Saturday, July 11, 2009

"Darwinism" and its Meanings

Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch have written a short article in Evolution: Education and Outreach, on the term "Darwinism." I have long said that anytime some writes about "Darwinism," it is usually a giveaway that they do not understand evolution because they treat it as if Darwin is the only person who had any evolutionary ideas. As they correctly point out, very few practicing biologists use the term:
Modern evolutionary biologists tend not to use “Darwinism” very often, except—again—in a historical sense to refer to Darwin’s ideas. British biologists, perhaps motivated by patriotic pride, are more likely to refer to evolutionary biology as “Darwinism” than their American colleagues, but even in Darwin’s homeland, the term now tends to be used as a pejorative (Liberman 2007). When they are speaking of the theoretical core of modern evolutionary biology, scientists tend to use the phrase “the synthetic theory of evolution” to refer to the augmentation of Darwin’s natural selection theory with Mendelian genetics in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by the development in the 1940s and 1950s of mathematical systems allowing the modeling of evolution in populations.
I, in fact, never encountered the term "Darwinism" until I began to read creationist writings. During graduate school, while I was reading Simpson, Verne Grant, Wright, Ernst Mayr, Dobzhansky, Haldane (responsible for one of the funniest quote about God and creation1), Gould, Van Valen and others, it was always referred to as the "synthetic theory."

Scott and Branch suggest that there is another reason that the term "Darwinist" is used. They write:
By insisting on talking about “Darwinism,” creationists are rhetorically transforming evolution into an ism—a position held as a matter of ideology, rather than on the strength of the evidence. By the same token, “Darwinists” is used to transform those who accept evolution into ists—devotees of isms. So, for example, CSC Senior Fellow Jonathan Witt, lamenting the decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover that the teaching of intelligent design creationism in the public schools was unconstitutional, referred to Judge John E. Jones III as a “Darwinist judge” (2005)—even though Jones acknowledged that, before the trial, he had little knowledge of or interest in evolution.
If the folks at the Discovery Institute can get people to associate evolution with a religious perspective, they can appeal to people's emotions. This is also done by equating evolution with political perspectives:
At a conference, Discovery Institute Senior Fellow George Gilder reportedly referred to “Darwinist storm troopers” (Cohen 2007), while intelligent design blogger Denyse O’Leary rails against “Darwinian brownshirts” (O’Leary 2007)—the brownshirts, of course, were the stormtroopers of the Nazi Sturmabteilung.
Lost is all of this posturing is the fact that the Discovery Institute was, at one time, supposed to be turning out scientific papers that would show that "Darwinism" could not explain biodiversity. That goal is so far back now, it can't even be seen in the rear-view mirror. Now, the tactics of the DI are those of a PAC: push your agenda in the courts, have a media blitz and appeal to the emotions of the people. Whatever this is, it is not science. Remember this the next time you hear someone talking about "Darwinism." They have no interest in the actual science behind the term.

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  1. Hi Jim,

    What was that funny Haldane quote about God and creation? Looks like you referred to it with a footnote but I couldn't find a reference anywhere.

  2. Sorry, I forgot to link it. Here it is:

    "If one could conclude as to the nature of the creator from the study of his creation it would appear that God has a special fondness for stars and beetles."