Darwinism must die????

The science section of today’s New York Times is a celebration of evolution, including several articles that are excellent.  Unfortunately, the one by Carl Safina, an ecologist, is not.  Called “Darwinism Must Die so that Evolution May Live.”  He gives the usual misguided reasons for abandoning the term, to wit:

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. . . . .

Using phrases like “Darwinian selection” or “Darwinian evolution” implies there must be another kind of evolution at work, a process that can be described with another adjective. For instance, “Newtonian physics” distinguishes the mechanical physics Newton explored from subatomic quantum physics. So “Darwinian evolution” raises a question: What’s the other evolution? .. . .

Charles Darwin didn’t invent a belief system. He had an idea, not an ideology. The idea spawned a discipline, not disciples. He spent 20-plus years amassing and assessing the evidence and implications of similar, yet differing, creatures separated in time (fossils) or in space (islands). That’s science.

Well, how much confusion has really been caused by using the term “Darwinism”?   How many people have been made to think that we biologists adhere to an ideology rather than a strongly supported theory?  Would creationism and its country cousin, intelligent design, suddenly vanish if we started using the terms “modern evolutionary theory” (ugh!) or the insidious-sounding “neoDarwinism”?  I don’t think so.  “Darwinism” is a compact, four-syllable term for “modern evolutionary theory,” which is ten syllables long.  And, of course, Darwin had far more influence on modern evolutionary research than Newton has on work in modern physics. In fact, in no other area of science has a research program suggested by one person lasted for a century and a half.  As I write in my own homage to the term (to be published in Current Biology):

. . . . True, Darwin wasn’t always correct: he got genetics wrong, and his views on species and speciation are pretty wonky.  And of course evolutionary theory has advanced: systematics, continental drift, and population genetics are all areas untouched by his looming shadow.

Still, these advances amount to refinements of Darwinism rather than its Kuhnian overthrow. Evolutionary biology hasn’t suffered the equivalent of quantum mechanics. But some biologists, chafing in their Darwinian straitjacket, periodically announce new worldviews that, they claim, will overturn our view of evolution, or at least force its drastic revision.  During my career I have heard this said about punctuated equilibrium, molecular drive, the idea of symbiosis as an evolutionary force, evo-devo, and the notion that evolution is driven by the self-organization of molecules.  Some of these ideas are worthwhile, others simply silly; but none do more than add a room or two to the Darwinian manse.  Often declared dead, Darwinism still refuses to lie down. So by all means let’s retain the term.  It is less of a jawbreaker than “modern evolutionary biology,” and has not, as was feared, misled people into thinking that our field has remained static since 1859. What better honorific than “Darwinism” to fête the greatest biologist in history?

As Nicholas Wade notes in his essay on Darwin in the same section as Safina’s:

Not only was Darwin correct on the central premises of his theory, but in several other still open issues his views also seem quite likely to prevail. His idea of how new species form was long eclipsed by Ernst Mayr’s view that a reproductive barrier like a mountain forces a species to split. But a number of biologists are now returning to Darwin’s idea that speciation occurs most often through competition in open spaces, Dr. Richards says.. . . It is somewhat remarkable that a man who died in 1882 should still be influencing discussion among biologists.

Finally, as my colleague Steve Pinker points out:

Linguistically, the point is moot – once a name sticks, only massive forces toward political correctness can change it
(African American, Native American, etc.). Voltaire noted that the Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire, but that’s what we still
call it. Even if Darwinism had outgrown Darwin, it would be impossible to rechristen it.

Just noticed that over on Pharyngula, P.Z. agrees with me.

35 Comments

  1. J.J. E.
    Posted February 10, 2009 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    I agree that even “Darwinism” is a defensible term. But even if it weren’t Safina seems to have no leg to stand on. He tends to miss the boat on other crucial issues, including one highlighted by this comment:

    So “Darwinian Evolution” raises a question: What’s the other evolution?

    Well, he seems to give no currency to the active debates that have raged at various points in the history of evolutionary biology.

    Punctuated equilibrium was proposed as a contrast to the gradualism described by Darwin. So, in the right context, a person very well could talk about Darwinian evolution (or Darwinian gradualism) on one hand and punctuated equilibrium on the other.

    Neutral theory was proposed as a contrast to the force of natural selection (there was even a paper by King and Jukes in Science in 1969 entitled “Non-Darwinian Evolution”.) Among population genetic circles, it isn’t uncommon to contrast Darwinian evolution (natural selection) with neutral evolution (genetic drift).

    Moreover, the guy really bugs me by using phrases like “ideology”, “disciple”, and “cultist” in oblique weasely reference to evolutionary biologists. This is odd in the extreme, because it parrots language that the Intelligent Design movement uses against evolutionary biologists. Is he really so hell-bent on reconciling faith and science that he will appropriate the language of sophists for use against colleagues?

    Here is one example of his considerable efforts toward reconciling the evangelical and scientific communities. Such public education is admirable, full stop. But I wonder if he sees such junkets more as educational outreach or primarily as reconciliation? http://carlsafina.wordpress.com/2007/09/09/baked-alaska/

  2. Posted February 11, 2009 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    It seems no more than reactionary to drop the term Darwinism for the sake of creationist use. Though from personal experience, the only people I’ve ever heard use the word are either creationists or Richard Dawkins.

    The word has negative connotations that come along with it’s use: the charge of evolution being a religion, the link to social darwinism, though it seems quite symptomatic. Evolutionist and eugenicist seem to do just fine even without the allusion to the scientist who started it all.

    If the case is that no matter what term is used opponents will misuse it, then why change at all? It would feel like admitting defeat over a semantic quarrel. It would be absurd to think of anyone in this day and age who would base their entire view of evolution off Darwin alone instead of the plethora of evidence that has subsequently demonstrated the validity of the theory.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the name Darwinism or Darwinian evolution are not the problem, the attacks on the name are just symptomatic of a much deeper problem in getting people to understand the theory. It seems that the problem is people don’t understand how or why science is used so they look to a perceived authority as opposed to a proper analysis of the evidence.

    This feels a lot like the brights movement, giving atheism a cheerier name is not going to suddenly make people think better of the concept. Putting lipstick on a pig comes to mind.

  3. Posted February 11, 2009 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    > Would creationism and its country cousin, intelligent design, suddenly vanish if we started using the terms “modern evolutionary theory” (ugh!)

    Oh, god, Jerry. You just created a monster.

  4. mothra
    Posted February 11, 2009 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    I find myself somewhat in agreement with Carl Safina. Among scientific colleagues, the terms used are: evolution, evolutionary biology, and very rarely, Darwinian evolution. Other terms are applied when referring to a specific process: natural selection, vicariance, genetic drift, or more generally the modern synthesis, etc. As Darwin wrote of natural selection (evolution) and contrasted it with artificial selection, it seems that Darwinian evolution and natural selection are synonyms.

    The only places I ever read or hear the term Darwinism is in connection with creationist literature, science and religion discussion groups and on science blogs. In the latter forum, almost always in a discussion with some religious context. Darwinism is ‘undead’ as it is cdesignproponent speak and should never be allowed into the scientific lexicon. Darwinian evolution is a synonymous with natural selection, and so, an unnecessary term. When we wish to honor Charles Darwin for his foundational contribution to biology we can spend the time to say: Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

  5. Freak
    Posted February 11, 2009 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    The other evolution would be Lamarckian evolution.

  6. Posted February 11, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Only a fool would deny the fact of evolution.

    Only a greater fool would embrace darwinism as the mechanism.

    There is not one shred of empirical evidence, either observational or experimental, that establishes a believable nexus, either actual or hypothetical, between the trivial effects of mutation and natural selection and the emergence of the highly organized structures, processes and systems found in living organisms.

    Now feel free to ban me for having an opinion that you may not like, just as PZ Myers and Carl Zimmer have!

  7. Marshall Nelson
    Posted February 11, 2009 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Only a fool would deny the fact of evolution.

    Only a greater fool would embrace darwinism as the mechanism.

    There is not one shred of empirical evidence, either observational or experimental, that establishes a believable nexus, either actual or hypothetical, between the trivial effects of mutation and natural selection and the emergence of the highly organized structures, processes and systems found in living organisms.

    Now feel free to ban me for having an opinion that you may not like, just as PZ Myers and Carl Zimmer have!

  8. Jim
    Posted February 11, 2009 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Oy, I’m an ecologist and I noticed the slight. We’re not all ignoramuses

  9. Posted February 11, 2009 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    Darwin deduced natural selection and sexual selection. He did not exactly “get genetics wrong;” he had never heard of genetics and the mechanism of inheritance remained as a gap in his theory. He tended towards a somewhat Lamarckian view that the body could influence the germ plasm. He worried about how new factors could keep from being swamped by the old before they could become established in a population.

    So “Darwinian evolution” could refer to only sexual and natural selection. He pointed out that sexual selection could produce exaggerated features with no apparent purpose than to attract a mate.

    An understanding of DNA and genetics plus Darwinian evolution, incorporating rigorous mathematical treatment of genetic inheritance, produced “the modern synthesis,”

    Since then, evidence has continued to pile up: whole new fields such as molecular evolution (1960s), chemical evolution (1970s?) evo-devo, ethology, and chemical evolution and new discoveries such as HOX genes, retroviruses, and major transitional series of fossils.

  10. Michael X
    Posted February 12, 2009 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    Marshall, your current moniker doesn’t show up on PZ’s list of dungeon dwellers. Even so, I have a bit of difficulty believing that you were banned simply for holding contrary beliefs. It takes quite a bit more than that to get banned.

  11. Posted February 12, 2009 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    can scientists just forget about politics and just get on with it? Arguing about terms that are used seems trivial to the actual problems that we face today and will face in the future. let’s hope that people in the future aren’t arguing about the difference between temperature change and climate change.

  12. rpm1122
    Posted February 12, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Astologer correlates Darwin, Marxism and The Financial Collapse;

    http://www.robertphoenix.com

  13. Posted February 12, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Why is it so hard for so many be believe in creationism?

    Give thought to “we were created, with the ability to evolve, into whatever we need to evolve to”

    Isn’t there as much proof so far that we’ve found here, and elsewhere to support that, than everything else that’s theory about our “being.”

    Frankly I can’t grasp why it’s so important for so many to try to understand these things. Why not enjoy the fact that we “are” or at least appear to “be.”

    Peace

  14. skeptic griggsy
    Posted February 12, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Folks, the atelic argument is that as the weight of evidence evinces no cosmic teleology and pattterns are not designs, God is out of work. To posit theistic evolution then is perforce an oxymoron: atelic natural selection contradictws teleologicl God! Theistic evoutions therefore, in effect, make the new Omphaalos argument, that albeit, natural selection works, it works at the dirction of the hidden God [John L.Schellenberg’s hiddenness problem]. That not only needlessly violates the Razor with convoluted ad hoc assumptions, it is irrational,based on that contradiction.
    Dr. Coyne rightly excoriates Drs. Miller and Giberson; theologians Keith Ward and John Huaght and Alister McGrath, take heed.
    A videre.

  15. skeptic griggsy
    Posted February 12, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Again, sorry for the tpos. I forgot this site does not have an edit,

  16. Posted February 12, 2009 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    “Frankly I can’t grasp why it’s so important for so many to try to understand these things. Why not enjoy the fact that we ‘are’ or at least appear to ‘be.'”

    Well in this case, let’s disband everything we’ve built over the last hundred years based on our scientific inquiries, including modern medicine and just enjoy that we’re here. We’ll have no better medicine, no better construction techniques, no better understanding of our universe and no better technology.

    But hey, we’re enjoying the moment and that’s what important, right? Forget all the practical applications of knowing and learning, just stop asking questions, right?

  17. carefulfish
    Posted February 12, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    The plausible link between microevolutionary adaptations and macroevolutionary development of complex organisms has yet to be establish. Give me one species on earth that has evolved from another entirely. I don’t want breeds or variations, beak size, fur color. None of that. Give me an example of a brand new species arising from a series of adaptations an old species underwent. Without this, evolution is a nifty idea that is best explained as the greatest misunderstanding of nature. You know, one of those ironic misunderstandings we see in conversations that can go on for minutes at a time before someone finally says,”we’re not talking about the same thing … are we?”

  18. Jesse
    Posted February 12, 2009 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Naw, the term should be nixed. Not to say that anyone should be told they can’t use it, but we should mull over its nature as a complete misnomer.

    1) The term in popular discourse usually implies a pejorative epithet.

    2) Just as “Marxism” is used as a pejorative (most of his ideas came from Engels and prior thinkers), Darwin got many of his ideas from others (namely, some guy whose name I have inconveniently forgotten…).

    3) Using the term implies this heroic, messiah pathology of supplanting mere ideas (which belong to no one) with the person who happens to forward them. I can’t name a single “genius” idea in the history of science that wasn’t simply a comprehensive reorganization of other people’s ideas. There is rarely the originality that most people associate with the handful of visible scientists who arbitrarily become points of actuation for entire theories, and usually only because of passive, social, cultural and historical circumstances. Novelty is for the masses; science is for the mundane.

    Just call it evolution! Who cares! They are just utilitarian and totally unsophisticated words anyway.

  19. Posted February 12, 2009 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    “Give me an example of a brand new species arising from a series of adaptations an old species underwent.”

    If you want adaptations, you have the wrong theory. According to Lamarck and a high school biology professor who isn’t sure what he or she is talking about, animals evolve through adaptations.

    In reality, animals change into new and different species over a long period of time as random mutations and non-random forces of natural selection play themselves out. And I can give you an example of one species changing into another due to natural selection and random mutations.

    Polar bears from grizzly bears.
    Spiders from scorpions.
    Lizards from amphibians.
    Birds from raptors.

    Would you like more examples?

  20. Posted February 12, 2009 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    PS: To be perfectly scientific, species don’t change into others. They branch off from their ancestors and then if the ancestor survives, you can go back and compare what changed and what didn’t.

    The examples I gave were actually examples of new species branching off because some individuals underwent changes that let them survive in new environments and interbreed with other mutants to create enough genetic drift to become a new species.

  21. Jesse
    Posted February 12, 2009 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    “Give me one species on earth that has evolved from another entirely. I don’t want breeds or variations, beak size, fur color. None of that.”

    This statement illustrates that you have no understanding of evolution in general, nor its incremental mechanisms. But so be it…

    “Give me an example of a brand new species arising from a series of adaptations an old species underwent.”

    Vestigial structures (tail bones in humans, toes on horses, the structure of whale bones, the inter-species development of embryos, leg bones in snakes…) describe such an example perfectly.

  22. Posted February 13, 2009 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Just call it evolution! Who cares! They are just utilitarian and totally unsophisticated words anyway.

    On the contrary, the usage of these words is very important.
    Evolution is a process. Change over time. The change in the frequency of alleles in a population over time due to selection pressure. It is a fact.

    Darwinism, OTOH is a mechanism. It is the cause of the process and the two terms are regularly (and unfortunately) conflated.

    Evolution succeeds. Darwinism fails.

    Just look at molecular motors:
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecular_motors) and then tell me that you really believe they are the product of random mutations and natural selection.

  23. Marshall Nelson
    Posted February 13, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Just call it evolution! Who cares! They are just utilitarian and totally unsophisticated words anyway.

    On the contrary, the usage of these words is very important.
    Evolution is a process. Change over time. The change in the frequency of alleles in a population over time due to selection pressure. It is a fact.

    Darwinism, OTOH is a mechanism. It is the cause of the process and the two terms are regularly (and unfortunately) conflated.

    Evolution succeeds. Darwinism fails.

    Just look at molecular motors:
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecular_motors) and then tell me that you really believe they are the product of random mutations and natural selection.

  24. Posted February 13, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    “Just look at molecular motors and then tell me that you really believe they are the product of random mutations and natural selection.”

    Classic creationism argument from lack of understanding and imagination.

  25. Posted February 13, 2009 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    “Classic creationism argument from lack of understanding and imagination.”

    OK, so show me a plausible scenario, supported by empirical evidence that connects random mutation and natural selection to the emergence of these highly organized adaptations.

    You’re invoking “Russell’s Teapot” to back up your claim. Or is it simply magic?

  26. Posted February 13, 2009 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Darwinian evolutionists are the same as religious creationists:

    They make audacious claims and then challenge skeptics to disprove them.
    Bertrand Russel demonstrated the bankruptcy of this method, as did Dawkins himself.

    “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”
    -Bertrand Russell (1952)

    “The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.” – Richard Dawkins

    Darwinian evolutionists are heavily invested in their theory which in many cases represents their life’s work. How can we expect them to question it?

    Are you listening Dr Mayr?

  27. Jesse
    Posted February 13, 2009 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Marshall:

    I still don’t see the distinction between evolution and Darwinism as you define them. In your opinion, do you view Darwinism’s transgression as a kind of “leaps and bounds,” sudden changes in a species? Kind of like a presumptuous mechanism for explaining miraculous and sudden changes?

  28. Posted February 13, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    “I still don’t see the distinction between evolution and Darwinism as you define them. In your opinion, do you view Darwinism’s transgression as a kind of “leaps and bounds,” sudden changes in a species? Kind of like a presumptuous mechanism for explaining miraculous and sudden changes?”

    Focus on the distiction between “process” and “mechanism”.

    process:
    1. A systematic series of actions directed to some end: to devise a process for homogenizing milk.
    2. a continuous action, operation, or series of changes taking place in a definite manner: the process of decay.

    mechanism:
    1. the agency or means by which an effect is produced or a purpose is accomplished.

    Evolution is a process: change in the frequency of alleles in a population over time. We know the mechanism: random mutation and natural selection.

    What we cannot do is establish a link between these fairly trivial effects and the emergence of highly organized structures, processes and systems, ass for example, those found in the eye.

  29. Jesse
    Posted February 13, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I gotcha. Thanks.

  30. Sven DiMilo
    Posted February 13, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    “Marshall” is just another in a long line of Charlie Wagner’s sockpuppets. I would have known that even if he hadn’t slipped up in the double post above. I’m not sure why he’s stopped using the old “nexus” construction, but he has been saying the exact…same…thing all over the internet for many, many years. He gets banned for not listening to reason, not for his crankily contrary opinions.
    Hiya Charlie!

  31. Posted February 13, 2009 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    ““Marshall” is just another in a long line of Charlie Wagner’s sockpuppets. I would have known that even if he hadn’t slipped up in the double post above. I’m not sure why he’s stopped using the old “nexus” construction, but he has been saying the exact…same…thing all over the internet for many, many years. He gets banned for not listening to reason, not for his crankily contrary opinions.
    Hiya Charlie!”

    Guilty. Hi, Sven!

    Marshall Nelson is not a “sockpuppet” it is a pseudonym that I’ve been using for a decade. Remember “Nelson’s Law”?
    http://www.charliewagner.com/casefor.htm
    I resort to pseudonyms because I am constantly being banned for having opinions that are displeasing to mainstream scientists. I keep saying the same thing over and over because I have the enduring hope that someday, somehow, it may sink in.

    I don’t get banned for not “listening to reason”, I get banned for not changing my opinion.

    BTW, a certain well known blogger is a liar. He claims I am a:
    “Weird anti-evolutionist with delusions of intelligence. Commonly popped up in response to any science post to claim that it showed evolution was wrong. I put up with him for many years; when he rejected my request to make only constructive comments in a particular thread, he defied me and posted the same insult repeatedly, and then insisted it was his privilege, went on a morphing spree, and threatened to spam the site every time my back was turned. Complete ass.”
    I defy him to produce the evidence.
    I never said “evolution was wrong” and I only made constructive comments.
    It is darwinism that I take issue with and I am an advocate of Cosmic Ancestry (panspermia). You can visit my website and blog by clicking on my name above.

  32. Posted February 13, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne writes in Forbes:
    “While Egnor’s misguided attack on evolution tells us nothing about the truth of Darwinism, it does prove one thing: Doctors aren’t necessarily scientists. Some, like Egnor, seem completely unable to evaluate evidence. Why does he so readily dismiss a theory that has been universally accepted by scientists for over a century?”

    Great argument for darwinism !

    Longevity !!

    After all, Aristotle’s teachings on Physical Science were accepted for nearly 2000 years !

    And let’s not forget Ptolemy’s geocentrism which lasted over 1500 years!

    And the classical Greek view of the 4 basic elements (air, earth, fire, water) lasted wll into the 16th century!

    Now why should I just dismiss a theory that’s been around for…A CENTURY?

  33. Posted February 16, 2009 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Charlie, Marshall, whatever. You were banned for being a complete ass. How’s that a lie?

  34. Posted February 16, 2009 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    “Charlie, Marshall, whatever. You were banned for being a complete ass. How’s that a lie?”

    An “ass” is mean, rude or stupid.
    I have never been mean or rude, and certainly not stupid:

    Arrogant perhaps 😉

  35. Posted June 17, 2009 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    Well, “Darwinism” as a four syllable word while “modern evolutionary theory” is 1 ten syllable term, as you were keen enough to observe for yourself.

    I don’t know if there’s a discipline for “evolutionary linguistics”, but had there was one, I’m positive it would crown the former fittest, and mark the decay of the latter.

    In other words, you’re right, according to the fictitious doctrine I just made up, cheers!


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