Don't call it "Darwinism"
    By T. Ryan Gregory | January 24th 2009 09:24 AM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About T. Ryan

    I am an evolutionary biologist specializing in genome size evolution at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Be sure to visit


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    For those of you who still are not reading Evolution: Education and Outreach, here's another reason to check it out.

    Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education have a nice article coming out in the next issue entitled Don't call it Darwinism. It is already free to access in preprint.

    While you're at it, you can have a look at the special issue on eye evolution, and my first contribution to a series entitled "Evolutionary Concepts" on artificial selection.

    Click here to shop for your Darwin Year gear


    I met Eugenie last weekend at a Bay Area skeptics pub night.   And last weekend we had an article from Michael Shermer.    We're totally skeptical these days!   And she's a terrific person who clearly walks and talks concern about science and community, so I am a fan.

    I'm reading Jerry Coyne's new book 'Why evolution is true?' for Darwin Day  and it is littered with references to 'Darwinism', which leads to my point - getting rid of a term because creationists conscript it is reactionary.    Nothing that becomes colloquial is used consistently.   Should we get rid of 'evolution' because everyone from car makers to sous chefs uses it?  Nope, and so it goes with Darwinism.   We owe the big guy a lot and if someone wants to refer to gravity as Newtonism I am okay with that too.

    Yes, there are small fights that still occur here and there but this is not 1920.  Science won.   It's time to act like winners and that means not having biologists abandom terms if a creationist tries to use it as an insult.   It goes to a weird places when opponents dictate the language in use.
    We're totally skeptical these days!
    So how is a Hedgehog to navigate between the Scylla of Skepticism and the Charybdis of "Creation Science"?
    T Ryan Gregory
    "getting rid of a term because creationists conscript it is reactionary."

     Did you actually read the article?
    Yes, although I am not sure that is a constructive comment on your part.   While I concede to Eugenie and Glenn (and Josh and the others who have said the same in the comments here) that “Darwinism” is ambiguous even about Darwin’s own ideas and leaves out the contributions of other prominent names since, that doesn't seem to be core issue.   Time and again they go back to creationists misusing it, which is reactionary.

    If they then start to call biologists evolutionists should science abandon it?  As someone outside biology, and therefore in the great unwashed mass that ends up voting on these policy things, I remind you all that it's important not to be elitist and assume everyone else has deficit thinking.     I referenced Coyne's new book and his broad use of the term 'Darwinism' precisely because he is not running from association with Darwin - he is taking it back from creationists.    Darwin is not Freud or Marx.   His ideas were sound.
    Becky Jungbauer
    Perhaps using Darwinism is okay for the unwashed masses, as it gives them a vague notion of what you mean - evolution, perhaps, or natural selection. But experts would likely not use the term because they do know the subtle nuances, so taking away Darwinism would almost make things more confusing. But maybe not. Maybe getting the different ideas out there would benefit science. But would people pay attention, and/or care?
    Have you ever tried to dumb down a topic for a little kid and then watch it completely backfire as they completely misunderstand you?  Usually, they do ok when you explain the actual concept to them.  The dumbing down approach is both condescending and confusing.  The goal is not to have everyone able to calculate a selection coefficient or determine a probability of fixation.  The goal is to give the public a basic understanding of how evolutionary theory works (kind of like how I "understand" how a car works, but can't fix one), an appreciation of its explanatory power, and some grasp of the overwhelming evidence in support of evolutionary theory.  The concepts that Darwinism has come to be associated with both oversimplify and confuse.  Recent articles by Steve Davis and myself have both had their genesis in the confusion created by this approach, as one can clearly see in the comments.
    But there is a lot more nuance in this audience than in the mass population.   A simple explanation of the misconceptions - evolution is the survival of the fitter and not the fittest, for example - goes a long way for most people.

    Natural selection is common sense to a lot more people than most scientists realize, because it's the real crazy people that stand out to biologists.  It's been less than 100 years since continental drift much less plate tectonics became hypothesized much less affirmed - but it would surprise you if anyone disbelieved them now yet geologists and some paleontologists probably think a lot of people don't accept those for the same reason that biologists think evolution is under siege - crazy people talk louder.    The term 'Darwinism' is the perfect way to honor Darwin.   Einstein doesn't get that kind of respect, nor do Mendel, Linnaeus, Newton, Freud, Galileo or plenty of others.
    As I've said too many times to count, people attacking Darwin have nothing in the way of real arguments - it's like attacking Henry Ford because he didn't make the perfect car a hundred years ago.    That doesn't mean Ford Motor Company should change their name.
    Since this is a science site, I feel compelled to correct Hank.  Natural selection is "survival of the fitter."  Evolution is change in allele frequencies.  Plus, Darwinism discredits the contributions of individuals like Wallace (if for nothing else other than forcing Darwin to get off his ass), Mendel, Wright, and Fisher.
    Natural selection is "survival of the fitter." Evolution is change in allele frequencies. 
    :)   Oh yeah, that is going to clear it up for people told that Darwin leads to eugenics/Nazi supermen/racism.   Natural selection is evolution to most people that are going to vote on these matters.   To you, it breaks down to evolution,gradualism, speciation,common ancestry, etc., and those will all have clear meaning but to most people it will not.

    The goal is to give people a base level of understanding that will inspire them to learn more.  Putting up more linguistic or logical road blocks, like letting creationism annex 'Darwin' while biologists go more literal and lose the war being specific and using terms like 'evolutionary biology' would be a big mistake.

    I'm not talking about framing the debate or any other mid-2000s disaster in science thinking, I am talking about not letting creationists do it by running from words they start using.
    Ah, yes, but Hank if we get into the details, it becomes clear that eugenics can't actually work.  The problem that needs addressing is:
    Natural selection is evolution to most people
    If all you are thinking about is artificial selection (eugenics, animal breeding, etc.), then conflating Darwinism and Nazi Supermen is not that far off.  The problem is that an evolutionary biologist knows that this would lead to superficially good looking people with a slew of recessive disorders, like your favorite pure bred dog.

    I guess that I am, in part, arguing that the word Darwinism has been hopelessly corrupted by the whackos.  It has been annexed and I don't think we can get it back, which is a shame for Charles.
    Becky Jungbauer
    You are right, I shouldn't have been so flippant. I did mean that some basic concepts using familiar ideas would go a long way to helping the public understand how evolutionary theory works. People aren't stupid (well, most people) and appreciate someone making the effort instead of insulting their intelligence. (I didn't mean that would require dumbing down, because I am ardently opposed to that. It drives me nuts that newspapers publicly admit they target a 6th grade or 9th grade level in their coverage. If you don't raise the bar, people won't have any reason to think or work for it.) Anyway, my dad is an example of the person I want to reach. He is a stunningly brilliant attorney, but every time I came home from school I had to start all over with DNA because he just couldn't grasp it, which was frustrating because to me understanding science concepts is as natural as breathing. I finally started explaining it using railroad tracks as an analogy (his speciality is railroads) and suddenly the light went on. How do people think the Catholic Church converted so many people so fast? They used pagan traditions the population already knew and were familiar with, and the teachings were spread easily and quickly.
    Hi everyone

    I just wrote a posting on the blog for Evolution: Education & Outreach in which I address the issue of "Darwinism." Based on the comments here, I think some of you will probably disagree with the position I take.

    So, if you haven't said all you want to say about this, feel free to pick up the discussion at:

    Best to all,

    Adam, aka the E:E&O blogger and E:E&O Associate Editor.