What’s in a Word?

Jonathan Wells

Apparently, when the word is evolution, what’s in a word is whatever Darwinists want to put there.
On February 29 I predicted that Darwinists would try to take credit for a recent advance in understanding a mechanism of antibiotic resistance, even though the breakthrough owed nothing whatever to Darwinian theory. Not only did Darwinists Ian Musgrave and P. Z. Myers do as I predicted, but the latter also resorted (as usual) to personal insults — calling me “an appalling fraud” who is “too stupid” to understand the issue.
I responded on March 5. Not to be outdone by Myers, Darwinist Larry Moran jumped into the fray by calling me an “idiot” who is “completely unhinged” and who “makes a virtue out of lying for Jesus.”
Neuroscientist Michael Egnor criticized Moran for his vicious personal invective. In the process, Egnor paraphrased my position as follows:

Dr. Wells pointed out that research on antibiotic resistance wasn’t guided by Darwinian evolutionary theory. That evolution occurred — that is, that the population of bacteria changed over time — is obviously true, and obviously was relevant to the antibiotic resistance research. Dr. Wells made the observation that the research owed little to Darwin’s theory that all biological complexity arose by natural selection without teleology.

Myers then gloated that Egnor gave away the store by confessing that evolution is “obviously true,” and Moran offered to apologize to me if I would agree to this:

Maurice et al. (2006) employed evolution by natural selection in their methodology. My position is that evolution by natural selection is not what I mean when I use the word Darwinian.

Darn. I guess I’ll have to take a rain check on that apology — because I don’t agree with this — and not just because Maurice et al. (2008) are cited incorrectly. Here’s why.
“Evolution” has many meanings. It can mean simply “change over time.” The present is different from the past. The cosmos evolves. Technology evolves. No sane person denies evolution in this sense.
In biology, “evolution” can also refer to minor changes within existing species. Nobody denies evolution in this sense, either. People were observing such changes for centuries before Darwin came long; they were even producing them in plants and animals by artificial selection. Darwin (and Wallace) pointed out that something analogous to artificial selection operates in natural populations, but there is nothing “Darwinian” about artificial selection. Maurice et al. selected for mutant enzymes at one point in their research, but this was artificial selection, not natural selection, so I do not agree with the first sentence in Moran’s statement.
Nevertheless, “evolution by natural selection” does happen in the wild, and it can properly be called “Darwinian” (though it could also be called “Wallacian”). So I do not agree with the second sentence in Moran’s statement.
Lest some people mistakenly conclude that I accept Darwinian evolution broadly defined, I will make two other distinctions. The first is between “microevolution” and “macroevolution,” and the second is between “macroevolution” and “Darwinism.”
Regarding the first: Almost eighty years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, neo-Darwinist Theodosius Dobzhansky noted that there was still no hard evidence to connect small-scale changes within existing species (which he called “microevolution”) to the origin of new species, organs and body plans (which he called “macroevolution”). Dobzhansky wrote: “We are compelled at the present level of knowledge reluctantly to put a sign of equality between the mechanisms of macro- and microevolution, and proceeding on this assumption, to push our investigations as far ahead as this working hypothesis will permit.” 1 Unfortunately for Darwin, there has never been a confirmed case of natural selection producing a new species, much less new organs or body plans.2 So in 2008, seventy years after Dobzhansky and a century and a half after Darwin, the extrapolation from microevolution to macroevolution is still just an assumption.
Concerning the second and final distinction: Darwin didn’t just claim that natural selection could produce new species, organs and body plans. He went much further and argued that (a) all species are biologically descended from a common ancestor, and (b) their features were produced entirely by unguided natural processes. He wrote: “There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the winds blow.” 3 It is the claim of universal common ancestry coupled with the exclusion of design that I call “Darwinism.”
So “Darwinian evolution” can mean changes in existing species (“microevolution”) due to natural selection. This is what Egnor referred to as “obviously true,” and I agree. But for some people “Darwinian evolution” also includes the extrapolation from microevolution to macroevolution. This is far from obviously true; indeed, the evidence for it is underwhelming, at best.
Many people also use “Darwinian evolution” to refer to Darwin’s claim of universal common ancestry and his exclusion of design — that is, Darwinism. Far from being “obviously true” or even a working scientific hypothesis, Darwinism is really (as Phillip E. Johnson pointed out fifteen years ago 4) materialistic philosophy masquerading as empirical science.
Given the underwhelming evidence for macroevolution and the philosophical nature of Darwinism, people who espouse the latter often find it useful to obscure the distinctions among different meanings of “evolution,” “Darwinian microevolution,” “macroevolution,” and “Darwinism.”
For example, the National Center for Science Miseducation’s Eugenie Scott 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.” Once Scott gets students nodding in agreement, she gradually introduces them to “The Big Idea” — Darwinism.
There’s a word for this: equivocation.
There are other words for it, too, but I won’t go there.
1Theodosius Dobzhansky, Genetics and the Origin of Species, Reprinted 1982 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1937), p. 12.
2Jonathan Wells, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2006), Chapter 5 (“The Ultimate Missing Link”).
3Francis Darwin (editor), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: D. Appleton, 1887), Volume I, p. 278-285; Volume II, pp. 105-106.
4Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin On Trial, Revised Edition (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

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.