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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Terminology wars revisited: Darwinists, Darwinian evolutionists, and evolutionary biologists

To the post Terminology wars: "Darwinist" vs. "Darwinian evolutionist", Larry Moran (the evolutionary biologist who objected to the term "Darwinist" during my talk at U of T last Saturday, has left a comment, saying that he also does not like the term "Darwinian evolutionist" and asks to be called an "evolutionary biologist."

I hope he won't mind that I am quoting most of his post, to draw attention to his concerns, and then responding below:
I was the person who objected to your use of the term "Darwinist." The word is loaded with all kinds of implications. To those of us who work on evolution it means a person who believes in natural selection as the most important thing in evolutionary biology. This would include people like Richard Dawkins and others who are often referred to as Ultra-Darwinians.

Many of us are not Darwinists in that sense and we would never refer to ourselves as "Darwinists" unless we were specificially referring to our acceptance of Darwin's theory of natural selection. The term "Darwinian evolutionist" is even more objectionable because it labels someone as an evolutionst who tends to side with the Ultra-Darwinian camp.

As it turns out, there's a lot more to modern evolution than just natural selection and the things that Charles Darwin knew in 1859. To call all modern evolutionary biologists "Darwinists" would be like calling all modern physicists "Newtonists" and ignoring the contributions of Albert Einstein and the development of quantum mechanics in the twentieth century.

There's a strictly scientific controversy over the importance of natural selection, and the proper use of the term "Darwinist." It is quite wrong to label all evolutionary biologists as "Darwinists" as though they were all stuck in the nineteenth century. As long as there are some evolutionary biologists who object, then their wishes should be respected. I object, and I'm not alone as Denyse O'Leary recognizes. There's a perfectly good alternative that nobody will object to. Call us evolutionary biologists or even evolutionists.

Okay, fair enough, Larry. I'll run "evolutionary biologist" up the flagpole for a while and see who salutes. I always try to use terminology to which people cannot reasonably object - so far as is consistent with making clear where they stand in a controversy. So I may have to tweak it a bit.

But now, here is my main problem: While working on my most recent co-authored book with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard (Harper 2007), I came across a number of people who - to judge from their published writings - are completely committed fans of Darwin. But they have no clear relationship that I can determine to biology as I think you understand it.

For example,

- Writer Matthew Alper thinks that there is a specific “God” Part of the Brain (2001), which would be news to neuroscientists who image the traces of spirituality using fMRI and CATscans.

- Psychologist Susan Blackmore thinks that there is a unit of thought that is equivalent to a gene. Don't ask whether there is any coherent explanation for a unit of thought. (Religious memes, by the way, are apparently deceitful.)

- Lawyer Joseph Giovannoli thinks that there is such a thing as a psychogene, but don't look for it on a map of the human genome. It is all in the mind/brain/head/somewhere up there anyway.

- Software developer Richard Brodie thinks that memes are viruses of the mind (in other sources, memes are equivalent to genes - but hey, things do evolve, right?). (Note: Richard Brodie writes to say that he does not think viruses of the mind like religion are memes. Apologies for error.)

I call these people Darwinists assuming they are complimented, not offended, to be linked with their hero. I am not trying to put them down when I call them that.

But, Larry, I can sort of see why you wouldn't want to be classed with them, if you actually do science for a living.

I am sympathetic to your wish to reserve for evolutionary biology a level of respect due to a serious academic endeavor, and I would be happy to help. I do think, however, that you and others in your field might want to consider clearly distancing yourselves from the Darwin circus. If you don't, no one can do it for you.

Actually, I think the Darwin circus is the primary reason for controversy around the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools. I doubt that many people care about the wing powder of peppered moths, the coat colours of urban squirrels, or whether Galapágos finch beaks are fat or thin from one year to the next. But the prospect of giving people with a far-out agenda access to the education system is about as popular today as it has always been.
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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