Darwinian and Darwinism: Science and Ideology

Philosophy of science writer Thomas Burnett asked a question at BioLogos (http://biologos.org/blog/david-lack-and-darwins-finches): “Is it also problematic that people refer to modern evolutionary theory as ‘Darwinism’?”

I responded saying that I think referring to modern evolutionary theory as ‘Darwinism’ is problematic. My contribution to the ensuing discussion is gathered into one message below.

Dr. Jon Garvey, M.D. gave three definitions of ‘Darwinism’:

“Darwinism (1): Scientific theory developed by Charles Darwin. (2): Meta-scientific theory embracing all the developments of and corrections to Darwin’s original theory. (3): Metaphysical position that evolution is undirected and unguided, often (even by Darwin) associated with (1) or (2) by their advocates. Often pejoratively used by opponents of (1), (2) or (3).”

I disagree with (1) and understand that Jon meant ‘this is what some people think Darwinism is’ rather than what Jon himself thinks it is. I don’t agree that ‘Darwinism’ is or ever was a ‘scientific theory.’

Definition (2) is closer to my own, in that ‘Darwinism’ is something beyond Darwin’s own ideas and natural scientific contribution; it involves interpretations and adjustments to his works by others. But if ‘corrections’ are made to “Darwin’s original theory,” as Jon wrote, then those corrections of “Darwin’s Errors” (D. Allchin, 2009) shouldn’t any longer fall under the label ‘Darwinism.’ The new and improved theories should be called something other than ‘Darwinism’ (more below on ‘neo-Darwinism’), they should take another scientific genius’ name, which is why people speak of L. Margulis, J. Shapiro, M. Denton or M. Behe, et al. But we have yet to see Margulisian or Shapiroian or Dentonian or Behean evolutionary eponyms used widely in the literature.

Even calling ‘Darwinism’ a meta-scientific theory is questionable because ‘meta-’ implies ‘after’ while there are also pre-suppositions and background beliefs often involved in ‘Darwinism’ that could be called pre-scientific, proto-scientific or just non-scientific, i.e. philosophical or (a)theological, rather than ‘meta-scientific.’ But I take Jon’s meaning with a grain of salt and partly agree with it in that corrections to Darwin’s theory of evolution have been made.

But I disagree strongly with (3) because Darwin was not a metaphysical thinker; he was not a philosopher and knew this about himself. Yes, Darwin wrote in his diary that he didn’t/couldn’t see purpose or plan in life beyond the material or at least the secular world. Those who try to save the orthodoxy of Darwin’s religious faith or his supposed ‘theology’ are in my view engaged in a lost cause. Karl Giberson is one of those persons, so is Denis Lamoureux, both associated now or previously with BioLogos.

It is therefore important to involve philosophy in discussions of evolution, as a contribution to science, philosophy and theology discussions, precisely so that modern evolutionary science does not turn into ‘Darwinism’ or into ‘evolutionism.’ The latter is an ideology (or worldview, as Ard Louis calls it) that BioLogos has come out strongly against. BioLogos’ opposition to ‘evolutionism,’ is rather unclear however, since ‘theistic evolutionism’ is still entertained at BioLogos; they are for one form of ‘evolutionism’ and against another form.

Imo, ‘Darwinism’ is not a scientific theory, but rather an ideology. This is the simplest and most accurate definition (which of course manifests itself in multiple ways, i.e. with many sub-definitions). It is problematic to confuse an ideology with a scientific theory, yet this is done on a regular and continuing basis with regard to ‘Darwinism’ and ‘Darwinian evolution.’ T.H. Huxley, A.R. Russell, P. Kropotkin, E. Mayr, and S.J. Gould to J. Fodor, R. Dawkins & W. Dembski, G. Hodgson, S. Sanderson, J. Carroll and countless others (e.g. the current Wikipedia page on ‘Darwinism’ [as of 03-10-2014]) have done and continue to do this, yet in my opinion unnecessarily. That ‘Darwinism’ has been used as an equivalent to ‘Darwinian evolution’ or ‘Darwin’s theory of evolution’ does not make it an accurate semantic representation. [Paragraph updated: 03-10-2014]

Articles like Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch’s request of evolutionary biology – “Don’t Call it ‘Darwinism'” (2009) help to point this out.

Jon makes a good point that meanings of ‘Darwinism’ depend on what period we are speaking about. After the so-called “eclipse of Darwinism” (J. Huxley), there was a felt need to re-define the meaning of ‘Darwinism,’ which included adding the prefix ‘Neo,’ i.e. neo-Darwinism. As Jon says, “developers of the modern synthesis, who wanted, for reasons of their own, to associate Darwin’s name with their new theory that was, more accurately, Neo-Mendelian rather than Neo-Darwinist.” Likewise, the same ‘eclipsing’ could come true with ‘neo-intelligent design/neo-ID’ (to the great chagrin of IDism’s Chihuahua: Richard Cameron James Wybrow), as it could also with creationism -> neo-creationism. Once a fundamental break is made with the original theory, a Neo- should be added to it or an alternative Name or term be chosen instead.

Here I’d like to make a suggestion about suffixes. It is a semantic point about what is important in our communication. Jon speaks of ‘Neo-Mendelian’ and ‘Neo-Darwinist’. Is there a difference between the two suffixes? Technically, the ‘-ism’ suffix usually signifies an ideology, while the ‘-ian’ suffix signifies a scientific or scholarly approach. This general linguistic rule, however, does not hold across the board, which can make inferred meanings difficult to interpret.

My question to BioLogos staff and visitors then is: Does it make sense to discern ‘(neo-)Darwinism’ from ‘(neo-)Darwinian’ as a way of distinguishing between ideology and science? This aims to clear up the miscommunication (e.g. Roger Sawtelle speaks of ‘Darwinian theory’ and ‘Darwinism’ seemingly interchangeably, as do countless others, including and perhaps most guilty, ID proponents). Why should people treat ‘Darwinian evolution’ and ‘Darwinism’ as synonyms if distinguishing them is meaningful and helpful in distinguishing science from ideology? These questions in subsequent discussion were not addressed, as it seems that ‘ideology’ is somewhat of a dirty word.

As I see it, there are few problems with referring to ‘Darwinian evolution’ as a tried and tested biological scientific theory, both specific and general. Time will tell if the new post-Darwinian biologists can distinguish themselves from Darwin’s evolutionary paradigm. But with Darwinism and neo-Darwinism, I am opposed to these ideologies and encourage people to take a responsible position against the ideological pressure of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism on doing good biological science and genetics today.

I’d like also to briefly address the article that Burnett linked to, which is available on-line by Frank J. Sulloway: http://www.sulloway.org/Finches.pdf

I did a textual analysis of the article, focussing on one word in particular: evolution. Aside from the title, the term ‘evolution’ or its cognates appears 89 times in 47 pages of text.

88 of those times ‘evolution’ speaks of natural history, of bird evolution, of physiological change-over-time, etc. Yet just one time, an alternative meaning of ‘evolution’ was slipped into the paper (as well as into the Title): “But Lack’s Darwin’s Finches was not just a milestone in the progress of Darwinism. It was also a crucial step in the evolution of the legend about Darwin and his finches. In fact, with the publication of Lack’s book in 1947 the legend became fully established.” – Sulloway

Here we have a problem. ‘Legends’ are not ‘natural history,’ they are part of ‘human history,’ which is distinguished if nothing else by a much shorter time scale. Legends can emerge, arise, grow or ‘extend’ from a particular event or life lived by an individual person in a few years or decades at most. In human history, a legend does not normally refer to something that happens over thousands of years; it begins over a single person’s lifetime.

The fact is that Sulloway thought absolutely nothing wrong with ‘transferring’ the meaning of ‘evolution’ from natural history into human history by speaking about the ‘evolution of a legend.’ Iow, he twisted the meaning of ‘biological evolution’ to deal with a non-evolutionary topic on a non-evolutionary time scale: human legends. This is an example of ‘evolutionism’: exaggerating the number of things that ‘should’ be said to ‘evolve.’

Instead, we can see Lack’s book as an ‘X-mark’ that led to this legend, rather than as an ‘evolutionary’ process. 65 yrs is not ‘gradual’ on evolutionary time scales! Iow, ‘the legend’ of ‘Darwin’s finches’ can be said to ‘extend’ from the publication of Lack’s book. This is a non-evolutionary alternative to Sulloway’s chosen language. Yet of course, aside from the ‘evolutionism’ of 1/89 uses of ‘evolution,’ it doesn’t take away from the remainder of Sulloway’s fascinating article!

To summarise: Darwinian evolution and neo-Darwinian evolution refer to scientific theories of evolution, while Darwinism and neo-Darwinism refer to ideologies that indicate a mixture of scientific and non-scientific (e.g. worldview, religious or anti-religious) elements.


Allchin, Douglas. http://www.tc.umn.edu/~allch001/papers/D-errors-NYU.pdf


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