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Term Limits: Eugenie C. Scott and the Retirement of “Darwinism”

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Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and a longtime critic of Darwin skeptics, has announced that she is retiring after more than 26 years of "overcoming obstacles to evolution education" (that is the title of the NCSE’s regular column in the open-access journal Evolution: Education and Outreach). Undoubtedly, others at ENV will have more to say about Dr. Scott’s departure. In the meantime, it seems like an appropriate occasion to consider her advocacy of another retirement: that of the word "Darwinism."

To kick off the celebration of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday (February 11, 2009), Dr. Scott coauthored an essay titled "Don’t Call It ‘Darwinism.’" Terms have limits, she argued, and this one has got to go. Her reasons for seeking to force the retirement of the term "Darwinism" (and "neo-Darwinism") are weak. And, since her essay appeared, many even on her own side of the evolution debate have declined to take her advice. What can we learn from this failed attempt to impose term limits?

Scott summed up her argument this way:

Evolutionary biology owes much to Charles Darwin, whose discussions of common descent and natural selection provide the foundations of the discipline. But evolutionary biology has expanded well beyond its foundations to encompass many theories and concepts unknown in the 19th century. The term “Darwinism” is, therefore, ambiguous and misleading. Compounding the problem of “Darwinism” is the hijacking of the term by creationists to portray evolution as a dangerous ideology — an “ism” — that has no place in the science classroom. When scientists and teachers use “Darwinism” as synonymous with evolutionary biology, it reinforces such a misleading portrayal and hinders efforts to present the scientific standing of evolution accurately. Accordingly, the term “Darwinism” should be abandoned as a synonym for evolutionary biology.

Today "neo-Darwinism" is commonly used to refer to the version of Darwin’s theory that has been current since the 1930s (and that represents the majority viewpoint today, with some modifications). For the sake of simplicity, and since the 1930s don’t seem so "neo" anymore, it is now common to refer to the contemporary update of Darwin’s theory simply as "Darwinism." Consider this sample of publications that have appeared since Eugenie Scott put her warning label on the term “Darwinism” (emphasis mine):

  1. Brinkworth, Martin H., and Friedel Weinert. Evolution 2.0: Implications of Darwinism in Philosophy and the Social and Natural Sciences. Heidelberg; New York: Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, 2012. Part III of this anthology is titled "Philosophical Aspects of Darwinism in the Life Sciences," and it focuses on contemporary biology.
  2. Brooks, Daniel R. "The Extended Synthesis: Something Old, Something New." Evolution: Education and Outreach 4, no. 1 (2011): 3-7. See my comments below about Brooks’s promotion of Darwinism as the "future of biology."
  3. Wilson, Catherine. "Darwinian Morality." Evolution: Education & Outreach 3, no. 2 (2010): 275-287.
  4. Deichmann, Ute, and Anthony S. Travis. Darwinism, Philosophy, and Experimental Biology. New York: Springer, 2010. The essays in this anthology include both historical studies and analysis of contemporary biology such as "How Evolutionary Biology Presently Pervades Cell and Molecular Biology," by Michel Morange.
  5. Savic, D. J. "Adaptive Mutations: A Challenge to Neo-Darwinism?" Science Progress 92 (2009): 447-468. Dragutin Savic is professor of Molecular Genetics at the Faculty of Sciences, University of Belgrade. He spent several years as a visiting scientist at Johns Hopkins University, Carolinska Institute and Institute J. Monod. This article considers whether certain mutational events are "directed, Cairnsian, or selection-induced."

Let’s look a little more closely at a few of the items in this sample bibliography to further document the failure (or very limited success) of Eugenie Scott’s terminology blackout memo.

David Vecchi’s chapter in the book Evolution 2.0 is called "Taking Biology Seriously: Neo-Darwinism and Its Many Challenges." Vecchi opens a section called "Mapping the Future of Biology" (p. 227-228, emphasis mine) with this comment about evolutionary biology since the 1930s "neo-Darwinism" or "Modern Synthesis":

Of course, we should be critical of any approach that calls for a radical re-interpretation or even abandonment of the neo-Darwinian perspective. What many practitioners seem to be opposing is rather the result of a long-going and multi-faceted process of “hardening” of the Modern Synthesis’ interpretation of Darwinism, as already chronicled in some respects by Gould [6]. However, it should be noted that, historically, some neo-Darwinians have been more open-minded than others, and that Dawkins’ version of neo-Darwinism remains fringe despite its popular success [7]. Furthermore, it is clear enough that we are not on the verge of a Kuhnian revolution in biology, the essential reason being that Darwin got it fundamentally right: life on earth is diverse but interrelated via common ancestry, and it evolves by natural selection. No sensible biologist would deny that selection happens and that it is real. But many people would add that something more happens, as I will try to show in the rest of the paper. Biology is in need of an extension, and the reasons to celebrate Darwin’s genius remain intact.

Even though Vecchi published this with Springer, the publisher behind Evolution: Education and Outreach where Eugenie Scott’s D-word essay appeared, apparently he did not get (or admire) Eugenie Scott’s blackout memo. Darwinism, he argues, is an important term for the future of evolutionary biology.

Consider this article in the same journal as Eugenie Scott’s essay: Brooks, Daniel R. "The Extended Synthesis: Something Old, Something New." Evolution: Education and Outreach 4, no. 1 (2011): 3-7 (p. 3, emphasis mine):

We must extend back in time to recover important aspects of Darwinism that were set aside, and then lost during neo-Darwinism, then move forward beyond neo-Darwinism to encompass new data and concepts. . . . I am attracted to an older concept in which biology needs a covering law to connect it with the rest of the natural sciences. Darwin implicated a “higher law,” but did not specify it. If we can elucidate that law, the Extended Synthesis will become the Unified Theory of Biology called for by Brooks and Wiley 25 years ago.

The same journal, which is aimed at "K-16 students, teachers and scientists," published this article: Wilson, Catherine. "Darwinian Morality." Evolution: Education & Outreach 3, no. 2 (2010): 275-287. What does Wilson recommend for evolution education (p. 275, emphasis mine)?

According to the terms of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, we human beings are the descendants of ape-like forebears and the remote descendants of one-celled organisms that once floated in a primeval ocean. . . . . It is pointless to ask what the purpose of our existence is. Our species is here because a number of singly improbable events converged to bring our species onto the stage, and there are only the particular purposes that we establish for ourselves. The universe is not in the hands of a powerful and intelligent agent whose benevolence will ensure that everything will turn out for the best.

Many philosophers find these views inspiring, rather than bleak, liberating, rather than dispiriting. The appreciation of our kinship with nonhuman animals and the sense of the unity and coherence of the natural world that Darwinism implies arouse sentiments as respectful as those experienced by religious believers while leaving no doubt that the remediation of social injustice and the restoration and repair of the environment are up to us. Steven Pinker has argued recently that attention to the new human sciences and especially to “evolutionary psychology,” the study of the evolutionary history of attitudes, emotions, and mental capabilities, promises “a naturalness in human relationships, encouraging us to treat people in terms of how they do feel rather than how some theory says they ought to feel” (Pinker 2002, xi).

Without ever giving good reasons, she suggests that the "Darwinism" that she affirms for evolution education can generate ethics that are as exalted as those systems based on traditional religions. Later Wilson states (p. 276) her main contribution to evolution education:

My central argument is that the biological sciences can contribute to moral progress — not just to the explanation of the origins and formation of moral attitudes and dispositions — but only by working to dispel the myths and superstitions that sustain oppressive social relations. The existence of measurable physical and psychological differences between individuals and between groups that are the result of random variation on one hand and the selective pressures operating on early humans and their ancestors on the other does not defeat arguments for the moral rightness and practical possibility of greater social equality.

Curiously, she simply asserts the existence of objective "moral rightness" without offering any argument to ground it. Catherine Wilson tries to distance herself from the Darwinian ethics that promoted "forced sterilization" and "genocide" in first half of the twentieth century (p. 277). She also is unsupportive of E. O. Wilson’s 1990s version of Darwinian ethics (p. 281). Later, she muses:

Can the biological sciences, whose early racist and militaristic extrapolations were refuted and rejected by the critical social sciences, re-emerge to cooperate with them? Can they do more than defend social inequalities and oppression as natural and inevitable in light of human biological differences? This is the key question for the future of evolutionary ethics. I would insist that the biological sciences can perform in this role but only to the extent that the field of evolutionary ethics can rise to the challenge of exploring the ways in which social oppression is based on mythology and ideology and to the extent that it can replace conventional beliefs with a scientifically more accurate image of people and their world.

Catherine Wilson hopes that evolution education (which includes evolutionary psychology as a "human science") will eliminate such traditional "mythology" in the following manner (p. 283):

The new human sciences, predicated on the assumption that not only our bodies but also our minds and feelings as well are the products of a long evolutionary history, can potentially help us to frame a more accurate image of reality than folklore, philosophy, or the imaginations of novelists and dramatists. For as worthwhile as these cultural forms are, they are not sources of moral knowledge uncolored by bias and unwarranted assumptions.

As I noted at the beginning of this essay, human beings have no functions, no purposes, in virtue of which their qualities can be evaluated, except those they themselves decide to adopt. A person is, from the biologist’s perspective, a temporary federation of replicators that are working to be represented in future generations, sometimes threatened, sometimes exploited, and sometimes assisted by other federations of replicators (Dawkins 1999). We exist not to glorify God, nor to exercise rationality, nor to bring about any particular conditions of society, but merely because we are assemblages of successful replicators.

This kind of evolution education is a public relations nightmare for Eugenie Scott. The NCSE under Scott’s direction has built strategic alliances with many members of the "faith community." Catherine Wilson’s ethical "Darwinism" can’t hope to win over many theists. Of course many evolutionary biologists today distance themselves from such views, but the inner logic of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism up to the present day strongly suggests this sort of ethical and educational outcome (or something like it).

What lesson can we learn from Eugenie Scott’s failed attempt to impose term limits on "Darwinism" and "neo-Darwinism"? Simply that there are just too many scientists and historians/philosophers of science who will not allow Scott’s ideologically driven educational agenda to prescribe how such terms are to be used. Although Eugenie Scott is now about to enjoy her own retirement, "Darwinism" and "neo-Darwinism" (as terms for contemporary thinking about evolution) will probably have many more years of active service before they retire.

Cross-posted at The Christian Post.