Thursday, July 17, 2008

The End Of An -ism

This was a few days ago, but better late than never -- Olivia Judson's argument against "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.
I think Judson is talking about high school evolution -- at my land-grant college I had a really great standard-ed BIO 103 that was all about contemporary theories of evolution, and relatively little about Darwin. (Thanks, Dr. Muzzall!) But the point is well taken.

I would venture that part of the problem is that Darwin is usually mistaken for/compared to a social program (e.g. "social Darwinism") or religious dogma -- more charitably, as a philosopher -- and in all of those cases, rightly or wrongly, you are reading for The Answer, and answers that are wrong or incomplete are taken for serious deficits.

Another part of the trouble is that most people think they understand what Darwin said and did and what evolution or natural selection means when they really do not. In this case, it's easier to just assign your beliefs to somebody else, rather than claiming to speak for a whole body of scientific work. (I just don't think Einstein gets this crap as often.)

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