Is Darwin Really Dead?

I have heard many scientists say that Darwinism is dead. As someone not familiar with this area of science, I have a few questions.

What does is mean that Darwinism is dead? Isn’t the core of evolution still selection acting on random mutations? Are the new mechanisms fundamentally different from Darwinism? I must admit, I don’t fully know what the new mechanisms are but from when I have seen them discussed they seemed to retain the same Darwinian core. I have some material from the Third Way (https://www.thethirdwayofevolution.com/) on my reading list but have not yet gotten to it.

So, is Darwin really dead? If so, what does that mean?

Thanks. Also if there are any links to some good articles on the topic please let me know.

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Darwin has been dead since 1882. As to whether “Darwinism” is dead, that depends on what you decide to name “Darwinism”. If you don’t include the Modern Synthesis (1920-) in it, then it is dead. Explaining adaptation by natural selection acting on variation that results from mutation and gene flow in populations (plus genetic drift and other such) is very much not dead. Keep in mind that scientists often are tempted to declare a New Synthesis, tempted by the publicity for this great achievement. We are in danger of having a New Synthesis declared every two years.

As for The Third Way, it is a website with 75 people who have agreed to be listed. What unites them is a feeling that contemporary evolutionary theory does not pay enough attention to the phenomena that they would like to invoke. They range from neo-Lamarckians to people who are actually well within the Modern Synthesis. It reminds me of the immortal passage by the famous Canadian writer Stephen Leacock: “He flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” Good luck in making a single theory out of The Third Way.

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One question is easy to answer: Darwin died in 1882. The other is harder, because “Darwinism” has a host of meanings depending on who’s talking. Mostly it means whatever somebody doesn’t like in evolutionary biology. Now, perhaps the biggest change since the modern synthesis is the prominent role these days given to neutral and nearly neutral evolution. Since that isn’t something Darwin talked about, I suppose it wouldn’t be called Darwinism. I wouldn’t pay much attention to the Third Way stuff; bunch of mutually contradictory crackpots.

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There will likely be different opinions, so I will toss out my own take on this question.

For me, “Darwinism” has two legs: All life shares a common ancestry; and the variety we see in life arose by descent with modification, with natural selection acting on heritable variation.

Today, current evolutionary theory might be stated this way: All life shares a common ancestry; and the variety we see in life arose by descent with modification, with the dual processes of random genetic drift (neutral evolution) and natural selection acting to fix heritable variation.

Thus, the way I see it, Darwinism is subsumed into current evolutionary theory. Which means that Darwin’s ideas and theory are not dead, or even wrong. They just have been amended as the fields of evolution, genetics, and molecular biology have matured.

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Honestly, this is a little bit like the “code” question. Is Darwinism dead? Depends what you mean. And part of what you have to understand is the rhetorical purpose of the person who says it. I usually see it said by creationists, often using along the way a dishonest quote-mine of something said by an actual biologist or paleontologist.

When people actually in the sciences say it, it almost always means “Darwinism” (or, sometimes, “Neo-Darwinism”) in some historical sense, and when it is said, one has to be careful: is the speaker saying it is “dead” in the sense that it is actually WRONG, or is the speaker saying it is “dead” as a COMPLETE theory of the origins of diversity (which, frankly, is sort of a given anyhow for almost any body of theory)? That’s a distinction people should sometimes be more careful to make, and not being careful about that results in delicious quote-mines for creationists.

There aren’t a lot of people with a reputation to lose who would say that natural selection upon variation doesn’t happen, or doesn’t account for any of the diversity of living things. But essentially everyone would say that natural selection upon variation is not the whole picture.

So, is Darwinism dead? (I take it that nobody disagrees that Darwin is himself dead.) Depends. Either yes, in the sense that it is incomplete; or no. This depends more on your definitions of “Darwinism” and “dead” than anything else.

So, go to creationist books and you’ll find such things as Robert Shedinger’s ridiculous The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms, in which he describes a “Darwinism” to which nobody ever subscribed, and of which one crucial tenet is that no one may add a jot or tittle to it. He then proceeds to debunk this “Darwinism” by pointing out that we now know about things Darwin didn’t know about: an enterprise which makes about as much sense as shooting an imaginary dead dog in the head.

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Thanks, this is really helpful.

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Thanks.

Thanks. Good points. I like what you said about attacking things Darwin did not know about. That adds perspective.

All of these responses are really helpful. One thing I like doing now is getting the perspective of scientists actually practicing in the field.

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Darwin is not dead. He lives in the heads of intelligent design advocates rent free 24/7.

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Historically, Darwinism is the view that evolution strictly by natural selection is the most important mode of evolutionary change. That idea died a long time ago thanks to Kimura.

That’s Darwinism and its dead.

Yes.

It means he is dead.

Michael Okoko: “Darwinism” may or may not be dead, depending on how you define it, but in explaining the existence of adaptations that are much better than purely random ones, natural selection is still needed. Kimura’s neutral mutation theory does not change that fact.

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I think you misunderstood me. I wasn’t denying Darwinian evolution isn’t important, I merely pointed out that the belief of Darwinian evolution as the most important tempo of all evolutionary change (Darwinism) is dead. Darwinists tended to ignore the role of drift in evolutionary change, but their position has been battered by evidence showing neutral evolution as an important mode of evolution.

Well, it is open to interpretation what “the most important tempo of all evolutionary change” is. Most DNA change is neutral. But that does not necessarily control the rate of change of morphology or of the amount of change of fitness. Nor can we designate neutral change as the most “important mode of evolution” unless we somehow reach agreement on how “most important mode” is defined. In the end you only said it was “an” important mode.

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Good point.

Good point again.

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This is irrelevant to my earlier comments since I did not make an argument about whether Darwinian or neutral evolution is more or less important than the other. All I am saying is that prior to the emergence of sequence data, most people thought evolution was almost purely Darwinian and gradualistic. That belief is dead since we now know neutral evolution is prominent as well.

Darwinists prior to Kimura would have called you a heretic for this.

Again I didn’t make any argument for neutral evolution as the most important form of evolution.

Its good you noticed. Darwinian evolution is important, so is neutral evolution.

Why “would have”? I have been involved with population genetics since 1961. I knew Kimura since then. Before 1968 I myself was skeptical of the importance of neutral mutation. So yes, I know the arguments people used. I was there.

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Dead? No. Variation and natural selection are still part of evolutionary theory. But been a bit more added on since the 1860s.

I made this for my intro evolution class:

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Oops my bad. I knew you were ancient, but not that ancient. In any case we seem to be on the same page now.

I don’t think so. It was the allozyme data that first supported the neutralists. But why bring “gradualistic” into it?