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I’ve written before about the different ways people define the word Darwinism and its close relatives. The short version is that American biologists and other academics don’t seem too likely to use the word: they just like to say “evolutionary biology” and be done with it. In the U. S. and A., hearing the word “Darwinism” is a pretty sure sign you’re dealing with a creationist, or at least a person whose knowledge of science derives too much from creationist misinformation. Over in Britain, serious academics still use the word, as do people who appear fairly pro-science (maybe there’s some kind of national pride thing going on?). One can still see negative uses of the D-word over in the UK, of course, particularly from people who confuse “social Darwinism” with actual biology or radically misinterpret kin selection and the “selfish gene” idea, but sorting out all their problems would require a book of its own.

Occasionally, people here in the land of motherhood and sport-utility apple pies get upset with Richard Dawkins for using the D-word himself. I mean, here we are, trying to make the point that science is not dogma and Darwin was not a prophet, and then this furriner comes along to screw up the lexicon. So, an event which transpired during a recent Q&A session is rather noteworthy. Both H. H. and Jackie Stone attended Dawkins’s talk at Manhattan’s Ethical Culture Society on Saturday, 15 March; I’ll quote H. H.’s account:

During the Q&A session one young man stood up and asked Dawkins why he used the term Darwinism when referring to the theory of evolution. While noting that it is still common to do so in England, most American scientists eschew the term because of the manner in which it plays into the hands of creationists. We don’t speak of Newtonism or Einsteinism, the young man pointed out, and referring to the theory of evolution as “Darwinism” might give some the mistaken view that evolution is nothing more than a religion or cult of personality.

Now here’s the really amazing thing: despite being about 30 years the young man’s senior, Dawkins thoughtfully assented. He agreed that the young questioner had a point, one which he hadn’t fully considered before. Perhaps “Darwinian” has its place, but maybe “Darwinism” should be retired as too likely to be misconstrued. We in the audience saw a respected writer and science advocate who was willing to reevaluate himself and his choice of expression, and we all loudly applauded Dawkins’ open-mindedness and willingness to change. It was a great moment.

In Stone’s report, Dawkins says the questioner “raised his consciousness” about the language issue.

11 Comments

    • Physicalist
    • Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2008 at 22:15 pm
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    I hadn’t realized the D-word was more common across the pond; good to know. I’d be quite surprised if Dawkins really hadn’t considered this before; isn’t it an old issue?

    • manigen
    • Posted Thursday, 27 March 2008 at 07:25 am
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    It seems to be an old issue in America, but in the UK it’s never discussed. We don’t have the same problems with fundamentalists, you see.

    Still, given Dawkin’s international-best-selling-globe-trotter-author-scientist status, I am suprised he hadn’t thought about it.

  1. We don’t say “Newtonism”, but we do say “Newtonian mechanics.” On the other hand, perhaps we only call it “Newtonian” because it’s been superceded by more sophisticated theories.

  2. In physics, we’ve got the -ian suffix all over the place: Newtonian, Einsteinian, Maxwellian, Galilean, Lagrangian, Hamiltonian, Laplacian, d’Alembertian. . . To my ear, at least, it seems to carry less weight than -ism. One can prove the equivalence of Newtonian, Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formalisms, and one can begin an essay with Galilean relativity before moving on to Einstein; -ians don’t get jealous of one another like -isms do.

    • manigen
    • Posted Thursday, 27 March 2008 at 14:29 pm
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    If only all suffixes could be so open minded.

    • Timeby
    • Posted Thursday, 27 March 2008 at 22:03 pm
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    I suspect that the -ism suffix suffers from political association: communism, fascism, socialism…. etc.

  3. I have often wondered whether Cubism is some terrible geometric prejudice like racism or sexism.

    • Ninya
    • Posted Friday, 28 March 2008 at 15:40 pm
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    Geometric prejudice is some of the most ruthless discrimination out there…

  4. Ninya, don’t be so square…

    • Timeby
    • Posted Friday, 28 March 2008 at 23:55 pm
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    Dougal, you dare to challenge the perfect cube that is the centre of the universe. Beware the Euclidean inquisitors!

    • Lin Floyd
    • Posted Saturday, 29 March 2008 at 13:53 pm
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    Words like Newtonian and Darwinian are useful in giving historical context. Physics and Evolutionary biology, respectively, bear only superficial resemblance to the theories of Isaac and Charles.


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