existence of God?

Well, no, evolution doesn’t do that either. Nor did Charles Darwin, on anything more than a personal level. He joined the crew of the Beagle believing in creationism in some form. What he learned on the voyage, & the concepts he began to develop, led him to the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. He later came to describe himself as agnostic, following the death of his beloved daughter Annie (possibly from tuberculosis). Certainly he never suggested that evolution in some way meant that there was no god.

Nor can it. Evolution, & in fact all of science, deals with how the world works. Scientists make observations, ask those all-important "I wonder why…" & "what would happen if…" questions, generate hypotheses, collect data, & may develop theories that explain those data & observations. But the existence (or otherwise) of a god, any god, is a matter for personal faith. A god must be a supernatural entity, & as I’ve said before, science doesn’t deal with the supernatural. We don’t have the tools for that. Yes, you can point at prominent evolutionary biologists who are also atheists, & who take a very firm line indeed on the existence of a god. Richard Dawkins springs to mind. But there are also prominent evolutionary biologists who profess a strong religious faith: Francis Collins & Kenneth Miller are two that I can think of. To me, this divergence of views/beliefs/personal codes of ethics simply says again that science doesn’t deal with things beyond the natural world.

‘Darwinism’ – a word that we really can do without.

8 thoughts on “what is this word, ‘darwinism’?”

  • Yes, I don’t like the word much either. I’m always a bit bemused that Dawkins is so happy using it, given the accusations flung at him so often that he has a quasi-religious attitude to evolution. Stephen Jay Gould used it, but in the very specific sense of evolution by strict natural selection, as opposed to other mechanisms. So it is a word that has valid uses, even if it tends to be abused, and it does have an honorable pedigree, having been coined by Alfred Russel Wallace.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    My main beef with the word is that the creationists tend to use it as if things haven’t moved on from the days of Darwin & Wallace…

  • Ken Miller’s lectures are always worth watching. He is a great populariser.
    Readers might be interested in a new post of his at Carl Zimmer’s blog – The Loom: (Smoke and Mirrors, Whales and Lampreys: A Guest Post by Ken Miller).
    The creationists have worked hard to demonise Darwin, evolution and science in general. One tactic has been there work to created Darwinism and Darwinist as an evil concept which invokes hatred and hostility. It seems to work for a few of the more extreme people. I guess Dawkins refuses to give in to those people – and why should he. But I agree the word does still get overused by some scientists – especially when it really refers to more modern ideas in evolutionary science.
    Hopefully there will just be so much material coming out in the coming year about Darwin and his ideas that we can keep this creationist virus isolated.

  • The use of the word is problematic. I agree that in a particular narrow context it has it’s intended meaning, but creationists use it as a framing device outside of that meaning. Their meaning is synonymous with their invented word “evolutionist”, i.e. as a catch-all label to apply to anyone that supports evolutionary theory. Modern biologists aren’t generally taking a “Darwinist” position when they consider evolution.
    I imagine that Dawkins’ use of the term is in bemused response to having it flung at him so often. And SJG would be very “correct” in his use of it, as is his style.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Yes, I enjoyed Ken Miller’s post on The Loom. As for the Darwin200 events – we’ll be having a Cafe Scientifique about Darwin on Feb 17th (yours truly will be speaking) & I’m hoping the uni will host a couple of public lectures as well.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Now I can say I’ve enjoyed _all_ Miller’s posts on ‘The Loom’. Ironic that his closing comments about the need for vigilance have been followed so closely by the latest ‘academic freedom/teach the controversy’ bill in Oklahoma.

  • Mark Eisenman says:

    I’m just a jazz musician who’s interested in science and clear thinking and I have noticed a new word, it’s new to me anyway!
    I’ve noticed it popping up in discussions of Darwin’s Origin of Species, probably because there has been a lot of talk about the movie Creation and 2009 was the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s book.
    People who do not “believe” in the theory of Natural Selection reveal themselves when they use this word. The word is “Darwinism” to describe Darwin’s theory.
    All the other uses of the suffix ISM are used in a negative connotation.
    Racism, Anti-Semitism, Fascism, Totalitarianism, Fundamentalism, etc.
    The use of the word “Darwinism” is a very smart (and sneaky) way to equate the support of an evidence based scientific theory with it’s polar opposite, and the word that describes that, is a belief. The word is “Creationism”. The word “Darwinism” brings the discussion of the theory of Natural Selection down to the level of a BELIEF system, which is NOT what it is. It’s a scientific THEORY.
    I’ve never seen anyone write about this new trend. It’s very subtle, but the word paints the concept of science and the scientific method with the same brush as any other belief system. This undermines the basic difference between a science based system and a belief system.
    My point is that if one puts “ism” at the end of “Darwin” it denigrates the theory of Natural Selection, the scientific method, and Darwin himself.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Thanks, Mark, this is a really good point. The word ‘evolutionism’ is another one used to put a ‘religious’ slant on evolutionary biology…

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