The 'modern evolutionary synthesis' versus 'Darwinism'

Many creationists and intelligent design proponents put in a lot of time ‘refuting’ ‘Darwinism’.

I think the ending ‘ism’ is unfortunate, since it suggests an ideology rather than a scientific theory. (I’d be happy to use the term ‘creation science’ rather than ‘creationism’ for the same reason.)

But it’s more than that: Darwin got a number of things wrong. Mendel’s work on the gene concept was published some years after the Origin of Species, so Darwin was working without the gene concept, without knowledge of DNA and with a vastly smaller body of evidence than modern scientists.

‘Darwinism’, therefore, in any pure sense, is rejected by modern evolutionary biologists. There is little mileage in refuting it.

Refuting the ‘modern evolutionary synthesis’ is more complex, because that set of theories is deeper and more complex. There’s probably a whole other post in discussing Karl Popper’s concept of scientific theories as ‘conjectures and refutations’, Thomas Kuhn’s ‘scientific revolutions’ and Imre Lakatos’ advanced modification of Popper’s ideas as ‘hard core and protective belt’, but that’s not for this time.

I’m hoping that, in the spirit of peaceful science, it’s a useful suggestion to avoid talking about ‘Darwinism’ if you’re someone who is bringing forward a well-considered and thought-through critique of the modern evolutionary synthesis.


First there was Darwinism, then the eclipse of Darwin because of Mendel, then noe-Darwinism also called the modern synthesis. Then came Haldane’s dilemma and Kimura’s solution with neutral theory, which effectively ended neo-Darwinism in the late 1960s. Every contributed to an extended synthesis and a few odd balls decided to pick a fight about capitalizing those words into an Extended Synthesis, but there doesn’t seem to be much substantive in that capitalization change.

That’s about how I understand it.

Seems that’s a point we’ve made several times over. See for example: Retire Darwin Day?

Somehow ID really wants to call us Darwinists still. I asked Behe about it once… Behe and Swamidass: Texas A&M on Feb 20, 2020 . I don’t think he got my point…


Definitely fair enough if this has been discussed here before: I’m brand new today!

Happy to let if drop if it’s a topic that’s already been exhausted.

Happy to kick it around if there’s still some conversation to be had.

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That’s obviously the reason. It’s spin.

But creationism is ideology. It certainly isn’t science.


Like I said, I’m new, but it seems to me that the spirit of the site is to accord the same rhetorical civility toward those with whom we disagree as those with whom we agree.

It seems not to fit that to say, in effect, “when you use ‘ism’ it’s spin, but when I use it it’s just correct”.

It reminds me of an old joke:

An Englishman, a Frenchman and a German are arguing about which language is most efficient.

They go around and around for a while, and then the Englishman picks up the bread knife beside his plate.

“Look,” he says, “English is clearly the most efficient language! You, German, call this ‘ein messer’. You, Frenchman, call it ‘un cuteau’. Whereas I simply call it a knife, which is what it is!”


I suspect that the polemic employment of the word “Darwinism” is meant to serve two purposes. Firstly to attempt to establish a false equivalence to “creationism” with religious overtones, and the not too subtle implication that Origin of Species is some form of atheistic ‘holy writ’. Secondly to make it appear that Evolutionary Biology is still as Darwin left it, with any of Darwin’s errors or deficiencies still a telling argument against it, and any additions to it being too trivial to mention.

I am aware however that at least few Evolutionary Biologists still self-identify as ‘Darwinists’ – I think Richard Dawkins may be one.

On the equivalence theme, I can remember a creationist contributor to Wikipedia insisting on using the neologism “Creationary” (equivalent to Evolutionary) to describe creationist efforts. I don’t know if it was their own idea, or something with wider usage in creationist circles.

The phrase “Creation Science” I generally associate with the mainly-YEC would-be scientific claims that they were attempting to get “equal treatment” for in public schools in the leadup to Edwards v. Aguillard. I know that RL Numbers uses “Creation Science” and “Flood Geology” as synonyms in The Creationists. ID of course, as they wish to disassociate themselves with the ‘creationist’ label, would not self-identify with the term. I have not heard of any non-ID OECs doing so either.


That would depend on whether evolutionary biology and “creation science” are more correctly ldescribed as sciences or ideologies, wouldn’t it? Having observed creationism for some time I believe I can say with confidence that it isn’t science. Having observed evolutionary biology for an even longer time I can say that it is. You are free to disagree. Will you?

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8 posts were split to a new topic: R_speir on evolutionary science

Hi David
I generally agree with your comments. The issue I see is if evolutionary theory was upfront about its limitations with the public especially in the class room then the “science” could become separated from the controversy. I am not sure there is consensus to do this but I may be wrong.

I also see some interesting work going on in the creation groups. I appreciate @swamidass and the rest of the leaders at peaceful science for allowing these ideas to be discussed openly.

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I don’t disagree, personally. But my point is not about precision and accuracy, it’s about rhetoric, civility and the possibility of dialogue. If we insist on using the language only in a way that encodes (smuggles in?) our own perspective, where is the prospect of dialogue? The conclusion is inevitable from the premises.

Certainly ‘both sides’ (I scare quote that because there are always more than two, and acting as though there are only two blinds us to possibilities) have demonstrated, in the comments in this thread alone, that tendency. The comment about the purpose of evolutionary theory being the ‘overthrow of the original Genesis’ is both a canard on scientists and an example of the language being chosen in a way that determines the conclusion.

So yes, I personally do consider that creationism is typically driven by an ideology. But I’m willing to use the term ‘creation science’ as a description of it anyway, although I also think it falls outside the realms of natural science, because that is the description its adherents use and I want to be in dialogue with them. I don’t think I cede too much rhetorical ground by doing so, and it does then provide opportunities to apply the methods of science to the claims made.


Actually, I think they prefer to call themselves “cdesign proponentsists” these days.


This is a slide I use in my 200-level intro evolution class. It’s not so much that Darwin got stuff wrong as that he just didn’t have most of the picture. To the extent that he claimed his proposed mechanisms explain everything, he was incorrect. Mostly the same with the modern synthesis, although the assertions there regarding the extent to which those mechanisms were sufficient were stronger. So that was wrong. But the mechanisms and processes were mostly fine, just, like Darwin, very incomplete.

So any time I hear creationists arguing against either “Darwinism” or the Modern Synthesis, I have to wonder if they know what evolutionary theory, in 2020, actually encompasses.


You have to consider the audience. ID/creationist organizations are preaching to the choir, not the scientific community. In my experience, they really don’t care if they are addressing the actual scientific theory since their real focus is battling against atheists, apostates, and materialism. As long as their Christian followers support them and repeat their arguments they will continue to use them.

We have had mixed success with those requests.


A little nudge because ‘Darwinism’ as a term seems to have had something of a resurgence in recent discussions here…

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Bump: won’t keep doing this, but the question has arisen again recently.

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Really? :slightly_smiling_face:

What I find fascinating is that they are clearly afraid to. After all, if something like evolution is a huge threat to my religious beliefs, don’t I have a huge obligation to understand what it is LONG BEFORE attacking it in public with a bunch of falsehoods?

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I had a very odd experience with a couple of posters over on my Amazon review of Darwin Devolves. One, and then the other, both insisted that they wanted to know what my “model” of evolutionary theory was because they seemed to feel that the way this is supposed to work is that I give a capsule summary of my views, and they then attack it; and that anything I leave out of my capsule summary is pretty much automatically considered a refutation of that summary.

So, for example, if one starts with something like actual “Darwinism” and says, “evolution occurs through natural selection acting upon variation,” the response is, “aha! But you have no source of variation, so this is false!” So, you amend it: “evolution occurs through natural selection acting upon variation caused by random mutation,” and the response is “aha! But this does not encompass genetic drift, so this is false!” So, you add genetic drift, and the dance continues. Obviously, nobody could possibly be interested in this sort of thing because it reveals absolutely nothing.

But in both cases, these guys really stuck to their guns. They REALLLLY wanted a sort of formal statement which could be regarded as the proposition under review, and as the WHOLE proposition under review, not subject to being supplemented. It was like a dystopian debate club.

But as we all know, this is just the kind of nonsense which many ID Creationist books do, except that they do it in monologue form. “The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms” by Robert Shedinger is a good example of the type. Define “Darwinism” as a really numb-minded pan-selectionist, pan-adaptationist dogma, leave out all topics like evo-devo that help shed light on how evolutionary processes actually work, and voila! Lots of modern biology contradicts “Darwinism” so defined, ergo, evolution is false. Point out to these people that what they have defined as “Darwinism” bears no relation to actual evolutionary theory, and you know what? They don’t care. Complex facts spoil their argument, and they know it, and so they just keep going back, as you explain mechanisms to them, to saying that those mechanisms aren’t “Darwinian” and therefore don’t count. To call this sort of thing a “straw man” argument really is an insult to scarecrows everywhere.

It becomes obvious why they don’t want to learn. They can already see that they cannot win this fight unless they can frame the question in absurd terms; learning how evolution actually works reduces their ability to defend their own required framework. And, besides: most of these people simply aren’t interested in biology. They are “interested” exactly and only to the extent that they see biological reality as denying their faith.


I’m puzzled though.

That’s been my first point almost every time I engage with ID. So why did Behe still repeat the same mistake? Seems like he could diffuse the objection substantially by just avoiding the term…why not?


Yeah, that part of the conversation with Behe was puzzling - he basically said all that new stuff just reduces to “neo-Darwinism” anyway. But…the whole point is that it’s different! There’s no neutral theory in the modern synthesis, no deep homology, no evo-devo, etc. One of the things I’ve been wondering about with Behe since I’d read “Black Box” is whether he doesn’t actually know all that much about evolutionary theory, or misrepresents it on purpose. I’m honestly leaning towards the latter - how could he not actually know this stuff at this point? It’s of course possible that he’s just dealing with the cognitive dissonance, but he’s not a YEC, and actually accepts a lot of the conclusions inherent to modern evolutionary theory, so…I don’t know where I come down on that question for him.


Which mistake?

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