The semantic argument about “Darwinism” continues

February 11, 2009 • 2:21 pm

John Kwok has called my attention to the appearance of a special “Darwin” issue of the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach. It’s free, and you can find it here. Lots of interesting stuff, including an article by the late Mike Majerus on industrial melanism in the peppered moth (as you may know, Mike died–way too young–about two weeks ago).

Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch from The National Center for Science Education also have a piece called “Don’t call it Darwinism,” which I must say makes some strong arguments for replacing the term with “evolutionary biology.” They give examples of how creationists have used “Darwinism” as a perjorative for the field, includng replacing “evolutionary biologist” with “Darwinist” in their writings. Good points, but I’m still not convinced. I doubt that creationism would retreat an inch if we all started saying “evolutionary biology” instead. I think it’s far more important to teach people what “Darwinism” is than to quibble endlessly about the term (Olivia Judson also argued against “Darwinism” in the NYT last year). Still, do read Genie and Glenn’s article and see what you think.

7 thoughts on “The semantic argument about “Darwinism” continues

  1. Bahh! This is just a silly name game. You are correct that creationists will attack just the same. In fact, “evolutionary biology” will have even more negative connotations for that crowd. They are already experts at this game anyway: Creationism => Intelligent Design, anyone?

    It doesn’t work. Why not just educate the truth rather than trying to gussy it up in “correct” language?


  2. It doesn’t work. Why not just educate the truth rather than trying to gussy it up in “correct” language?

    Erm, how about “accurate” language? I recently did a series of talks in a church where I spent a good deal of time on what we’ve learned since Darwin published in 1859. It ain’t your great-grandfather’s Darwinism any more!

  3. RBH: “Erm, how about “accurate” language? ”

    Agreed. Probably a better term 🙂

    “It ain’t your great-grandfather’s Darwinism any more!”

    Ha! And neither is “Evolution”, “Gravity”, “Genetics”, “Atomic Theory”, …

  4. It’s not that creationists would disappear, it’s that people who are neither creationists nor biologists would be less likely to be persuaded by the claim that evolutionary biologists are just “Darwinists” who follow one man’s teachings.

  5. Scott and Branch carry the argument convincingly.

    But the most disturbing essay in this collection is the survey of students at a liberal northeastern university:
    “… 32% of biology majors favored equal time in the science class to evolution, creationism, and intelligent design. Further analysis of this group reveals that 41.2% of freshman biology majors agreed with this view.

    Guillermo Paz-y-Miño and Avelina Espinosa have uncovered something truly shocking about the real damage that has been done to the US education system by the suffocating religiousity of American culture.

  6. One thing I think is important to note (as I’ve noted in another thread) is that “Darwinian” as an adjective is a useful synonym for certain aspects of evolution as originally conceived by Darwin. It is specifically useful as a contrast to more recent propositions.

    Here are two examples (I’m not so sure how paleontologists talk about punkeek, so perhaps 1 isn’t particularly accurate):

    1) it can be useful to contrast traditional ideas of gradualism as people understood them after the Origin was published to an alternative proposed by Eldredge and Gould, punctuated equilibrium. While punctuated equilibrium doesn’t claim that the spurts of evolution aren’t gradual per se (ie it doesn’t require hopeful monsters), it does claim that there are periods of stasis or near stasis which makes the relatively rapid periods of evolution look fast by comparison. In this context, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to contrast “Darwinian gradualism” with “punctuated equilibrium”;
    2) it can be useful in contrasting various forces which influence the frequencies of alleles in populations. When the frequency of an allele is governed by its effect on an organism’s survival, it may be said to influenced by natural selection or “Darwinian evolution”. In contrast, when the fate of an allele is governed by sampling effects, it may be said to be influenced by “neutral evolution”, ie genetic drift.

    I see no real reason to dump the term “Darwinian” at all. “Darwinism” is another issue, as the suffix “-ism” confers unfortunate connotations related to ideological dogma. Those inaccurate connotations are imposed by outsiders to evolution though, so I’m of two minds about the issue.

    Ultimately, I think it is well worth acknowledging Darwin’s original framework for natural selection (the algorithm idea and the structures it operates on). Natural selection was a sufficiently general insight that it will always be appropriate to credit Darwin as its most thorough, early proponent. And chucking all words associated with Darwin is no more appropriate than chucking all words associated with Newton.

Leave a Reply