Friday, April 20, 2018

The Slander of “Darwinism”

Kenneth Miller has written yet another extraordinary essay, this one on the nature of the term “Darwinism” and how it is pejoratively used by those insistent on trashing evolutionary theory.  He writes:
He could have just said he didn’t believe in evolution, or that evolution had flaws. Or, he could have said that a book with a whole unit on evolution was just too much. But William Buckingham, of the Dover Area School Board in Pennsylvania, didn’t use the “E” word when he explained his objections to the biology textbook selected by the science teachers at Dover High School. Instead, he invoked a term that didn’t even appear in that textbook. Prentice Hall’s Biology: The Living Science, he claimed, “was laced with Darwinism from beginning to end.” Surely, he must have thought, “Darwinism” was a disqualifying slander that everyone could understand.
Buckingham, who was singled out for special re-probation by Judge Jones at the end of the trial, was at once ignorant and pejorative.  He was ignorant in that Darwin was not the only one to develop the idea of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace being the other one. He meant to be pejorative (in the same way that all of the Discovery Institute writers intend) because he knew that the term “Darwinism” carries with it the baggage of animus and atheism.As Miller notes, when an entire branch of science is referred to by its founder's name, then it takes on the air of an ideology, rather than a legitimate field of study.  The ideology can then be characterized as agenda-driven, attempting to tear out the heart of morality and decency.  None of this, of course, is true but the perception is rampant.  Miller also points out something of which I hadn't thought:
The overuse of Darwin’s own name facilitates another line of attack, by pretending that the field relies entirely on Darwin’s own work, fashioned in an age before the modern sciences of genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology emerged to confirm and expand his ideas. This allows the pretense that evolution is a stolid, unchanging field, with few new ideas that might refresh its 19th century heritage. Any scientist would scoff at this, of course, knowing the vigor that new discoveries constantly infuse into evolutionary biology. But to laypeople, unfamiliar with the rapid pace of scientific discovery, this can be a persuasive argument.
This would be no different from referring to modern physics as “Newtonism”  despite the vast advances that have been made since Newton's time.  Miller laments that these perceptions are hard to fight against because they appeal to emotions rather than empirical thought. Further, there are those of the atheist perspective who argue that, as humans, we are no better or special than any other species on the planet.   For this, though, he has an answer:
We are the children of evolution in every sense, part of Darwin’s fabled “tangled bank.” We must never forget that. But we must also remember that we are the only creatures to emerge from that thicket and make sense of it all. “Darwinism” does not diminish us. Rather, it puts the human experiment into a truly scientific perspective. We are not just hairless bipedal primates. We are creatures capable of the fugues of Bach, the verses of Yeats, the stories of Twain, the creations of Dalí and, for that matter, the mathematics of Gödel, Ramanujan and Turing.

In contemplating the lessons of evolution for our species and our culture, this is how we should overcome the mindless use of “Darwinism” as a slur. Some may feel demeaned by our evolutionary heritage, but I would argue that the more appropriate emotions are joy and delight. Joy that we are approaching a genuine understanding of the world in which we live, and delight at being the very first stirrings of true consciousness in the vastness of the cosmos. Far from diminishing us, knowing the details of Adam’s journey ennobles each of us as a carrier of something truly precious—the genetic, biological, and cultural heritage of life itself. Evolution describes not the death of Adam, but his triumph. That is the great truth of our story.

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