On Darwinism as a Term of Abuse

A while back, I posted a short piece criticizing the Rt. Rev. and the Rt. Hon. Lord Habgood, P. C., former Archibishop of York (number 2 in the Anglican hierarchy) and Ph.D physiologist, for his use of the terms “Darwinism” and “scientific orthodoxy” in a review of a history of creationism.  In that post I wrote,

Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet?

Well, someone does.  Leslie Darrow, proprietor of the Mid-Anglican blog had this to say about what seemed to me to be about as banal an observation as I could imagine:

I don’t know why not. Calculating the trajectory of a comet doesn’t need anything more sophisticated than Newtonian mechanics.

I replied that I was afraid Darrow was being either silly or obtuse, for reasons that I think are obvious.  No one refers to the ideas in The Principia as the corpus of Newtonism.  Mechanics, maybe, or in the case of problems involving Newtonian gravity, celestial mechanics, but not Newtonism, or Isaackery or anything of the sort.  No one.

Similarly, no one refers to this or this or this as successful applications of the methods of Darwinism.  They are all, of course, results achieved under the umbrella category of evolutionary biology, using methods from specialized biological disciplines ranging from field ecology to molecular genetics — the latter a practice for which Darwin lacked even the vocabulary to imagine

That all seems pretty standard issue stuff  — and even if you don’t want to go all philosophical on me, it comes back to the practice, the use of terms in science.  Do we refer to the study of molecular genetics as Watson-and-Crickism?

We do not.

Unfortunately, Darrow proceeded to dig herself in deeper.

Emailing me back, she wrote,

I think your problem is that having the syllable -ism tagged onto a word, or somebody’s name, automatically has pejorative overtones in your ears, and perhaps that is the result of hearing creationists use the word “Darwinism” in a pejorative sense, but I can’t see anything wrong per se in using the word Darwinism to refer to the theory developed by Charles Darwin, or for that matter “Newtonianism” to refer to Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion and theory of gravitation.

This is, of course, disengenous, a willed attempt to avoid acknowledging the obvious.  Lots of problems here — and while I know that arguing with the self-convinced and self-deluding is like mud wrestling a pig, still, if the loudest voices on one side of the debate that is the subject of the work being discussed (Habgood’s review) are the ones using Darwinism as an insult — then I have to say that Habgood’s use of the same term in the same context as a Creationist would, to refer to modern evolutionary thinking counts as pejorative.

Darrow, I think, knows this, which is why she returns again to the word no one uses with reference to physics, “Newtonism” to assert a false equivalence with the insult, “Darwinsism” that sloppy and malicious thinkers out there do use as part of their dishonest attempt to asert that evolutionary biology is not a robust science amply supported by a ridiculously wide range of lines of evidence.  They’d rather their audience think of all that profoundly effective explanation for the way the world works s nothing more than the fragile construction of a single, fallible Victorian thinker.  Habgood, with his biological training knows both the purpose within the coinage and its falseness. He should be ashamed of the lapse. — and Darrow should give up on her feeble defense of his lapse.

One last thought to drive the point home.  I had the good fortune to hear Janet Browne speak to a small group at Harvard last week, in which she talked intera-alia about the Victorian ideals contained in the initial accounts of Darwin’s life — including Darwin’s own.  That drove me back to her magnificent biography,* and just flipping through the introduction this morning it reminded me that there is a meaningful usage of the term “Darwinism” — and “Newtonism” too, for that matter.

And that use, of course, is historical and contextual.  There was an enormous social and cultural reaction to the ideas in The Origins of Species and to The Prinicipia.  The figures of Darwin and Newton were attached to the work — not necessarily specific claims, but to the notion of revelatory or prophetic truths comes into the world to reorganize humanity’s sense of place in the cosmos.  Think Pope’s epitaph for Newton: “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night./God said, ‘Let Newton be’ and all was light.”

That is:  Darwinism and Newtonism refer to the historical reaction to the combination of personal celebrity and popular understanding (or misunderstanding) of the implications of their work.  The relativity craze and the cult of Einstein after the 1919 eclipse confirmation of the General Theory of Relativity provide a more contemporary example of the same basic phenomenon, though no one at all that I know of has committed the word “Einsteinism” to describe the fandom and cultural appropriation of what were taken to be Einstein’s themes in the ’20s and after.**

But if you want to talk about Victorian popular reaction to evolution and The Origin as “Darwinism,” that only reinforces the word’s inapplicability to the body of science that has flowed and branched from the specific insights that particular gentleman, Charles Darwin, released intprint almost exactly 149 years before the date on which I write this.

(see also Olivia Judson’s briefer and better expressed takedown on the anti-evolutionary crowd’s rhetorical shenanigans.)

*Memo to Princeton University Press:  get Volume One of Browne’s biography back in print. Right Now.  2009 is right around the corner.  You know, 200/150.  What are you thinking!

**To dive into these cultural contexts, Browne’s 2 volume biography of Darwin is the best one stop shop for that figure – though as noted above, only the second volume is easily found right now.  That, fortunately, is where she mostly discusses   the surround to Darwin after the watershed year of 1859.  The best recent picture of Newton’s cultural impact came in the  New York Public Library exhibition, The Newtonian Moment; if you missed that, the basic ideas can be found in the catalogue by Caltech’s Mordechai Feingold, who curated the show.  For the reaction to Einstein, I immodestly suggest that you could do worse than mine own Einstein in Berlin.

Image:  First published in Fun, Nov 1872. Original caption: That Troubles Our Monkey Again – female descendant of Marine Ascidian: “Darwin, say what you like about man; but I wish you would leave my emotions alone”.

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9 Comments on “On Darwinism as a Term of Abuse”


  1. Well, it would seem that not even your fellow science writers can agree with you.

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-christian-mans-evolution


  2. People being silly and obtuse in this contentious issue? Surely not!

  3. Spiv Says:

    I think this overlooks the obvious reference to “Social Darwinism,” which was a decidedly big misuse/misunderstanding of Darwin’s “evolutionary biology by means of natural selection (to be expanded by understanding of genetics etc).” The “religious right” has learned to continue drawing little fishes in the sand in the form of code-words. Almost everything said is meant to inspire some specific reaction or understanding of the term used, from “Darwinism” (social darwinism, nazi-ism, hitler), to “Marxism” (not just social construct, but communism/red scare/uncle-joe-stahlin).

    There is something of a fascinating language within this construct, and it’s used in political speeches continuously to inspire those in the know, while not alerting those unaware to the agenda.

    “True/Truth”
    “Climate Change” (as apposed to global warming. This is an ‘end times’ reference)
    “Teaching” (as in entirely from the bible, with anti-science overtones)
    “Vertical Thinking” (handed down from the man upstairs, divinely inspired)
    “State’s Rights” (think racism)
    “Institutions” (as in god’s, as in gays-are-bad-mmkay)
    “Culture of life” (anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-stem-cell, women are baby-machines)

    I’ve been slowly picking up on these as I read more blogs. If you call someone out on them you’re bounds to get a denial, because the words themselves are fairly easy to bend to less scary things. The context usually makes it pretty obvious what they’re referring to.

  4. Tom Says:

    Ah, Leslie…Sometimes it would be wiser to pause just a moment before pressing the “publish” button. Actually reading the material you cite might help. There are at least two errors in your comment — not a bad density of folly for such a short bit of prose.

    1. Nothing in my posts states the argument your link addresses: I do not take Habgood to task for suggesting that belief is compatible with acceptance of evolution. As you must understand, even with your apparent limitless capacity for false readings, my argument with the good archbishop is that he is in this instance a propagandist playing sleight of hand with a word to create a false equivalence between two quite different human activities.

    2. And, conversely, nothing in the very interesting profile of Francisco Ayala suggests that he disagrees with my argument that the use of the term “Darwinism” is bad faith. The word does not come up.

    Other than that…

    And just for giggles — I’ll note that your appeals to authority would work better if the authorities in question made better arguments in the areas they in fact do express affirmative claims. I’d need to read Ayala himself, but the article to which you link puts into his thinking a line of reasoning on the problem of evil and on the notion of “a God that is continuously engaged in the creative process through undirected natural selection,” that appears to be a pure nonesense, an example of the tautological reasoning common to arguments that begin with that to be proved as an assumption not-in-evidence. (That is, you only see ns as evidence for the continuous creation of a deity if you assume the deity is there in the first place. If you don’t, all of your arguments about ns remain intact, just undeified.)

    You’ll have to do much better than this.

  5. jre Says:

    It is clear that Leslie Dellow has discovered a tree, and missed the forest, with

    I think your problem is that having the syllable -ism tagged onto a word, or somebody’s name, automatically has pejorative overtones in your ears, and perhaps that is the result of hearing creationists use the word “Darwinism” in a pejorative sense …

    Yes, “Darwinism” is pejorative, and no, it is not pejorative simply because “ism” is tacked onto someone’s name. A great scientist is frequently honored by having his or her name attached to a species, a physical unit, a constant, an observed relationship (or “law”), even an interpretation of the natural world (as in “neo-Darwinian synthesis”) — but never to an entire field of study. The reason is that the universe of knowledge does not belong to any researcher, however brilliant. Once a community of natural scientists had confirmed and expanded Darwin’s findings to the point that no reasonable person doubted their validity, the field was “evolutionary biology.” Darwin was, and is, rightly honored as the greatest pioneer in that field, but he doesn’t own it any more.

    We see the same tactic employed wherever some group wants to oppose an established body of science for political or philosophical reasons. It’s been a long time since the germ theory of disease was controversial, so we don’t hear microbiology referred to as “Pasteurism.” But there are still those uncomfortable with vaccination or antibiotics, and for whom it is always “Western medicine” or “allopathic medicine” rather than plain old medicine. Similarly, we often hear those who resist the political or economic consequences of discoveries in climatology speak of the “church of Al Gore” because — in this context — a religious reference is a pejorative. I find that fact perversely comforting: dramatic confirmation that science has so earned the respect of the public mind that it is a far more effective debating trick to call your opponent’s position religious than to describe it as scientific.

  6. i on the ball patriot Says:

    “I find that fact perversely comforting: dramatic confirmation that science has so earned the respect of the public mind that it is a far more effective debating trick to call your opponent’s position religious than to describe it as scientific.’

    I would describe that as ‘junk science’.

  7. jre Says:

    Good point. Add that phrase to Spiv’s list above of denialist wink-wink terms:

    “junk science” (as in kwitcherbellyachin, anti-capitalist tree-hugger)


  8. I am a committed, dogmatic Judsonist! Which is why I agree with you 😉

  9. Miracle Man Says:

    It’s Darwin’s birthday today!
    A short post is here if you want to check it out.


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