It’s time to abolish “Darwinism”

July 16, 2008 | By | 10 Replies More

Writing on a NYT blog, Olivia Judson argues that we should abolish “Darwinism.” Here’s what she means:

I’d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed. (The science would be in a sorry state if one man 150 years ago had, in fact, discovered everything there was to say.) Obsessively focusing on Darwin, perpetually asking whether he was right about this or that, implies that the discovery of something he didn’t think of or know about somehow undermines or threatens the whole enterprise of evolutionary biology today.

Sounds good to me. That way, it will be more apparent that the Creationists are arguing against an entire phalanx of theorists, biologists, statisticians, geologists and biochemists (among others). Without the term “Darwinism,” it would be more apparent that the Creationists can’t win simply by claiming that a single man stands between them and our science classrooms. I agree with Judson that to call modern evolutionary biology “Darwinism” is like calling aeronautical engineering “Wrightism.”

I only disagree with Judson in one regard. She suggests that Darwin accomplished more in his lifetime than any of us could accomplish in two lifetimes. I would suggest that the proper number is ten or more, based upon Darwin’s far-ranging achievements. He was truly an extraordinary scientist and thinker.


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Category: Evolution, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (10)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Creationists cannot let the term "Darwinist" die out. Their entire philosophy is one of truth via authority. With the abundance of evolutionary scholars, with different names in prominence each decade, they have to pick one name as "The Authority" for evolutionary thought. Therefore, they pick the earliest of the populists of this idea.

    By picking on Darwin, they can claim that he was wrong. In many details, he was. We know this because of nearly 200 years of careful study of every aspect of what he wrote. All such studies reinforced his basic idea, even those proving some of his details to be in error.

    The term Darwinism is only used by detractors of modern biological theory. Scientists don't use the term unless they are referring to a particular passé school of thought specifically identified by its place in history and its relationship to modern understanding. It can only be abolished by the coiners, not by the victims.

    Unfortunately, it gets repeated by journalists who often lack the background to know its divergent meanings to various groups. Much like the word "theory".

    But as one of the commentators to the original Judson post said, "[It is] probably better to have Darwin headlining your discipline than be a psychologist fighting against Freud’s legacy. At least Darwin was RIGHT."

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan: I won't begin to defend all of Freud's theories in light of modern cognitive science. On the other hand, I truly respect Freud in many ways. Here are two off the top of my head:

    When he developed his theory of the unconscious mind, it was revolutionary. It is solid as a rock today. No credible person holds that all cognition is accessible through introspection.

    Second, consider that Freud was a thinker of broad scope. Many of his writings are still terrific. One of my favorites is Civilization and its Discontents, on which I once posted.

    Old Freud was no fool. We must also keep in mind the limited information with which he had to work. Here are a smattering of good Freud quotes:

    Anatomy is destiny.

    Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), Collected Writings, 1924

    Men are more moral than they think and far more immoral than they can imagine.

    Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)

    Experience consists of experiencing that which one does not wish to experience

    "Jokes and Their Relation To The Unconscience?"

    Here's a bunch more.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Whenever I have the opportunity to discuss "Darwinism" with a creationist, I always make a point of referring them to Darwin's original works. In most cases, the people who attack evolution have never even read Darwin's books and so have no idea how compelling his arguments were.

    Also, since many Christian fundies base their disbelief in evolution on the fact that they've "never seen one species change into another," I like to point out that they've also never seen someone walk on water, cure the blind or return from the dead, but that hasn't stopped them from believing these things happened.

  4. Erika Price says:

    As I wrote in this post, creationists let their misunderstandings of scientific theory taint the language of their debates. An advocate of science cannot, in good conscience, let these bumbling and conveniently incorrect lapses go by unchallenged. When the creationists control the words, they automatically have a a head-start in the discussion. Only by forging a more linguistically coherent front can we undo the impressions they have created. Eschewing the term and idea of "darwinism" should take a high priority in this.

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    According to this related post by Judson, some prominent biologists haven't read Darwin's books, either.

    I've read some of Freud's lectures, and Feynman's, and articles by Einstein. But I have not read Darwin cover to cover. I'd also tried to read Galileo and Newton, and gave up in much the same manner as I quit on Darwin. The ideas were brilliant at the time, and still hold up. But the changes in both literary style and innate understanding of the universe since then make reading these guys hard going.

    I've absorbed their distilled and refined ideas from other sources; sources that I trust enough to not feel the need to go back and compare to the original. Unfortunately, Creationists also read only quote-mined excerpts from authorities they trust, revealing a very different picture.

  6. Great idea. "Darwinism" always sound like a religion, and it has irritated me for reasons I didn't understand until I read this post. Most people seem to have only a passing notion of what Darwin was talking about, and outside of academe I've only met a few people who have ever written anything he wrote. Hence the common idea that his most important work was Origin of "the" Species. So from now on I'm just going to tell the anti-science crowd that I won't even discuss the subject with them until they've read the primary sources and not just their minister's short course.

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    One thing to point out is that the creationists focus on Darwin as if he "invented" evolution. Two key concepts in evolution, that species evolve into other species over time, and that some species are better adapted to their environment, were both borne of early genetic agricultural research done by monks. Darwin's main contribution was the concept of natural selection, which described a natural "mechanism" in which gradual changes in the environment control the evolution process.

    What really makes Darwin's theory so controversial is that a better adapted species does not fit with the hierarchy model of all species being subordinate to humans. Natural selection allows for lateral and atavistic adaptations. This is what scares the proponents of creationism. The idea that mankind is not the closest to a perfect being and is gradually being changed by the environment breed a fear of the next step in evolution (or devolution) for mankind. If this is what they are fighting, they have already lost as human mutants are born every day, and only time will tell which of these subtle variations may be a survival advantage in the future.(I'm not talking about X-men comic book mutation here, but things like immune system variations and changes in the central nervous system)

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Niklaus: Your comment reminds me of the "Great Chain of Being." For a traditional illustration, see this post I entitled "My Life as a Sponge."

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    Perhaps the use of the term "Darwinism" reflects the creationists' efforts to characterize evolution as a religion: namely, a personality cult, in the same way that "Jesus Christ" yields "Christianity."

  10. Alison says:

    The creationist/ID camp most certainly wants evolution to be seen as a belief system, grumpypilgrim. Use of terms like "Darwinism" and "evolutionism" falsely point to a lack of proof, and a morality connected to this "belief system". A brief look at any forums or blogs that wish to discredit the ToE will show you many folks who've bought into this so completely that they honestly do believe that there are scientists and science supporters who actually DO pay obeisance to Darwin. They'll happily point out that "darwinists" are also materialists and nihilists, devoid of morals and deeply depressed, because this is what belief in "darwinism" leads to.

    Ms. Judson has a noble sentiment, but words like this are all they have, and we'll have to pry them from their cold, dead hands. To pick up Erich's theme from a few posts after this, evolution and the teaching of evolution are icky to them, and they need to disseminate a vocabulary that emphasizes that ickiness in order to stir up support for the creationist campaign.

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