Don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. Part II, Naming and Framing

In Part I, I stated that if you equate evolution with Darwin, or, worse, if you describe our knowledge of evolution as “Darwin’s theory”, you are guilty of scientific, logical, historical, and pedagogic errors, and playing into the hands of the Creationists. Here I enlarge on these claims, and make recommendations about how best to describe both our own position, and that of our opponents.

Firstly, the historical. Darwin was well aware that his own achievements were part of a prolonged process (see Rebecca Stott’s outstanding recent book, Darwin’s Ghosts). After all, Alfred Russel Wallace had come up, quite independently, with the concept of natural selection, as perhaps did one or two other, more obscure, figures, while thinkers as diverse as Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather), Lamarck, and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire had developed their own ideas about the mutability of species.

Secondly, the scientific and pedagogical. As I indicated in Part I, Darwin’s theory (as we can call it, in the framework of its own time) did not contain within it anything resembling our modern concepts of genetics and mutation, while the identification of DNA as the material depository of genetic information lay almost a century in the future. When we teach about evolution today, we can use 21st-century molecular biology as our starting point; or we can point to the rich detail of the fossil record as examined by present-day techniques (think how recently we learned about feathered dinosaurs); or we can do competently what Haeckel did rather incompetently, and trace common features of embryonic development. Or we can talk about the cases of evolution being studied in the laboratory, or about the diversification of fish species in the natural laboratories provided by the great lakes of Africa. These topics show a live and vibrant science, greatly extending the concepts of a century and a half ago.

Finally, and most importantly, the logical and the rhetorical. Those who succeed in framing the terms of debate will gain an enormous advantage, regardless of the actual merits of their position. Lakoff (Don’t Think an Elephant) analyses how effectively the American Right have used this strategy, and as the current presidential election shows, the American Right and Creationism are now closely intertwined.

Attaching a proper name to a viewpoint suggests that it is individual, rather than part of a consensus, and marks it as incomplete, if not indeed superseded. Thus we speak of a Marxist or Freudian interpretation of history and human behaviour, and of Newtonian physics in contrast to relativistic or quantum physics. From this it is but a short step to the use of a proper name to discredit a point of view, rather like the use of proper names by the early Church to label damnable heresies, or by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to label equally damnable ideological deviations.

We can now understand the Creationists’ excessive, almost pathological, obsession with Darwin. Thus in the Creationist “supplementary textbook”, Explore Evolution, produced by the Discovery Institute and now being promoted by its satellites, I counted 29 occurrences of Darwin’s name or some variant of it within the 11 pages of the Introduction (but amazingly no reference to Darwin in the Index). Behe names his books Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution …The Limits of Darwinism, Johnson calls his Darwin on Trial and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, while Scotland’s own Antony Latham offers us The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed.

I therefore propose what I might call the “Dalton test” for using Darwin’s name. If you were talking about chemistry rather than biology, would you mention Dalton? If not, why mention Darwin? When Darwin’s name is invoked in the context of history of ideas (Gould, Ever since Darwin; Darwin’s Ghosts, already mentioned), or as a deliberately provocative rhetorical device (Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) this is obviously appropriate. When “Darwin” is used as lazy shorthand for evolutionary biology, it is not; and every time we do this, we play into the hands of our opponents.

Theory of evolution”, as a synonym for evolutionary science, is another expression to avoid. We are all familiar with the bogus argument that evolution is a theory, theories are uncertain, and therefore evolution is uncertain. We all know the refutation: that “theory” has a special meaning in science, but this logical rebuttal does not stop the argument from being used to great rhetorical effect. More fundamentally, the emphasis on theory does biology (and Darwin himself) far less than justice. The reason that Darwin is a major figure, while Wallace is not, despite independent discovery of the same central concept, is the depth of observational detail with which Darwin was able to support his insights.

There are also deeper reasons for avoiding the emphasis on “theory”. Strategically, it evokes a fortress mentality, as if evolutionary biology were under siege and the experimental evidence had been summoned to relieve it. Rhetorically, that is a losing posture. Pedagogically, it is equally mistaken. The development of evolutionary thought from Buffon to the present day is a beautiful example of how science works, with observations triggering ideas and those ideas raising new questions for observers. To place theory first as if observation came second (or even the other way round) is to miss the entire point.

Labelling is a two-way street, and we also need our own language to describe the opponents of evolution science. Let’s refer to all those who deny a common ancestry for complex organisms as Creationists, since they are postulating a separate creation for each separate kind.[1] I would also propose the broader blanket term Supernaturalist for anyone who claims that biology can never be explained by the ordinary laws of nature, since the intervention of an entity not constrained by these laws of nature is by definition supernatural. By this clear and rigorous definition, the website Uncommon Descent, while most revealingly claiming to serve the Intelligent Design community, is self-confessedly Creationist. All Creationists are Supernaturalists, but a few Supernaturalists (e.g. Michael Behe) are not Creationists. Creationist supporters of Intelligent Design tend to keep quiet about their Creationism, and to vociferously assert that Creationism and Intelligent Design are completely different concepts. However, least two of the three officers of Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) are undoubtedly Creationists, as is Phillip Johnson, guiding spirit of the Discovery Institute, and many of that Institute’s Fellows including some that have visited the UK to take part in C4ID events, and Intelligent Design advocates should always be closely questioned as to their own views on common descent, and on the science that underlies it.

In conclusion, we must choose our own words, rather than letting our opponents choose our words for us, and those words should clearly label them for what they are.

As for Darwin, while giving him all due honour, we should make it clear that what we now possess is a much more complex and complete system than he could ever have imagined. There are the facts of evolution (the plural is important), and there are suggested theoretical explanations for these facts; together, these make up the present-day science of evolution. That is how it is, and that is how we should describe it.


[1] We should specify that this is how we are using the term, to pre-empt the deliberate confusion of this issue with such unrelated matters as the origin of life, or even of the Universe. And I specified complex organisms because some Creationists (see e.g. Explore Evolution) misuse genuine debate about hybridisation in the simplest life forms as cover for the doctrine of separate creation of kinds. Students of Creationism will recognise the term “kinds”, its role in the pseudoscience of Baraminology, and its relationship to Genesis 1:12-23.

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About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; consultant member education committee, Humanist Society Scotland; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; next book, From Stars to Stalagmites (World Scientific) due 2012

Posted on August 2, 2012, in Evolution in general and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Paul, I certainly agree with your piece. The adherents of superstition will manipulate reality any way they can, like cheap county fair magicians trying to con the peasants into parting with their money… Perhaps we add more to the topic later…

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