Darwin is already dead, and we know it

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.