Don’t Call it “Darwinism”

Evolution: Education and Outreach, Mar 2009

Evolutionary biology owes much to Charles Darwin, whose discussions of common descent and natural selection provide the foundations of the discipline. But evolutionary biology has expanded well beyond its foundations to encompass many theories and concepts unknown in the 19th century. The term “Darwinism” is, therefore, ambiguous and misleading. Compounding the problem of “Darwinism” is the hijacking of the term by creationists to portray evolution as a dangerous ideology—an “ism”—that has no place in the science classroom. When scientists and teachers use “Darwinism” as synonymous with evolutionary biology, it reinforces such a misleading portrayal and hinders efforts to present the scientific standing of evolution accurately. Accordingly, the term “Darwinism” should be abandoned as a synonym for evolutionary biology.

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Don’t Call it “Darwinism”

Eugenie C. Scott Glenn Branch 0 ) National Center for Science Education , P.O. Box 9477, Berkeley, CA 94709-0477, USA Evolutionary biology owes much to Charles Darwin, whose discussions of common descent and natural selection provide the foundations of the discipline. But evolutionary biology has expanded well beyond its foundations to encompass many theories and concepts unknown in the 19th century. The term Darwinism is, therefore, ambiguous and misleading. Compounding the problem of Darwinism is the hijacking of the term by creationists to portray evolution as a dangerous ideologyan ismthat has no place in the science classroom. When scientists and teachers use Darwinism as synonymous with evolutionary biology, it reinforces such a misleading portrayal and hinders efforts to present the scientific standing of evolution accurately. Accordingly, the term Darwinism should be abandoned as a synonym for evolutionary biology. - We will see and hear the term Darwinism a lot during 2009, a year during which scientists, teachers, and others who delight in the accomplishments of modern biology will commemorate the 200th anniversary of Darwins birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. But what does Darwinism mean? And how is it used? At best, the phrase is ambiguous and misleading about science. At worst, its use echoes a creationist strategy to demonize evolution. Even a cursory search of the Internet for Darwinism reveals that the term is not used consistently. Historians and philosophers of science customarily use Darwinism to refer to the ideas advanced by Charles Darwin, especially the idea of evolution by natural selection, sometimes including related ideas such as sexual selection. This also is how Darwins contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently formulated the idea of evolution by natural selection, used the term in his book Darwinism (1889). Yet Darwins account of evolution by natural selection involves two separable concepts, and it was not accepted as a whole. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin persuasively presented his view that living things descended with modification from common ancestors, and within a decade or so, the majority of the scientific community in Great Britain accepted the basic idea of evolution (with North American scientists not far behind). Darwins second proposal, that the main engine driving evolutionary change was natural selection, was not nearly as successful in convincing his contemporaries. In the 19th century, a major obstacle to the acceptance of natural selection as a general mechanism of evolution was the assumption that inheritance was a blending process. Blending would result in a reduction of variation each generation, and natural selection depends on variation constantly being available. It was not until the twentieth century, after the rediscovery of Mendels conception of particulate inheritance, that natural selection was recognized as a powerful mechanism of adaptation and change. The point of this historical digression is to illustrate the conceptual and historical decoupling of Darwins two big ideasevolution (common ancestry) and the mechanism of natural selection. The former was accepted decades in advance of the latter. Today, with the insight provided by Mendelian and molecular genetics, natural selection is recognized as a primary component of evolutionary change, especially adaptation. This further complicates the meaning of the term Darwinism. Does it refer to evolution? Natural selection? Evolution by natural selection? Modern evolutionary biologists tend not to use Darwinism very often, exceptagainin a historical sense to refer to Darwins ideas. British biologists, perhaps motivated by patriotic pride, are more likely to refer to evolutionary biology as Darwinism than their American colleagues, but even in Darwins homeland, the term now tends to be used as a pejorative (Liberman 2007). When they are speaking of the theoretical core of modern evolutionary biology, scientists tend to use the phrase the synthetic theory of evolution to refer to the augmentation of Darwins natural selection theory with Mendelian genetics in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by the development in the 1940s and 1950s of mathematical systems allowing the modeling of evolution in populations. Not in his wildest dreams could Darwin have dreamed of the scope and power of developments following the modern synthesis. Petto and Godfrey (2007) list many components of modern evolutionary biology that are decidedly nonDarwinian in the sense that Darwin knew nothing about them. This, of course, does not mean that they are incompatible with Darwins ideas, still less that they are refutations of Darwin! But components of modern evolutionary biology such as endosymbiosis, epigenetics, transposons, horizontal gene transfer, somatic hypermutation, neutralism, evo-devo, and the like illustrate that evolutionary biology has not been idle since Darwin shuffled off this mortal coil in 1882. Using Darwinism as synonymous with evolutionary biology is thus a touch unfair to the men and women who have contributed to the scientific edifice to which Darwin provided the cornerstone, including (to name a few) Wallace, Huxley, Weisman, De Vries, Romanes, Morgan, Weidenreich, Teilhard, von Frisch, Vavilov, Wright, Fisher, Muller, Haldane, Dobzhansky, Rensch, Ford, McClintock, Simpson, Hutchinson, Lorenz, Mayr, Delbrck, Jukes, Stebbins, Tinbergen, Luria, Maynard Smith, Price, Kimura, Ostrom, Wilson, Hamilton, and Gould, to say nothing of even more who are still contributing to evolutionary biology. As Olivia Judson (2008) recently commented, terms like Darwinism suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed. So at best, Darwinism is an ambiguous term, having no settled meaning more definite than something to do with Darwins ideas. This alone would be an adequate reason for teachers and scientists to avoid using it. However, there is another reason to avoid using the term: it plays into the hands of a creationist campaign to suggest that evolution is a disreputable ideology. This is not a new campaign, but intelligent design creationismthe latest incarnation of antievolutionismprosecutes it with unprecedented vigor. The first step in the intelligent design creationist version of this campaign has been to encourage the publics preexisting association of Darwinism with a generic conception of evolution, as opposed to the historical Darwins insights. This is illustrated very clearly by examining a change in Of Pandas and People, the intelligent design creationist textbook that figured centrally in Kitzmiller v. Dover (Lebo 2008). Figure 1 illustrates the same page from each of the two editions (Davis and Kenyon 1989; Davis and Kenyon 1993). The word evolutionist in the earlier text consistently is replaced with the term Darwinist; evolution consistently is replaced by Darwinism and so on. This conflation of the term Darwinism with evolution is reflected in a project of the main intelligent design creationist organization, the Center for Science and Culture (CSC), at Seattles Discovery Institute. As detailed by Evans (2001), in the fall of 2001, the CSC published a fullpage advertisement in three well-known national periodicals under the title A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism. The advertisement contained a list of about 100 scientists who affirmed a statement reading, We are skeptical of the claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged. On its face, the statement suggested only that the signers questioned the power of natural selection, although wording appearing in the advertisement surreptitiously hinted that it was evolution itself that was being questioned by the signatories, not merely the power of natural selection. Subsequent promotion of the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism reinforced the idea that these scientists questioned evolution. Yet evidently not all scientists on the list knew that a statement ostensibly about natural selection would be so marketed. One signatory, Bob Davidson, a retired professor of medicine at the University of Washington, publicly withdrew his name from the list, saying, I didnt think they were about bashing evolution. He went on to say that he accepted the scientific evidence for evolution [as] overwhelming (Westneat 2005). Unfortunately, polls indicate that the public disagrees (Miller et al. 2006). The Scientific Dissent from Darwinism and state-specific spin-offs (in Texas, Ohio, and Georgiaall battlegrounds over evolution education), reinforce the publics lack of confidence in evolution by promoting the idea that even scientists reject Darwinism. But there is more involved here than a simple choice of terminology. By insisting on talking about Darwinism, creationists are rhetorically transforming evolution into an isma position held as a matter of ideology, rather than on Fig. 1 Evolution and its cognates in the first edition of the intelligent design creationist textbook Of Pandas and People (Davis and Kenyon 1989) were replaced with Darwinism and its cognates in the second edition (Davis and Kenyon 1993) the strength of the evidence. By the same token, Darwinists is used to transform those who accept evolution into istsdevotees of isms. So, for example, CSC Senior Fellow Jonathan Witt, lamenting the decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover that the teaching of intelligent design creationism in the public schools was unconstitutional, referred to Judge John E. Jones III as a Darwinist judge (2005)even though Jones acknowledged that, before the trial, he had little knowledge of or interest in evolution. Sometimes the trick is employed with almost comical regularity, as in the last chapter of CSC Senior Fellow Jonathan Wellss Icons of Evolution (2000), where the phrase dogmatic Darwinists occurs almost on every page, and often more than once. It is worth adding that Darwinism is not just an ism, it is an ism that is associated with a single person. Calling evolution evolutionism is a specious rhetorical tactic, since it suggests that evolution is an ideology; calling evolution Darwinism is specious in spades, since it suggests that evolution is not only an ideology but an ideology that stands or falls with Darwins particular formulation of it, and with Darwins personal reputation. By calling evolution Darwinism, creationists are hoping to plant the idea that evolution is the outmoded and dismissible brainchild of a Victorian amateur, rather than the robust product of a century and a half of dogged scientific inquiry. In the same vein, Darwin is compared to Freud and Marx, all supposedly purveyors of discredited ideologies that deserve to be abandoned; a t-shirt peddled by an intelligent design creationist organization quotes Phillip Johnson, the godfather of intelligent design creationism, as saying, Freud is dead, Marx is dead, and Darwin isnt feeling very well (ARN 2005). So the rhetoric of Darwinism dovetails with the longstanding creationist campaign of vilification of Darwin. When The Simpsons caricatured creationism with a video featuring Darwin in a hot embrace with Satan, it was only a slight exaggeration. Similarly, in creationist rhetoric, Darwinism is used as an epithet to link evolution to objectionable political ideologies. CSC Communications Director Rob Crowther described a group of anticreationist scientists as a Darwinian politburo (Crowther 2008). At a conference, Discovery Institute Senior Fellow George Gilder reportedly referred to Darwinist storm troopers (Cohen 2007), while intelligent design blogger Denyse OLeary rails against Darwinian brownshirts (OLeary 2007)the brownshirts, of course, were the stormtroopers of the Nazi Sturmabteilung. On his personal blog, prominent intelligent design creationism promoter (and CSC Senior Fellow) William Dembski complains of Darwinian fascists (later revised, if not noticeably softened, to Darwinian enforcers) (Dembski 2006). The linking of evolution with ideologies such as Nazism and Stalinism is clearly intended to encourage the view that evolution is not science, but a dangerous ideology in its own right. Since the fear that evolution is a threat to religion is at the bottom of creationism, it is not surprising to find that Darwinism is also used to couple evolution with atheism, which creationists, practically by definition, deplore. In his book asking What is Darwinism? Princeton Theological Seminary professor Charles Hodge answered the titular question by concluding, It is atheism (Hodge 1874: 177). Almost 120 years later, the godfather of intelligent design creationism, Phillip Johnson, expressed much the same view, asking, What is Darwinism? and answering, it is a necessary implication of a philosophical doctrine called scientific naturalism, which is based on the a priori assumption that God was always absent from the realm of nature. As such evolution in the Darwinian sense is inherently antithetical to theism (Johnson 1993: 189). In summary, then, Darwinism is an ambiguous term that impairs communication even about Darwins own ideas. It fails to convey the full panoply of modern evolutionary biology accurately, and it fosters the inaccurate perception that the field stagnated for 150 years after Darwins day. Moreover, creationists use Darwinism to frame evolutionary biology as an ism or ideology, and the public understanding of evolution and science suffers as a result. True, in science, we do not shape our research because of what creationists claim about our subject matter. But when we are in the classroom or otherwise dealing with the public understanding of science, it is entirely appropriate to consider whether what we say may be misunderstood. We cannot expect to change preconceptions if we are not willing to avoid exacerbating them. A first step is eschewing the careless use of Darwinism. The year 2009 will be quite the Darwinfest, with universities, museums, schools, popular and scholarly journals, and other institutions interested in science holding conferences, printing special issues of magazines, and hosting special exhibitions celebrating Darwin and evolutionary biology. But along with the increase in coverage of Darwins life and work, readers of this journal can also expect a surge in antievolutionism, as creationists use the increased exposure to evolution as a hook for their own ideas. If ever there was a teachable moment for increasing the understanding of evolutionary biology, it will be 2009. Teachers and scientists ought to take the opportunity to think about how better to present the ideas of evolutionary biology, which has grown and flourished from the seeds planted by a remarkable and brilliant nineteenth-century scientist. Just dont call it Darwinism!


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Eugenie C. Scott, Glenn Branch. Don’t Call it “Darwinism”, Evolution: Education and Outreach, 2009, 90-94, DOI: 10.1007/s12052-008-0111-2