Divorcing Darwin


It’s time to divorce Darwin. At least that’s what Carl Safina thinks. The MacArthur fellow believes that the theory of evolution has evolved beyond Darwin, and our inability to separate the man from the concept is hindering its legitimacy.

Using the terms “Darwinism” and “evolution” interchangeably is dangerous for two reasons. First, it diminishes the gains made by every scientist since Darwin towards the advancement of the theory of evolution. Darwin came up with the foundational theories behind natural selection but had no means of understanding the mechanics. As Safina points out, “Almost everything we understand about evolution came after Darwin, not from him”. Not until Gregor Mendel’s heredity experiments and Watson and Crick’s double helix discovery could the theory be truly explained. Myriad biologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists have made significant contributions to the theory of evolution, but Darwin gets all the credit. Essentially this disregards all the progress that has been made since his piece de resistance was published in 1859.

Not only is that ignoring 155 years of development, but it makes the theory of evolution sound less like a scientific consensus and more like a cult theory. Dare I say that naming the theory after the person who first proselytized it implies religious connotations? Calling it Darwinism rather than evolution transforms Charles Darwin from an accomplished scientist into a cult leader, and makes the nearly universally accepted scientific theory seem like the beliefs of one individual. Safina also makes the point that linguistics-wise, using the term “Darwinism” in opposition to the term “creationism” subconsciously puts the two concepts on equal footing and creates a false equivalency.

We also must take into consideration the fact that the Darwin name has unfortunately been tainted. Creationists rarely fail to point out the links between the concept of natural selection and the racist theories that stemmed from it, in particular eugenics and Social Darwinism, which was used as justification for Western imperialism during much of the 19th century.

So is Darwin holding back the theory of evolution?

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35 Responses to Divorcing Darwin

  1. gatorade15 says:

    Very interesting post, glow cloud. Safina makes good points about how Darwin was not the sole creator of the natural selection based theory of evolution, but rather one of many individuals who expanded, elaborated, and further developed this idea. However, I think that the tone and over all message of this essay is rather inappropriate for talking about scientific theories.

    At the end of the day, Darwin played a very important role (one of many important roles) in the creation of this theory of evolution, and he should by no means be discredited. His book ‘On the Origin of Species” is still considered the foundation of evolutionary biology and is referenced by many academics and researchers. Besides that, the point of science is to enhance understanding and make discoveries, not to battle for credit of these discoveries (although this does happen rather frequently), and Safina is doing just the latter.

    People shouldn’t be worrying so much about who deserves what amount of credit for a certain thing, but rather what are some new discoveries to be made. It is irrelevant who gets this credit at the end of the day, it is the discoveries made that are important. Darwin got lucky by having his name attached to the natural selection based theory of evolution, but do you really think it matters who gets credit for a theory that is already supported by a majority of the population? Will it change anything if people stop talking about Darwin as the founder of the theory of evolution?

    • Great post Glowclowd! I completely agree with you Gatorade15. In his book, Darwin does credit scientist before him. Darwin set the fundamentals for the theory of evolution based on the resources he had to work with at the time, which were not much. Darwin did not have knowledge or access to the world of genetics, which has answered and clarified many of the theories proposed by Darwin. As far as credit goes, I believe that it’s not as important in comparison to the benefit that discovery is having upon society. I would have to disagree with Safina in that “using the term “Darwinism” in opposition to the term “creationism” subconsciously puts the two concepts on equal footing and creates a false equivalency.” The two terms are on equal footing, its founder to its subject.

    • glowcloud says:

      Safina’s argument is yes, it does matter if Darwin is attached so strongly to the theory of evolution precisely because it detracts from the science itself. Consider especially the links (however superficial) between Darwin and theories like eugenics and Social Darwinism. Even in that video of the preacher in the Hall of Human Origins, those ideas were immediately mentioned to discredit Darwin and transitively, evolution.

      • Glowcloud- that is true, perhaps the name does detract people from the scientific aspect of it, but that has been introduced by the opponents of Darwin and his theories, particularly the religious community. In social settings we may see Darwinism detract from science and become part of the religious battle, but in an academic setting Darwinism comes side by side with evolution. It has been a certain group of people who have tried to detract the name from science. For example, survival of fittest is always associated with Darwin but fact is that Darwin never mentioned this in his book, rather it was first introduced by Herbert Spencer as his interpretation of the book and its theories.

    • collegeblogger19 says:

      I agree with you Gatorade15, in that science should not be about battling for the credit of a scientific finding, but about searching for new discoveries and advancing scientific knowledge. Darwin did do a lot with the theory of evolution, and I think Safina undermines the credit Darwin deserves. However, in this case, I think the term Darwinism is not the best “nickname” for evolution. Opponents of evolution have this idea of Darwinism as the opposing force to their idea of creationism–and the similarity of the names suggest this opposition. In my opinion, the term Darwinism doesn’t necessarily hinder the additional findings to the theory of evolution, but it may make it more difficult for religious people to accept “Darwinism” than if we simply called it evolution all the time.

    • cfc0567owls says:

      gatorade15, I don’t think Safina was arguing that Darwin doesn’t deserve the credit for the theory of evolution. The problem Safina has with the term Darwinism is not that other people should be getting recognition for evolutionary theory. What Safina does have a problem with, however, is that Charles Darwin to this day is still directly connected to evolution. Despite all the scientific progress over the last century-and-a-half confirming evolution, some people still attack Darwin when trying to refute evolution. As Safina says, the term “Darwinism” gives the impression of a cultish following with Darwin as it’s leader. Safina’s argument is not against Charles Darwin, but against the term itself.

  2. gwuw2014 says:

    We still refer to Newton’s laws of physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity, even though countless physicists have since contributed to the expansion of these concepts. I agree with gatorade15 that the credit, in the end, does not truly matter, but especially in the case of Darwin, giving credit sets a historical context. Darwin was not certainly not the first nor last to work on the theory of evolution, but his contributions are what set the field in motion.

    I would argue also that Safina is being rather petty with the linguistic argument. You can call evolution anything you like; creationists will still find something to object to.

    • glowcloud says:

      Do you think that linguistics matter at all then? I would argue that the way we view a lot of controversial topics has a lot to to with the words we use to describe them; for instance, referring to torture as “enhanced interrogation” is meant to put a lot of people’s minds at ease. Getting wrapped up in diction is, for some people, a useful tool of obfuscation to detract from the actual issues at hand

      • thinkbrush says:

        I agree with Safina that cementing the theory of evolution to Darwin’s name is harmful and ultimately detrimental to the acceptance of this scientific theory as true. It’s true that we still refer to the theory of relativity as Einstein’s and the laws of physics as Newton’s but neither of those scientific discoveries carries the cultural caution the theory of evolution does. I think Safina is right and we do need to rebrand the theory of evolution. Words have more power than people usually assume.

      • graduallychanging says:

        Diction is incredibly important in publications and debates. I would say that Intelligent Design, in itself, is an example of “obfuscation”. The article we read in class that described the various waves of court cases relating to the instruction of evolution described ID as a re-branding of the basic tenets of Creationism, but without the religious aspect.

        Moreover, I had not heard the term “enhanced interrogation” before. It is difficult for me to understand how euphemisms that are obviously being used to cover up the true nature of certain acts are used so freely in debates. According to Mark Hosenball, in his article “U.S. Senate CIA ‘torture’ report summary to be declassified in a few days: officials,” the CIA’s use of harsh “enhanced interrogation” methods…did not produce any significant counter-terrorism breakthroughs.” It’s interesting that CIA officials continue to use the term “enhanced interrogation” even when it the method of interrogation not produce beneficial results.
        I think that I should pay more attention to the phrases that I hear in the news.

  3. greyelephant1 says:

    Glowcloud, I really enjoyed this article! It brought up ideas that I have not thought of before. Darwinism and Evolution are two terms that are mixed up a lot and its true. I also will admit that the only name I really remember and I believe is more commonly remembered when thinking of evolution is Darwin, not Mendel or Wallace. I agree with gatorade15 and californiarepublic79 in that Safina is mixing up two different things. While I believe that Darwin may get too much credit, I do not think that we should “divorce him”. Isaac Newton was not the only one discovering physics, but he is the one credited. For both, so much more research has led to the theory expanding and that is where I can understand the issue of credit.

    When addressing the author’s idea of “Darwinism” sounding too much like a cult, I believe it has just been more of a coined term for the belief his ideas and what also stemmed from his ideas. I do not personally believe darwin “has to go” and I also think it is going to be very hard for the world to kill of Darwin.

  4. sm4321 says:

    This is a very interesting post and idea, glowcloud. I definitely see the point that you are making and it deserves some valid thought and consideration. I do think that, to a degree, labeling evolution as “darwinism” holds back the validity and scientific stand slightly. I thought it was interesting how you compared it to a religious view, because as that is not what is really happening, it makes you think about all of the trust and weight we put on Darwin alone. I do think that evolution and evolutionary debates and studies could better from stepping away from placing a large amount of weight purely on the works and findings of Darwin. This is something that would help to make the debate one of pure science vs. religious beliefs.

  5. At this point in the story, I don’t think it would have much affect. Creationists have no problem attacking “evolution” and from my experience, often are not even aware that Darwinism is related. I agree with gwuw2014. Attributing a theory to a specific person can add credibility and authority.

    • sm4321 says:

      That is very true, anonymousgwstudent. While I see the point that Glowcloud is making in their post, you highlight the fact that it will not matter if we were to separate the terms of “Darwinism” and “evolution” because at this point, the battle has already escalated too far. Simply changing the name or removing a sever amount of the credit from Darwin will only do very little to diffuse the debate.

  6. Great article choice and blog post, glowcloud! I believe Safina’s way of taking a very defensive approach to evolution while attacking Darwin creates a sense of ineffectiveness for the reader. While I agree with the content of his argument. It becomes a bit unclear that and evolutionist would attack Darwin and the original theory.

    It’s clear that this article’s intended audience is creationists. Safina wants to clarify that evolution is fact and there are various theories to try and explain why it occurred. He’s aim is to clarify that it’s not evolution that is the theory but the explanation of how evolution happened for creationist that believe evolution is just another attempt at explaining the origin of man.

    This article can be a good read for someone who isn’t a strong supporter for evolution because they can connect with the proposed ideas that Darwin was incorrect at times while getting an actual understanding of not only evolution, but also the scientific definition of theory. However, as a strong supporter of evolution this article seems to easily dismiss the fact that Darwin was vital component to many of the early cause of evolution theories, as gatorade15 already stated. His book also helped to spread and educate the public on this development and realization that evolution is fact.

  7. thinkbrush says:

    I was really inspired by this article, thank you for choosing it glowcloud. I think that the culture of the theory of evolution is fatally overlooked. Safina respectfully gives Darwin credit for his work in respect to the resources he had in the early 1800s but he intertwines that narrative with the work of other scientists after Darwin: Watson and Crick, Mendel and Wallace. These all expand on the history of the theory of evolution and give skeptics a lot more to bite off and consider. I think it’s helpful to separate the scientific theory from the individual of Darwin because of the negative impact social Darwinism and eugenics have had but also because it gives credit where credit is due. It would be difficult to support the theory of evolution as originally presented by Darwin because it needed to be fleshed out. I hope more people read this article because I think it lends more scientific credence to the narrative of the development of the theory of evolution than most people are familiar with.

  8. Thanks for the great post,
    Personally i believe that the existence of a figure head for any idea, theory, or concept is something valuable. If you look at sport franchises today they all have their franchise player that receives all of the credit for the teams success and essentially is the face of the franchise. Even though there are often many other players who are involved and who are help contribute to the teams success, the majority of the popularity falls on select individuals because it helps the popularity of the team. It gives the people someone to relate to when thinking of the team. The same would hold true for evolutionary theory. Even though many other scientists have worked on the theory, Darwin remains the most popular because he has become the figure head or the franchise scientist. By giving people one person to attach to the theory, it essentially simplifies the history of the development and makes it easier to understand for the public. So having Darwin as the leader can be beneficial for the validity of the theory as a whole.

    • moneytrees3001 says:

      Blind, simplified worship is okay for sports teams, but the problem is the resemblance this kind of reverence this shares with religion and autocratic regimes. Christians accept the word and power of God without question, in the same way that citizens of North Korea must respect the power of their Dear Leader. It implies, as the article points out, a complete trust in the ideas of the figurehead, which is not what science is about. Imagine if America was named Washingtonia; George’s ideas provided a solid foundation for the fledgling nation, but that name implies an ignorance of all the political and economic science discoveries since his time. For science to continue in its search for truth I believe it’s best to avoid deification of a single figure in the history of evolutionary study.

  9. Ever heard of Einsteinium? Maybe we should rename it to something less recognizable.

  10. waterbottle19 says:

    I think calling the Theory of Evolution Darwinism is holding its legitimacy back. While yes we should give credit to the man who contributed so much to the theory, calling it “Darwinism” does seem a little cultish and detracts from its scientific value. One one of the former blogs, we discussed if evolution and religion could coexist. I think calling it Darwinism is hindering coexistence. The name suggests (wrongly) that evolution is just the idea of one man instead of a theory that is accepted by the scientific community. If we want to move past the debate, evolution needs a name that isn’t detrimental to its relationship with religion.

    • arcanium82 says:


      I agree. I never thought of Darwinism as a type of “cult mentality” but I suppose it could be construed as such by its opponents. As many people have already commented on this blog people like Einstein and Newton have huge advances in science but we still refer to those the sciences as physics or gravity.

      Branding is a very important component on how people perceive something. Take the Affordable Care Act (ACA), for example. There have been numerous studies that poll random people on the street asking, “What do you think about the ACA?” Most of the responses were very positive and people thought that the Affordable Care Act was a good thing that helps Americans.

      However, when the pollster asked the same person, “What do you think of Obamacare?” Almost everyone said, “Oh its TERRIBLE!”. Little did they know that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are the same thing….. This simple poll shows the power of branding.

      Politicians have branding down to a science. At this point, it would be very hard to change the public perception of “Darwinism” and evolution. Even if there was a movement within the scientific community to only referred to it as “Evolutionary Science”, its opponents would be quick to remind everyone that its just Darwinism in disguise.

  11. collegeblogger19 says:

    Overall, Safina makes a strong argument for the advancement of evolution. Many findings came after Darwin coined the term natural selection. Scientific findings of great importance of hereditary and DNA facts strengthened Darwin’s theory of evolution. However, Darwin deserves much credit for the idea. I think Safina undermines Darwin’s part in the scientific theory of evolution when he says “Darwin took the tiniest step beyond common knowledge.” By saying that, I believe Safina is being petty and a bit rude.

    In addition, the term Darwinism might be associated with Social Darwinism and racial ideas of evolution–like Safina points out in the article. However, in the present day, I think the linkages between those and Darwinism might have died out a bit. Most people associate Darwinism with evolution simply because Darwin is a very famous scientist who founded a very famous, and controversial, scientific theory. So maybe the misconceptions associated with the term Darwinism are already beginning to die out.

    • I would agree with you that, in the modern day many people have a better understanding of evolution and that there are various theories to how it began. Darwin is now longer seen as the central icon for evolution but as the father who initiated a great launch into the studies of the beginnings and future of evolution.
      However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say the misconceptions are completely dying out. One of many concerns is that people may not understand the scientific definition of ‘theory’ and may still accredit Darwin with all the credit for evolutionary ideas. The public still needs to be educated on the debate of evolution so that the conservative views can be proved invalid.

      • regan1984 says:

        To possibly answer the on going idea of the term Darwinism “holding back the coexistence of religion and evolution”. I think the major issue is that the term Darwinism just simply doesn’t give any credit to the modern day advances in science and evolutionary theory such as those in DNA. “The term Darwinism “fails to convey the full panoply of modern evolutionary biology accurately, and it fosters the inaccurate perception that the field stagnated for 150 years after Darwin’s day,”. I think this article may have just been a little too forceful in its message. Yes I can see where those with religious and creationist beliefs are coming from but in terms of Darwinism I think the issue is that it just doesn’t communicate and inform people enough anymore. We’ve pushed past what Darwin was able to observe and thus should not be referring to Darwinism anymore.


      • sunny2018 says:

        I do agree that Darwin receives far too much credit; he developed the theory of natural selection, but didn’t know anything about other evolutionary processes. I think it needs to be understood that he was an important contributor, but that he was far from the only one.

  12. cfc0567owls says:

    Very interesting article, glowbutt. When I initially started reading the article, I was a little skeptical. I thought the author was making a bigger deal than necessary about the use of the term “Darwinism.” After all, he is the one who really popularized the concept of evolution with Origins. After reading the article, however, I do agree with Safina. The evidence supporting Darwin’s theories is so broad and ranges so many subjects that evolution is an undeniable truth. Creationists, however, still use attacks on Darwin as valid objection to evolution. From pointing out the racism in the Origins subtitle, “The Preservation of Favorable Races,” to linking Darwinism to the eugenics movement, Darwin’s flaws seem to be equatable to some creationists as flaws in evolutionary theory. Despite his role in popularizing the theory of evolution, it may in fact be time to divorce Darwin.

    • macnplease says:

      I had a very similar thought process while reading this article, and actually had to re-read the article after reading the blog post about it in order to assess what the author is trying to say. It isn’t so much that “Darwinism” is a lazy way to address a certain way of thinking, rather it is in fact somewhat dangerous as it clouds the distinction between the various evolutionary theories.

    • pianokid123 says:

      cfc0567owls, I was really torn between whether the term ‘Darwinism’ was holding back the theory or not until reading your post! Your allusion to the eugenics movement made me think of how Social Darwinism was used to justify imperialism and the “white man’s burden.” Obviously, Charles Darwin deserves credit and fame for the development of his theory, but the use of the word ‘Darwinism’ is so charged that I agree it could hinder public acceptance of evolution. Just think — the Natural History Museum never used the word Darwinism because of how political it is.

    • profschell says:

      One small thing: that’s a misreading of the subtitle’s reference to “favoured races.” This isn’t about humans. Darwin was using the term “race” as a biologist would, to refer to a distinct phenotypic population within a species. Darwin was actually strikingly anti-racist for his era. Now, did some other scientists of his era try to apply Darwin’s ideas in racist ways? Yes, they did, but so did some scientists who didn’t accept Darwin.

  13. moneytrees3001 says:

    Is the link only broken for me?

  14. serrobert says:

    So I think I see a sizable consensus about Darwinism as a nickname for evolution detracts from the legitimacy and appeal of the theory. Would you also than say that calling the Affordable Care Act by the other name of Obamacare, has the same affect?

  15. sunny2018 says:

    An interesting read! While I agree that evolution and Darwinism are not interchangeable terms, I certainly don’t think that Darwin is holding the theory back. After all, he developed the theory of natural selection using evidence like biogeography, embryology, morphology, etc; evidence that we still site today. While he didn’t know about mechanisms of inheritance, other processes in evolution, or the origins of life, he contributed significant evidence to the theory of evolution. I agree it should be known explicitly what Darwin did and did not do, but I wouldn’t say he’s holding the theory back. ‘Darwinism’ should be used as a stepping stone to understand natural selection; from there, other names should certainly be mentioned.

  16. macnplease says:

    Both the NYT and Glowcloud make a good point about the implications of accreditation for scientific discoveries. Personally, I knew it was important to address credit to all of those involved in the ongoing discoveries of evolutionary theory, but I had no idea the impact it had on the way people infer its significance. To me, Darwinism simply summed up a certain idea: the idea that we were NOT divinely created; that Darwin and those who supported the theory gave us a new answer.

    It seems increasingly apparent that his is the incorrect way to go about identifying with these theories, especially since some of them contradict one another. Darwinism is a dangerous umbrella statement to use.

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