“Darwinism” Retired?

Evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson writing in the New York Times argues that the term Darwinism ought to be dropped, because so much has been discovered about evolution since Darwin’s time and contemporary evolutionary theory goes well beyond what Darwin himself said.

While it is true that modern evolutionary theory is very different from the theory that Darwin proposed, it is nevertheless the case that the three main principles of Darwinism as presented by Darwin are still the vital and defining core of modern evolutionary theory, at least the theory as presented to the public and as most people understand it. They are: (1) random genetic mutations (or variation, as Darwin called it, since he didn’t know about genes), which are (2) naturally selected because of their ability to help their possessor live longer and have more offspring, which ultimately result in (3) new species. Random mutation plus natural selection leading to new species.

The meaning of the word evolution, as it has always been generally understood, is that new and more complex life forms have appeared on earth over time. The importance of the Darwinian theory of evolution was that it claimed to provide an entirely natural, non-theistic mechanism by which new species and life forms could come into being. A theory that does not account for new species is therefore not a theory of evolution; it may be a theory of minor variations, of genotypic and phenotypic shifts within existing populations, but, if words are to have any reliable and stable meaning, such a theory is not an evolutionary theory. No new species: no evolution. Thus the core of what we call the Darwinian theory of evolution came from Darwin, and therefore “Darwinism” is still the correct and appropriate designation of this theory.

Yes, there is the term neo-Darwinism, signifying the refinement in evolutionary theory brought about by Mendel’s discovery of the laws of genetics which provided a mechanism for variation; but since no one advocates the original, pre-genetics version of the Darwinian theory, there is no need for the term “neo-Darwinism” to distinguish the theory from “Darwinism.” Therefore, again, “Darwinism” is an adequate and correct name.

Why then does Judson want to retire the name “Darwinism”?

Here’s a clue:

  • In her article, she mentions “natural selection” twelve times, and “sexual selection” (a secondary aspect of Darwin’s theory) three times.

  • She mentions “mutation” zero times..

  • She mentions “variation” zero times.

  • She mentions “genes” five times, and has several general references to genetics.

  • Other than referencing the title of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, she makes only one reference to “species” in the article, and it is not a reference to the origin of new species. In other words, she makes no mention of the origin of new species as a feature of evolutionary theory.

Judson thus talks a great deal about natural selection in her article, but she leaves out random mutation, which according to the Darwinian theory is the process that actually produces the new biological information upon which natural selection works, leading to innovative and useful new features. And she leaves out the coming into being of new species.

Now maybe this was simply a chance event, not indicating any intent on Judson’s part. But to me it is highly suggestive that she has omitted the two parts of the Darwinian theory that are the sine qua non of evolution as commonly understood, and that are also the most contested parts of the theory. That random genetic mutations can produce the changes in form and function, generation after generation, that result, via the filter of natural selection, in new and highly complex life forms, has been shown by prominent critics of Darwinism, and also extensively by me, to be somewhere between fantastically unlikely and inherently impossible. My own view is that it is inherently impossible. Also the theory, notwithstanding the claims of its advocates, remains unproved and undemonstrated to this day. Read any professional Darwinism proponent, and once you get past the pompous boasts that the truth of Darwinism is now completely established and that anyone who says otherwise is at best a pathetic idiot, at worst an enemy of mankind, there will be the quiet, off-hand, affectless admission that it is only micro-evolution (changes within an existing species), or changes at the molecular level, that have been demonstrated to occur according to random mutation and natural selection, not macro-evolution (the appearance of new and fundamentally different species, also known as “evolution”). The admission is then immediately followed by the bland assurance that proof of macro-evolution, known by hoi polloi as “evolution,” is just around the corner.

Even such an eminent authority as Ernst Mayr, a leading evolutionary scientist of the mid-20th century, said that Darwin “failed to solve the problem indicated by the title to his work. Although he demonstrated the modification of species in the time dimension, he never seriously attempted a rigorous analysis of the problem of the multiplication of species.” What Mayr meant by the unfamiliar phrase “multiplication of species” was the origin of new species. And the same failure is true of modern evolutionary biology. At bottom, the pretentious claim that science has discovered how new species originate remains “millions of guesses, strung together.”

So now we have a hint as to why Judson wants to get rid of the word Darwinism. It is because, as the anti-Darwinians have been saying all along, the core of Darwinism, meaning random genetic mutations leading via natural selection to new species, is not only unproved, but inherently unbelievable and unsustainable in the face of rational critique—as more and more people are recognizing. Yet, while dumping “Darwinism,” Judson wants to keep the word “evolution,” as in “evolutionary biology,” so that the public will still believe that “evolution,” which they understand to mean the appearance of new and more complex life forms on earth, but which the “evolutionary” biologists understand to mean something entirely different, has been proven to operate by random material processes.

Which leads us to the Austerian theory of evolutionary biologists: Judson and her colleagues want to relegate Darwin and his famous theory of the origin of species to the sidelines, because they think this will help keep the public in the dark about the fact that the evolutionary biologists have signally failed to prove Darwin’s theory of the origin of species by random mutation and natural selection—and, further, that the origin of species is not even a principal object of current research in “evolutionary” biology. Under the intellectual management of the evolutionary biologists, the issue that’s always been the main issue, “Can purposeless natural processes produce insects, elephants, and elm trees?”, will be concealed more and more behind a vague and inapproachable “evolutionary biology” that authoritatively claims to hold the key to all of life.


Note: The title of this entry is a pun on Norman Macbeth’s Darwin Retried (1971), one of the first of the modern anti-Darwin books.

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LA writes:

See in the article the photo of Olivia Judson: the evolutionary biologist as vampy, vain, Sex and the City wannabe. We see again how, in the absence of a guiding male principle, women start “feminizing” and corrupting every profession they enter.

Evan Hass writes:

You said, “We see again how, in the absence of a guiding male principle, women start “feminizing” and corrupting every profession they enter.”

It’s far worse than that—did you see this article in yesterday’s New York Times?

It’s clear now that affirmative action regulations, in practice, lead to quotas. Similarly, Title IX regulations in sports also lead to quotas. So it seems likely that Title IX, if applied to science, will also lead to quotas which will simply reduce male participation in science in the name of “equality.” Even to contemplate such a step now, when China, India, Russia, etc. are producing far more scientists and engineers than the U.S., is further evidence of the suicidal nature of liberalism.

* * *

My argument that ridding evolutionary theory of the explicit idea that it is about the origin of species, which has become so difficult to defend from the anti-Darwinians, and thus to take away from the anti-Darwinians their main target, is further backed up by the comments following Judson’s article:


I agree fully. Let’s leave the terms ‘Darwinist’, ‘Darwinism’ and ‘Darwinian’ to the creationists and their ilk. It fully reveals the narrowness of their view and the fullness of their prejudice.

—Posted by Adrian Thysse, FCD


I’d be happy to be rid of the term “Darwinism.” Tell the intelligent design creationists at the Discovery Institute, would you? Not that you have a chance of convincing them to crease using what is for them a useful term, one that implies (by using the “-ism”) that it’s just another ideology. Betcha you can’t get them to even consider stopping using it.

—Posted by RBH


Definitely agree—the only people who use the term “Darwinism” are creationists. And they only do it to tar it with the same brush as “Marxism”, and “Freudianism”—i.e. they want to hint that it’s an outdated and cult-like semi-religious system.

It’s not, we are evolutionary biologists, not “Darwinists”.

—Posted by Simon G

* * *

LA writes:

Another point: How often have we heard liberals say that liberalism is a meaningless word, and that we need to go beyond these old-fashioned ideological labels? Of course liberalism is not tmeaningless at all. The reasons liberals want to get rid of the word is that “liberalism” is a discredited label. They feel the only way to advance liberalism is to pretend that it’s a defunct concept and call it something else.

It’s the same with the effort to dispense with “Darwinism.”

Hannon writes:

I know you do not hesitate to critique people based on their appearance (relative to their function so to speak) and so when you made a disapproving reference to the photo of the evolutionary biologist-author I thought, “OK, so she might look more Cosmo Girl than girl sporting a serious cosmology. No big deal.” Then I saw the photo. In print she seems to be selling the biology of sex, but in this pose it is all seduction without a trace of professional integrity.

LA replies:

Thanks for seeing this. My description did not convey nearly as well as yours does the deliberate, shocking cheapness of the photo. In the ’80s young women’s model was Madonna. Ten years later it was “Sex and the City.” Apparently the ideal of women in the contemporary West is to look like—and to be—a whore.

And when do establishment conservative writers ever call attention to things like this? They don’t, because it would call attention to themselves: “What’s wrong with you? You got a problem with sexy women? Can’t people look the way they want?” Look at how I’ve been jumped on each time I criticized Ann Coulter’s whorish photographs. But people don’t want to be jumped on, and neither do conservatives. So they see and say nothing. When discussing the moral decay of society, they talk about generalities and abstractions: the illegitimacy rate, pornography on the Web, etc.. They never decry the shocking routinized immorality that fills mainstream everyday life and media. That would be getting too close to home.

Carol Iannone writes (July 18):

Very good article!

Also, I don’t know if I sent this to you to be posted before, but a new type of bear has been discovered in the Arctic, the offspring of a polar bear and a brown bear. These have hitherto been seen as separate species who would not mate, but they have, and DNA has proved it. So it may be that new species, especially the close variants we see and that so impressed Darwin in the beaks of finches, may come from environmental changes that bring species closer together or thin out their own numbers or whatever, causing them to mate with other close species, producing new species, at least theoretically. What has happened with the bears, however, according to Wikipedia, is that scientists are already reclassifying the two bear types as of the same species, after hundreds of years of seeing them as separate.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 16, 2008 02:36 PM | Send

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