Why I dislike the expression Darwinism

Political feuds have the ability to morph you into the caricature your opponents draw of you.

Natural selection is the means by which the human species came about, but I don’t like calling this Darwinism, for two reasons. The first one is that Darwin’s theory of natural selection had its flaws: he thought it was a continuous matter, that offspring was the average of its parents rather than a mix of indivisible genes (curiously enough, Mendel who did discover that there are discrete traits, was not a Darwinist). Secondly, most importantly, is that it does make the whole enterprise feel a bit like religion where Darwin was the prophet.

If Darwin had been struck by a tree early in his life, we’d still think that natural selection is true (in fact, we’d have found out about it at more or less the same time, as Wallace was about to scoop Darwin and forced him to rush to print his book).

This is also why I have absolutely no interest in his views on religion.

*

I was reminded of this when I recently read the allegations that Darwin plagiarized his ideas. Not from Wallace, but from some obscure Scotsman.

Patrick Matthew was a rich Scotsman who basically published the Theory of Evolution 30 years before Darwin, but nobody paid attention to him as he published in a low impact-factor journal [yeah, not really, but the 1800s equivalent of a low-impact journal: a book on Naval Timber].

Perhaps Patrick Matthew should be better known and Darwin a footnote. But because “we” have accepted the term “Darwinism” to refer to natural selection, there is more resistance to throwing Darwin out of the pedestal than there should be.

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2 thoughts on “Why I dislike the expression Darwinism

  1. “Perhaps Patrick Matthew should be better known and Darwin a footnote.”

    — I think this is the point of contention, and it’s unlikely to be true: Darwin did much more than just formulate the theory of evolution that we stick by today (with amendments large and small, but its core idea remarkably unchanged): first off, he was a brilliant science communicator. He simply did more than Matthew and Wallace combined to popularise the theory of evolution and did so in a precise and lucid way that future generations of scientists could build upon. It’s no coincidence that both “On the origin of species” and “The descent of men” are still read, and still more often quoted.

    But more importantly, Darwin was a truly brilliant, diligent and industrious naturalist. He not only formulated a theory, but collected numerous specimens over many decades, kept meticulous records of all his observations, and put all this empirical evidence carefully into relation to support an argument for a theory that was, despite being on the cusp of acceptance, truly ground-breaking and thus had to convince a huge number of sceptics.

    We’d still have modern biology without Darwin, but its progress would probably have been delayed by decades. And Darwin is independently and justifiably held up as a model scientist.

    That said, I agree with you about calling this theory Darwinism, and a lot of problems in science could be avoided more generally if we avoided this kind of ego-stroking.

    • I’m not against all ego-stroking, and I’m fine putting Darwin in the Pantheon, just not calling the whole enterprise “Darwinism.”

      Calling it Relativity and not Einsteinism doesn’t take any credit away from Einstein.

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