No, I’m not a Darwinist

12 04 2007

The terms “Darwinist,” “Darwinism,” and other variations on the same theme get thrown around a lot these days, both by accusatory creationists and some evolutionists, but I have to say that I am certainly not a Darwinist. How can I say this? Well, yesterday a 2nd edition (1874, Rand, McNally & Company) copy of The Descent of Man And Selection in Relation to Sex arrived at more doorstep and I spent most of the evening going through the first two chapters of the book. Charles Darwin did revolutionize science and have some great ideas, but he was not the scientific equivalent of a saint or got everything right, especially when it came to inheritance of characters through use & disuse. While some, like Dr. Egnor, continue to make the mistake of claiming Darwin believed natural selection to be the sole “means of modification,” Darwin addressed such misunderstandings in the preface to the second edition of The Descent of Man;

I may take this opportunity of remarking that my critics frequently assume that I attribute all changes of corporeal structure and mental power exclusively to the natural selection of such variations as are often called spontaneous; whereas, even in the first edition of the ‘Origin of Species,’ I distinctly stated that great weight must be attributed to the inherited effects of use and disuse, with respect both to the body and mind. I also attributed some amount of modification to the direct and prolonged action of changed conditions of life. Some allowance, too, must be made for occasional reversions of structure; nor must we forget what I have called “correlated” growth, meaning, thereby, that various parts of the organization are in some unknown manner so connected, that when one part varies, so do others; and if variations in the one are accumulated by selection, other parts will be modified. Again, it has been said by several critics, that when I found that many details of structure in man could not be explained through natural selection, I invented sexual selection; I gave, however, a tolerably clear sketch of this principle in the first edition of the ‘Origin of Species,’ and I there stated that it was applicable to man.

While Darwin is of course correct that natural selection on variations is the be-all and end-all of evolution, some of the other ideas have fallen by the wayside. Does his inclusion of use and disuse in these matters take away from the importance of his contributions to evolutionary science? I don’t believe so; we can’t all be right 100% of the time and I don’t think Darwin expected to be. Even so, if I were to call myself a “Darwinist” I would have to accept what Darwin stated dogmatically (the term does have a pseudo-religious tone to it, at least in my opinion), which I do not. Still, in oversimplification Darwin’s ideas and writings have seemingly been generalized to the point where many make the same mistakes as many creationists, and perhaps a return to some detail in discussing Darwin and his ideas would help illuminate (rather than obscure) the facts.


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10 responses

12 04 2007
Chris Harrison

“Darwinists” is usually used by creationists because it has a pejorative twang to it. It’s suggests that Darwin’s insights are the entire sum of evolutionary science, and so it appears as though “Darwinists” are following 150 year old teachings. Basically, when IDers and creationists use the term, they are desperately trying to drag evolutionary biology down to the same level as their religious faith. They want Darwin to be “our” messiah, and so they call us “Darwinists”. It’s stupid, but it doesn’t help when well-known ev. biologists (Dawkins, most notably) characterize themselves as Darwinists.
Funnily enough, even though evolutionary biology has grown perhaps 1000 fold since Darwin’s time, the IDers arguments(stuff is complex–must be designed) really haven’t changed since Paley.
They’re through and through Paleyists. I am not a Darwinist through and through, because science has advanced beyond anything Chuck could have imagined. Not so for the IDers.

12 04 2007
laelaps

Great comment Chris! It also didn’t help us very much when Ken Miller said “I’m an orthodox Darwinist” during the PBS evolution special; I still cringe when I hear that one.

While many scientists have good intentions I think as a whole they need to be more careful with word choice, i.e. stop referring to themselves as Darwinists, stop saying “theory of evolution,” stop saying “I believe in evolution,” etc. Such phrases are just asking to be misunderstood and twisted around, so we would do well to choose our words carefully.

I also read a little bit more of DoM today; Chuck was awfully progressive in his treatment of animal intelligence/emotions and it’s a wonderful source of anecdotal evidence, although at the same time this is the problem with the book. I was just glad I was able to find a 2nd edition in such great shape for so cheap.

12 04 2007
Chris Harrison

I didn’t know Ken Miller had described himself as a Darwinist. Bummer.

I don’t mind the phrase “theory of evolution”, provided the people in discussion are cognizant of what “theory” means in science. The “theory of evolution” is not on par with your buddy’s “theory that Right Guard attracts more chicks than Old Spice”.

This is another obvious point where the anti-evolutionists can score an easy goal to anyone not versed in scientific vernacular. It’s beautiful as a rhetorical device if you can suggest evolution wouldn’t be called a theory if it were verifiable.

12 04 2007
Chris Harrison

Oh yeah, and did you know you were used as a reference to the “Icons of Evolution” wikipedia page?
They cited your “It burns! It burns!” post here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icons_of_Evolution#_note-9

You’re getting famouser! heh

13 04 2007
laelaps

Indeed Chris, what I was really thinking (but failed to say) when I said the whole “theory of evolution” thing irks me is that when such a phrase is used it is rarely clarified; never have a seen a book on evolution that clarifies the importance and level of evidence needed to call something a theory. I suppose what I meant was that the word is thrown around so casually that it gives creationists to throw in the old “it’s only a theory” line.

And yes, I started seeing odd links track back here a while ago and discovered I’m on Wikipedia; I certainly feel proud.🙂 Hopefully my story won’t end up being a tragedy (the E! true story of one students rise to fame and fall into obscurity, haha) but I’m definitely glad more people are taking notice of what I have to say. As always, thanks for your contributions Chris; I always know there’s something good to read when I see an e-mail notification saying you’ve commented.

16 04 2007
Laelaps

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8 02 2012
thepilatesbiz

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22 03 2012
BankCardUSA

Kudos. unfortunately, procreation cant be removed from the equation. If there are special rights and privilages (loopholes) its to allow people to raise/provide for a family despite a government thats taking too much. If the government was anywhere close to its Constitutionally constrained size, this wouldnt be an argument and true equality would reign.

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