Evolution Icon Evolution

Busting Another Darwinist Myth: We’d love to take credit for “Darwinism,” but we can’t.

In the November 28, 2005 issue of Newsweek, the renowned Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson claims that the term “Darwinism” is a “rhetorical device” merely invented by opponents of, well, Darwinism. The article quotes Wilson as follows:

“‘In part, the fascination with the man is being driven by his enemies, who say they’re fighting ‘Darwinism,’ rather than evolution or natural selection. ‘It’s a rhetorical device to make evolution seem like a kind of faith, like ‘Maoism’,’ says Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, editor of one of the two Darwin anthologies just published. … ‘Scientists,’ Wilson adds, ‘don’t call it Darwinism.'”

(“Charles Darwin: Evolution of a Scientist,” by Jerry Adler, Newsweek November 28, 2005, pg. 53)

The question must be asked “Is Wilson right to claim that supporters of Darwin don’t use the term ‘Darwinism’?”

Thankfully, there is an easy way to answer this question. This September, a literature search was conducted of Science, Nature, and PubMed to see how often terms such as “Darwinism,” “Darwinian,” “Darwinist,” (as well as “Neo-Darwinism,” “Neo-Darwinian,” and “Neo-Darwinist”) are used in the mainstream scientific literature. The full results of this search are reported here, but for now let’s just focus on Wilson’s claim of the usage of the term “Darwinism.”

Here were the results of the search for the word “Darwinism” in the mainstream scientific literature (conducted September 14, 2005):

Contrary to Wilson’s assertion, the journal Science has used the term in a pro-Darwin manner, referring favorably to “Darwinism” in the context of this very debate over the biology curriculum:

“Two other sites previously reviewed in NetWatch brim with helpful information. In a section on obstacles to teaching Darwinism, this primer from the University of California, Berkeley, profiles different strains of anti-evolutionism.”

(“Standing Up for Darwin,” Science, 308:1847, 6/24/2005, emphasis added)

Even prominent Darwinist scientists use the term in their popular writings. Richard Dawkins writes that “There are people in this world who desperately want to not have to believe in Darwinism.” (The Blind Watchmaker, W.W. Norton, 1996 ed, pg. 250) The term “Darwinism” has over 20 entries in the index to Stephen Jay Gould’s magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

If Wilson is correct that “Scientists don’t call it Darwinism,” then apparently all the authors who use the term “Darwinism” in Science, Nature, books, and many journals are not scientists. The alternative explanations are that Professor Wilson is wrong, or is bluffing. I’ll go with either alternative.

Darwin-skeptics would love to take credit for inventing a prominently used scientific term like “Darwinism,” but it appears that we can’t. “Darwinism” is a term employed by scientists in the mainstream scientific literature. Another Darwinist myth has been busted.

The Pot and the Kettle…

Finally, what about Wilson’s objection that evolution shouldn’t be compared to “a kind of faith”? When the wagons aren’t circled around Darwin, it appears that Wilson has had a slightly different view about whether or not it takes a measure of faith to believe in Darwinism:

“How much of this can be believed? Every generation needs its own creation myths, and these are ours. They are probably more accurate than any that have come before, but they are undoubtedly subject to revision as we find out more about the nature and the history of life. The best that can be said for any scientific theory is that it explains all the data at hand and has no obvious internal contradictions.”

(Wilson, Edward O., et al., “Life on Earth”, [1973], Sinauer Associates: Sunderland MA, 1975, reprint, p.624)

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.