Time To Put Darwin in His Place

Charles Darwin would be 200 years old this week. And after all these years, people are still arguing about the theory of evolution that he fathered.

A primary reason: Some religious groups object to the notion that humans emerged millions of years ago from apes, or a common ancestor shared with apes, and that all life evolved over time, rather than being created as-is by God. This is the gist of it, though there are numerous variations on creationist arguments with evolution.

But there's another reason for the ongoing debate that may surprise you: The terms "Darwinian evolution" and "Darwinism" — used frequently by scientists, teachers and the media — are misleading.

Scientists have failed to let Darwin die, even as the theory he birthed grew up, some scientists now say. Evolutionary biology has evolved greatly since Darwin first generated the controversy with the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species, and some think it's time to divorce his name from the theory's name.

The term Darwinism "fails to convey the full panoply of modern evolutionary biology accurately, and it fosters the inaccurate perception that the field stagnated for 150 years after Darwin's day," Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education wrote last month in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach.

Birth of evolution

In Origin, Darwin proposed that living things descended with modification from common ancestors. Within a decade or so, most scientists in Britain, at least, had accepted this basic idea of evolution, Scott and Branch explain.

Darwin's other big idea, that evolutionary change was driven by natural selection, was much slower to catch on, Scott and Branch write. It took other research, including a 20th-century rediscovery of work by Gregor Mendel — a priest and contemporary of Darwin who had unraveled the basic principles of heredity by crossbreeding peas — to give widespread credence to natural selection.

To scientists nowadays, there is no debate about the solidity of the theory of evolution. Like the theory of gravity, evolution has been tested every which way, and though there remains plenty to learn about some of the details of how it works, there is no questioning the fact that it is at work, creating new species such as drug-resistant bacteria on short time scales or, in the longer term, humans, who evolved from other primates.

Evolution is one of the most well-established theories in science, supported by observations in many fields, from fossil evidence to DNA work done only in recent years.

Other kinds of evolution?

Yet because scientists and the media refer to "Darwinian evolution," there's an implicit suggestion that there are other kinds, argues Carl Safina, adjunct professor at Stony Brook University, in an essay this week in The New York Times.

"We don't call astronomy Copernicism, nor gravity Newtonism," Safina points out. "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?"

There is none, of course.

Scott and Branch, in their paper, delved much deeper into the confusion fueled by these terms, given that evolutionary biology has expanded to include many theories and concepts unknown in the 19th century.

"The term “Darwinism" is, therefore, ambiguous and misleading," they write.

"Compounding the problem of 'Darwinism' is the hijacking of the term by creationists to portray evolution as a dangerous ideology — an 'ism' — that has no place in the science classroom," Scott and Branch argue. "When scientists and teachers use 'Darwinism' as synonymous with evolutionary biology, it reinforces such a misleading portrayal and hinders efforts to present the scientific standing of evolution accurately. Accordingly, the term 'Darwinism' should be abandoned as a synonym for evolutionary biology."

In short, it's time to put Charles Darwin in his place, with all due respect, and accept that his theory has evolved.

Robert Roy Britt is the Editorial Director of Imaginova. In this column, The Water Cooler, he takes a daily look at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.