Darwinism must die????

February 10, 2009 • 9:00 pm

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.