Monday, September 25, 2006

What is Darwinism? by Poul Willy Eriksen

Coral Ridge Ministries release of the book and video Darwin's Deadly Legacy has accentuated the concept of 'Darwinism'. I have done some research into the subject, and I must say it isn't easy to figure out, what exactly is meant by Darwinism. Therefore I would appreciate some ideas about, what people understand by this word. Richard Dawkins uses it, Phillip Johnson uses it; but I doubt they mean exactly the same. Or do they?

In Germany Ernst Haeckel became the leading proponent of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Haeckel also used the term 'Darwinism', and a definition can be found in The Evolution of Man, vol. I chap. V, "The Modern Science of Evolution". Here Haeckel writes:

We owe so much of the progress of scientific knowledge to Darwin’s Origin of Species that its influence is almost without parallel in the history of science. The literature of Darwinism grows from day to day, not only on the side of academic zoology and botany, the sciences which were chiefly affected by Darwin’s theory, but in a far wider circle, so that we find Darwinism discussed in popular literature with a vigour and zest that are given to no other scientific conception. This remarkable success is due chiefly to two circumstances. In the first place, all the sciences, and especially biology, have made astounding progress in the last half-century, and have furnished a very vast quantity of proofs of the theory of evolution. In striking contrast to the failure of Lamarck and the older scientists to attract attention to their effort to explain the origin of living things and of man, we have this second and successful effort of Darwin, which was able to gather to its support a large number of established facts. Availing himself of the progress already made, he had very different scientific proofs to allege than Lamarck, or St. Hilaire, or Goethe, or Treviranus had had. But, in the second place, we must acknowledge that Darwin had the special distinction of approaching the subject from an entirely new side, and of basing the theory of descent on a consistent system, which now goes by the name of Darwinism.

In other words, earlier attempts to explain the origin of living things and of man had failed due to lack of a consistent system, and Darwin provided such a system. But which system? Continuing, Haeckel writes:

Lamarck had unsuccessfully attempted to explain the modification of organisms that descend from a common form chiefly by the action of habit and the use of organs, though with the aid of heredity. But Darwin’s success was complete when he independently sought to give a mechanical explanation, on a quite new ground, of this modification of plant and animal structures by adaptation and heredity. He was impelled to his theory of selection on the following grounds. He compared the origin of the various kinds of animals and plants which we modify artificially—by the action of artificial selection in horticulture and among domestic animals—with the origin of the species of animals and plants in their natural state. He then found that the agencies which we employ in the modification of forms by artificial selection are also at work in Nature. The chief of these agencies he held to be “the struggle for life.” The gist of this peculiarly Darwinian idea is given in this formula: The struggle for existence produces new species without premeditated design in the life of Nature, in the same way that the will of man consciously selects new races in artificial conditions. The gardener or the farmer selects new forms as he wills for his own profit, by ingeniously using the agency of heredity and adaptation for the modification of structures; so, in the natural state, the struggle for life is always unconsciously modifying the various species of living things. This struggle for life, or competition of organisms in securing the means of subsistence, acts without any conscious design, but it is none the less effective in modifying structures. As heredity and adaptation enter into the closest reciprocal action under its influence, new structures, or alterations of structure, are produced; and these are purposive in the sense that they serve the organism when formed, but they were produced without any pre-conceived aim.

And "[t]his simple idea is the central thought of Darwinism," Haeckel continues.

To me it sounds as if Haeckel considers adaptation to be an active principle that by itself will produce new or altered structures. The driving force behind this principle is the struggle for existence.

But leave that as it is. For Haeckel, Darwinism is inductive and therefore, since humans are living, the origin of man must follow the same rule as the origin of any other living things:

It is important to understand this very clearly. If all living things come from a common root, man must be included in the general scheme of evolution. On the other hand, if the various species were separately created, man, too, must have been created, and not evolved. We have to choose between these two alternatives. This cannot be too frequently or too strongly emphasised. Either all the species of animals and plants are of supernatural origin—created, not evolved—and in that case man also is the outcome of a creative act, as religion teaches, or the different species have been evolved from a few common, simple ancestral forms, and in that case man is the highest fruit of the tree of evolution.

Now, if the various forms of life are related through adaptation and heredity, the conclusion is that:

The general adoption of the theory of evolution has definitely closed the controversy as to the nature or definition of the species. The word has no absolute meaning whatever, but is only a group-name, or category of classification, with a purely relative value.

Modern day creationists have accepted this in so far as they do not consider species to be the units of creation; that role has been assigned to the originally created kinds, the baramins.

Haeckel ends the book in vol. II chap. XXX, "Results of Anthropogeny", with the words:

It is clear that the prejudices that stand in the way of a general recognition of this “natural anthropogeny” are still very great; otherwise the long struggle of philosophic systems would have ended in favour of Monism. But we may confidently expect that a more general acquaintance with the genetic facts will gradually destroy these prejudices, and lead to the triumph of the natural conception of “man’s place in nature.” When we hear it said, in face of this expectation, that this would lead to retrogression in the intellectual and moral development of mankind, I cannot refrain from saying that, in my opinion, it will be just the reverse; that it will promote to an enormous extent the advance of the human mind. All progress in our knowledge of truth means an advance in the higher cultivation of the human intelligence; and all progress in its application to practical life implies a corresponding improvement of morality. The worst enemies of the human race—ignorance and superstition—can only be vanquished by truth and reason. In any case, I hope and desire to have convinced the reader of these chapters that the true scientific comprehension of the human frame can only be attained in the way that we recognise to be the sole sound and effective one in organic science generally—namely, the way of evolution.

This would be what was originally understood by 'Darwinism'. But what does it mean today?

6 comments:

Dr. Spinoza said...

I do wonder who first used the term "Darwinism." Was it Haeckel himself? (Interestingly, I do know that Haeckel invented the word "ecology.")

You're right to point out how slippery the term "Darwinism" is. Anti-evolutionists, as I think of them, deny that they are anti-evolutionists by insisting that they are only anti-Darwinian. Here's how it works.

First, they distinguish between "microevolution" and "macroevolution." (One does find this distinction among practicing biologists, but it's not used in the same way.) "Microevolution," they say, refers to changes in allele frequency over time. Here, some of them concede, mutation and selection have a real but minor role. "Macroevolution," on the other hand, refers to speciation and to major morphological innovations.

What self-styled "anti-Darwinians" say is that they accept "microevolution" but deny that "macroevolution" happens, or at least, that it can happen without guidance from an intelligent agent. What they miss, of course, is the point that there's nothing more to macroevolution besides microevolution over deep time -- they are different patterns generated by the same process, not -- as anti-evolutionists insist -- two different processes.

In this way, they focus their criticism on a particular person rather than a whole body of theory that was initiated by Darwin. Very few evolutionary theorists refer to themselves as "Darwinists," though some have to reclaim the word (much as African-Americans have reappropriated the slur "nigger").

I sometimes refer to myself as a Darwinist so that they will know how to fit me into their categories, but I'm no more of a Darwinist than I am a Newtonist or a Bohrist.

The rise of "Darwinism" can be traced back to an attempt to show that evolutionary theory is not an empirical science but a personal ideology. Hence the emphasis on the founder of this ideology, Darwin. The parallel with Marxism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc. is precise and intentional.

The overall strategy is to say that evolutionary theory is not a science and should not be treated as such. This strategy arose in the aftermath of Edwards vs. Aguillard (1987), which ruled that creationism was not a science. If creationism cannot be taught in schools because it is not a science, the anti-evolutionists reasoned, then evolution should also not be taught, since it also is not a science. Or at least one should have the decency and good sense to "teach the controversy."

Alan Fox said...

Thank for your contribution, Poul.

The general adoption of the theory of evolution has definitely closed the controversy as to the nature or definition of the species. The word has no absolute meaning whatever, but is only a group-name, or category of classification, with a purely relative value.

Darwinian evolution predicts that there is an unbroken line of descent via viable ancestral forms , so a species is not an immutable concept, rather a snapshot in time of a population of organisms that normally maintain breeding isolation in the wild. Haeckel oviously concurs.

FreezBee said...

That was quick Alan, thanks. I hadn't expected you to have it up today.

And thanks for your comments, dr. spinoza and Alan.


dr. spinoza wrote:

I do wonder who first used the term "Darwinism." Was it Haeckel himself? (Interestingly, I do know that Haeckel invented the word "ecology.")

Both Haeckel and Huxley used it; but I had only found examples of Haeckel's use. I doubt, however, that Huxley used the word much differently.

As for "ecology", it's true that Haeckel invented that word, and it's of course a very important concept, Even baraminologists accept the importance of ecology.

Apparently, however, the ecology went somewhat bad - through Rudolf Steiner's biodynamics. See e.g. Fascist Ecology: The "Green Wing" Hof the Nazi Party and its istorical Antecedents.


You're right to point out how slippery the term "Darwinism" is. Anti-evolutionists, as I think of them, deny that they are anti-evolutionists by insisting that they are only anti-Darwinian.

Yes, that's quite confusing. Rather than define either what they mean by 'evolution' or 'Darwinian', matters are confused even more by use of both words unqualified.


What self-styled "anti-Darwinians" say is that they accept "microevolution" but deny that "macroevolution" happens, or at least, that it can happen without guidance from an intelligent agent. What they miss, of course, is the point that there's nothing more to macroevolution besides microevolution over deep time -- they are different patterns generated by the same process, not -- as anti-evolutionists insist -- two different processes.

Yes, some of them do - that's the baraminologist position. Others, like Behe and Dembski, are more unclear, apparently just wanting something to be designed.

A minor point here is that, what you advocate is referred to as neo-Darwinian evolution, where macroevolution is just repeated mictoevolution. Apparently Stepen Jay Gould considered this idea untenable.


I sometimes refer to myself as a Darwinist so that they will know how to fit me into their categories, but I'm no more of a Darwinist than I am a Newtonist or a Bohrist.

I think most have it the same way; being a Darwinist isn't like being member of some cult (Richard Dawkins need not apply, of course). However, the anti-Darwinists use it in line with being Christian, as if it is something that penetrates all you do.


The rise of "Darwinism" can be traced back to an attempt to show that evolutionary theory is not an empirical science but a personal ideology. Hence the emphasis on the founder of this ideology, Darwin. The parallel with Marxism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc. is precise and intentional.

Indeed it is intentional; but unlike other 'isms', Darwinism isn't actually all that related to Darwin. Much was in place already, evolution, natural selection, and so on. Darwin's contribution was mainly providing evidence and going the (almost) full line. He dissolved the species concept and therefore completely broke away from special creation. He didn't go as far as abiogenesis though.


If creationism cannot be taught in schools because it is not a science, the anti-evolutionists reasoned, then evolution should also not be taught, since it also is not a science.

Yes, a standard tu quoque fallacy.


Or at least one should have the decency and good sense to "teach the controversy."

But that controversy would have to a scientificcontroversy, and this far the IDists do not impress by their scientific results.


For me the problem is that it's unclear, what exactly is being attacked. Not all that might call themselves Darwinists do necessarily embrace everything that e.g. E.O. Wilson has written. It's a kind of, if one Darwinist has written something unfitting, they all have.

FreezBee said...

Alan Fox wrote:

Darwinian evolution predicts that there is an unbroken line of descent via viable ancestral forms , so a species is not an immutable concept, rather a snapshot in time of a population of organisms that normally maintain breeding isolation in the wild. Haeckel oviously concurs.

Yes, and that's a key factor in Darwinian evolution - the gradualism. Therefore I also find thae frequently posed claim that "Darwinism leads to racism" completely wrong. Any self-respecting Darwinist would also consider races to be simply convenient (or, these days, not so convenient) names.

Chris Hyland said...

My general understanding is Darwinism refers to Darwins original ideas, neoDarwinism refers to people like Wallace and Weismann who rejected any form of Lamarkian inheritance, and then the modern synthesis refers to the addition of mendelian genetics. In any case non of the phrases is an accurate description of modern evolutionary theory. It would be ok if everyone could agree that 'Darwinism' could mean the same thing as modern evolutionary theory, but the creationists change the definition to whatever suits them.

Dr. Spinoza said...

Yes, it suits creationists to (a) associate whatever evolutionary theorists currently believe with Darwin (i.e. "Darwinism") and
(b) disparage Darwin's own ideas as much as possible. Thus, Gould and Eldredge's work on punctuated equilibrium is still being cited as a refutation of "Darwinism," and therefore as opening up the logical space for "alternative explanations."