Monday, March 9, 2009

Darwinism vs. Darwinism

This is another post about words, similar to the ones about 'theory' and 'belief', only this time to real subject is context. We all know words have a variety of definitions and frequently the definition in use depends on the context the word is used within. There are a couple of issues with 'context'. First of all the context intended might not be the context the receiving party assumes. The second issue is one I have argued against, and that is when the communicator deliberately implies one meaning while using another definition, again I use my blog on the word 'theory' as an example, when those less-than-stalwart-fellows over at the DI change definitions in midstream.

OK, now Context is also important with a word such as Darwinism. Frequently the term is used by real scientists, like Richard Dawkins and Olivia Judson. When they use the term, they use it in the sense of the part of evolutionary theory postulated by Charles Darwin. While the term has gone out of favor, it is still in use and in this context makes perfect sense. In no way do scientists mean to imply that Evolution is in question, or that it is some sort of philosophy or other sort of 'ism', it's just that withing the context of Biology, there are certain ideas, like Darwin's Natural Selection, Mendel's Genetics, and Gould's Punctuated Equilibrium that are normally associated with a particular scientist.

Like I said the term has not been in favor when used outside of Biology, because it is to easy to be misunderstood. In fact Olivia Judson devoted an entire column to removing the word from the lexicon because it can too easily be used to attribute all of evolutionary theory to Charles Darwin, when that hasn't been the case for a very long time.

But let's look at a different context, one usually used by Creationists and other anti-evolutionists. The term Darwinism is often used by promoters of creationism, notably by leading members of the intelligent design movement to describe evolution. In this usage, the term has connotations of atheism. For example, in Charles Hodge's book What Is Darwinism?, Hodge answers the question posed in the book's title by concluding: "It is Atheism." Creationists use the term Darwinism, often pejoratively, to imply that the theory has been held as true only by Darwin and a core group of his followers, whom they cast as dogmatic and inflexible in their belief. Casting evolution as a doctrine or belief bolsters religiously motivated political arguments to mandate equal time for the teaching of creationism in public schools.

Same word, and completely different context! The context completely changes the meaning of the word and the objectives of the person/group using the word.

Interestingly enough the pejorative use of the word is primarily here in the US. Over in the UK the positive, scientific context is the normal use of the word. So when someone like Richard Dawkins calls himself a 'Darwinist', he is using the term correctly, within both the scientific and the cultural context common in Britain. Only folks, like those over at the Discovery Institute, try and turn it into some sort of insult, or other misrepresentation.

For example their little list of 700. Remember the list, I have spoken about it plenty of times. Supposedly they had a list of over 700 Doctoral Scientists who dissented form Darwinism for Scientific Reasons. Aside from my many other problems with the list (not all hold Doctorates, not all are scientists, few work in Biology, and there doesn't appear to be any scientific dissent, only religious dissent by the people on the list . . .), look at the wording of what these people supposedly signed up to:

A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism
"We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."
Just what in the hell is Darwinian Theory? Even give the widest possible latitude and using the term in the British Context, this sentence has no meaning. Darwin himself, and his theories, did not account for the complexity of life, only how species formed. Plus he never said his own theories were the only ways it could have formed. He also got many of the details wrong, but didn't miss with the broad strokes. Don't you love the misdirection they use! Some of the original signers have left the list when they discovered what the Discovery Institute was using it for. When Dr. Stanley Salthe endorsed the list he had no idea what the Discovery Institute was. Robert C. Davidson, a Christian, scientist, doctor, and retired professor at the University of Washington medical school said after having signed he was shocked when he discovered that the Discovery Institute was calling evolution a "theory in crisis." "It's laughable: There have been millions of experiments over more than a century that support evolution," said Davidson. "There's always questions being asked about parts of the theory, as there are with any theory, but there's no real scientific controversy about it . . . When I joined I didn't think they were about bashing evolution . . ."

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