For Darwin’s sake, reject “Darwin-ism”
 (and other pernicious terms)

by Eric Drexler on 2009/12/31

Charles Darwin
– Darwin –

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:

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

cirby January 1, 2010 at 9:42 am UTC

That’s the thing, though.

Darwin, in most respects, was wrong.

…in the details.

Evolution? Sure. Darwinian evolution, as codified by Darwin? not so much.

MizuInOz January 1, 2010 at 10:08 am UTC

“The scientists who are invested in the laws and limits placed upon them by past research and discovery are, to me, no longer scientists. They have become philosophers.”

I wrote that earlier this last year (2009), when I had a friendly dispute regarding research I was conducting about heat dissipation and the use of SWCNTs. I was told it was not possible to do what I was demonstrating because it didn’t fallow rules laid out over 150 years ago.

And yet, it was working against all the rules.

As we all know, Man will never live in space either. (Just don’t tell the astronauts and cosmonauts living on ISS.

I agree with placing labels on scientific results based upon the area of research, as opposed to someone’s name.

Darwin was the instigator of research that has brought about amazing results into humankind knowing more and guessing less. Do I think he should be knighted or receive sainthood. Not even close.

Do I honour and respect his intellect, persistence and courage. Naturally.

What I also know to be true is that I do not have any idea all that went on in his head. I was not there. So, as with all history, we only know what someone else decided was the best to preserve.


Eric Drexler January 1, 2010 at 11:29 am UTC

@ cirby — Darwin gave us a rough draft of the right story, and the central theme of that story runs through much more than just biology.

Darwin’s fundamental insight is that genuinely novel, adaptive complexity could (and Dawkins argues, “can only”) emerge in the universe through blind variation and selective retention of improvements. This principle has broad applications, and deep implications for understanding the past, present, and potential future of the world. It is the strength of the principle, not its weakness, that has provoked controversy.

In what matters most, Darwin was entirely right. He has had my profound respect since I first learned of his ideas and began to understand his courage in setting those ideas in print for the whole world to see.

Ed Regis January 2, 2010 at 8:45 pm UTC

Depriving ourselves of both “Darwinism” and “the theory of evolution” as essentially shorthand for the modern evolutionary synthesis leaves us with quite a vacuum in nomenclature. What term or terms do you suggest we use in its place, given that “the modern evolutionary synthesis” is quite a mouthful? (There are other perfectly good and proper -isms within science, indeed even with the theory of evolution itself: gradualism, saltationism, and punctuationsm; and, in geology, catastrophism and uniformitariansm.)

As for : “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.”

You present no evidence for this claim, and it is not clear on the face of it that it’s true. To the extent that it is in fact a synthesis, the modern evolutionary synthesis is “a single, falsifiable to test or buttress with evidence.” It’s a theory with several component parts, an attribute it shares with several other scientific theories, including quantum field theory, string theory, and relativity theory. Those components are: the principles of common descent, random modification, and natural selection, coupled with Mendelian genetics, and the mechanisms of inheritance as embodied in DNA. Each of those component parts is itself supported by a substantial body of empirical evidence, and, therefore, so is the theory that combines them into a single comprehensive structure.

Dean January 3, 2010 at 1:08 am UTC

It’s only people who don’t understand biology who use the term “Darwinism”; typically those who intend to imply that it’s just another ideology like Marxism or Trotskyism or Reaganism where adherence to the correct view as stated by the official authority is more important than adapting to the best understanding of the actual facts.

Among biologists, the ideological successor to Darwinism should have been called “Huxleyism”, but people would confuse Julian with Thomas, so it was called the “modern synthesis” instead. This dogma has also finally run its course, being replaced by something else that doesn’t really have a good name yet. But “evo-devo” is the leading candidate for theories of evolution that recognize that selection acts on eggs and juvenile organisms just as much as adults.

Eric Drexler January 3, 2010 at 11:27 pm UTC

@ Ed Regis — My reply to your excellent questions grew into this post: “Evolution: The concept and how we talk about it”

{ 3 trackbacks }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: