"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Over at Daily Kos, DarkSyde continues his series on Know Your Creationists. This episode is about the Discovery Institute’s Jonathan Witt, and while Witt may be a bit player, Darksyde finds plenty to hammer on. In particular, he makes an excellent point about the ID advocates’ use (or rather abuse) of the term “Darwinist”:

Exhibit B: Darwinism. Judging by frequency of usage, DR Witt, along with every other IDCists on the planet, seems enamored with that word. I asked him recently what he meant by Darwinism, and he replied in part “I use the term to refer to a person who believes that natural selection working on random variation produced all the diversity of organic life we see around us.” DR Witt is entitled to speak for himself, but I work with biologists every day as part of my ongoing battle with creationisim, and I haven’t met one yet who refers to himself as a Darwinist, or his field of research as Darwinism. At best it’s a quaint older term which is no longer used among biologists and hasn’t been for decades. At worst, it’s intentionally chosen to present evolutionary biology as a rival ideology to theism by hired guns marketing Intelligent Design Creationism to the Christian laypublic, and Darwin’s name is used specifically to nurture latent resentment, and to conjure up the ever present book-burners and witch-burners who still lurk among the lucid, among that grass roots demographic.

Worse still, DR Witt’s straightforward answer does little to reassure me of his probity: In the very same venue where I asked that question, DR Witt had used the term Darwinism to clearly refer to a school of thought in philosophy, as for example when he said “Thus, in practice the materialist/Darwinists’ fourth … “ and this is just one of many such statements threatening the consistency of his self professed definition.

As best I can tell, Darwinism as used by IDCists can mean pretty much anything the IDCist wants it to mean. They can and do use it to refer to common descent and all modes of speciation/diversification, abiogenesis, cosmology or most any field of science. But it’s by no means limited to science. It’s bandied about in contexts of abstract philosophical claptrap; metaphysical naturalism, materialism, secular humanism, all of which are often nothing more than covert references to atheism. If it served the IDCist purpose in discrediting science, Darwinism could probably mean Killers of Small Furry Animals.

That’s pretty spot on. Let me emphasize that the term “Darwinism” is only rarely, if ever used in the scientific literature. There’s a good reason for this: It has no fixed meaning. It has at times been used to describe the mere process of natural selection causing adaptations (something almost every biologist agrees with) and at other times used to describe the notion that natural selection alone is responsible for evolutionary change (something almost no biologist agrees with). Hence it is usually either redundant or it doesn’t apply. Yet ID advocates use the term almost exclusively to describe anyone and everyone who accepts mainstream evolutionary biology. I don’t know why they expect scientists to take them seriously when they lack the professional courtesy to use accurate terms when describing those with whom they disagree.

To illustrate the fact that biologists almost never use the term “Darwinist” when talking about evolution, I did some literature searches for relevant terms in PubMed. This is an experiment the kids can try at home. The results are below the fold.

Below I list each term with the number of hits it generates displayed to its right. Terms in quotation marks indicate that the results are limited to the term as it appears, not the individual words found separately.

Evolution: 171,174

“Natural Selection”: 3303

Selection: 170,342

Mutation: 420,303

“Genetic Drift”: 1484

Darwinism: 198

Darwinist: 14

Darwinian: 862

The results couldn’t be clearer. First of all, it should be noted that when a suffix is added after Darwin’s name, the preferred term is Darwinian, not Darwinist. But of course “Darwinian” has a nice smooth sound, whereas “Darwinist” sounds harsh and guttural, and you can count on the ID advocates to use the one that’s easiest to associate with evil, not the one that’s the most accurate. But more importantly, neither term is the least bit common.

Here’s something else that’s funny. If you search for “Darwinism”, you’ll see that most of the articles on the first page that happen to be from top journals are simply news items, and not research papers. But a full 4 of the 20 hits on the first page are from the crank journal Rivista di Biologia run by Giuseppe Sermonti . These include articles by our good friend Jonathan Wells, the young-Earth creationist Jerry Bergman, and Sermonti himself. At least someone is getting mileage out of the term.