Evolution and ‘Darwinism’


in Geek stuff, Science

Trees by the riverside

In the New York Times, Carl Safina has written an essay arguing that the common conflation of evolution with the work of Charles Darwin is deeply damaging: Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live. There is certainly a good case to be made here. While Darwin’s insights were profound and highly significant, he knew nothing about DNA, patterns of heredity, or the mechanisms of microbiology. Furthermore, it is problematic to associate the work of one person with an entire scientific discipline. As the essay asserts: “We don’t call astronomy Copernicism, nor gravity Newtonism.”

Overall, I agree that the link between Darwin and contemporary evolutionary science ought to be softened. We can recognize the genius of Newton without asserting that his ideas are the be-all and end-all of physics, or optics, or whatever.

At this point in the history of science, we should recognize that evolution has progressed far beyond Darwin. In some cases, his insights have been deepened and expanded through the emergence of new knowledge. In other cases, misconceptions of his have been successfully challenged. The fact of evolution is widely recognized as one of the most important elements for understanding our world – that status is justified regardless of the individuals who most visibly brought the fact to our attention.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

oleh February 15, 2009 at 9:00 am

I understand that Darwin did not even use the term evolution, but rather transmutation. This term had also been used by others, including his grandfather and was now a new concept. It was that Darwin through natural selection developed a mechanism for it.

Magictofu February 15, 2009 at 9:05 am

I find this article very strange. Most of the time I read things like “darwinism” or “darwinian evolution” it is meant to distinguish it from other evolution theories such as lamarckism or to situate it in the evolution of scientific ideas on biology. In other words, it was used in the same way that “newtonian physics” is used elsewhere.

Tristan February 15, 2009 at 11:57 am

I would dispute the fact that, insofar as non-scientists are concerned, our understanding of astronomy and physics have moved much beyond “Copernicanism” and “Newtonianism”.

If you ask someone on the street how the planet’s move, or how gravity works, there is a good chance you’ll get a Copernican or Newtonian explanation. The fact that scientists now consider these only good approximations of the truth doesn’t mean that they aren’t close enough to the truth for most people most of the time.

Try another simple test, how many people can explain why Copernicus was wrong? Or Why Newton was wrong? And not just assert something about elypitical orbits or space-time, but actually understand something about it. I’d say it’s probably the same for DNA – we all vaguely understand what DNA is, but basically the everyday concept of DNA is “trait-storage”. Darwin understood that we passed on traits in a not entirely straighforward manner, which is in fact exactly how DNA does pass on traits.

So, what’s the problem? What about Darwinism is misleading to a general everyday understanding of evolution. Because I can’t see how Newton is misleading to an everyday understanding of Gravity, or why Copernicus is misleading to an everyday gazer of the night sky.

Milan February 15, 2009 at 1:31 pm


Some of the biggest misconceptions people have about evolution is that it generates ever-greater ‘perfection.’

Firstly, evolution has no agency. It is just a way of describing the outcome of chance interactions.

Secondly, evolution trends towards encouraging individuals who can successfully reproduce themselves in a particular environment. It certainly doesn’t generate moral superiorities and inferiorities.

Thirdly, framing evolution in the context of Darwin connects the present discussion with the original debates about the issue. It masks the whole body of evidence that arose between then and now and suggests that the very existence of evolution is as legitimately doubtable now as it was in Darwin’s time.

The linked article also describes several reasons for which the Darwin=evolution construct is harmful.

Alena February 15, 2009 at 2:15 pm

hey milan. It’s mica.

I dont remember the password to the Wordpress Login for my site. There’s a new video I want to put up.



Milan February 15, 2009 at 2:20 pm


There is a ‘Lost your password?’ link right on the login page.

I look forward to seeing the new video.

Tristan February 15, 2009 at 5:47 pm

“Some of the biggest misconceptions people have about evolution is that it generates ever-greater ‘perfection.’

Firstly, evolution has no agency. It is just a way of describing the outcome of chance interactions.

Secondly, evolution trends towards encouraging individuals who can successfully reproduce themselves in a particular environment. It certainly doesn’t generate moral superiorities and inferiorities.”

Does Darwin actually think evolution has agency? Or that it is a moral system? Or that it generates greater perfection in a sense other than greater adaptation to the contingent environment the species happens to find itself in?

. February 15, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Forget About Survival of the ‘Fittest’
Evolution usually makes do with ‘good enough.’

FEBRUARY 11, 2009

Few phrases in science are as powerful or as widely misunderstood as “survival of the fittest.” Virtually everyone associates it with Charles Darwin, who was born 200 years ago this week.

The phrase was actually coined by Darwin’s 19th century contemporary Herbert Spencer, and it is perfectly ambiguous. The phrase could mean that “of all the possible creatures that one might imagine, only the fittest possible survive.” Or it could mean something considerably less lavish — that “only the fittest creatures that happened to be around at a particular moment tend to survive.”

. February 16, 2009 at 10:50 am

Happy Darwin Day!

“Now, let’s be clear. Evolution is not a theory. What Darwin theorized was the main mechanism that causes it, natural selection. It’s not “the theory of evolution” but “the theory of evolution by natural selection.” Evolution itself is a fact that is literally written in stone and written in every living thing on the planet. It was described long before Darwin, and even the ancient Greeks had an idea of it. What Darwin did was painstakingly put together his minute observations of natural history into a scientific explanation of how species change and diversify over time.

As a biologist I am particularly indebted to Darwin and his contemporaries for elucidating the mechanisms behind evolution. Modern biology is founded on evolution; biology just doesn’t make sense without it. Natural selection is without question one of the most powerful scientific discoveries of all time, and Darwin deserves a place next to the likes of Newton and Einstein in the pantheon of science.”

Milan February 16, 2009 at 11:02 am

Does Darwin actually think evolution has agency? Or that it is a moral system? Or that it generates greater perfection in a sense other than greater adaptation to the contingent environment the species happens to find itself in?

I don’t know. I have only read tiny snippets from On the Origin of Species.

What Darwin believed is, for most intents and purposes, irrelevant. He is a bit like Freud, insofar as hardly anyone has read his actual work and it is the common public perception of that work that dominates debate about him.

The strongest reason for softening the link between Darwin and evolution is in order to recognize all the work that has been done between then and now. Focusing on Darwin also leads to ignoring major contributions made by others. Gregor Mendel, for instance, was investigating the mechanics of evolution at around the same time as Darwin was doing his research.

Tristan February 16, 2009 at 12:30 pm

I’m still not convinced. If it turns out to be the case that Darwin didn’t make any of the mistakes about evolution that you outlined above, simply because advancements have been made since him doesn’t necessarily mean we need to change the name.

Not to start any philosophy of Science arguments again, but I’d be inclined to believe we should change the name of “darwinism” to something else where the research paradigm which Darwin began is overcome by a new one. Maybe that’s happened with DNA, maybe not, I’m not an expert on this. However, if it turns out that DNA is only an incremental, not revolutionary change in evolutionary research, then I’d be inclined to side against the name change.

. February 16, 2009 at 12:39 pm


The term Darwinism is often used in the United States by promoters of creationism, notably by leading members of the intelligent design movement to describe evolution. In this usage, the term has connotations of atheism. For example, in Charles Hodge’s book What Is Darwinism?, Hodge answers the question posed in the book’s title by concluding: “It is Atheism.” Creationists use the term Darwinism, often pejoratively, to imply that the theory has been held as true only by Darwin and a core group of his followers, whom they cast as dogmatic and inflexible in their belief. Casting evolution as a doctrine or belief bolsters religiously motivated political arguments to mandate equal time for the teaching of creationism in public schools.

However, Darwinism is also used neutrally within the scientific community to distinguish modern evolutionary theories from those first proposed by Darwin, as well as by historians to differentiate it from other evolutionary theories from around the same period. For example, Darwinism may be used to refer to Darwin’s proposed mechanism of natural selection, in comparison to more recent mechanisms such as genetic drift and gene flow. It may also refer specifically to the role of Charles Darwin as opposed to others in the history of evolutionary thought — particularly contrasting Darwin’s results with those of earlier theories such as Lamarckism or later ones such as the modern synthesis.

In the United Kingdom the term retains its positive sense as a reference to natural selection, and for example Richard Dawkins wrote in his collection of essays A Devil’s Chaplain, published in 2003, that as a scientist he is a Darwinist.

. February 16, 2009 at 12:41 pm

The modern evolutionary synthesis is a union of ideas from several biological specialties which forms a sound account of evolution. This synthesis has been generally accepted by most working biologists. The synthesis was produced over about a decade (1936–1947), and the development of population genetics (1918–1932) was the stimulus. This showed that Mendelian genetics was consistent with natural selection and gradual evolution. The synthesis is still, to a large extent, the current paradigm in evolutionary biology.

Julian Huxley invented the term, when he produced his book, Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942). Other major figures in the modern synthesis include R. A. Fisher, Theodosius Dobzhansky, J.B.S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, E.B. Ford, Ernst Mayr, Bernhard Rensch, Sergei Chetverikov, George Gaylord Simpson, and G. Ledyard Stebbins.

The modern synthesis solved difficulties and confusions caused by the specialisation and poor communication between biologists in the early years of the twentieth century. Discoveries of early geneticists were difficult to reconcile with gradual evolution and the mechanism of natural selection. The synthesis reconciled the two schools of thought, while providing evidence that studies of populations in the field were crucial to evolutionary theory. It drew together ideas from several branches of biology that had become separated, particularly genetics, cytology, systematics, botany, morphology, ecology and paleontology.

Modern evolutionary synthesis is also referred to as the new synthesis, the modern synthesis, and the evolutionary synthesis.

Milan February 16, 2009 at 12:49 pm

On a semi-related note, there is still much about evolution we do not understand. For instance, there is a lot of research left to be done on interactions between environmental factors and gene expression.

One thing the photosynthesis book is reminding me of is how it is virtually impossible to get to the very bottom of complexity in a biological system. Partly, that is because they are absurdly intricate and involve huge numbers of dynamically linked elements. Partly, that is because they have emerged as the product of random chance and, as a consequence, are full of quirks and abnormalities.

Milan February 16, 2009 at 12:52 pm

The photosynthesis book in question is Oliver Morton’s Eating the Sun. I mentioned it here, and will post a review when I finish it. So far, it has been fascinating.

Sarah February 16, 2009 at 1:49 pm

The best argument I can see for this is to focus on a given body of evidence or accumulated knowledge rather the the views and writings of an individual. The latter ground is easier terrain for religious loonies because they are accustomed to reading and interpreting texts and to using faith rather than evidence to shape their beliefs; as such talking about ‘what Darwin said’ rather than ‘what the best available evidence suggests’ is allowing religious nutters to dictate the conversational terrain. Frankly, for the purpose of deciding how to best teach or explain evolution, I’m not sure it matters whether or not some of Darwin’s arguments were flawed – evolution is interesting because it is a powerful explanatory tool and supported by a vast body of evidence, not because a famous (or infamous) dude called Darwin invented it.

Tristan February 16, 2009 at 5:20 pm


I would generally agree, intuitively, with your analysis. However, we don’t call modern physics “relativity and not Einsteinian” simply brecause there is a larger body of evidence and accumulated knowledge than there was when Einstein did his equations. Sure we know more, but we still call relativity “Einsteinian relativity” because Einstein set the framework in which research still proceeds. The case seems to be similar in biology – Darwin set the framework in which DNA research etc… can further refine how evolution “works”. This seems to indicate, however, that we should feel free to use “Evoution” or “Darwinism”, but not claim that it’s “Not Darwinism” anymore than we claim relativity is “not Einsteinian” simply because we disagree with Einstein on several important issues.

Milan April 11, 2010 at 9:55 pm

Freud was mentioned in this thread, so I thought I should link to a good introductory lecture on the man, delivered by a professor of psychology at Yale.

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