Posted by: carlsafina | Tuesday, February 17 09

You Say You Want An Evolution, Well Y’know…

My recent article in the New York Times was widely discussed and raised a bunch of written reactions.

I’d like to share one positive comment and then summarize and address some of the flames and anger I got for seeming to ‘dis’ Darwin.

But first some further clarifications.

So few people believe life evolves that one must admit scientists have not effectively conveyed the fact and importance of evolution.

So I tried a different approach. For the record, it’s obvious Darwin was uniquely productive and left a record that is incredibly accessible in the combination of his science books, his autobiography, and the narrative of his voyage. His combination of genius and humanity makes him arguably the greatest biologist of all time. At any rate, he’s my favorite of history’s giant scientists.

But I think that, for people who don’t share this view, the constant adulation from scientists and science writers makes it look as if Darwin had the first and last word on evolution. To people outside of science, the adulation looks a lot like a religion. So, I set out to take a few steps back and look at Darwin—and the way Darwin is perceived and discussed—from a different angle.

I separated Darwin and his work from the ideological and quasi-religious impression that the word “Darwinism” apparently conveys to many non-scientists. I also sought to boil Darwin’s insight on natural selection to its barest essentials, and to show that evolution and our understanding of it is now much bigger than the subject of Darwin. I sought not to further lionize Darwin (he’s pretty famous already), but to show that—once you take away the courage and insight required at the time, and once you put in perspective the ensuing 150 years of research—natural selection is so simple, so obvious, that it need not be seen as arcane or threatening.

As I’d written, Darwin gets more astonishing with time, as science proves how much he correctly observed, intuited, reasoned, and expressed. Most biologists understand all these things. Most people don’t.  Darwin remains lightning rod and whipping boy for many people who simply don’t realize that there is much more evolutionary science done since Charles Darwin than by him, comprising whole disciplines of genetics, molecular biology, developmental biology, etc. Getting some of the pressure off poor Darwin, and some of the attention to these other scientific advances, could only help public understanding of evolution (and reflect well on Darwin’s insightfulness in the process). Or so I thought; not everyone agreed, and many people missed the point entirely.

One person who read and “got” my article was professor Carl Woese, who discovered Archaea, one of the three main groups of living things. His discoveries led to a reorganization of the kingdoms of life. Because of Woese, we now understand living things as belonging to three main groups: Bacteria, Archaea, and everything else. See him at (

Woese wrote me this supportive note, which, amid the complainers was, by late afternoon, quite welcome:

Dear Prof. Safina,

You are a skilled gem cutter who has just cleaved an iceberg.

You have my deep thanks and admiration.

As I read your elegant piece, the most trenchant ever written on this issue, I had a favorite phrase of mine from Whitehead running through the mind:
 “A science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost”

In your article, you have expressed it better!

I could thank you many times for what you have done for evolution—and will.

   — Carl Woese

Now let me now summarize and address some objections.

Objection: ‘We scientists know very well that there is a difference between Darwin and all the work on evolution since. We don’t confuse the two.’

My perspective: True. That’s why I did not send my piece to a science journal. My piece was published in the New York Times, which is a newspaper. The audience is the general public. Most people have no idea what evolution is or means, and many are under the impression it’s just something scientists believe because Darwin said so. So, mainly, I was addressing people unfamiliar with evolution, and people inclined to be resistant to Darwin. The point: even if you get past or ignore Darwin, we’re still stuck with the reality of evolution. Even if we “get over” Darwin, even if we end the adulation, stop the gushing, cease the celebration of his name, and in fact even if Darwin was never born—evolution stays.

I was also saying that calling evolution Darwinism, as many scientists and even more science writers do, is sloppy, and helps keep the public ignorant of the fact that while Darwin was right about most things, we know how right he was (or that he was wrong, unaware, or incomplete about some things like genetics) only because of 150 years of testing and advancing science by thousands of researchers.

We’ve concluded he was right because lengthy debate, research, challenge, and testing, as well as new fields of science like genetics, molecular biology, developmental biology, and behavioral ecology have show Darwin was mainly right—life evolves. And we know this not because we simply believe what he wrote.

People constantly still ask, “Do you believe in evolution?” And scientists still say, “Of course I believe in evolution.” Well, I don’t “believe in” evolution. To me, it’s an obvious and proven fact that life evolves. And I love Darwin and his astonishing, brilliant work (he remains, as I called him in my Times piece, a “towering genius”). But I don’t “believe in” “Darwinism.” “Believing in” any “-ism” does not seem scientific to me. I believe things once I’m convinced of the evidence. Believing “in” is the language of faith and not of science (though many scientists believe in God, for example).

Objection: “Your article trashed Darwin.”

 My perspective: I wrote that there is a saying in Buddhism that, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The idea is to focus on the teaching, because if you focus too much on the aura surrounding the teacher you may miss the teaching. So a little irreverence can be healthy because it can let you see past the veneer of adulation and celebrity to the essence of the work.

Since we would not imagine that the Buddhist monk would really kill Buddha, the hyperbole is obvious. Or so I thought. It surprises me how few of the people who wrote about my article caught the hyperbole, irony, and tongue-in-cheekiness I intended. Lighten up a little! And let’s have some fun. In my mind, taking a fresh look and allowing yourself to be irreverent helps separate the essence from built-up baggage (and “Darwinism” certainly has baggage). Unless, of course, you think Darwin is so solemn a subject that he cannot be messed with or joked about. That kind of rigidity strikes me as rather, well-fundamentalist.

And as I said in the last sentence of my piece, ‘Only when we get past Darwinism, and fully acknowledge the subsequent century-and-a-half of value added, can we really appreciate both Darwin’s genius and the fact that evolution is life’s driving force.’

Anyone who thinks those words amount to trashing Darwin needs a refresher in reading comprehension, and should get themselves a glass of wine.

Objection: “In the guise of helping the scientific cause, you have really given aid and comfort to the enemies of science.”

My Perspective: In the span of 1,200 words, I call Darwin a “genius,” a “towering genius,” and someone who continues to ‘get more astonishing with time as scientists prove how much he got right.’ So it’s surprising that anyone could think I was trying to advance creationism, or aiding enemies of science.

Quite the opposite, I explicitly dismiss creationism. I was saying that constantly making it seem to the public that evolution begins and ends with Darwin, or that Darwin is equivalent with evolution, or that we believe dogmatically in what Darwin said because he said it, or that teaching evolution is exactly the same as “teaching Darwin”—and many, many non-scientists have exactly that impression—those are things that give aid and comfort (and worse, ammunition) to enemies of science and of reason.

Humor-challenged people who can’t stand an angle that differs from all-reverence, all-the-time, seem to object to my “tone.” But how they could think I give aid to enemies of science is quite beyond me, unless their scientific-fundamentalist rigidity blinded them to the words I used.

My main point was: Don’t use a word that sounds like an ideology or religion (Darwinism) to describe a science. It confuses people about evolution, and evolution is too important for people to stay confused about.  Language matters. The sloppiness of words like “Darwinism” and “Darwinist” allows creationists to look (and believe they are) more scientifically legit.

Objection: “Only creationists use Darwinism.”

My perspective: Not so. Check the February ’09’s National Geographic or the recent Science with the nice portrait of a young Charles Darwin on the cover (9 January ’09). Scientists and science writers use “Darwinism” all the time. Indeed, numerous angry blogs, many from scientists, defended using this term. Again, this helps confuse the public because it sounds like “Darwinism” (like any “-ism”) is a belief, dogma, doctrine, based on the work and dictates of one man, one book. This is awfully similar to how Christians refer often to one man, one book.

“Darwinism,” and equating evolution almost entirely with Darwin in the public mind, sounds more religious than it does scientific. And that helps open a space for religion to demand equal time in what is actually a scientific topic: evolution, or teaching about evolution.

Objection: “Creationists will use your piece to advance creationism and ‘intelligent design.'”

My perspective: My piece explicitly dismisses creationism. So far, it seems that at least some religious people understood my point better than some scientists who let their religious-like zeal for “Darwinism” blind them to what I’d written in black-and-white.

At least some religious people were open to considering what I was writing about. I noticed this on the Web, by a pastor:

“I see Safina’s point. Evolution is about more than one man. But at the same time, as we stop to remember Darwin’s 200th Birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of the Species, I think it is appropriate to remember him for his discoveries, his determination, and his persistence, while at the same time remembering that this is not a static theory, but one being revised all the time as more discoveries are made.

So, while Darwinism maybe should die—as an ideology Darwin himself never would have abided—Charles Darwin’s genius should be celebrated.  -Posted by Pastor Bob Cornwall.

And here is another post from my evangelical Christian friend Ken Wilson (horrors! I speak to people who have different beliefs!) who manages numerous Vineyard Churches in the Midwest. I’ve been very explicit with him that I’m secular (atheist). He likes me anyway. (Contrary to those fundamentalist scientists who derided my article so angrily but so selectively.) Wilson’s “Apology to Darwin”—yes, that’s what it says—is at:

And unlike some rigid scientists, one Reverend understood that I was writing with some hyperbole and having some fun—and offered to defend the piece against any complaining Christians. (Because unlike some scientists, the Reverend understood that Christian evangelicals could be upset about my article. Interesting that some religious people were drawn in to reading my piece carefully.) The Reverend wrote:


Read and enjoyed it immensely!  As soon as the word “feckless” appeared in the first sentence I knew Safina was on his game!  If there are any well-read blogs of a Christian variety that give you any trouble, send me a link and I’ll add a comment or two just for fun.

Or are you getting pushback from colleagues on the “Let us now kill Darwin” motif?

Hopefully both! That way you know someone’s actually reading the doggone thing.

(Name withheld)

Well, hey, Reverend—that’s the spirit!



  1. You can win the argument and lose the heart. Oddly, scientists and evangelicals share in this by their prickly defensiveness. But they pay a heavy price; evangelicals are now viewed as the bad news rather than the good news people and haven’t gained market share in recent years. And scientists can’t get more than 50% of the public to understand what any horse breeder knows–that selection, natural or otherwise, leads to amazing changes over time.

    CARL SAFINA’S NOTE: Ken Wilson is a Christian evangelical pastor and author

  2. I am not a scientist, but from time to time read articles and books on scientific topics. I do not find the grand theory of evolution to make sense, although certainly microevolution is observable and well proven. The reaction of some of commenters is one I’ve seen time and time again when anyone dares to question or criticize Darwin or evolution–which you weren’t even doing, exposing even further how fundamentalist some of these people are.

    From an outsider to evolution, when the voices are so shrill and intense every time someone dares to make a peep of criticism about Darwin or evolution, it gives off a totalitarian atmosphere, where even hints of dissent from the party line are not tolerated and must be immediately quashed. This in turn gives me the impression that there is something to hide. In a democracy, all ideas are welcome because we’re all in it together and there is nothing to hide. Let’s consider all ideas with open minds, weigh them, and treat each other with respect. In a totalitarian world, those in power know that if they tolerate other ideas, their power may quickly come crumbling down. This is how the Darwin fundamentalists seem to me–afraid of losing power. As such, they are not truly interested in science, but in maintaining a status quo.

    It irritates me when people say, “The world was created in 7 days because the Bible says so!” The Bible is not a scientific document. Give me some scientific reasons for your views. But the Darwin fundamentalists don’t come off to me as any better. They claim, “We support science,” but in my view, true science is not afraid of dissent, criticism, and consideration of new ideas. They truly seem religious zealots of Darwin.

    So if Darwin is distanced from evolution, as I understand you are suggesting, taking away the cult of personality, perhaps it will have the positive effect of not giving the general public the sense that these people bow down and worship at the altar of Darwin.

    But as for me, that would not be enough. I see too much circular reasoning in scientific articles regarding evolution, where assumptions pile upon assumptions, and taking Darwin out of the limelight isn’t going change any of that for me.

    CARL SAFINA REPLIES: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. If you were a scientist and therefore more familiar with all the science, you’d see that evolution is as plain and proven as gravity, and its mechanisms better understood. None of us is outside of evolution, we’re all products of it. Don’t take my word for it. There are mountains of things written, both technical and more popularly oriented. I’ve read more of the science literature over the years but two books that are accessible and excellent, in my opinion, are “The Beak of the Finch,” and “Climbing Mount Improbable.” Thanks again for writing.

  3. The NYTimes seems like an odd venue for addressing those “unfamiliar with evolution” or “inclinded to resist Darwin.” Refresher course in reading comprehension? Ouch. But I do like the glass of wine suggestion. That said, your article did get the neurons moving, which is always a good thing. And as a non-scientist, it’s been especially fun having a front-row seat for the passionate back-and-forth between scientists.

  4. Thanks for this article. `Darwinism`is certainly the evolutionary scapegoat of the creationist set. It is strange that few responded negatively to a similar argument made by Olivia Judson last year:

  5. Carl,

    I do agree with you in almost everything you say — so thanks for the quote from my blog!

    The key here is to make sure that evolution doesn’t become so intertwined with Darwin that it becomes in the minds of its opponents and supporters an ideology or religious tenet. In many ways the views of a Dawkins and friends have turned evolution into an ideology that gives its opponents fresh food. Those of us who are believers and yet embrace evolution take a different view!

  6. Hello Carl –

    Your essay on “Darwinism Must Die” is the most perceptive piece of commentary on the broad communication of evolution I’ve ever read, and is extremely timely. I think you are laying out the basic dynamic of how to communicate evolution to the public at it’s starting point (the objective science of the field rather than the more subjective social elements that have been attached over time), and we can only hope that given the increasing interest by the science world in how they are perceived, the “powers that be” will take your message to heart.

    I tried to hit on the core of your message in my movie, “Flock of Dodos: The evolution-intelligent design circus,” when I posed the question, “Who will be the voice of evolution?” The source of so much of today’s image problem with evolution is that “the voice of evolution” has been effectively co-opted by creationists, intelligent designers, and a whole lot of other people who do not understand the basic science of evolutionary biology, or choose to misrepresent it.

    Starting all the way back with the Huxley-Wilberforce debate the public image of evolution was cast as being about descent from apes rather than these fascinating scientific mechanisms of how changes occurs. Added to that was Social Darwinism, and eventually all the nonsense and attempted hysteria from the intelligent design movement, brought to its height of inanity with Ben Stein’s movie, “Expelled.”

    All of those voices have hung baggage on the field of evolution which simply is not representative of the true science. If evolution were a product like Coca-Cola, it would be as if a group of people had successfully convinced the public it tastes like rotten eggs. In the corporate world, at that point, the heads of the corporation would decide that rather than fight the incorrect public image they had accumulated, the time has come to aggressively “re-brand” yourself.

    In the past two years, as we’ve held over 100 screenings and panel discussions of Flock of Dodos (the latest was two weeks ago at the Cambridge Darwin Festival) I’ve come to a simple conclusion, which is that if we lived in a perfect world, the science community would have the ability to do a “reset” on the public image of evolution. The whole field would be “re-branded” not as the teachings of Darwin, the study of fossils, and the descent of apes, but as “the science of change.” That someone would mine the essays of Stephen Jay Gould for all the amazing examples he presented of how the basic principles and patterns of evolutionary change and selection in general can be see in so much of our societal dynamics — all of his examples from baseball to architecture to Mickey Mouse to evolving automobile shapes.

    Those basic principles are the sorts of sterile, clinical, non-politicized elements that bear similarity to other fields of science that don’t have the current political baggage that dogs evolution.

    And a major part of that would be exactly what you recommend — putting Darwin in his proper place, as an element of the overall field of evolutionary biology, but not as the overriding icon.

    You are suggesting that the science world speak loudly to the public and clarify what evolution is (and in so doing, drown out the voices of what it is not). I couldn’t agree with you more. I think your essay is very important reading for anyone interested in the public image of evolution.

    – Randy Olson

  7. You attacked a strawman. Science writers use “darwinism”. Science writers are not scientists. Scientists (ie, practicing biologists who study evolution per se) occasionally use “darwinism” when writing for the general public, but it’s not all that common. It’s true that science writers should stop using the term because it’s misleading. However, by making scientists the target of your rant, you pissed a few of us off.

    Since you basically agree with the premise that the term “Darwinism” is misleading, why both being annoyed? Go have a beer.

  8. Dear Carl,

    I appreciate the goal you had when writing your piece for the New York Times. And I’m very receptive to creative ways of communicating science. I believe that your efforts in other arenas have been admirable and serve as a model for public intellectuals who wish to engage with the lay public concerning their domains of expertise.

    However, as you probably expected, there is also a “but”:

    But, I must strenuously say that your piece is a miscarriage of what I perceive as your intended goal. First, it is unequivocally inaccurate. Second, it impugns evolutionary scientists as conforming to the worst stereotypes of many of those who most eagerly reject science.

    Regarding the first point, you have done your readers and evolutionary biologists a great disservice with your piece in general, and the following passage in particular:

    « Using phrases like “Darwinian selection” or “Darwinian evolution” implies there must be another kind of evolution at work, a process that can be described with another adjective. For instance, “Newtonian physics” distinguishes the mechanical physics Newton explored from subatomic quantum physics. So “Darwinian evolution” raises a question: What’s the other evolution? »

    Indeed there are many alternatives to “Darwinian selection”. A simple e-mail to any Ecology and Evolution department with a faculty member who studies population genetics, molecular evolution, or genome evolution would have confirmed that. In fact, “Darwinian evolution” is a contemporary term that is used as a synonym for changes in allele frequency due to natural selection. It is commonly contrasted with the “neutral theory” which posits that changes in allele frequency are a result of sampling effects or “genetic drift”. And this fact is precisely analogous to your Newton example.

    Had you made a casual search using Pubmed or ISI Web of Science using “non-darwinian evolution”, you would have easily hit one of the seminal papers describing precisely the usage I mention above. Its title is almost parodic in its easy rebuttal of one of your key premises. I provide for your convenience an excerpt:

    « Non-Darwinian evolution. King JL, Jukes TH. Science. 1969 May 16;164(881):788-98.

    Most evolutionary change in proteins may be due to neutral mutations and genetic drift. Darwinism is so well established that it is difficult to think of evolution except in terms of selection for desirable characteristics and advantageous genes. New technical developments and new knowledge, such as the sequential analysis of proteins and the deciphering of the genetic code, have made a much closer examination of evolutionary processes possible, and therefore necessary. Patterns of evolutionary change that have been observed at the phenotypic level do not necessarily apply at the genotypic and molecular levels. We need new rules in order to understand the patterns and dynamics of molecular evolution. »

    This isn’t a marginal view and hundreds if not thousands of contemporary primary research papers talk about Darwinian evolution in contrast to neutral evolution with this very sense in mind. In fact, while scientific alternatives to “Darwinian selection” have proliferated in the last few decades, the emerging picture is that a combination of all forces is required to understand the rich tapestry of genetic variation we observe in nature. And quite unlike “Newtonian physics”, Darwinian evolution has survived very much intact theoretically. It has not been relegated to the status of a special case of a more general theory. On arguably THE central tenet of your piece, you are factually wrong. If the terms using “Darwin” are in fact useful for technical distinctions, then your entire premise is unfounded. If you would like some more contemporary references, here are three on Pubmed’s first search page:

    Comparative genomics and the study of evolution by natural selection.
    Ellegren H.
    Mol Ecol. 2008 Nov;17(21):4586-96. Review. (the term “positive Darwinian selection” is found in the abstract)

    A single gene causes both male sterility and segregation distortion in Drosophila hybrids.
    Phadnis N, Orr HA.
    Science. 2009 Jan 16;323(5912):376-9. Epub 2008 Dec 11. (again the term “positive Darwinian selection” is found in the abstract)

    Mitochondrial targeting adaptation of the hominoid-specific glutamate dehydrogenase driven by positive Darwinian selection.
    Rosso L, Marques AC, Reichert AS, Kaessmann H.
    PLoS Genet. 2008 Aug 8;4(8):e1000150. (this time the term is in the title)

    If you’ll read through the individual papers, you’ll find that the authors had specific hypothesis tests under consideration. Rejecting the null hypothesis (neutrality) allowed them to use the term “positive Darwinian selection”. Thus, a productive, scientifically reasonable, usage of the technical terms “Darwinian” and “Darwinism” is both widespread and no more “cult”-like (your word) than the use of the term “Newtonian”.

    Regarding the second point, I have a much more difficult time understanding your strategy. Let me ask you, to whom were these passages directed:

    – “The point is that making a master teacher into a sacred fetish misses the essence of his teaching.”
    – “Parking evolution with Charles Darwin…”
    – “But evolution can seem uniquely stuck on its founder.”
    – “Charles Darwin didn’t invent a belief system. He had an idea, not an ideology. The idea spawned a discipline, not disciples.”
    – “But our understanding of how life works since Darwin won’t swim in the public pool of ideas until we kill the cult of Darwinism.”

    Who makes of Darwin a sacred fetish? Who parks evolution with Darwin? Who is uniquely stuck on its founder? Who follows a belief system, an ideology? Who are the disciples of Darwin’s cult? Your comments here answer that question with much less equivocation than your NY Times piece:

    “…the constant adulation from scientists and science writers makes it look as if Darwin had the first and last word on evolution. To people outside of science, the adulation looks a lot like a religion.”

    So, we can add “adulation” and “religion” to your preferred descriptive words of scientists and science journalists when speaking of their field, along with “sacred”, “ideology”, “disciple” and “cult”.

    Now, I’m having a very difficult time imagining how someone like yourself, who has been wildly successful in communicating your ideas to sometimes hostile lay audiences, would ever imagine that your line of reasoning above is at all fruitful. Specifically, four ideas come to mind. However, none of the four interpretations are charitable, and I would honestly appreciate hearing how you respond to them. I’m not provoking for the sake of provocation. I’m certain that you do view your efforts constructively, and I’m not impugning your motive. But I am completely unable to stretch myself to figure out how you came to write your piece without me invoking the following on your behalf:

    1) ignorance: you are simply ignorant of the way evolutionary biologists talk about their field. (But if you knew physics adopted a similar convention, why not investigate to see if evolution did the same?);

    2) gaining attention at the expense of precision: evolutionary biologists, like every group, have among them a small minority of outspoken dogmatists. Taking those unrepresentative few to the woodshed would gather important coverage for a topic you feel strongly about. You want to help the understanding of evolution, so you write a piece that (perhaps unfairly) criticizes some (vaguely defined) evolutionary biologists/journalists for the good of the whole field in the long run. This is an “ends justifies the means” approach;

    3) the cult of Darwin is real: evolutionary biology/journalism really has a significant minority of “cultists”, though most are good scientists/journalists. These over-zealous ones are poisoning the well for everyone else and need to be removed because they truly endanger the field. You think your piece will encourage the reformable wayward scientists/journalists to be rescued and the righteous ones to exile the reprobates;

    4) bait and switch: you feel that you have something important to say about the veracity and importance of evolution, but you feel that irreconcilable misconceptions about Darwin’s position in biology are clouding the lay public’s vision on the issue. In order to get their attention, you attack “Darwinists” then introduce them to “good evolution”. In this interpretation, you have no real beef with scientists/journalists, but you need the bait in order to engage the public effectively.

    I can’t imagine that you’d see the above four interpretations as anything but inaccurate of the way you really feel. In fact, I would not be surprised if they were at least mildly offensive to you. Perhaps it speaks to the gulf in understanding between you and me that I cannot conceive of an honest representation of your piece that doesn’t invoke ignorance or disingenuousness. But I’m trying to. Can you assist in this? This is really a genuine request.



    Full disclosure: I am speaking as a professional evolutionary biologist.


    Dear J.J.,

    I appreciate the time you took to write.
    Briefly, to understand my motives and goal, try to understand that:
    Professional evolutionary biologists, and the discourse within the profession, is not who or what I was addressing, not exactly. I was addressing the misunderstanding that exists in the public pool of ideas and the public debate. You can cite professional journal articles to make your point, and it’s a valid point. But it’s not my point. My point is that many people in the general public still largely think Darwin is the sole source of ideas on evolution, and that scientists and others “believe in” his book. One man, one book, sounds a lot like other belief systems based on one man, one book. It sounds like a religion. And therefore scientists and science writers should take pains to avoid conveying the misleading impression that evolution is like a secular religion and that it is a belief system.

    The vast majority of people just have no idea what science is, how it works, how scientists are trained, how scientists talk or think, etc. Most distrust science. That’s ironic, isn’t it, since science is actually the most honest, diligent, flexible, and open attempt to continually gain a better understanding of the true nature of reality?

    There are lots of reasons for this and I won’t dwell on that here. Not all of it is the fault of scientists. But some of it is. And my main point, really, was that scientists should be very careful to avoid talking about science in ways that look on the outside like religion. And the reason is that it helps perpetuate the confusion and the resistance to science. In real evolutionary biology, “Darwinian” is a useful distinction, but in public, and in science writing, it often is used sloppily as a substitute for the word “evolutionary” and that’s misleading and confusing. “Darwinisn” is a word that should just be dropped; it’s completely misleading and sounds like an ideology or religion.

    You think Darwinian is a valid distinction. I agree that It can be, especially inside of science. But it is not often used to make a valid distinction in science writing for non-scientists, where it is used to mean “evolution” or “evolutionary.”

    For an example of the misuse of “Darwinian” one need look no further than any current science magazine or, as I literally did, the science section in the day’s paper, where it says, “From a purely Darwinian point of view, expecting a young woman to sacrifice her reproductive fitness for the sake of career advancement is simply too much.” Really? Darwin never used the phrase “reproductive fitness.” The British biologist J.B.S. Haldane first explored reproductive fitness by synthesizing Darwin’s natural selection and Mendel’s genetics in his 1924 paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Natural and Artificial Selection.” The phrase “purely evolutionary” would have been better than “purely Darwinian.” But anyway, the news article isn’t about evolution; it’s about the lifestyle decision professional couples face over whether or when to have children. Darwin never trod that minefield.

    Also, as, I mentioned, by calling on the Buddhist saying (“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”), it should seem apparent—but was not to some—that my lines like “let us now kill Darwin,” and “Darwin must go” were meant in the spirit of hyperbole (exaggeration for effect). As I get your gist, you think I said we should not honor Darwin. I don’t see how you might have gotten that impression. The word genius is there twice, etc etc.

    The Buddhist saying is meant to make the point that the teaching is more important than the man, and my point in the piece is that evolution itself is more important than Charles Darwin, and it stands on its own apart from him.

    As acknowledged elsewhere in the piece, Darwin was and remains important, rightfully. But putting him in perspective and seeing him from a different angle seems, to me, useful in communicating to, 1) people outside of science who cannot possibly be faulted if they can’t disentangle the hubbub over Darwin from everything else scientists have learned and understand about evolution since, 2) scientists and science writers who continually add to the impression that Darwinism is a religious-like belief in one man’s book by using language that makes it seem that way to everyone in 1).

    Every single conversation about evolution that I can recall having with people outside of science, and especially in the religious camps that find themselves supporting or sympathetic to creationism and “intelligent design” focuses on questions about Darwin. The sooner we realize we can talk to the public about evolution without hanging Darwin’s brand logo on it, and the more we focus on what we’ve learned rather than on who first taught us, the better, perhaps, the effort to explain evolution and lessen public resistance to science.

    You say, “I’m having a very difficult time imagining how someone like yourself, who has been wildly successful in communicating your ideas to sometimes hostile lay audiences, would ever imagine that your line of reasoning above is at all fruitful.” In this vein, I call your attention to the links from religious people on this discussion:

    An image I had in mind as I was doing final edits on the piece that ran in the NY Times, was of people clipping the article and putting it up on bulletin boards in high school and college biology departments, and getting into some discussion and debate about being careful with language, and not giving the false impression to people outside of science that one deceased man called Darwin wrote one book that scientists believe in and follow like a religion called Darwinism. I also hoped non-scientists would read it and understand that evolution is much bigger than Darwin, happens in nature, and would be the organizing principle of biological diversity and ecology whether or not Darwin had even been born. (Even though I think Darwin was a great and lovable scientist.).

    People need to understand that science stands on his shoulders, rather than worships at his feet. And people don’t understand that. Scientists have obviously failed miserably to make a convincing case. And what I was saying, is: Darwin’s genius aside for the moment, we’re stuck with the reality of evolution, whether we like it or not, and whether Darwin was ever born or not.

    That realization, among non-scientists, would be a great service to science.

    Thanks for writing and thanks for the honest debate.

    Best wishes,


  9. Dr. Safina,

    This blog post is the essay you should have submitted to the NY Times. It clearly acknowledges that on the whole scientists themselves neither worship Darwin, nor consider him infallible, nor adhere to an ‘ideology’ of Darwinism.

    Unfortunately the one you did submit really seemed a muddle in that regard.

    It’s wrong to imply that a public impression of “quasi-religious” status for Darwin and “Darwinism” among scientists, is mainly due to the writings of scientists and science writers. It isn’t. It’s the result of relentless propaganda from religious ideologues on the right wing of the culture wars, who are quite willing to distort what scientists write and say.

    Basically, you’re aiming your gun at the wrong target.

    And for that reason, your glib reference here to ‘fundamentalist scientists’ is really rather saddening.

    I would suggest it is you who should reconsider your rhetoric, especially when you’re given a forum like the NY Times Op-Ed page.

    (FWIW, I’m a biologist too.)

    You make several unsupported assertions here. I’ll take the main one: that because “scientists themselves neither worship Darwin, nor consider him infallible, nor adhere to an ‘ideology’ of Darwinism…[I never said they did, and don’t know any who do]…it’s wrong to imply that a public impression of ‘quasi-religious’ status for Darwin and ‘Darwinism’ among scientists, is mainly due to the writings of scientists and science writers.”

    You have no way of knowing that it’s wrong, and anyway I did not say the public’s misperceptions about evolution are mainly due to scientists and science writers. I said that “even” scientists and science writers use terms that confuse the public about Darwin, his role, evolution, and scientists’ opinions of all the foregoing. There is ample data showing that American understanding and acceptance of evolution is abysmally low. For a combination of reasons, scientists have failed at convincing the public. And I believe that scientists themselves are partly to blame, for some careless communication skills.

    Several people have written to claim that only anti-science people use the term Darwinism. That’s simply not true. One scientist in the evolution department of my own university responded to my article by saying he likes and will continue to use the tern Darwinism. Science writers are even sloppier. In the Feb 09 National Geographic there is a 2-pg graphic spread on pp 54-55 tracing the history of “Genetics” and “Darwinism.” Not genetics and evolution, not Mendelism and Darwinism—but genetics (starting with Mendel, pictured) and Darwinism (starting with On The Origin of Species). In their timeline, Darwinism included the discovery of the age of Earth decades after Darwin’s death. And do you think Darwinism ends with the Modern Synthesis of the 1930s? According to this, fusing genetics with natural selection happened when various scientists “reach accord in a ‘modern synthesis’ of reinvigorated Darwinism.” If i wasn’t a scientist, that would sound like it was a negotiated political strategic decision. it certainly doesn’t sound like science, or that science was objective searching for improved understanding. In the graphic, this reinvigorated Darwinism then goes on to include everything but the kitchen sink: it engulfs Watson and Crick, Lucy, the Selfish Gene, Carl Woese’s reordering of life into three domains with the discovery of Archaea (even though Woese himself appears to believe he got nothing from Darwin), and other work right up through sequencing the human genome.

    Why all of that is labelled Darwinism and not evolution, I don’t know. But I think it’s sloppy, confusing, and inaccurate—and unfair to the subsequent discoverers.

    I think evolution will continue to be highly vulnerable to attack, misinterpretation, and confusion as long as Darwin remains the lightning rod and the focus of so much attention. I think it’s time scientists and science writers started talking consistently as though evolution is a science, not an “ism,” and that we understand evolution because of the discoveries and ideas of some great thinkers, Charles Darwin certainly among them. Not using the word “Darwinism” will not suddenly make the public realize everything scientists know about evolution. But I do think that using that word helps keep the public mind fixed on a mistaken impression that Darwin single-handedly invented a hunch or “theory” called evolution, that scientists “follow.”

    This is not anti-science; it’s a way of trying to be clear about the strength of scientific understanding on this issue.

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