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Darwinism: Imagining the unimaginable, and cutting through the terminology fog

First, imagining the unimaginable

American-born Warwick U sociologist Steve Fuller writes to share the news that his book was Book of the Week in Times Higher, where Keith Ward tries to give a reasonable though plodding account of what he is writing about:

… , Fuller argues that there is no reason to call ID non-scientific. It is a good integrating hypothesis – as good as astrology (now disproved) and Darwinian evolution (another grand theory that may soon be disproved). He provides interesting examples of how religiously inspired ID views have driven the work of many eminent biologists, and suggests that ID should be promoted as “an openly religious viewpoint with scientific aspirations”.

That’s certainly not something that the previous Guardian writer even tried to do.

It’s dull, but it’s progress. And it’s interesting that Ward can bring himself to think that Darwinian evolution “may soon be disproved.” I wonder how many Darwinbots will write to protest any such suggestion?

The problem right now is actually a bit deeper and wider though than Ward suggests: Darwinian evolution is in no fit state to be disproved. If it were so, that would be progress.

To some, it means “cosmic Darwinism,” to others, the “selfish gene” that creates “memes” that rule our minds, to others, group selection (long a no-no). To some, it still means a parsimonious, testable idea: Natural selection acting on random mutation to produce new species.

But there is only weak evidence that new species commonly arise that way. There are a number of ways that they might in fact arise, including gene-swapping, neoteny, and front-loaded design.

Some think that sexual selection, Darwin’s other theory, should be included, but the problem is that at least one of its legendary icons (the peacock’s tail) is in serious* trouble.

Similarly, even common ancestry, long accorded the status of a religious** belief, is showing cracks. For one thing, gene swapping, where it occurs, makes ancestry irrelevant, unless you mean where a given gene came from – information that may not be available or even important.

Terminology fog

And still others, like Olivia Judson of the New York Times, want to abandon the term altogether. For example, Judson writes,

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.

In my view, the main reason Judson wants to abolish the terms is that terms – of any type – force us to at least try to define what circumscribes the field we are talking about. What, for example, is it not?

Is “evolutionary psychology”, as portrayed in Psychology Today, a science? In what way? Are evolutionary biologists prepared to say that it is not a science? Few seem to be.

Their problem is most likely this: Once we confess that the obvious flim flam is not science, we will inevitably go on to address other questionable items, like the peacock’s tale and the Monarch-Viceroy butterfly mimicry puzzle. To the extent that those proposed examples of evolution according to Darwin’s theories of sexual and natural selection respectively at least try to be science, the evidence against them must count, as well as the evidence for them.

As friend David Rice III writes to say,

I’m inclined to agree …. I really think that the reason they don’t like the term is precisely because it IS a term. If the Darwinists don’t like the word Darwinism then the burden is on them to come up with another term that suits them. Instead they want to talk about the ‘field’ of modern evolutionary biology…a ‘field’ suggests an entire panoply of possible options making it that much easier for the Darwinist to maneuver around arguments against it – just switch the emphasis and you’re all of a sudden off the hook. Real arguments don’t work that way.

A war over terminology is much safer for evolutionary biologists right now than a hard look at the true state of the evidence for and against Darwin’s account of the history of life. So, here’s a prediction: Expect many more efforts to make a smokescreen out of terminology.

Which reminds me: One possible sign of significant change is that unleashing a horde of Darwinbots to swamp a discussion of evidence with protestations of faith in faith may be a much less useful tactic now than it was five years ago.

(* I suspect other examples are in trouble too. For one thing, the theory requires us to believe that the females of many relatively stupid species are somehow able to assess male fitness using burdensome secondary characteristics that supposedly pose a handicap that only the strongest can bear. Such theorizing exists only to protect the theory from falsification, not to explain the behaviour of hen birds.
**as when someone writes to me to ask if I “accept” common ancestry, using the same idiom as the door-to-door evangelist who wants to know if I “accept” Jesus.)

Also, just up at the Design of Life blog

Cells: Scientists learning to tap cells’ regenerative power, to regrow organs, fingertips

First detailed map of the Grand Central Station of the brain

Animation of life inside the cell as high art?

Cladograms: Reconstructing evolution’s history depends on the assumptions you start with.

Learning biology is more fun with free virtual cell animations

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20 Responses to Darwinism: Imagining the unimaginable, and cutting through the terminology fog

  1. If the Darwinists don’t like the word Darwinism then the burden is on them to come up with another term that suits them.

    We have done – we’re evolutionary biologists. As in sentences like “Are evolutionary biologists prepared to say that it is not a science?”.

  2. Sorry, Bob, but “evolutionary biologist” is a term that is not equivalent to Darwinism by any stretch of the imagination. Darwinism captures the rhetorical and philosophical stance associated with RM+NS. The RM+NS theoretical baggage is neither necessary nor critical to much of biology, and one can certainly be a biologist — even an evolutionary biologist — without being a Darwinist. At the same time, one can be a Darwinist without being a biologist.

  3. Bob

    What about Lynn Margulis referring to herself as a Darwinist in her keynote speech at the 2005 Woodstock of Evolution?

    Surely you’re not going to say Margulis isn’t a widely recognized evolutionary biologist. Dick to the Dawk had this to say about her:

    I greatly admire Lynn Margulis’s sheer courage and stamina in sticking by the endosymbiosis theory, and carrying it through from being an unorthodoxy to an orthodoxy. I’m referring to the theory that the eukaryotic cell is a symbiotic union of primitive prokaryotic cells. This is one of the great achievements of twentieth-century evolutionary biology, and I greatly admire her for it.

    Margulis calling herself a Darwinist really takes the wind out of the sails of anyone claiming that use of “Darwinist” is something foisted upon chance worshippers by intelligence worshippers.

  4. I think we’re all in agreement here. I agree with Eric that one can be an evolutionary biologist without being a “Darwinist”. OTOH, one can also be a Darwinist and an evolutionary biologist. My point was simply that we already have a term for people who study evolutionary biology, so there is no need to invent one.

    I also suspect that different people mean different things by “Darwinist”, which just makes things even more confusing.

  5. Bob, I think you’re right that people may mean different things, and we probably all should be more careful with our terminology.

    In my experience, folks like Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells have been pretty careful, certainly in recent years, in using “Darwinism” to mean the idea that a random process (such as random mutations) coupled with selection is a primary, or even a significant, driver of biological development and diversity. That is how they use the term in their books and is, I think, the same sense that many of us would attach to the word.

    I suppose someone could call themselves a “Darwinist” just because they thought he was a great guy, without any particular technical meaning. And then there have been devout individuals who see RM+NS as being, if not the only driver of evolution, then certainly the most important, and as a result tend to conflate Darwinism with the broader concept of evolution itself. So you’re right, we could all probably do better at being careful with terms.

  6. “Evolutionary biologist” doesn’t cut it, sorry.

    Presumably, like “freelance journalist”, that’s an occupation if anyone will pay for it.

    A “Darwinist” is a supporter of Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. But how broad is that now?

    Does it include or exclude the current speculations of evolutionary psychology?

    What about Darwin’s theory of sexual selection – in or out?

    What about Darwinian speculations around the origin of life or the cosmos?

    What exactly did Margulis mean when she said she was a “Darwinist”? She was in fact proposing a theory that Darwin had never imagined.

    (Dawkins’s choice to be nice to her doesn’t answer that question.)

    I could go on but I won’t because it is most unlikely that I will get clear answers that represent a general consensus.

    I suspect that is the main reason why Keith Ward thinks that Darwinism may well be disconfirmed soon – though I believe that he puts the matter wrongly. It will not achieve a clear enough statement to be disconfirmable.

    Prediction: THe next stage will be an elaborate attempt to claim that theories in science do not need to be stated in such a way that anyone could know if they are correct for a given situation or not, and that people who offer contrary evidence should be treated with suspicion.

  7. Denyse

    Margulis said she wasn’t a neo-Darwinist but was still a Darwinist. I take that to mean she still believes natural selection is the filter through which new variants must pass but doesn’t believe that random mutation is the source of variants. She believes exchange of genetic information between disparate species is the main source of variants.

    BobOH

    One can be a Darwinist without being an evolutionary biologist. It refers to anyone who believes that random variation & natural selection explain most or all of the diversity in life. You know, just like you all call me a creationist. Would you feel better if I didn’t capitalize it, like darwinist? I don’t mind. Just say the word.

  8. Dave points out: “Margulis said she wasn’t a neo-Darwinist but was still a Darwinist. I take that to mean she still believes natural selection is the filter through which new variants must pass but doesn’t believe that random mutation is the source of variants. She believes exchange of genetic information between disparate species is the main source of variants.”

    Ah yes, exactly. Are both neo-Darwinism and Margulis’s vision the new Darwinism? One? The other? Neither? No one knows?

    It is useless to ask what weight each should have, I suppose.

    No wonder journalist Susan Mazur got suspicious.

    At this point, ritual claims like “I am a Darwinist” don’t really settle any question because it is impossible to know their content and where they stand in relation to other such proclamations by people who have different visions about early life.

    Unless, of course, the proclaimer merely means “I want to keep my job so I endorse the status quo, whatever it is” or “I am an aggressive ideological atheist pursuing my sectarian ideology on office time and prepared to go to the courts and the supine media if anyone questions my right to do so.”

    That’s very useful to know – but only in a purely political sense. It is not an answer to any science question.

  9. OK, here are the claims in the comments of what Darwinism means:

    Darwinism captures the rhetorical and philosophical stance associated with RM+NS.

    (I don’t really know what this means, and evolution doesn’t reduce down to “RM+NS”, so who is being implicated here?)

    A “Darwinist” is a supporter of Darwin’s theory of the origin of species.

    (note that this means that nobody is a Darwinist – our theories of speciation post-date Darwin. Even if you mean his evolutionary theories, then there are still no Darwinists – the theories of heredity he used were wrong. The evolutionary theories we have now have, naturally, evolved.)

    Margulis said she wasn’t a neo-Darwinist but was still a Darwinist. I take that to mean she still believes natural selection is the filter through which new variants must pass but doesn’t believe that random mutation is the source of variants.

    So much for Darwinism being RM+NS. Also, this would exclude almost everyone working in evolutionary biology, so again who are these Darwinists?

    At this point, ritual claims like “I am a Darwinist” don’t really settle any question because it is impossible to know their content and where they stand in relation to other such proclamations by people who have different visions about early life.

    Quite. I think the comments here have demonstrated this, point, and I totally agree. Does this mean we all agree with Olivia Judson that it’s a term best not used?

    Oh, and Dave, you’ve upset me:

    You know, just like you all call me a creationist.

    Now I know I’ve called you a few things over the past few years, but I don’t think I’ve ever sunk that low.

  10. If we want, it can be simple:

    1) Darwinist (or any name you prefer): one who believes that OOL and evolution of species is caused by some mix of unguided, random variation plus some form of unguided fixing (NS, genetic drift). Intelligent design as a causation is completely excluded. These people also believe that there is some rational and believable theory which explains the relationship between those causes and their supposed effects, and that such a theory is well supported by known facts.

    2) Non darwinist: one who does not believe in the above statements. Usually an IDist, that is one who believes that Intelligent Design is a fundamental causal principle necessary to explain OOL and evolution of species in a rational and believable way. Implicit is the conviction that any mix of the causal factors described at point one cannot explain OOL and evolution of species, for both logical and empirical reasons.

  11. GP, et al:

    Pardon a fairly direct observation: when adherents of — and, especially, advocates for — a theory/research programme begin to disavow their more or less direct intellectual progenitors, that is a telling sign.

    BTW, Bob, last I checked, it seemed fairly clear that random/chance mutations and natural selection were the major/typical proposed mechanisms associated with the neo-darwinian synthesis and its derivatives; i.e. pace “prof Wiki” et al, genetic mutations have been a part of the game since the 1930s or so. Sure, there are dozens of other suggested mechanisms, some of which are acknowledged to be more or less minor, some of which are held by their proponents to actually be more important than the above, but that does not change the fact of that strong ASSOCIATION.

    We are dealing with:

    a –> chance [i.e. undirected, without foresight, based on more or less accident] variations in a config space associated with an organism (i.e. chance/random variation), and with

    b –> associated issues of (eventually) enhanced/ reduced chances of survival and reproduction, leading to population changes. That is, natural selection. These are alleged to be

    c –> responsible for major, body-plan level biodiversity on earth, especially over the past 600 MY or so (i.e macroevolution).

    From where I sit, DaveScot is therefore sufficiently right to have the main point:

    a Darwinist [is] . . . anyone who believes that random variation & natural selection explain most or all of the diversity in life.

    Nor, pace Wiki et al, will it do to suggest that because “Creationists” use it pejoratively, it is a term of insult that must be avoided. (H’mm, I thought that the main narrative was that “Creationists” were supposedly a tiny circle of “obscurants” who could be ignored or dismissed . . .?)

    Indeed, if anyone has a right to protest seriously, it is the intelligent design advocates who — with malice aforethought — are insistently tagged with a label they have consistently repudiated and which connotes a [loaded language!] biblical frame of reference that is simply not the root of the modern ID movement.

    And if you want more direct reference in description, here is my general, descriptive term: “evolutionary materialists” in the first instance, and then in the second instance whatever variation on that dominant scheme is applicable, ranging from NDT advocates, to various older and modern non-darwinian schools of thought, to the various forms of theistic evolutionism, etc.

    The advantage: it identifies that we are here dealing with

    [a] first of all, a worldview and its agendas [which must stand up on its own merits and in the face of comparative difficulties analysis, i.e evo mat thought is in the end at root a faith commitment to a particular philosophy, not just "science" -- and one has a right to reject a worldview if it does not pass these tests . . .],

    [b] with an associated scientific research programme that has used worldview commitments to attempt to redefine science to its advantage [and with little or no historical or philosophical justification],

    [c] it points out that there is a cascade of associated evolutions claimed: cosmological, chemical, macro- biological [micro is non-controversial], socio-cultural,

    [d] it thus invites discussion of what Denyse has termed the four unexplained big bangs:

    1 –> cosmological fine-tuning,

    2 –> OOL in the teeth of the issue that complex functional information is only obserfved to originate from pre-existing intelligent action,

    3 –> the linked issue of body-plan origination level macroevolution (starting with the Cambrian phyla- and sub-phyla- level explosion],

    4 –> OO credible mind (and of binding morals within that context, as the now notorious Provine statement in his 1994 debate with Philip Johnson brings out ever so clearly . . .)

    [e] in particular, we can see that evolutionary materialism faces the basic challenge of self-referential incoherence, and that its associated stance on morality is highly relativistic and seriously dangerous in light of the very easily made and sadly historically important social darwinist inference: might makes right.

    But, then, on second thought, Darwinism, with a bit of thought in light of the history of ideas and their consequences, also brings out these same associations . . .

    GEM of TKI

  12. BobOH

    You’ve never used the term intelligent design creationism or IDC for short? Certainly many if not most of your peer group use it regularly.

    And by the way, Margulis isn’t the only one on your side to call themself a Darwinist. Check this out. I’ll let you figure out for yourself who wrote it:

    “To a convinced Darwinian like myself it may seem puzzling that in this day and age Darwinism should still be in need of defense. [...] The attacks come not only from fundamentalists, but surprisingly also from humanists, philosophers and even from certain biologists who accept evolution but reject the Darwinian explanation. We must be grateful to Michael Ruse for having undertaken to scrutinise the validity of the anti-Darwinian arguments.”

  13. ave – I don’t think I have, although I may have erred. But yes, I know a lot of other people use IDC.

    “undertaken to scrutinise”? Ugh.

    *googles*

    Ah. Well, that was over 25 years ago.

  14. What is a Darwinist, after all, except someone who believes that evolution is a purposeless, mindless, unguided process. Inasmuch as ID can accept either macro or micro evolution, we need some term to identify the ideology that rejects designed evolution in principle, regardless of the evidence. That, of course, would be Darwinism (which includes neo-Darwinism and modern evolutionary synthesis).

    In the old days, we could distinguish the Darwinist from theistic evolutionist, because the moiker TE once referred to someone who believed in a God-directed, non-Darwinistic macro evolution. Most of todays TEs, however, are indistinguishable from the Darwinists, because they too argue for a purposeless, mindless process with this twist: In order to fool people, they use the language of teleology while arguing for a non-teleological process. That is why they hijacked the term TE—so they could talk out of both sides of their mouth.

    The real conflict is not between evolution vs non-evolution. All three camps either accept or can tolerate macro evolution. The real conflict is between design vs. non design. We need a word to describe non-design evolutionists, who, unlike TEs, will not even pay lip service to design, and that word is Darwinism. Naturally, Darwinists don’t like that designation because it portrays them accurately and, therefore, compromises their capacity to obfuscate.

    Its very odd when you think about it. On the one hand, Darwinists get indignant when we call them Darwinists, even though that is exactly what they are. On the other hand, they feel no hesitancy to call us ID creationists, even though we are nothing of the kind. Dishonesty always breeds its reciprocal lie.

  15. On the other hand, they feel no hesitancy to call us ID creationists, even though we are nothing of the kind.

    They sound sooo funny when they use that term verbally.

  16. BobOH

    25 years it ago it may have been but the author is still pretty respected by evolutionary biologists today, right?

    See if you can bring yourself to name the self-identified Darwinist for everyone here. :lol:

  17. PZ Mayr?

    Ernst Myers?

    Something like that.

  18. 18

    Hello?

    Anybody home?

  19. There’s nobody here but us chickens.

  20. Bob:

    Cheep, cheep . . .

    [And, why not further address the substantial matters . . . more than enough to chew on above.]

    GEM of TKI

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