Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On the Origin of Species

I was watching some criticism of creationist and intelligent design (ID) rhetoric yesterday (here's the link to the first vid of the playlist) and it occurred to me that the term "Darwinist" comes up a lot. It's something that I've seen quite a bit but not something I've really thought of. In its most benign* sense, it means someone who believes in the mechanisms and theories proposed by Charles Darwin. To be fair, Darwin's book On the Origin of Species was pretty influential in changing the way we think about species, biology and laid the groundwork for the theory of evolution. It's no surprise that it's the book that creation/ID advocates attack.

The problem with this tactic is that the book is out-of-date, and the scientific community knows it.

The book was first published in 1859. That's over 150 years ago. In that time, the scientific community hasn't been sitting idly by. It's been testing the theory of evolution, seeing if the things it predicts do actually occur, and modifying the theory as necessary so that it provides a better explanation for things that we can observe**. Attacking modern evolutionary theory by attacking Darwin's book is like attacking modern cultural mores by attacking Jane Eyre (published in 1847). Or like attacking Einstein's theory of relativity by attempting to dismantle Newtonian physics.

In short, I'm not a Darwinist. Heck, I haven't even read the book except for a few passages - I find it long-winded and dry***. I do believe that evolution happens, though, and after examining evidence I am convinced that natural selection is one of the mechanisms by which evolution occurs. I'll tip my hat to Darwin for that.

* Note that I use the word "benign" and not "objective." The label "Darwinist" is not intended to be objective.

** The things we can observe today are vastly more numerous than what Darwin could see. Think back ten years to all the gadgets that used to be available to you, and all the ones that are available to you now. Now, think about 150 years of technological advancement which can be applied to scientific study. I think Darwin would faint at some of the stuff we can look at now.

*** If you wanted to take it out for a spin, you can find electronic copies on Project Gutenberg. Just search by title. You can also find Jane Eyre, if you're so inclined.


  1. I have read On The Origin of Species and it *is* dry. It also has quite a number of good points. And Darwin did go out of his way to find as many good examples for evidence as he could locate given the technology he had.

    Granted, some of those analogies were inaccurate, but the idea behind them was solid, especially given the evidence he presented.

    I really wish he'd had a proper editor though. :/

  2. Oh, absolutely. I don't mean to imply that Darwin's ideas are all defunct. They're just... underdeveloped? That's probably the right word for it.

  3. Quick point:

    Those outside the scientific community don't have a current "evolution manifesto" to point at or grab, though, do they?

    The state of any scientific theory that remains in revision is universal: It's opaque to outsiders.

  4. I concede your point, though I will add that there are multiple books out there that challenge the creationist/ID paradigm which puts forth fairly accurate portrayals of evolution. But you're right - there are no manifestos to point at, which is partly why Darwin's book remains an easy target.

    At some point, this blog will include book reviews and recommendations. :)