Survey: What does “Darwinism” mean?

Following on from the last post, I thought I’d do an unscientific self-selected survey on what “Darwinism” means. Please take a few minutes to fill it out.

Click here to take survey

19 thoughts on “Survey: What does “Darwinism” mean?

  1. How do we get to see the statistical results?

    I think question 1 is very important, as it seems to be mainly Americans and Canadians who want to restrict the word to people who believe that natural selection is all. I’m pretty sure Richard Dawkins has described himself as a Darwinist, and Michael Ruse certainly has.


  2. In case this was too long. Define Darwinism, I wrote in “Other”:

    Several meanings, in order of frequency, (1) pro-NS evo theory before the Modern Synthesis, (2) the general Darwin-inspired tradition of evo theory, (3) Darwin-favoring evo theory about 1860-1900 (before Mendelism is rediscovered) (5) evolutionary theory in general, almost always this sense is found to be used by non-biologists, philosophers who don’t specialize in evolution, popularizers, and others usually disconnected from actual professional biology, (6) whatever creationists are mad at today. The first 4 are fairly legit, #1 makes the most sense to me.

    Also: for the love of god, the term “Darwinism” is almost not found in modern professional evolutionary biology, at least in the U.S. I wouldn’t be surprised if you attended a 5-day meeting of Evolution 2014 and never heard the word. It is mostly the province of historians (this includes Stephen Jay Gould on this topic), the clueless end of philosophical commentators on evolution (Fodor, Nagel), and creationists.


    1. What about #4? Let me suggest folks from the humanities who
      have nothing against Darwinism as long as it is confined to biology, but (thinking of social Darwinism or sociobiology) do not want to see any of it in culture etc.


  3. Never used the term, but I think at the moment I would be tempted to apply it to a cultural phenomena that affects all classes (in my locality): is already highly developed in a range of popular narratives before Darwin’s publication and runs in popular imagination until the the late 1920’s before altering form.

    But that’s looking at it as a story- telling event in a very broad social perspective; as a popular cultural phenomena of some significance.

    An ethnological/ historical label covering a range of narratives between the second half of the 19th century and the start of the 20th.


  4. I answered this to some degree in survey, but it seemed to me. perhaps(?), worth a longer explanation. The following definition is more about my tendency in usage, but not presented as a prescriptive rule that i would try to impose on others.(though, see 1) . Moreover, I tend to use the term to describe the diverse models that people may need to use, but not describe people.

    I tend to think about “Darwinism” as primarily the study of *patterns* in the phylogeny of organisms and their easily-observable phenotypes, Secondarily, it also may include the study of *processes* that Darwin wrote about and best understood, Thus, Darwinism will include many current pattern models and may include some process models. I do not restrict the models to a strict history of what Darwin actually thought, It may involve the modern “best view” of the organism-level processes that he was exploring.

    In my usage what it does *not* include is the post-Darwinian study of *processes* that require detailed models of Mendelian, population or molecular genetics. The one thing I tend to hold historically-constrained,to Darwins time is the understanding of genetic processes–that their are heritable traits that allow selection or–perhaps even–some drift, but the detailed processes of how this occurs are not defined.

    If the process models you need for some purpose can function at this higher level of abstraction, then the process models are Darwinian, If for some other purpose, you need to invoke detailed mechanisms involving evolution of gene sequence , gene regulatory networks, or cell signalling networks, then those process models are *not* Darwinian., If you are using phylogeny and the comparative patterns in the anatomy and obvious traits of past or present organisms, then your pattern models are Darwinian. If you are mainly seeing patterns created by sequence analysis of nucleic acids or proteins, then those pattern models are *not* Darwinian. .
    . , .

    (1) Although I admit to being somewhat put on edge when a non-biologist uses term “Darwinism”–as it is often incorrectly used by denialists who think all they need to do to overturn the facts, theories and processes of evolution is prove an obvious and trivial fact…that Darwin circa 1860 did not know or explain everything.we now know or may someday know about life, genes and evolution. The latter usage implies the nonsense that the last century and half has not greatly advanced our understanding of evolution as facts, theories, and processes., These advances were, In large part, supported by testing, confirming and extending the most critical Darwinian or neoDarwinian predictions at deeper genetic and molecular levels.


  5. Collected some historical quotes defining Darwinism at my blog. TH Huxley, Wallace, Haeckel, Weismann, Lewontin and GC Williams all seem to agree that Darwinism meant explaining through natural selection.


  6. I couldn’t answer #10 for lack of a quantifier. I think I do know that Darwinism excludes (by which I read you as meaning “contradicts”) SOME religious faiths but NOT ALL. In the end I put “no” since I think “excludes all faith” is a more common reading of “excludes faith” than “excludes some faith(s)”

    I couldn’t answer #7 because I have only the vaguest idea what any of these terms mean.

    For #8 I checked “Don’t Know” because again I don’t know what the term “adaptationism” means. But if I knew what it meant I might have an opinion as to whether it was the “key idea” of Darwinism, and in fact I strongly suspect that the answer is “No” because the sense I get from the word is almost teleological – or at least Lysenkoist.

    For what it’s worth (which, in the light of the above, may not be much) my answer to #6 was “To me ‘Darwinism’ refers to the thesis that all aspects of the present (and past) distribution of living organisms can be seen as a natural consequence of randomly imperfect reproduction occurring in a possibly non-constant environment which includes both varying physical contexts and the effects of previous and current living organisms”


    1. @Alan,
      “For #8 I checked “Don’t Know” because again I don’t know what the term “adaptationism” means.”

      It follows on from what Darwin called his utilitarian doctrine. In The Origin of Species, Darwin included a chapter (#6) dealing with Difficulties of Theory (here’s an online version That chapter contains a sub-heading on Organs of little apparent importance. A few pages into that sub-chapter, you’ll find a paragraph starting as follows:

      “The foregoing remarks lead me to say a few words on the protest lately made by some naturalists, against the utilitarian doctrine that every detail of structure has been produced for the good of its possessor. They believe that very many structures have been created for beauty in the eye of man, or for mere variety.”

      As was his habit, he added pages of modifiers admitting that a structure might have been useful to an ancestor, but is no longer; that it might have been changed in correlation with some other adaptation, but that change is not directly useful; etc.

      Though Darwin’s utilitarian doctrine aimed against the belief that structures were created for beauty or variety, creationists could have been utilitarians too. Nevertheless, you only need to replace the creator by natural selection and the antipode ‘for-beauty-or-variety’ by the antipode ‘due-to-drift-or-for-no-purpose-at-all’ and drop the modifiers, in order to to get Panglossian adaptrationism.


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