A bone to pick on Darwinism

A thought while listening to Josh and Axe (Axe and Swamidass: Should Christians Embrace Evolution?):

Something that grates on me is the assertion that we (biologists, scientists, whomever) are not Darwinists. When made, the term ”Darwinism” is almost a pejorative. Well, I most heartily disagree.

For me, Darwin’s theory is elegant, simple, and to the point. Basically, Darwin’s theory holds that 1. All life shares a common ancestry; and 2. All the different forms of life we see on earth arose via descent with modification, with natural selection acting on heritable variation. That’s really it in a nutshell.

Of course today, the theory of evolution is different. NOT so different as to discard Darwin, but different nonetheless. To phrase things the terms from the preceding paragraph: 1. All life shares a common ancestry; and 2. All the different forms of life we see on earth arose via descent with modification, via the dual processes of random genetic drift and natural selection acting on heritable variation.

So, when Josh asserts that he is not a Darwinist, what I hear is that he does not agree with common ancestry, and also not with descent with modification. I am sure that is not what he means, but this is what I hear, and suspect that is what a lot of other people hear. I cannot understand why ascribing to the theory of evolution as I try to summarize it here means rejection of Darwin, or that Darwin was wrong. This makes no sense.

Feel free to call me a Darwinist. I embrace the compliment. Just sayin’ ……


As a comparison, no physicist calls him or herself a Newtonist, Maxwellian, Einsteinist, or Feynmanist. To me, it’s odd for scientists to identify themselves with a school of thought led by one person. Scientists should simply hold the positions supported by the best available evidence. This sort of identification with a person representing a school of thought is mostly only present in humanities disciplines. It seems to me that to identify as a “Darwinist” (instead of just saying that “I know evolutionary science”) makes it easier for creationists to paint a picture where biologists are supporting evolution for extra-scientific, ideological reasons.


Good points all. But it grates on me how Darwin and Darwinsim has come to be a pejorative. Antievolutionists are all about ad hominem and the like, and any discrediting of Darwin is a feather in their cap. Specifically, whether we all like it or not, when someone asserts that they are not a Darwinist, they are supporting the antievolutionists’ claims about common ancestry and descent with modification.


I don’t mean it as a pejorative, but to emphasize that evolutionary science is larger than Darwin, which I am sure you agree.


Maybe, but other opportunities may also be opened. In my experience seeing Josh do this in an evolutionary-skeptical context, that seems to make people open to listening to him explain why “natural selection-only” evolution is outdated since Kimura in the 1960s and so on. That’s an opportunity, because it shifts the context of the dialogue from an ideological confrontation (“Christianity vs. Darwinism”) into one of shared scientific curiosity (“what are the latest findings of evolutionary science?”). This latter context is one which scientists are naturally more comfortable in.


Yup. But, in my estimation, no matter how you look at it, Darwin is at the center. That is the point I am trying to make. (Well, one of them, I guess.)

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Maybe he is at the Genesis, but he isn’t at the center. No one argues that “because Darwin said X, X is true.”

With all due respect, common ancestry and descent with modification remain at the heart of evolutionary theory. Today as much as in 1859.

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Yes that is true. But the modification are not merely fixed by positive selection. :slight_smile:

We are going in circles here. I think we are tussling about rhetoric, and I think you even see the reasons for my rhetoric. I’d agree with you that we shouldn’t mistake my rhetoric as against Darwin or as pejorative.

In the context of the debate with creationists the distinction between Darwinism and evolution as a whole is germane because conflating the two can be used as a rhetorical tool by creationists. Behe, for instance, has made a career of arguing that the evolution of adaptations requiring multiple mutations is unrealistic if each individual step must be selected for, as would be the case under strict Darwinism. Which is true, but irrelevant because it can happen under current evolutionary theory. But one thinks Darwinism=evolution, then Behe’s argument seems to work.


Exactly, which is why Larry Moran’s declaration is important:

I am not a Darwinist, just as most of my colleagues in the Department of Physics are not Newtonists, and most of my friends who study genetics are not Mendelists. All three of these terms refer to the ideas of famous men (Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel) who made enormous contributions to science. But in all three cases, the modern sciences have advanced well beyond anything envisaged by their founders.

Notably, Larry isn’t being pejorative to Darwin, as “Sandwalk” is a reference to Darwin himself:

The Sandwalk is the path behind the home of Charles Darwin where he used to walk every day, thinking about science. You can see the path in the woods in the upper left-hand corner of this image


It grates on me that antievolutionists try to claim science is a religion by using “-isms” in place of theories. They try to make the debate about a choice of religious belief, and the word “Darwinism” is the club they use to beat people over the head.

As many have pointed out, scientists don’t try to disparage creationism by calling it just another science. Strange that. What the antievolutionists’ argument implies is that religion is lesser than science, so if evolution is just a religion then it must be false. They will also claim that evolution is based on faith, implying that faith is bad. They don’t seem to realize the damage they are doing to their own beliefs and arguments. Thankfully for the Christian community, there are many leaders and believers who see science and religious belief as being equals and complementary to one another.

When Darwinist is defined as “people who belong to a satanic religion” by antievolutionists, then it is understandable why many say they are not Darwinists when talking to antievolutionists.

Also, why not call ourselves Wallacists?


I don’t think that’s the reasoning. Rather, the reasoning seems to be that if evolution is a religion or faith, then it is no better than Christianity and there is no compelling reason for you to accept evolution if you are already a Christian. And it should also be illegal to teach only evolution in public schools as that would be favoring one religion over another.


To me, this implies that if evolution were a science then it would be better than Christianity and would be more compelling than religious faith.

That would be about the only rational reason for pursuing that line of argument, but they have to fall on their swords to make it work.

I think most people would affirm that truly scientific findings are “objective” and should be accepted just by using reason which is available to all. (Most YECs would probably agree that this applies to “operational science” fields like engineering or medicine. In fact a lot of them do come from such backgrounds.) Whereas to become a Christian you may need something special like a conversion experience.

Most people probably reason in that way, but then we run into others who also throw around the term “Scientism”, with stress on the -ism.

I would agree. This is where faith comes in, and the attempts to use faith as a pejorative within antievolution circles runs the risk of cheapening that conversion experience, IMHO. At the same time, I am an atheist who is looking in from the outside which does color my opinion and thinking as it relates to these issues.

Indeed. And here, when asking for evidence of certain phenomena of an astonishing nature, I have been accused of “evidentialism.” I didn’t even know that was an -ism, but I guess it’s right up there with Fascism.


I don’t think that’s necessarily in conflict. Some YECs would think that YEC beliefs are objectively correct and scientific, but that secular scientists refuse to acknowledge this because of its religious implications and their irrational scientistic stance. However, this is not a problem for beliefs about engineering and medicine which have less religious consequences.

Did I miss a conversation between @swamidass and Doug Axe??

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Right here: Axe and Swamidass: Should Christians Embrace Evolution?