10 February 2009

Kill Darwin?

Today's Science Times, oddly enough, is devoted to articles on evolution and Darwin. Included is an essay by Carl Safina, "Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live." Safina's basic point is that Darwinism as an -ism is a hindrance to scientific thought and – worse – a source of strength for intelligent design creationism.

I think he's right about that. But I think he's wrong about a lot more, and so does PZ, who documents a set of errors in a post on the Panda's Thumb that expresses what I disliked about the essay. I'd like to zoom in on one particular thing I really didn't like about Safina's essay: the suggestion that scientists are "propounding Darwinism":

By propounding “Darwinism,” even scientists and science writers perpetuate an impression that evolution is about one man, one book, one “theory.”
Science writers, I'll readily grant, "propound Darwinism," though I suspect that the most abundant and profligate users of the term are the purveyors of intelligent design creationism. But to what extent to scientists do this?

Well, let's have a look. I searched PubMed (articles in English only) for the use of terms that would refer to Darwin's concept of natural selection. In one search, I found entries that include the string "natural selection" and in another search I found entries that include "evolution" and "selection" but not "natural selection." The number of hits (20,109) would have been bigger if I had looked for entries including "positive selection," "purifying selection," "evolutionary adaptation," and so on. But there it is: more than 20,000 articles in the scientific literature that make reference to natural selection in some way. Then I searched for "darwinian" (1143 hits) and "darwinism" (204 hits). I put them together, because I'm a generous guy. Here's a nice little graph of the results:

  The "cult of Darwinism" is an invention of propagandists who are smart enough to know that a frontal assault on evolutionary science is a suicide mission. I concur with the multiple commenters on the essay at the Times' site when they refer to this aspect of the essay as a strawman. Safina made some good points about the equating of Darwin and evolution. But he's addressing the wrong audience. Scientists know that's a mistake, and creationists know it's not true. Scientists don't say it. Creationists do.

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