I did warn that this year was likely to be full of muddled attempts to explain Darwin. This time the intrepid but doomed essayist is Carl Safina, who writes in the New York Times an article called “Darwinism must die so that evolution may live”. The title alone tells you that Safina has got the wrong end of the pineapple here.
This article is not so woefully wrongheaded as others have been. On all the basic scientific evidence, on Darwin’s mistakes and areas of ignorance, Safina gives a very good account. In fact, his second paragraph is remarkably similar to the first two paragraphs I wrote here. But Safina still manages to make three crucial errors.
Error 1: Charles Darwin wasn’t that important
That all life is related by common ancestry, and that populations change form over time, are the broad strokes and fine brushwork of evolution. But Darwin was late to the party. His grandfather, and others, believed new species evolved. Farmers and fanciers continually created new plant and animal varieties by selecting who survived to breed, thus handing Charles Darwin an idea. All Darwin perceived was that selection must work in nature, too.
All? All???Â Safina is keen to downplay Darwin’s personal impact on science. “Credit Darwinâ€™s towering genius…But thereâ€™s a limit to how much credit is reasonable,” he writes. I get where Safina is coming from: he’s objecting to the idolisation of Darwin when the current theory of evolution relies on the work of thousands of great scientists who extended and re-examined and in some cases overthrew Darwin’s first ideas. But giving due credit to the scientists who built modern evolutionary theory should not have to involve downplaying Darwin’s insight any more than recognising the development of calculus should diminish the initial insights of Newton and Leibniz.
The fact is that Darwin’s Origin of Species is a colossal intellectual work, not just a description of a rather mundane observation. When Darwin perceived the concept of natural selection, it was important because it gave a workable mechanism for evolution where all Darwin’s predecessors had only vague ideas that creatures might have changed over time. There is a massive difference between observing an event (the failure of classical physics, for instance) and explaining it with a working model (Einstein). Apart from that Darwin gave reams of evidence for his theory. He spent decades collecting evidence before publishing Origin. And finally, he exposed every aspect of his theory to the most gruelling critical analysis possible at the time. As a measure of the greatness of Origin of Species, the chapter on the development of the eye remains one of the most potent demolitions of design-theory, still widely quoted 150 years on, and only equalled in my opinion by two other books: Richard Dawkins’s The Blind WatchmakerÂ and Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity.
Error 2. “Darwinian evolution” as a redundant termÂ
Using phrases like â€œDarwinian selectionâ€ or â€œDarwinian evolutionâ€ implies there must be another kind of evolution at work, a process that can be described with another adjective. For instance, â€œNewtonian physicsâ€ distinguishes the mechanical physics Newton explored from subatomic quantum physics. So â€œDarwinian evolutionâ€ raises a question: Whatâ€™s the other evolution?
Um, Mr Safina? The term “Darwinian selection” is perfectly acceptable as he was the first to propose the idea of natural selection. You might as well object to “Newton’s Laws of Motion” or “the Galilean Moons.”
The use of “Darwinian evolution” is a much more vexed issue, especially as Darwin himself believed in other forms of evolution that are not part of the modern synthesis (and ironically, Alfred Russell Wallace disagreed with Darwin on this point, describing himself as “more of a Darwinist than Darwin”). But, you see, “Darwinian evolution” is usually used to distinguish it from “Lamarckian evolution” (the theory that offspring inherit traits acquired by their parents) and sometimes “theistic evolution” (the idea that God or gods or pixies or ancient Jewish zombies fiddled with evolution with a directive purpose).
Error 3: Scientists use “Darwinism” to define modern biology
By propounding â€œDarwinism,â€ even scientists and science writers perpetuate an impression that evolution is about one man, one book, one â€œtheory.â€…[large ellipsis]…
Science has marched on. But evolution can seem uniquely stuck on its founder. We donâ€™t call astronomy Copernicism, nor gravity Newtonism. â€œDarwinismâ€ implies an ideology adhering to one manâ€™s dictates, like Marxism. And â€œismsâ€ (capitalism, Catholicism, racism) are not science. â€œDarwinismâ€ implies that biological scientists â€œbelieve inâ€ Darwinâ€™s â€œtheory.â€ Itâ€™s as if, since 1860, scientists have just ditto-headed Darwin rather than challenging and testing his ideas, or adding vast new knowledge.
The error here is that scientists do not talk about Darwinism. When you hear an evolutionary scientist talk about Darwinian evolution, they are talking specifically about the thoughts laid out in Darwin’s own writing — just as scientists who talk about “Copernicanism” (not “Copernicism”) are talking about the specific philosophy that Copernicus expounded in de Revolutionibus;Â if one wants to talk about the general theory, one talks about heliocentrism, not Copernicanism. Scientists do use the term “Newtonian physics” as a rough synonym for classical physics, but again that is an historical reference; and when scientists talk about modern physics, they call it, well, physics. And just to belabour the point, when working scientists talk about evolutionary theory, they call it evolutionary theory.
The term “Darwinism” is almost exclusively used by creationists for the specific purpose of making a robust scientific theory look like a cultish belief. So when Safina wants to “kill Darwin” and objects to the term “Darwinism,” he is not standing up for science; he is flapping about like a fish on a creationist hook.
My testable prediction: even though this article is all in favour of evolutionary theory, it will be quoted in southern US states in support of teaching creationism as biology. “Kill Darwin?” Why, it’s manna! Surely, Mr Safina, you must be aware of that?