Monday, August 11, 2008

"Let's Get Rid of Darwinism"

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article entitled "Let's Get Rid of Darwinism" from the New York Times website. As bold of a statement as that is, I quickly clicked the link to see who was fighting one of the greatest scientists we've ever seen and why they wanted to rid the world of Darwinism. I immediately immersed myself in the article and it turns out that it's about getting rid of the terminology, not the ideas. Turns out there was no reason to get steamed up over this one.

As the author discusses, many of Darwin's statements and ideas have been turned into deep fields of study, while at the same time new information has come to light that has put some of his ideas into their grave. Any true scientist, when approached with information and evidence that might contradict their life's work but is presented as incontrovertible and indisputable would have a right to feel a sense of exhaustion, but should also be willing to accept the findings with arms wide open. I'd like to think that Darwin would be one of those men that could openly admit that some of his stuff was wrong.

Be that as it may, Darwin was a huge contributor to ideas that have driven biology into a mainstream science. As the author of this article so eloquently puts it, however, it is time "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."

As a fan of Darwin and a reader of Origin of the Species as well as other works of his, I must wholeheartedly agree. Darwinism is a term that no longer is associated with the specific findings of a man. Yes, his voyage on The Beagle led to a great deal of discoveries that we can attribute to Darwin, and while his findings remain unchanged, the theories he came up with have been refined and are not the same ideas today. They have changed and many scientists have contributed to evolutionary biology and revolutionized his ideas in ways he could not have done at the time. To falsely credit all of their achievements to one man by giving evolution a moniker that does not do justice to those studying and making breakthroughs in the field now is simply unjust. Don't get me wrong, he is a founder and should be respected and honored for his discoveries, but to use the name Darwinism to describe that which Darwin never even lived to read about just seems so irrational to me.

As the friend who sent this pointed out to me, there are other examples of systems named after a specific individual that we can correlate to this situation. One might throw into the conversation Newtonian mechanics, or Copernican heliocentrism, "to show that sometimes 'systems of thought' can be useful even when they're wrong, but more successful models like quantum mechanics or general relativity don't get eponym-ized because it's the theory that's important."

As an atheist, I've witnessed far too many of my fellow non-believers putting Darwin on a pedestal and worshipping him as some sort of idol. Many do this with the Four Horsemen and others as well. Sure, go ahead and be fervent about someone or list them as a hero on your Myspace page, but don't forget about the ideas behind them. Yes, these great men have shared with us information, ideas and opinions that have brought the world into an age of enlightenment, but it is these ideas and their thoughts that we should grasp on to. In the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, one of the Four Horsemen and a huge advocate of Darwin and evolutionary biology (note: not Darwinism :P), there is a chapter titled "Memes: The New Replicators." In this part of the book, Dawkins relates that ideas and cultural phenomena are like genes in that they are passed from individuals, but they are not bound by direct transmission of DNA. Our genes that are passed on in our lineage are halved every generation, but if one of us comes up with a brilliant idea, it can be passed on in whole to others not in our families. Yes, it may be bastardized in the future or by others, but that is part of evolution.

In genetics, a mutation occurs and is passed on. In some cases the mutation is beneficial and eventually spreads throughout a population. We do not, however, specifically single out that individual and treat it as a savior. It is designated as the originator, or founder if you will, and is studied and can be thanked if one so wishes. The gene is what is passed on, and eventually it will evolve and possibly mutate again into a more beneficial or refined gene. Eventually, the original gene, and the being with the mutation, are nothing more than a footnote in textbooks. While not exactly under the same governance of order as a gene, memes should be treated similarly. The founder of an idea should be respected for coming up with an idea, but it is the idea that is beneficial to us specifically and we should recognize that the idea will eventually change beyond the original scope of the person it came from.

To call evolutionary biology "Darwinism" is a tribute to a man, but it is disrespectful to a meme that has now evolved on its own into an amazing branch of science that has had the input of a great number of people to help refine it.

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