Darwinist or Darwinian, They’re One and the Same

Jonathan Wells

The Seattle Weekly is one of those free newsprint advertisers that you find in bins on street corners in most major U. S. cities. Their editorial boards usually consist of people too far to the left even for the establishment media, and as sources of news they’re probably about as reliable as Minju Choson, the official organ of the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea. But homeless people make good use of them.
The August 29, 2007 issue of The Seattle Weekly features an article quoting Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Despite its name, the NCSE is not about teaching science but indoctrinating students at public expense in Darwinism, the creation myth of modern secularism. Whenever critics of Darwinism raise their heads, the NCSE rushes in to bop ’em, kind of like a carnival game. Except that when the NCSE bops someone on the head it usually means the end of that person’s career in science teaching.

Scott is quoted in The Seattle Weekly as saying that “a real follower of modern science would never call himself a ‘Darwinist’,” because “evolutionary biology has advanced way beyond Darwin’s 19th-century tracts.” [1]
It’s true that the word “Darwinist” is seldom used by defenders of Darwin’s theory, though “never” is too strong a description. In 2005, the NCSE’s own blog praised biologist Lynn Margulis for being “definitely a Darwinist.” [2] In 2006 Niles Eldredge, curator of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History and an ardent defender of evolutionary theory, called himself “a true Darwinist” in The Virginia Quarterly Review. [3]
“Darwinian” is the name preferred by modern evolutionary biologists, who use it widely in the scientific and popular literature. Yet this is a distinction without a difference. Whether such people call themselves Darwinists or Darwinians, they apparently haven’t heard the news that “evolutionary biology has advanced way beyond Darwin’s 19th-century tracts.”
Could Scott be following the lead of Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, who claims that the word “Darwinism” was coined by creationists to make Darwin look bad? “It’s a rhetorical device to make evolution seem like a kind of faith, like ‘Maoism’,” said Wilson in Newsweek in November 2005. “Scientists,” he added, “don’t call it Darwinism.” [4]
Nice try, but Wilson’s revisionist approach to the history of biology doesn’t fit the facts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Thomas Henry Huxley (Darwin’s most famous defender in Britain) used “Darwinism” in 1864 to describe Charles Darwin’s theory. In 1876, Harvard botanist Asa Gray (who was Darwin’s most ardent scientific defender in America) published Darwiniana: Essays and Reviews Pertaining to Darwinism, and in 1889 natural selection’s co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace published Darwinism: An Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection. Two of Wilson’s former Harvard colleagues, evolutionary biologists Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould, used the word extensively in their scientific writings, and recent science journals carry articles with titles such as “Darwinism and Immunology” and “The Integration of Darwinism and Evolutionary Morphology.” [5]
The reason that “Darwinism” and “Darwinian” — even “Darwinist” — are used by modern evolutionary biologists is that they are more precise than “evolution” and “evolutionist.” The latter have many meanings, most of them uncontroversial. For example, “evolution” can refer simply to change over time, something no sane person would deny. Or it can refer to minor changes within existing species, which breeders have known about for centuries.
No, Darwin went much further. He claimed that all living things are descendants of a common ancestor, modified by unguided natural processes such as random variation and survival of the fittest. Darwinian descent with modification — as a comprehensive explanation for what we see in living things — is scientifically controversial, because it doesn’t fit the evidence.
So what’s the easiest way to persuade people that they should accept something so controversial? Word play.
Eugenie Scott makes it her business to misuse words to confuse people about Darwinism and evolution. On a web site maintained (at public expense) by the University of California at Berkeley, she recommends: “Define evolution as an issue of the history of the planet: as the way we try to understand change through time. The present is different from the past. Evolution happened, there is no debate within science as to whether it happened, and so on… I have used this approach at the college level.” [6]
Of course, no college student — indeed, no grade-school dropout — doubts that “the present is different from the past.” Once Scott gets them nodding in agreement, she gradually introduces them to what she calls “The Big Idea” that all species — including monkeys and humans — are related through descent from a common ancestor, modified by unguided natural processes. “Darwin called this ‘descent with modification’,” she writes, “and it is still the best definition of evolution we can use.” [7]
Since logic is no longer a standard part of the curriculum, students might not notice that this is the time-worn fallacy of equivocation — changing the meaning of a term in the middle of an argument. Equivocation can make anything imply anything else. As a result, rational thought disappears.
So rather than learn Scott’s word games, biology students should begin by learning to distinguish “evolution” from “Darwinism” and “evolutionist” from “Darwinist.” Or “Darwinian” — it’s one and the same.
[1] Scott was quoted by Nina Shapiro in The Seattle Weekly, August 29, 2007. Available at http://www.seattleweekly.com/2007-08-29/news/rural-school-board-candidate-hasn-t-been-forthcoming-about-his-intelligent-design-agenda.php
[2] Pim van Meurs, “Lynn Margulis ‘Definitely a Darwinist’,” The Panda’s Thumb, September 5, 2005. Available at http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2005/09/lynn_margulis_d.html
[3] Niles Eldredge, “Confessions of a Darwinist,” The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2006. Available at http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2006/spring/eldredge-confessions-darwinist/
[4] Wilson was quoted by Jerry Adler in “Evolution of a Scientist,” Newsweek (November 28, 2005), pp. 50-58, esp. p. 53.
[5] J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), Vol. IV, p. 257.
Asa Gray, Darwiniana: Essays and Reviews Pertaining to Darwinism (New York: D. Appleton, 1876).
Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwinism: An Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection, With Some of Its Applications (London: Macmillan, 1889).
Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 116-117, 505.
Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), passim.
A. M. Silverstein, “Darwinism and Immunology,” Nature Immunology 4 (2003): 3-6.
G. S. Levit, U. Hossfeld, and L. Olsson, “The Integration of Darwinism and Evolutionary Morphology,” Journal of Experimental Zoology B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution 302 (2004): 343-354.
[6] Eugenie C. Scott, “Dealing with Anti-Evolutionism,” University of California (Berkeley) Museum of Paleontology web site. Available at http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/fosrec/Scott2.html
[7] ibid.

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.