My recent article in the New York Times was widely discussed and raised a bunch of written reactions. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/10/science/10essa.html?_r=1&ref=science
I’d like to share one positive comment and then summarize and address some of the flames and anger I got for seeming to ‘dis’ Darwin.
But first some further clarifications.
So few people believe life evolves that one must admit scientists have not effectively conveyed the fact and importance of evolution.
So I tried a different approach. For the record, it’s obvious Darwin was uniquely productive and left a record that is incredibly accessible in the combination of his science books, his autobiography, and the narrative of his voyage. His combination of genius and humanity makes him arguably the greatest biologist of all time. At any rate, he’s my favorite of history’s giant scientists.
But I think that, for people who don’t share this view, the constant adulation from scientists and science writers makes it look as if Darwin had the first and last word on evolution. To people outside of science, the adulation looks a lot like a religion. So, I set out to take a few steps back and look at Darwin—and the way Darwin is perceived and discussed—from a different angle.
I separated Darwin and his work from the ideological and quasi-religious impression that the word “Darwinism” apparently conveys to many non-scientists. I also sought to boil Darwin’s insight on natural selection to its barest essentials, and to show that evolution and our understanding of it is now much bigger than the subject of Darwin. I sought not to further lionize Darwin (he’s pretty famous already), but to show that—once you take away the courage and insight required at the time, and once you put in perspective the ensuing 150 years of research—natural selection is so simple, so obvious, that it need not be seen as arcane or threatening.
As I’d written, Darwin gets more astonishing with time, as science proves how much he correctly observed, intuited, reasoned, and expressed. Most biologists understand all these things. Most people don’t. Darwin remains lightning rod and whipping boy for many people who simply don’t realize that there is much more evolutionary science done since Charles Darwin than by him, comprising whole disciplines of genetics, molecular biology, developmental biology, etc. Getting some of the pressure off poor Darwin, and some of the attention to these other scientific advances, could only help public understanding of evolution (and reflect well on Darwin’s insightfulness in the process). Or so I thought; not everyone agreed, and many people missed the point entirely.
One person who read and “got” my article was professor Carl Woese, who discovered Archaea, one of the three main groups of living things. His discoveries led to a reorganization of the kingdoms of life. Because of Woese, we now understand living things as belonging to three main groups: Bacteria, Archaea, and everything else. See him at (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/archaea/archaeasy.html)
Woese wrote me this supportive note, which, amid the complainers was, by late afternoon, quite welcome:
Dear Prof. Safina,
You are a skilled gem cutter who has just cleaved an iceberg.
You have my deep thanks and admiration.
As I read your elegant piece, the most trenchant ever written on this issue, I had a favorite phrase of mine from Whitehead running through the mind:
”A science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost”
In your article, you have expressed it better!
I could thank you many times for what you have done for evolution—and will.
— Carl Woese
Now let me now summarize and address some objections.
Objection: ‘We scientists know very well that there is a difference between Darwin and all the work on evolution since. We don’t confuse the two.’
My perspective: True. That’s why I did not send my piece to a science journal. My piece was published in the New York Times, which is a newspaper. The audience is the general public. Most people have no idea what evolution is or means, and many are under the impression it’s just something scientists believe because Darwin said so. So, mainly, I was addressing people unfamiliar with evolution, and people inclined to be resistant to Darwin. The point: even if you get past or ignore Darwin, we’re still stuck with the reality of evolution. Even if we “get over” Darwin, even if we end the adulation, stop the gushing, cease the celebration of his name, and in fact even if Darwin was never born—evolution stays.
I was also saying that calling evolution Darwinism, as many scientists and even more science writers do, is sloppy, and helps keep the public ignorant of the fact that while Darwin was right about most things, we know how right he was (or that he was wrong, unaware, or incomplete about some things like genetics) only because of 150 years of testing and advancing science by thousands of researchers.
We’ve concluded he was right because lengthy debate, research, challenge, and testing, as well as new fields of science like genetics, molecular biology, developmental biology, and behavioral ecology have show Darwin was mainly right—life evolves. And we know this not because we simply believe what he wrote.
People constantly still ask, “Do you believe in evolution?” And scientists still say, “Of course I believe in evolution.” Well, I don’t “believe in” evolution. To me, it’s an obvious and proven fact that life evolves. And I love Darwin and his astonishing, brilliant work (he remains, as I called him in my Times piece, a “towering genius”). But I don’t “believe in” “Darwinism.” “Believing in” any “-ism” does not seem scientific to me. I believe things once I’m convinced of the evidence. Believing “in” is the language of faith and not of science (though many scientists believe in God, for example).
Objection: “Your article trashed Darwin.”
My perspective: I wrote that there is a saying in Buddhism that, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The idea is to focus on the teaching, because if you focus too much on the aura surrounding the teacher you may miss the teaching. So a little irreverence can be healthy because it can let you see past the veneer of adulation and celebrity to the essence of the work.
Since we would not imagine that the Buddhist monk would really kill Buddha, the hyperbole is obvious. Or so I thought. It surprises me how few of the people who wrote about my article caught the hyperbole, irony, and tongue-in-cheekiness I intended. Lighten up a little! And let’s have some fun. In my mind, taking a fresh look and allowing yourself to be irreverent helps separate the essence from built-up baggage (and “Darwinism” certainly has baggage). Unless, of course, you think Darwin is so solemn a subject that he cannot be messed with or joked about. That kind of rigidity strikes me as rather, well-fundamentalist.
And as I said in the last sentence of my piece, ‘Only when we get past Darwinism, and fully acknowledge the subsequent century-and-a-half of value added, can we really appreciate both Darwin’s genius and the fact that evolution is life’s driving force.’
Anyone who thinks those words amount to trashing Darwin needs a refresher in reading comprehension, and should get themselves a glass of wine.
Objection: “In the guise of helping the scientific cause, you have really given aid and comfort to the enemies of science.”
My Perspective: In the span of 1,200 words, I call Darwin a “genius,” a “towering genius,” and someone who continues to ‘get more astonishing with time as scientists prove how much he got right.’ So it’s surprising that anyone could think I was trying to advance creationism, or aiding enemies of science.
Quite the opposite, I explicitly dismiss creationism. I was saying that constantly making it seem to the public that evolution begins and ends with Darwin, or that Darwin is equivalent with evolution, or that we believe dogmatically in what Darwin said because he said it, or that teaching evolution is exactly the same as “teaching Darwin”—and many, many non-scientists have exactly that impression—those are things that give aid and comfort (and worse, ammunition) to enemies of science and of reason.
Humor-challenged people who can’t stand an angle that differs from all-reverence, all-the-time, seem to object to my “tone.” But how they could think I give aid to enemies of science is quite beyond me, unless their scientific-fundamentalist rigidity blinded them to the words I used.
My main point was: Don’t use a word that sounds like an ideology or religion (Darwinism) to describe a science. It confuses people about evolution, and evolution is too important for people to stay confused about. Language matters. The sloppiness of words like “Darwinism” and “Darwinist” allows creationists to look (and believe they are) more scientifically legit.
Objection: “Only creationists use Darwinism.”
My perspective: Not so. Check the February ’09′s National Geographic or the recent Science with the nice portrait of a young Charles Darwin on the cover (9 January ’09). Scientists and science writers use “Darwinism” all the time. Indeed, numerous angry blogs, many from scientists, defended using this term. Again, this helps confuse the public because it sounds like “Darwinism” (like any “-ism”) is a belief, dogma, doctrine, based on the work and dictates of one man, one book. This is awfully similar to how Christians refer often to one man, one book.
“Darwinism,” and equating evolution almost entirely with Darwin in the public mind, sounds more religious than it does scientific. And that helps open a space for religion to demand equal time in what is actually a scientific topic: evolution, or teaching about evolution.
Objection: “Creationists will use your piece to advance creationism and ‘intelligent design.’”
My perspective: My piece explicitly dismisses creationism. So far, it seems that at least some religious people understood my point better than some scientists who let their religious-like zeal for “Darwinism” blind them to what I’d written in black-and-white.
At least some religious people were open to considering what I was writing about. I noticed this on the Web, by a pastor:
“I see Safina’s point. Evolution is about more than one man. But at the same time, as we stop to remember Darwin’s 200th Birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of the Species, I think it is appropriate to remember him for his discoveries, his determination, and his persistence, while at the same time remembering that this is not a static theory, but one being revised all the time as more discoveries are made.
So, while Darwinism maybe should die—as an ideology Darwin himself never would have abided—Charles Darwin’s genius should be celebrated. -Posted by Pastor Bob Cornwall.
And here is another post from my evangelical Christian friend Ken Wilson (horrors! I speak to people who have different beliefs!) who manages numerous Vineyard Churches in the Midwest. I’ve been very explicit with him that I’m secular (atheist). He likes me anyway. (Contrary to those fundamentalist scientists who derided my article so angrily but so selectively.) Wilson’s “Apology to Darwin”—yes, that’s what it says—is at:
And unlike some rigid scientists, one Reverend understood that I was writing with some hyperbole and having some fun—and offered to defend the piece against any complaining Christians. (Because unlike some scientists, the Reverend understood that Christian evangelicals could be upset about my article. Interesting that some religious people were drawn in to reading my piece carefully.) The Reverend wrote:
Read and enjoyed it immensely! As soon as the word “feckless” appeared in the first sentence I knew Safina was on his game! If there are any well-read blogs of a Christian variety that give you any trouble, send me a link and I’ll add a comment or two just for fun.
Or are you getting pushback from colleagues on the “Let us now kill Darwin” motif?
Hopefully both! That way you know someone’s actually reading the doggone thing.
Well, hey, Reverend—that’s the spirit!