Darwin is already dead, and we know it

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I strongly disagree with the arguments of this essay by Carl Safina, "Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live", even while I think there is a germ of truth to its premise. It reads more like a contrarian backlash to all the attention being given to Darwin in this bicentennial of his birth. The author makes three general claims that he thinks justify his call to "kill Darwin".

The first is a reasonable concern, that "equating evolution with Darwin" is misleading and can lead to public misunderstanding…but then Safina charges off into ridiculous hyperbole, that scientists are making Darwin into a "sacred fetish", and creating a "cult of Darwinism". It's simply not true. I go through this every year, when I'm off to give a talks about Darwin around the time of Darwin Day, and there's no deification going on anywhere. I talk about the central principles of Darwinism, which are still valid, but I also point out that he got many things wrong (genetics is the most vivid example), and that the science has advanced significantly since his day. I've talked to many other scientists who do the same sorts of lectures, and nobody portrays him as Saint Darwin.

As for equating evolution and Darwin, I deny that, too. I reject the label of "Darwinist" because my interests in the field are so remote and alien from what Darwin did that we really don't have much in common — I care about evo-devo and molecular phylogenies and gene regulation and signal transduction, none of which invalidate Darwin's ideas about selection and change and common descent, but which are such distant derivations of 19th century science that if Darwin were handed one of the papers in the field, he would find it incomprehensible. Again, this is a common experience among my colleagues: we respect Darwin as the discoverer of a set of general core principles, principles that have stood the test of time and are still incredibly useful, but we've moved on.

Safina makes a second and very common error: he claims that Darwin didn't say anything new, anyway. There is a strange historical industry dedicated to finding omens and portents in other people's writings that preceded Darwin, and it is entirely true that ideas like the transmutation of species were bubbling up all over the place in pre-Darwinian Europe. You can also find short passages in the works of virtually unknown authors that even hint at the process of selection. Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, was known as a bit of a heretic who contemplated the unity of all life, and Robert Chambers published his theory of evolution, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, in 1844, and of course Wallace was the co-discoverer of the idea of natural selection. If there had been no Darwin, his theory would still have emerged out of the ferment of biological thought going on in that century. But he still deserves full credit. Darwin is the man who realized the grand import of the idea; this was no casual mention of an interesting possibility, but a profound recognition that his explanation for the origin of species was going to have a sweeping effect on science and society, and a determination that he would document it thoroughly and well. Darwin also explained the concept lucidly, and with volumes of evidence, to such a degree that Thomas Huxley would say "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!" upon learning about it.

Respect for Darwin is as much for the disciplined and scientific way he addressed the problem as it is for the discovery itself. When we celebrate Darwin, we are not cheering for a man who got lucky one day, but for someone who represents many of what we consider scientific virtues: curiousity, rigor, discipline, meticulous observation, experiment, and intellectual courage.

Safina's third complaint is that we've discovered so much more since Darwin, that "Almost everything we understand about evolution came after Darwin, not from him". This is trivially obvious. We could say similar things about Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Dalton, Lavoisier, Dalton, Mendel, any scientist of the past you can name. Mendel, for example, is a fellow I spend a week discussin in my genetics course to explain the simplistic basics…and then I spend the rest of the semester explaining that all of his postulates are so loaded with exceptions that they are often completely false in many real-world genetic situations. Yet at the same time his principles represent a powerful starting point for deciphering the complexities of genetics. Shall we throw Mendel out of the history books because 143 years of progress have reduced his seminal work to a relatively tiny blip in the volumes of evidence since?

Safina is taking a deeply anti-historical position, and I would go so far as to call it an anti-scientific one, as well. Science is all about the evidence for what we know, and explaining how we know it; announcing that Darwin must go is to throw out the foundation of our discipline, and teach disrespect rather than appreciation for our origins. It's also damaging to public education: we can explain Darwin's insights to the lay public, but it's almost impossible to explain the details of modern research without relating it to the central questions that Darwin formulated 150 years ago.

So, obviously, don't canonize, beatify, or apotheosize Darwin … but don't throw him out, either. He is (not was) important.

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Not Saint Darwin from Evolving Thoughts on February 10, 2009 9:09 PM

Oh, I forgot, due to the lack of internets at home, to link to my essay that I mentioned before: Not Saint Darwin, in Resonance [PDF] Consider this my "death of Darwin" piece.... Read More

65 Comments

If there were any such thing as “Darwinism”, its adhernts, its “ists” would behave as other true believers in an “ism” do; that is, spend much time not on research, but on reading the basic texts, Origins of Secies, Descent of Man, and his last book on worms, and then expostulating their hidden meanings. Even research would be directed by the text in order to explain a sentence here, a paragraph there. By this standard, no biologist can be a “Darwinist”; a biologist does real science.

I wrote Dr. Safina about this. I have yet to see any evolutionary biologist call the theory “Darwinism”. I find it even rare to see the word “Darwinian” used. In my experience, the only ones who use the first term are creationists who use it in an attempt to conflate evolutionary theory with communi*ism* and fasc*ism*. They are quite like the Bush adminstration when they came up with “Islamists”. Dr. Safina simply has his cause and effect reversed.

This essay just seemed like a way to get some attention by being contrary.

The real culprits are the pseudo-intellectual low-brows of the American news establishment, who constantly indulge in the tired and stereotyped tactic of trying to declare that “controversies”, defined simplistically as being the result of “two equally supported and opposing sides”, exist, where there is no controversy at all. (Not infrequently this is accomplished by presenting the valid, evidence-supported “side” of the “controversy” or “debate” as a rigid, inflexible straw man, and presenting “the exact opposite” as the only alternative to the straw man.)

The problem with Safina’s essay is expressed in one of his sentences.

“By propounding “Darwinism,” even scientists and science writers perpetuate an impression that evolution is about one man, one book, one “theory.””

No supporting evidence is given to justify this statement.

And in fact it is simply not true.

He could have said, “By heavily emphasizing Darwin, a small minority of science writers put excess emphasis on the direct role of Darwin in modern evolutionary biology”. That would have been accurate.

But what Safina says is simply not true. There are not significant numbers of scientists or science writers who “propound ‘Darwinism’”.

Of course, one will find plenty of biographical and historical treatments of Darwin, as well as of Gallileo, Newton, Einstien, etc. A biographical study of Darwin is no more “propounding Darwinism” than a biographical study of Gallileo is “propounding Gallileism”.

Re: “the cult of darwin”. I attended an excellent talk by Michael Ruse last week. Near the end of the talk, the title of one of his slides was “Should we venerate Darwin today?” Ruse’s answer was “Yes”, not because Darwin was right about everything, but because he set the program for future scientists to follow, much in the same way that Newton did. My immediate thought: “Uh oh. The creationists in the audience are going have a field day with that terminology” Sure enough, I heard some people chatting after the conference about how Ruse said we should “worship” Darwin. _I_ understand what he meant by “venerate”, but to the average man on the street the word “venerate” has very religious connotations, e.g. the catholic doctrine of the veneration of saints. I think “venerate” in this context was a poor choice of words. Unfortunately, it’s mistakes like that that give creationists ammunition to call Evolution a religion.

Reminds me of Boulez’ whiny “Schoenberg is Dead”.

It is mostly creationist who use the term Darwinism. Most scientifically literate people understand that while evolution still embraces the basic principles outlined by Darwin, 150 years of advances in biology has significantly changed our understanding of the process. Calling evolution Darwinism allows fundamentalists to ignore the past 150 years of evidence that has developed to support his theory.

That being said, it is appropriate to recognize Darwin for his contributions, his vision, his research, and his humanity.

kevin said:

It is mostly creationist who use the term Darwinism. Most scientifically literate people understand that while evolution still embraces the basic principles outlined by Darwin, 150 years of advances in biology has significantly changed our understanding of the process. Calling evolution Darwinism allows fundamentalists to ignore the past 150 years of evidence that has developed to support his theory.

That being said, it is appropriate to recognize Darwin for his contributions, his vision, his research, and his humanity.

In fact, a fellow TA at my school had a question on here quiz (rough paraphrase) “What is the name of the theory which describes how organisms change over time?” She was shocked when one of the students wrote Darwinism because she had never run into the term before. “Darwinism? What the heck is Darwinism?” I, however, laughed heartily and told her that her student was a creationist, which she later confirmed for me.

So, a second year biology masters student was unfamiliar with the term, so I think we can safely conclude that it doesn’t see a lot of use outside of creationist circles.

Where “here quiz” should read “her quiz”

Heck, I’m not even sure I mention Darwin when we do our two weeks on evolution. I only get ~30 minutes to talk, and I’m not going to spend too much time on irrelevant historical asides.

Previously, I would agree that “Darwinism” or “Darwinist” was a term used exclusively by creationists for their own purposes. However it seems to me that at least Dawkins in the “Blind Watchmaker” uses the term frequently. Am I wrong about this? It was a library book and I don’t have it in front of me.

Pete said:

Previously, I would agree that “Darwinism” or “Darwinist” was a term used exclusively by creationists for their own purposes. However it seems to me that at least Dawkins in the “Blind Watchmaker” uses the term frequently. Am I wrong about this? It was a library book and I don’t have it in front of me.

I don’t remember if Dawkin’s does or does not, but I can confirm that it does see some legitimate usage. I know that Dobzhansky uses the term in “Mankind Evolving” and Gould does in “The structure of evolutionary theory”, but its use is typically limited to cases when you have to distinguish between theories of adaptive evolution by natural selection, and adaptive evolution by other mechanisms (so it might be more common to see the word Non-darwinian). While the term is quite rare in academic usage, in creationist circles it is used to the near exclusion of any other term.

I also propose that no one should worship Mendelism or Einsteinism.

Seriously, recognizing the proper place of Darwin’s accomplishments in the history of science is in no way a type of worship. Only someone who isn’t actually a biologist would even think that it might be.

I agree with Safina. The masses should no longer issue any residual scientific credit for groundbreaking work performed in the past. If Darwin hadn’t put forth years of effort formulating his theory of evolution, some other common schmo would have. I mean, science isn’t about introducing new groundbreaking ideas so future scientists can build on them. It’s about getting it right the first time, so everyone can justly call that branch of science yours. Makes me wonder where Mendeletics is.…

Furthermore, I think the process of pasteurization should henceforth be called science-procedure-fine-tuned-over-the-years-for-the-sake-of-public-food-safety-ization, because frankly, Pasteur’s been hogging all the credit lately.

And what of this Einstein jerk slapping his name all over Science’s theories of relativity? Sure, Einstein did all the hard work initially. But it’s not fair! Relativity should belong to Science, not Albie.

Coming Soon: Maybe we’ll see a public statement from Safina to the effect that he will be recalling everything he has ever written, so each work may be retitled, “One Unique Product of the Ideas That Came Before Me,” by Human Being.

And if I ever actually hear of the cult of Darwinism (which I just now discovered reading Safina’s article), then golly-gee, I swear I’ll naturally-select their whole cult out of existence!

Not to mention the more than half scientists that got chemical elements named after them (including Einstein).

Come now! Newtons gravitation may be old hat, but most of his other work. Binomial theorm, mechanics, physics is just as valid today as it ever was.

I have yet to see any evolutionary biologist call the theory “Darwinism”.

Ernst Mayr, SciAm, July 2000.

“Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causations. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically.”

FL

So please explain to us how appealing to supernatural explanations, such as claiming that God created the world, its inhabitants and the universe around it less than 10,000 years ago in ways beyond mortal comprehension, will achieve better scientific results than excluding supernatural explanations.

Better yet, please explain how reading the Bible literally will achieve a more accurate description of the present and previous diversities of life on Earth.

Or, do you plan on calling me a liar again simply because I’m calling you on your pious bullshitting again?

FL said:

I have yet to see any evolutionary biologist call the theory “Darwinism”.

Ernst Mayr, SciAm, July 2000.

“Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causations. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically.”

FL

All right, fair enough, the word “Darwinism” has been used, even by a distinguished biologist. It was inadvisable usage, perhaps, because it carries overtones - certainly unintended, as the rest of the quote shows - that the Theory of Evolution is a teaching or a doctrine rather than an overwhelmingly-supported explanation for the origin of species, backed up by enormous quantities of unimpeachable evidence. OK. So what?

In the war FL’s fighting, this is as close to a victory as it gets. I was going to say that it’s like bringing a wet noodle to a tank battle, but that isn’t true. FL can’t be killed by the weapons available. He is immune to evidence, deaf to reason and blind to the heresies of his own warped theology. But that only means that reason and evidence can’t touch him. He’s bullet-proof, invulnerable. It all passes right through him. He has just marched up to the M1 and slapped its front plate with his piece of boiled spaghetti. Congratulations.

FL is right that Mayr used the word “Darwinism” several times in an article he wrote for Scientific American. You can check the full article here (PDF: http://www.geocities.com/cybermorphy/mayr2000.pdf).

But Mayr is using this as a historical term, that is, as per the article’s title “Darwin’s influence on modern thought.” One may note, if one reads the article, that Mayr does not say that Darwin was right about everything biological. What Mayr is talking about is the philosophical legacy of Darwin, and that’s why he repeatedly uses the term “Darwinism” when he discusses things like Darwin’s demolition of teleology and determinism.

Ah, thank you, Chris Lawrence for responding with that link. I suspected as much just from reading that one sentence and reading Dr. Mayr’s wikipedia(!) entry. I find it just too cute that creationists (I’m assuming FL is this) have to lie so ineptly for their cause.

I find it just too cute that creationists (I’m assuming FL is this) have to lie so ineptly for their cause.

Well, let’s check on that Vel. You’re right that I subscribe to biblical creationism. However, there is no “lying” WRT the Mayr quotation.

(1) Given the exact statement “I have yet to see any evolutionary biologist call the theory “Darwinism”,, Ernst Mayr’s comments directly and exactly answer that statement.

Furthermore, I call your attention again to Mayr’s exact words. “Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causations. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically.” Therefore,

(2) There can be no doubt (to anyone with a command of the English language) that Mayr has just equated the term “Darwinism” with the phrase “The theory of evolution by natural selection” in that one paragraph.

(3) Nor will you find ANYTHING in the rest of Mayr’s article – at all – that counters, contradicts, or “undoes” what Mayr just did there in that one quotation.

Now.…if you disagree, Vel, then step right up to the plate and specifically disprove any of those three things, right here and now. You have access to the Mayr article, right?

Therefore please show me that I am lying.

FL :)

FL said:

Furthermore, I call your attention again to Mayr’s exact words. “Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causations. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically.” Therefore,

(2) There can be no doubt (to anyone with a command of the English language) that Mayr has just equated the term “Darwinism” with the phrase “The theory of evolution by natural selection” in that one paragraph.

In this passage, is Mayr referring to Darwinism as the theory of evolution by natural selection or could he be referring to what he calls “..the basic component of the new philosophy of biology”, that “laws give way to concepts” and new emphasis is on “…observation, comparison and classification.”? A different interpretation - I know that’s hard to imagine.

FL -

(1) Given the exact statement “I have yet to see any evolutionary biologist call the theory “Darwinism”,, Ernst Mayr’s comments directly and exactly answer that statement.

So what? The point here is merely that Safina claims, falsely, that the term is over-used by scientists.

Furthermore, the poster you were “rebutting” merely said that he had yet to see an evolutionary biologist call evolutionary theory “Darwinism”. Now he’s at best seen that exactly once - sort of. But Mayr was writing in a lay publication, about Darwin’s specific contribution, so it isn’t really “calling the theory ‘Darwinism’”.

Furthermore, I call your attention again to Mayr’s exact words. “Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causations. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically.”

So what? That’s how all of science works. Do we have to go over and over and over the tiresome semantics about methodologic materialism versus philosophical materialism again? Apollo’s chariot doesn’t pull the sun in the sky, the earth revolves around the sun, due to gravity. A “materialist” explanation. Do you disagree with it?

This has nothing to do with spiritual beliefs that don’t contradict it, heck, it doesn’t even prove that Apollo doesn’t exist, only that we can explain the perceived motion of the sun without him.

All others -

FL’s authoritarian masters have instructed him to “reframe the debate” or some such thing.

His sole objective is obsessive semantics.

Eh, fair enough. Context makes it clear that “Darwinism” is used in place of “The theory of evolution by natural selection” by Mayr. It’d require word games to see otherwise.

No need to blast FL on this particular topic; he wasn’t lying as he was in other threads.

FL said:

I have yet to see any evolutionary biologist call the theory “Darwinism”.

Ernst Mayr, SciAm, July 2000.

“Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causations. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically.”

FL

FL said:

Therefore please show me that I am lying.

FL :)

Like when you lied about what that biology textbook said about the RNA World hypothesis (or that you lied about even owning it), or when you quoted Davescott from Uncommon Descent who was, at the time, quotemining Stephen Jay Gould’s introduction of Punctuated Equilibrium in order to extract a false confession of a lack of transitional fossil forms?

In fact, a fellow TA at my school had a question on here quiz (rough paraphrase) “What is the name of the theory which describes how organisms change over time?” She was shocked when one of the students wrote Darwinism because she had never run into the term before.

What’s the right answer?

It can’t be evolution, since evolution is “how organisms change over time.”

There’s a theory about how it happens called “natural selection.” I hope that was the right answer.

There would be a great advance in the understanding of science if biologists separated evolution from “the theory of.” Evolution is the observed phenomena. Natural selection is a process by which it can occur. (I’m hoping that this is “well, duh” for most people, though I know that for the average person the controversial claim from Darwin is that life changes over time.”)

you don’t have that quite right.

The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain the observation of evolution (the observation that species change over time), while natural selection is considered one mechanism of the larger theory of evolution. Neutral drift is another mechanism, but is still part of the larger theory of evolution.

so the correct answer to the question: “What is the name of the theory which describes how organisms change over time?”

is evolution.

or, technically, the theory of evolution, but I could see that as being a bit redundant an answer to the question as written.

btw, the confusion, pervasive or not, over the difference between the observation of, and theory of, evolution has been one of the factors people like Dawkins use in favor of maintaining the label “darwinism”.

me? I tend to prefer the complete “Theory of Evolution” moniker myself. makes it all clear.

Actually, I think I have that right.

Evolution is “the process by which different kinds of living organisms are thought to have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth.” (New Oxford American Dictionary)

Evolution is change over time.

So, in the phrase “What is the name of the theory which describes how organisms change over time?,” we can replace “change over time” with “evolution.”

“What is the name of the theory which describes how organisms undergo evolution?” (I needed a verb.)

Okay, “theory of evolution” works, but it’s not much of an answer.

“Evolution” is not the answer, because it’s not a theory, it’s an observation. Using the phrase in this sloppy fashion just lets people say, “well, evolution is just a theory.”

Make this our mantra: “The theory of evolution is the theory that explains how evolution works.”

Sorry, John, but you’re wrong here.

evolution is both the name of the theory and the observation. It may be sloppy shorthand to you, but it is indeed how it is most often used. for the purposes of a freshman level bio exam, “evolution” is a perfectly acceptable answer to that question as it was worded.

You’re right to raise an objection to the confusion this causes, but then we’re already in agreement on that, as mentioned in my previous post.

Actually Stanton, it was Niles Eldredge who had conceived originally of Punctuated Equilibrium, but it was his friend and colleague Stephen Jay Gould who coined the term, hence their classic 1972 paper on the theory of punctuated equilibrium, commonly known as the Eldredge and Gould paper:

Stanton said:

FL said:

Therefore please show me that I am lying.

FL :)

Like when you lied about what that biology textbook said about the RNA World hypothesis (or that you lied about even owning it), or when you quoted Davescott from Uncommon Descent who was, at the time, quotemining Stephen Jay Gould’s introduction of Punctuated Equilibrium in order to extract a false confession of a lack of transitional fossil forms?

…and E=mc^2 led to Hiroshima, therefore relativity is wrong.

Troy you are *way* out of your depth here, and you’re about to get pummelled. Just sayin’.

You mean the Rodney Stark at Baylor? That Rodney Stark? Yeah, no bias there…

The Nazis used “Darwinism” for their excuse for genocide?

If that’s so, then how come Hitler constantly plagiarized Martin Luther’s “Of the Jews And Their Lies” for his “Final Solution”?

But, anyhow, your constant ranting about the evils of “Darwinism” and its alleged cultists is boring. Plus, you’re the only person here displaying a “typical behavior of hate,” what with your obsessed demonization of “Darwinists.”

Troy said:

Darwin and genocide

Darwin’s theory on natural selection was used by the S.S. In the picking of doctors for the Jewish prison camps.

PRATT

http://www.expelledexposed.com/inde[…]ler-eugenics

I mean, honestly, if it really was true that “Darwinism” was the primary reason that the Nazis used for setting up and committing genocide, why would they place Darwin’s books on their lists of banned books, as well as sneer at, as well as deny the idea that apes, or worse yet, Untermensch, are related to Germans humans Aryans, and why would the universities in Israel have extensive Biology departments, with numerous professors therein devoted to studying applications of Evolutionary Biology?

Oh, wait, it’s because Troy is building an elaborate, vitriol-filled and overly verbose strawman about the alleged evils of the cult of evil known as “Darwinism”

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on February 10, 2009 11:30 AM.

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