Language Logged!

UPDATE (31 October): I’ve now heard the D-word in real life.

To my considerable surprise, I found this morning that I’d been Language Logged. I’m glad to hear that Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus contains a solid critique of evolutionary psychology — in Mark Liberman’s words, “a dissection, and a rather careful and limited one, not a bludgeoning.” After reading what Liberman had to say, I think I erred in my original post on Deborah Cameron and her use of the word Darwinist. I stand by the essential content of what I said before, but in two respects, I goofed. First, I should have called greater attention to the sexism of the news story which first piqued my curiosity; second, I should have been more precise in my claims about “usage.” After saying some nice things, for which I am grateful, Liberman takes issue with this part of what I’d written:

On this side of the Atlantic, hearing a person say “Darwinism” is a red flag that you’re dealing with a creationist or, at least, a person whose knowledge of science derives primarily from creationist claptrap. To me, calling evolutionary biology “Darwinism” makes as little sense as calling all modern music “Beethovenism.” The year is no longer 1859; we understand many things which Darwin did not, although we stand on his shoulders.

In British usage, “Darwinism” is much more synonymous with evolution in general. (Richard Dawkins is a prime example of this tendency.) I find this unfortunate, partly because it slights all the relevant discoveries we have made since, from Mendel’s time to the present day, and partly because it provides unwarranted ammunition to creationists over here. Still, that’s the way they talk.

Instead of talking about general “British usage,” I should have done what I did in my brief follow-up, making explicit that I meant the writings of British evolutionary biologists in particular. Mea culpa! Liberman writes of his searching Google News for “Darwinism,”

I didn’t find any examples at all of “Darwinism” in the context of a simple evolutionary explanation without piles of explicit ideological baggage heaped on top of it.

We’d expect news coverage to be skewed towards the opinionated, reflecting the word-use habits of ideological pundits rather than dusty academics. Indeed, it’s interesting to note that in the first four pages of the Google News hit parade, seven hits come directly from the Discovery Institute, a creationist organization (of the Intelligent Design sub-species).

Occasionally, one does come across an instance of “Darwinism” used to mean “evolutionary biology.” Consider this passage from James Randerson at the Guardian blogs (9 October 2007):

The new guidelines from the government on teaching evolution state that alternatives to Darwinism such as creationism and intelligent design can come into discussions on the subject, but only to illustrate what does and does not constitute a scientific theory. In stating clearly that creationism and intelligent design “should not be taught as science” they are right on the money.

Randerson’s essay is about a policy debate, not a scientific explanation of a particular fact, but it does illustrate a case of “Darwinism without baggage.” At least in this article, Randerson does not argue that scientific discoveries have provided reasons to chuck religion in the dustbin; he confines himself to the point that creationism should not be taught in science classes, and I am unaware of his views on debates of larger scope. This piece is currently the fourth Google News hit for “Darwinism”; Philip Hensher used “Darwinist” in a similar context in the Independent last year.

What about the writings of academics, where we might expect to find particular issues of science raised with more frequency? The use of “Darwinism” to mean “evolutionary biology” may be going out of style, and consequently it might be buried in books a few years too dusty for Google’s myriapod grasp. Consider Ernst Mayr’s One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought (1991), summarized at the TalkOrigins FAQ.

[…] The term “Darwinism”, […] has numerous meanings depending on who has used the term and at what period. A better understanding of the meaning of this term is only one reason to call attention to the composite nature of Darwin’s evolutionary thought.

[…] One particulary cogent reason why Darwinism cannot be a single monolithic theory is that organic evolution consists of two essentially independent processes, as we have seen: transformation in time, and diversification in ecological and geographical space. The two processes require a minimum of two entirely independent and very different theories.

Mayr then teases out the different conceptual threads which are twined together within “Darwinism,” including common descent, multiplication of species and natural selection.

I’m going to pull out one of the general type of quotation I was thinking of when I used Richard Dawkins as an example. This is from The Blind Watchmaker (1996):

Darwinism is widely misunderstood as a theory of pure chance. Mustn’t it have done something to provoke this canard? Well, yes, there is something behind the misunderstood rumour, a feeble basis to the distortion. One stage in the Darwinian process is indeed a chance process — mutation. Mutation is the process by which fresh genetic variation is offered up for selection, and it is usually described as random. But Darwinians make the fuss they do about the ‘randomness’ of mutation only in order to contrast it to the non-randomness of selection. It is not necessary that mutation should be random for natural selection to work. Selection can still do its work whether mutation is directed or not. Emphasizing that mutation can be random is our way of calling attention to the crucial fact that, by contrast, selection is sublimely and quintessentially non-random. It is ironic that this emphasis on the contrast between mutation and the non-randomness of selection has led people to think that the whole theory is a theory of chance.

Dawkins appears to be using “Darwinism” without qualms to mean the combination of mutation and natural selection. Karl Popper has done the same.

Thinking more precisely after the event, I believe I should have made more clear that I was thinking about “Darwinism” as used by non-American academics, such as Mayr (born and educated in Germany), Richard Dawkins and the people who organized the Darwinism after Darwin conference held last month in Leeds. It is, at any rate, folklore among the anti-creationist blogging community that non-American scientists are more likely to use the word “Darwinism” and its variants than American ones are, although it seems that outside academic circles, “Darwinism” and “Darwinist” may have negative connotations everywhere.

The more important point in my earlier post was that indiscriminate use of the word “Darwinist” unjustly smears the sins of evolutionary psychology across all biology. It’s a case of sin-echdoche, if you will. This problem is compounded when assertions of evolutionary psychologists which claim some biological basis for gender inequalities are amplified into the notion that evolution itself is somehow unfriendly to feminism. Communicating clearly about these issues is difficult, and I can hardly hold any animosity towards Prof. Cameron for indiscriminate application of “Darwinist” — a misdemeanor offense in Science Communications Court — when I myself haven’t emphasized my key points very well.

One thought on “Language Logged!”

  1. I’m in the middle of a literature review on a completely different topic right now, so I’ll just add this quick afterthought. In his post, Mark Liberman quotes some passages from Jerry Fodor, who has a few harsh words for Pinker and Plotkin. My reaction to many disputes in cognitive science is of a rather “plague on both their houses” variety, but that’s an argument for a different day. Right now, I’d just like to ponder a moment on all the different ways that the D-word has become an indicator of negative feelings.

    To a creationist, “Darwinism” is the view that we are all just products of chance; it is the way of godlessness, Communism, sodomy and women’s liberation. To an armchair philosopher or a cocktail-party economist, “Darwinism” is social Darwinism, the raison d’être of Rockefeller and Carnegie. Over in the Literature Department, you might find some grumpy postmodernists who’ll tell you that the “Darwinists” are spreading the perfidious metanarrative that biology has something to do with human beings.

    Then we have Jerry Fodor, who seems to sling around “Darwinist” as a synonym for “pan-adaptationist.” After Fodor we meet Cameron, who (ten years ago, anyway) glossed “Darwinism” as a bleak legacy of fixity and stultification.

    Meanwhile, the biologists themselves have learned that a screed full of complaints about the “Darwinists” is a sure sign of creationist infection. That is to say, the American biologists have learned this lesson — they’ve even put it in the Creationist Bingo game — but a set of academics outside the United States keep using the dreaded D-word, perhaps out of unfamiliarity with modern creationism or a type of national pride.

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