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.