The anti-Darwinists are ticking me off

3 minute read

Now, usually if I were to say “anti-Darwinists”, I’d be talking about some kind of creationism or intelligent design. But noooooo. This week, the anti-Darwinists are all otherwise respectable evolutionary biologists using the occasion of Darwin’s bicentennial to trash the man.

The one that has me writing is an essay in the NY Times by Carl Safina:

But our understanding of how life works since Darwin wont swim in the public pool of ideas until we kill the cult of Darwinism. Only when we fully acknowledge the subsequent century and a half of value added can we really appreciate both Darwins genius and the fact that evolution is lifes driving force, with or without Darwin.

Is Darwinism a cult? Does this kind of statement remotely help the cause of evolutionary biology, in any way?

Now, I can understand the argument. Naming a modern science after a nineteenth-century geezer is probably not the best PR move. If a scientific idea is known mostly by the name of its founder, it is almost invariably wrong. Newtonism? Wrong. Lamarckism? Wrong.

Moreover, all the “right” ideas have impressive names. Do we talk about Boltzmannism? Heck no, it’s thermodynamics. Wundtism? Nope – that’s experimental psychology. What about Einsteinism? Sorry, relativity.

Darwinism is like the only holdout. And honestly, I don’t know any evolutionary biologists who call their field “Darwinism”. They call it, well, “evolutionary biology.”

“Darwinism”, like “Trotskyism” and “Marxism”, is the kind of name that sounds like it was coined by someone writing an enemies list. And it was. Certain creationists spit it like a bad wad of chaw.

But there’s something unseemly about the anti-Darwin bandwagon:

That all life is related by common ancestry, and that populations change form over time, are the broad strokes and fine brushwork of evolution. But Darwin was late to the party. His grandfather, and others, believed new species evolved. Farmers and fanciers continually created new plant and animal varieties by selecting who survived to breed, thus handing Charles Darwin an idea. All Darwin perceived was that selection must work in nature, too.

Oh, well then. If that’s all he perceived, let’s by all means kill the dead man. Really, kill him?

The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi said, If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. The point is that making a master teacher into a sacred fetish misses the essence of his teaching. So let us now kill Darwin.

Here’s my problem. People who say that Darwin didn’t have many ideas usually haven’t read any Darwin. Now, I might say this about many nineteenth-century thinkers. When you go through the works of Spencer, or Haeckel, or Wundt, you discover that these people were remarkably thoughtful. They went through reams of examples – the kind of writing you rarely see people do anymore. Darwin was one of this number, perhaps the foremost. So it should come as no surprise that his works were full of details that would precipitate or presage developments as much as 150 years later.

But there’s something more. Darwin threaded many needles in his writing, finding the right solution for many contradictions – not only in his naturalism but also in the way his theory provoked social resistance. Darwin had the first theory of human evolution. It wasn’t correct, as we now know, but it did the essential thing: it showed a way that human features could have emerged by natural pressures of the environment. Darwin found a plausible explanation for the diversity of races – one not rooted in the divine order, but in natural history. He championed the monogenetic theory against polygenists who held that human races had separate origins. And he integrated the best empirical data from animal and plant breeding into the understanding of the natural world. Possibly most important, he insisted on the testability of his hypotheses, and gave specific criteria that would falsify them.

Sure, many of Darwin’s ideas now seem obvious. When different varieties have different rates of intrinsic growth, one will inevitably supersede the others. Small changes add up to big changes over long times. Common descent explains common morphology.

But it is precisely the reams of details that remind us so forcefully that there is more to being a scientist than having good ideas. You also have to have the courage to tell the world exactly how your ideas could be rejected. We have rejected many of Darwin’s in the succeeding 150 years. Still the core remains.

If someone want’s to call herself a Darwinist, or a neo-Darwinist, or even a crypto-Darwinist, well, that’s just fine by me.