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.

Friday Links

1. False Positives from Next-Generation Sequencing

2. What I look for in software papers

I [frequently review] software papers which I define as publications whose primary purpose is to publicize a piece of scientific software and provide a traditional research product with hopes that it will receive citations and recognition from other researchers in grant and job reviews. To me this feels very much like hacking the publication recognition system rather than the ideal way to recognize and track the role of software in research communities, but a very practical one in the current climate.

3. On the organic movement and charlatanism

Unfortunately, charlatanism sells. When I was last in Portugal, I was disappointed to find out that one of the organic stores I used to patronize for their premium produce and hard to find food items had gone over to mostly selling small bottles of holy water at €1000/litre and “natural pills”. Their salespeople went from scruffy to dressing in white coats as “pretend doctors”. Ugh.

4. I read Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel.

Someone wrote about What Money Can’t Buy that it was wrong, but wrong in a way that many people are wrong. Therefore, it is a useful contribution to articulate exactly that argument. [1] In fact he writes:

I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity of the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life.

For example, here he is again:

In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihoo that, as a result of physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist?

In the conclusion he calls neo-Darwinism a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense.

Perhaps it is the task of philosophy (which we may as well call the science of the gaps) to articulate common sense. But the celebration of ignorance that is behind these claims is a bit silly.

5. Here is a good comment on the book. I think this is very much in line with if you care about winning, belittle your opponents arguments; if you care about truth, you improve their arguments for them (I think this was originally a Milton Friedman quote).

Neo-Darwinism perfectly explains why there are zombies. Once you have RNA, zombies are just a matter of time. To explain conscienceness is a harder problem.

[1] Of course, they are wrong in different ways. Michael Sandel is perhaps morally wrong in that his ideas cause a lot of unnecessary suffering and death (although, in another moral conception, those deaths are necessary and just—this is not something we can decide scientifically by looking at the world, but morally by deciding whether it is better that we preserve purity in some conception or that we avoid the deaths of others). Or he is philosophically wrong in that his ideas are contradictory. On the other hand, Thomas Nagel is scientifically wrong.