"Dogmatic Darwinists" - An Instance of the Misleading Rhetoric of the Anti-Evolutionists

An essay by Wesley R. Elsberry and Dave E. Thomas

The phrase "dogmatic Darwinists" has become a commonplace in antievolutionary writings. We are going to examine what is meant by the use of this phrase and why it is simply a dismissive rhetorical tactic employed by the antievolutionists, who otherwise would actually have to address the substantive arguments and persuasive evidence presented by biologists.

The following examples show the actual use of the charge of "dogmatic Darwinism" being made by various anti-evolutionists.

Let me issue a three-part "prophecy" about Johnson and his feisty new book: (1) During the coming year, Johnson's name will become a "household word" to millions of Americans. (2) Dogmatic Darwinists will come to regard the Berkeley professor as their chief enemy because of the painful intellectual blows that Darwin on Trial deals to their cherished evolutionary world view. (3) Evangelical Christians of all stripes will welcome his critique, and some will sense the rise of a new C.S. Lewis in our time.

- Thomas E. Woodward, "Staring Down Darwinism", http://www.yccnet.org/Archive/Apolog_Papers/staring.html

Another tip-off was the sharp contrast I noticed between the extremely dogmatic tone that Darwinists use when addressing the general public and the occasional frank acknowledgments, in scientific circles, of serious problems with the theory. For example, I would read Stephen Jay Gould telling the scientific world that Darwinism was effectively dead as a theory. And then in the popular literature, I would read Gould and other scientific writers saying that Darwinism was fundamentally healthy, and that scientists had the remaining problems well under control. There was a contradiction here, and it looked as though there was an effort to keep the outside world from becoming aware of the serious intellectual difficulties.

- Phillip E. Johnson, "Darwinists Squirm Under Spotlight", http://www.douknow.net/ev_darwinist%20squirm.htm

"Dogmatic Darwinists claim that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," said Wells, a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. "Then they misrepresent the evidence to promote their view. The truth is, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evidence."

- John Corrigan "Jonathan" Wells, http://www.iconsofevolution.com/press/

To believers in creation, the Darwinists seem thoroughly intolerant and dogmatic when they insist that their own philosophy must have a monopoly in the schools and the media. The Darwinists do not see themselves that way, of course. On the contrary, they often feel aggrieved when creationists (in either the broad or narrow sense) ask to have their own arguments heard in public and fairly considered. To insist that schoolchildren be taught that Darwinian evolution is a fact is in their minds merely to protect the integrity of science education; to present the other side of the case would be to allow fanatics to force their opinions on others.

- Phillip E. Johnson, "What is Darwinism?", http://www.wincom.net/~mcunning/dar.html

So, what does it take for someone to be labeled a "dogmatic Darwinist"? By examination of its deployment, it is clear that there is no particular standard applied. In many cases, there is no effort made to even specify who might - or might not - be meant to be covered by the label. Essentially, the simple fact that a scientist rejects the arguments of the antievolutionists or actively opposes antievolutionary politics is sufficient to lead to the application of the phrase. In the examples above, there is no evidence that any extensive argument is made that the phrase is correctly applied to a particular person. Instead, the accusation is taken as its own proof. In the last example given above, the accusation is deployed as a pre-emptive measure - any argument from the accused that they are simply defending well-supported findings and well-tested theories is taken as confirmation of the correctness of the accusation.

If the use of "dogmatic Darwinist" were to be justified, one would see evidence presented that the person so labeled is both dogmatic and a "Darwinist" as Darwinist is used in the biological context. This is where it becomes clear that use of the phrase is simply rhetoric, for no such case is ever forthcoming.

The deployment of "dogmatic Darwinists" is easily seen to be an ad hominem argument: an assertion concerning the person is given instead of a rebuttal of the argument. It is noteworthy that many antievolutionary activists are hyper-sensitive to ad hominem when they suspect it is being used against them. Often, they will claim that an opponent has engaged in ad hominem argumentation when they actually haven't. In "Defeating Darwinism", Phillip E. Johnson explores the utility of examining possible bias on the part of an opponent:

In this imperfect world an ad hominem argument sometimes performs the legitimate function of showing that a person has a bias and hence that his or her arguments should be examined carefully. The argument is misused if it does more than that, causing us to ignore worthwhile arguments because of what we think of the person making them. The point is to recognize and acknowledge bias, and then get beyond it to evaluate the evidence fairly.

- Phillip E. Johnson, "Defeating Darwinism", p. 41

Given Johnson's stance, the question to be answered is whether the antievolutionists deploying the "dogmatic Darwinist" phrase show any inclination to get beyond "recognizing bias" to fairly deal with the evidence and arguments presented by the so-called "dogmatic Darwinists". It seems clear to us that the answer is, "No." This applies even to Johnson himself.

As a rhetorical weapon, the antievolutionists rely upon the negative associations of the adjective "dogmatic". Additionally, the use of a term with an "-ism" suffix tends to evoke associations with terms used in politics, social studies, or religion rather than science. When one considers the broader context of scientific knowledge, though, this can easily be seen to be inaccurate and misleading:

Because to revile evolutionary science, 140 years after the Darwin-Wallace insight, as 'Darwinism' is ignorance or rabble-rousing. It is as silly as would be sneering at NASA's space engineering as 'Newtonism' (which in the same trivial sense it is).

- Paul R. Gross, "Politicizing Science Education", a Thomas B. Fordham Foundation report, http://www.edexcellence.net/library/gross.html

Calling evolutionary scientists "Darwinists" is simply a way of marginalizing mainstream science and scientists. The same could be said about the term "evolutionists," as it carries the connotation of someone fighting for belief in evolution (religious-style) instead of scientists working on evolution, whether it be biologists, geologists, paleontologists, biochemists, etc.

Making something an "ism" is a way of making it "religious" - in the sense that it, being labelled a religious belief itself, can be opposed on the grounds of other religious beliefs, and not hard scientific facts. "Isms" take the debate out of science and into socio-politics.

Evolutionary scientists are not just "Darwinists," or "evolutionists," but rather biologists, chemists, paleontologists, geologists, geochemists, biochemists, physical geologists, physical chemists, and so forth. The debate is not between creationism and evolutionism. The debate is between antievolutionism and science -- all of science.