Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Abolishing "Darwinism"

Olivia Judson has a very good entry on how much the field of biology has changed since Darwin's day, how much he got right, and how his few simple ideas have turned out to have so much explanatory power.

And she correctly notes that the term Darwinism to refer to all this implies something that simply isn't true:

I’d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed. (The science would be in a sorry state if one man 150 years ago had, in fact, discovered everything there was to say.) Obsessively focusing on Darwin, perpetually asking whether he was right about this or that, implies that the discovery of something he didn’t think of or know about somehow undermines or threatens the whole enterprise of evolutionary biology today.
And she's absolutely correct, of course. Her concluding paragraph, pointing out that we don't call aeronautical engineering Wrightism, is very good.

My own observation, for what it's worth. Those most likely to use the term Darwinism seem to be creationists of various ilks, looking for a convenient tag to cover evolutionary biology, genetics, and whatever else they're worked up about that day. It also seems to be a symptom of the religionist mindset: Truth is something eternal, that is revealed by prophets. Therefore, if someone believes incorrectly, they must have been led astray by a false prophet. Obviously, the false prophet must be discredited. Therefore the assault on Darwinism.

Of course, in science, truth is contingent, peer-reviewed, and evidence-based. It turns out Darwin was wrong about some specific examples, and he didn't know enough about genetics to understand how traits could be inherited. (No one knew enough about genetics at the time, the basic principles were still being worked out and the existence and role of DNA wasn't even suspected.) Do Darwin's mistakes mean the entire edifice comes crumbling down? Not at all! Gaps are filled in, mistakes corrected, and the science moves on. Indeed, if it turned out that every one of Darwin's examples was wrong (they weren't, but suppose for argument), evolutionary biology would continue just fine.

By casting it as "Darwinism vs Christianity," as though both are religions, the creationists attempt to frame the debate in a method most likely to appeal to their supporters, and reveal the biases of their own thinking. (Is my thinking biased? Undoubtedly. But I maintain that a bias in favor of testing against evidence leads to better results than a bias in favor of listening to self-proclaimed prophets.)

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