On this last day of the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth, I’d like to suggest that we honor Darwin by rejecting the dubious term “Darwinism”.
To call something an “ism” suggests that it is a matter ideology or faith, like Trotskyism or creationism. In the evolution wars, the term “evolutionism” is used to insinuate that the modern understanding of the principles, mechanisms, and pervasive consequences of evolution is no more than the dogma of a sect within science. It creates a false equivalence between a mountain of knowledge and the emptiness called “creationism”. “Darwinism” has a similar effect, and the implied personalization further reinforces the suggestion of narrowness and rigidity.
Are areas of modern science normally called person-isms, or “isms” of any sort? It would be strange to call cosmology “Hubblism” or “cosmologism”, or to call quantum mechanics “Schrödingerism” or “quantumism”. Imagine calling genetics “Mendelism”, or physics “Newtonism”, and thereby painting dynamic, modern inquiry with the faded colors of science from history books.
To honor Darwin and his legacy, I suggest rejecting “Darwinism”, and “evolutionism” too.
Why debate something called “The Theory of Evolution”?
The modern understanding of evolutionary biology is like the modern understanding of chemistry, physiology, or geology. Each is a rich body of knowledge, united by central principles and facts while spilling out across disciplinary boundaries.
Imagine discussing these vibrant fields as if each were devoted to studying — today — one of its fundamental discoveries from a century ago. Now imagine calling that discovery a “theory”: We’d have a “theory of chemistry“ (perhaps called “atomism’, a.k.a. “Daltonism”), a “theory of physiology“ (“blood-circulationism”, or “Harveyism”), and a “theory of geology“ (“ancient-earthism”, or “Huttonism”).
This would not further public understanding, and neither does speaking of a “theory of evolution”.
There are mechanisms of evolution (including both Darwinian selection and genetic drift), forces of evolution (from molecular to ecological), and facts of evolution (from the fossil record to the patterns of retroviral scars* in our genomes, shared with chimps from common ancestor). There are many specific theories within evolutionary biology, of course — quantitative models of gene flow, kin selection, clutch-size optimization, and the like.
What the field doesn’t have, however, and doesn’t need, is a single, comprehensive, falsifiable theory to test or buttress with evidence. The modern evolutionary synthesis isn’t like that.
This is reason enough to regard the concept of a “theory of evolution” as somewhere between unhelpful and misleading. Now, consider the cost of talking about and defending this odd abstraction, when its very name tells the public that it is a dubious proposition.
–noun, plural -ries.
1. a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of
explanation for a class of phenomena: Einstein’s theory of relativity.
2. a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, in contrast
to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting
matters of actual fact.
Definition 1 is described as a “technical use” of the term; definition 2 as “used in non-technical contexts”. Public education and public debate are, today, intensely non-technical contexts. Calling a body of knowledge by an ill-fitting name that, to the intended audience, means conjecture is self-defeating.
Scientists seldom speak of a comprehensive thing called “the theory of evolution” when doing science, but often do so when trying to defend science. I think this is unwise. There are better ways to share the knowledge that has grown from the seed that Darwin planted.
See follow-up post: Evolution: The concept and how we talk about it
On knowledge about knowledge, see:
On evolutionary themes, see:
- Evolutionary Capacity: Why organisms cannot be like machines
- For Darwin Day: On the Origin of Genetic Information
- Machines Evolving to the Brink of Failure
- Homo floresiensis, Crows, and the Baldwin Effect