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The Catechism Versus the Data (Part 5): When Did Neo-Darwinism Become a Dirty Word?

Casey Luskin

This is the fifth installment of a series responding to John Timmer’s online review of the supplementary biology textbook Explore Evolution (EE). The first part is here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.

5. When Did Neo-Darwinism Become a Dirty Word?
Timmer objects to Explore Evolution‘s subtitle, “The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism,” claiming that “[d]uring the roughly 20 years I was directly involved in biology research, I’d never come across the term ‘Darwinism.'” EE‘s subtitle actually uses the word “neo-Darwinism,” not “Darwinism,” but regardless, Timmer’s complaint reveals more about his own ignorance than it does about any inaccuracy on the part of EE. Terms like “Darwinism” and “neo-Darwinism” (or similar cognates like “Darwinian,” “neo-Darwinian,” or “Darwinist”) regularly appear in both the technical scientific literature and textbooks about evolution, and they are repeatedly employed by contemporary scientists and philosophers of science.

In a book published just last year, for example, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne repeatedly labeled the modern theory of evolution as “neo-Darwinism”:

The modern theory of evolution, called neo-Darwinism in light of 150 years of post-Darwin research, has four parts… [p. 6]

Neo-Darwinism, like the theory of chemical bonds, has graduated from theory to fact. [p. 6]

Neo-Darwinism is thus a robust scientific theory, explaining a vast body of evidence, generating predictions that have been amply confirmed, and vulnerable to falsification, but showing itself more than capable of withstanding all scrutiny so far. [p.12]

(Jerry Coyne, “Intelligent Design: The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” in John Brockman, ed., Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement (New York: Random House, 2007), pp. 3-23.)

Coyne is far from an isolated example. The technical scientific literature is rife with terms such as “Darwinism” and “neo-Darwinism.” Perhaps Timmer is unfamiliar with this literature, but even a brief search of leading scientific journals would have revealed hundreds of references to “Darwinism,” “neo-Darwinism,” and their cognates. Since 1980, there have been more than a thousand references to “Darwinism” and cognate terms in the journal Science alone. Another 1,549 references have appeared in the journal Nature.

The usage of these terms is also commonplace in textbooks on evolution. Douglas Futuyma’s 2005 textbook Evolution defines “neo-Darwinism” as “[t]he modern belief that natural selection, acting on randomly generated genetic variation, is a major, but not the sole, cause of evolution.” (Futuyma, 2005, p. 550) Donald Prothero’s recent text, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, similarly references “Neo-Darwinism,” observing that it “extrapolates all larger evolutionary changes (macroevolution) as just microevolution writ large.” (Prothero, 2007, p. 94) Strickberger’s textbook Evolution equates “neo-Darwinism” with the “modern synthesis,” defining it as “a change in the frequencies of genes introduced by mutation, with natural selection considered as the most important, although not the only, cause for such changes.” (Strickberger, 2000 p. 649)

If terms like “Darwinism” or “neo-Darwinism” are unsavory to Timmer, then his beef is with his fellow evolutionists, not the writers of EE.

References Cited.
Jerry Coyne, “Intelligent Design: The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” in John Brockman, ed., Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement (New York: Random House, 2007).

Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolution (Sinaeur, 2005).

Donald R. Prothero, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters (Columbia University Press, 2007).

Monroe, W. Strickberger, Evolution (Jones & Bartlett, 3d ed., 2000).


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, 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.



Explore EvolutionJohn Timmer