Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is "Darwinism" a bad word?

Let’s Get Rid of Darwinism

Charles Darwin's name is right up there with the other giants of science, like Newton and Galileo. He is such a scientific super-star, the term "Darwinism" is often substituted for the means of evolution, "natural selection", described by Darwin. In fact, in the popular press, the entire field of evolutionary science is often simply termed "Darwinism". In "Let's Get Rid of Darwinism", NYTimes blogger Olivia Judson suggests that Darwin's fame and intimate association with evolution may be causing problems for the advancement of the field and it's understanding by the general public. Darwin's fame, it seems, comes with a price:

...But his giantism has had an odd and problematic consequence. It’s a tendency for everyone to refer back to him. “Why Darwin was wrong about X”; “Was Darwin wrong about Y?”; “What Darwin didn’t know about Z” — these are common headlines in newspapers and magazines, in both the biological and the general literature. Then there are the words: Darwinism (sometimes used with the prefix “neo”), Darwinist , Darwinian....

...Why is this a problem? Because it’s all grossly misleading. It suggests that Darwin was the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, of evolutionary biology...

...He wasn’t, and it has. Although several of his ideas — natural and sexual selection among them — remain cornerstones of modern evolutionary biology, the field as a whole has been transformed...


The author brings up a number of recent discoveries in evolutionary science, all of which were unknown to Darwin, such as the concepts advocated by EO Wilson:

...natural selection does not just shape individuals — It can also act on family groups, and thus drive the evolution of cooperation and other altruistic behaviors...But because individuals have some genes in common with their family members, they can make an indirect genetic contribution if they help their relations to reproduce instead of reproducing themselves. Such “kin selection” is thought to have contributed to the evolution of the social insects — especially, ants, bees, wasps and termites — where only a few individuals reproduce and everyone else looks after the offspring...

Because the field of evolution is currently so diverse, the author has a suggestion:

...I’d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology...Obsessively focusing on Darwin, perpetually asking whether he was right about this or that, implies that the discovery of something he didn’t think of or know about somehow undermines or threatens the whole enterprise of evolutionary biology today...

...Darwin was an amazing man, and the principal founder of evolutionary biology. But his was the first major statement on the subject, not the last....

Uncoupling Darwin's name from evolution at first struck me as somewhat odious. However, besides Darwin's name being overused in the serious press, isn't it also used nearly as a curse by Creationists, Young-earth Fundamentalists, and Dominionists? Such people love to demonize the man.

Many Wiccans and Pagans believe names and words have power. Darwin did enough for the Science of Evolution, literally risking all and dedicating his life to it. Why not let him rest. Maybe now is the time to gently take it from his arms and continue the fight ourselves.

3 comments:

Yvonne said...

Also, calling a science an "-ism" makes it sound like a political ideology instead of a science. Of course Dawkins' new atheism is an ideology, and social Darwinism was an ideology (and pa particularly unpleasant one at that), but evolutionary biology is a science, not an ideology, and therefore shouldn't be labelled as an -ism.

genexs said...

Good point. Those who pine for a coming 'Endarkenment' love to politicize science. Or take their political ideology and dress it up with scientific trapping. In addition, the Atheist Supremacists can be pretty creepy, too.

best,
Gene

cuckoowasp said...

I agree entirely with Yvonne -- the *ism makes a pretty simple concept sound "religious," and therefore easier to demonize/trivialize/ignore.

I don't like using "natural selection" either, as I think it focuses the mind (at least mine) too much on the individual, and not the population.