Let’s Get Rid of Darwinism

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I agree with Olivia Judson; it’s long past time to get rid of Darwinism.

I’d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed. (The science would be in a sorry state if one man 150 years ago had, in fact, discovered everything there was to say.) Obsessively focusing on Darwin, perpetually asking whether he was right about this or that, implies that the discovery of something he didn’t think of or know about somehow undermines or threatens the whole enterprise of evolutionary biology today.

It does not. In the years ahead, I predict we will continue to refine our understanding of natural selection, and continue to discover new ways in which it can shape genes and genomes. Indeed, as genetic data continues to flood into the databanks, we will be able to ask questions about the detailed workings of evolution that it has not been possible to ask before.

Yet all too often, evolution — insofar as it is taught in biology classes at all — is taught as the story of Charles Darwin. Then the pages are turned, and everyone settles down to learn how the heart works, or how plants make energy from sunshine, or some other detail. The evolutionary concepts that unify biology, that allow us to frame questions and investigate the glorious diversity of life — these are ignored.

Darwin was an amazing man, and the principal founder of evolutionary biology. But his was the first major statement on the subject, not the last. Calling evolutionary biology “Darwinism,” and evolution by natural selection “Darwinian” evolution, is like calling aeronautical engineering “Wrightism,” and fixed-wing aircraft “Wrightian” planes, after those pioneers of fixed-wing flight, the Wright brothers. The best tribute we could give Darwin is to call him the founder — and leave it at that. Plenty of people in history have had an -ism named after them. Only a handful can claim truly to have given birth to an entire field of modern science.

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Last updated: 2021-06-05 2:51 pm PDT
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