“When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less,” said Jonathan Wells

Correcting Jonathan Wells’ misrepresentations is practically a full time job. He’s been yammering away in the Yale Daily News lately, trying to defend his absurd disagreements with evolution, and he’s just digging his hole deeper and deeper. In his latest, he’s trying to argue for his abuse of the term “Darwinism”, which has steadily become a term of art for the rantings of creationists in addition to its more specific meanings.

Here’s his most unpromising start to his letter:

In a recent column (“Churches shouldn’t buy into Darwinists’ ploys,” 1/29), I distinguished between “evolution” as change over time, and “Darwinism” as the theory that all living things are descendants of a common ancestor, modified by unguided processes such as random mutation and natural selection. I criticized Evolution Sunday for disguising the latter (which is scientifically and religiously controversial) as the former (which nobody denies).

Evolution Sunday originator Michael Zimmerman responded (“Writer missed point of Evolution Sunday,” 2/5) that “Darwinism is a term that is almost exclusively used by creationists to attack evolution.” Yet prominent biologists Ernst Mayr (“The Growth of Biological Thought”) and Stephen Jay Gould (“The Structure of Evolutionary Theory”) often used “Darwinism” as I used it above, and the term occurs regularly in scientific journals. By trying to discredit the more accurate (though controversy-provoking) term “Darwinism” and insisting on the more ambiguous (and innocuous) term “evolution,” Zimmerman proves my point.

It’s the old microevolution vs. macroevolution shell game with different names. He wants to relabel microevolution as evolution, and “Darwinism” as macroevolution, while also making the false claim that evolution/microevolution is undeniable (correct), while “Darwinism”/macroevolution/common descent is scientifically controversial (it isn’t, except in the specific details).

He should have stopped there, and I would have just rolled my eyes at the boring old creationist boilerplate, but no…in his second paragraph he goes on to try and support those claims. If you know Wells like I know Wells, then you also know that whenever that guy attempts serious scholarship, you’re either going to witness a hilarious pratfall or a con man’s sleight of hand, or both. And when he cites an authority like Gould or Mayr, who also happen to be dead, you can trust him to completely misrepresent their views.

First, his claim that Darwinism is a term regularly used in the scientific literature: it is, but not in the way he uses it, and “regularly” does not mean with any significant frequency. It’s easy to look and find out: just go to PubMed and search for “Darwinism” and “evolution.” It turns out there’s a little difference: “Darwinism” shows up in 216 articles. Evolution is found in 189,754 articles. When you look at the articles themselves, you’ll also discover that many of those on “Darwinism” in the literature are about history or philosophy, with some more detailed and legitimate work—it isn’t used as a synonym for common descent. Further, you’ll notice something interesting: your search results will be enriched for papers from Rivista di Biologia, the low-impact Italian journal run by a crank with creationist leanings who readily publishes the nonsense from the Discovery Institute. You’ll also see Wells and Meyer and Bergman and Weikart and others of the usual suspects from the ID camp popping up with unusual frequency. It’s unfortunate, but I think Zimmerman’s thesis is supported: the specific and useful term “Darwinism” has been tainted by creationist cant.

What about his claim that dead authorities agree with his usage? I happen to have both of the books cited right at my elbow, so it’s easy to check. They don’t agree with Wells at all.

Ernst Mayr’s take on the term is that it has had a complicated and changing meaning, and identifies at least two landmarks in the acceptance of Darwinian thinking, which do somewhat correspond to Wells’ definitions. Somewhat.

The first Darwinian revolution, that is the theory of common descent, was soon adopted by nearly all knowledgeable biologists (though some of his original opponents, such as Sedgwick and Agassiz, resisted it to their death). The second Darwinian revolution, the acceptance by biologists of natural selection as the only direction-giving factor in evolution, was not completed until the period of the “evolutionary synthesis,” about 1936-1947.

Unfortunately for Wells, Mayr also goes on to specifically state what “Darwinism” means today.

The word “Darwinism” has continued to change its meaning over the years. In the period immediately after 1859 it referred most often to the totality of Darwin’s thinking, while it strictly means natural selection for the evolutionary biologist of today.

It’s used as a very specific subset of evolutionary theory, usually used to refer to part of what Wells would call microevolution. I think Mayr would have said that what Wells calls “Darwinism” he would have called “evolution,” directly contradicting Wells’ stated claim.

What about Gould? Does he back up Wells? Surely in that huge, turgid tome, Wells would be able to find something to fit his definitions…but no. I’m afraid it’s pretty much impossible to reduce Gould to Wells’ simplistic claims—his discussion of what “Darwinism” is about goes on for page after page after page. The summary, though, is that it’s a complex concept that has undergone considerable change over its history, while retaining a core suite of ideas that are still recognizable.

…can “Darwinism” or “Darwinian theory” be treated as an entity with defining properties of an “anatomical form” that permit us to specify a beginning and, most crucially for the analysis I wish to pursue, to judge the subsequent history of Darwinism with enough rigor to evaluate successes, failures, and, especially, the degree and character of alterations? The book asserts, as its key premise and one long argument, that such an understanding of modern evolutionary theory places the subject in a particularly “happy” intellectual status—with the central core of Darwinian logic sufficiently intact to maintain continuity as the centerpiece of the entire field, but with enough important changes (to all major branches extending from this core) to alter the structure of evolutionary theory into something truly different by expansion, addition, and redefinition. In short, “The structure of evolutionary theory” combines enough stability for coherence with enough change to keep any keen mind in a perpetual mode of search and challenge.

It’s a messier and more subtle definition than Wells uses; his three major branches or key concepts in Darwinian theory are agency (exclusivity of the source of action to the organismal level), efficacy (that natural selection could act as a positive mechanism for generating change in populations), and scope (his microevolutionary mechanism was sufficient for generating the full breadth of biodiversity over time, with no further causal principles required). I think Gould would have agreed with Wells that the meaning of “Darwinism” has much more breadth and depth than equating it to microevolution, but there’s no way he would have agreed that Wells and Gould share a common understanding of it.

Oh, well, it’s hard to blame the poor dumb sap. He’s a member of a group that wants to redefine all of science to include supernatural events, so it’s not surprising that they would also want to mangle the meanings of many more subtle and specific terms; I guess if they can’t do science, they’ll just twist the words around until what they are doing has the label they want.

It’s still dishonest and ignorant, of course.


  1. says

    It’s also an attempt to suggest that one may properly identify “evolution” without, of course, identifying any actual mechanisms which account for the evidence of heredity and change. Or in other words, they’re as opposed to causal explanation in evolution as they are in “design”, which is the only means they have for conflating the evidence for one as evidence for the other.

    So supposedly Behe and other IDists (leaving out the constantly disingenuous Wells who sometimes pretends not to be against the idea of substantial evolution altogether even though he is) properly accept the evidence that life evolved–yet the lying idiots have no cause for the “effects” of evolution, hence have no purchase on evolutionary evidence whatsoever. It was not mendacious for Lamarck and others to look at evidence for evolutionary heredity, because they weren’t working with truly causal mechanisms, they were simply noting what heredity produces, and trying (but failing) to account for it.

    Now there are only the mechanisms adduced for evolution to account for the relatedness of organisms, they are the only causes that we know that could produce the “nested hierarchies”, the homologies, and the “DNA clocks”. Darwin sought to explain the “pathetic details” of evolution, and he and his successors have done a good job of it. So that either you accept the mechanisms which produce the evolutionary effects, or you’re an anti-evolutionist, at least effectively. Behe and Dembski accept effects for which they know of no causes, meaning that they’re intellectually dishonest, pig-ignorant, or both.

    And because we actually theorize according to evidence, with both evidence and theory pointing substantially beyond Darwin’s mechanisms, indeed, “Darwinism” is decidedly a misleading term for evolution today. What Wells disparages as “Darwinism” (natural selection, neutral evolution, founder effects, etc.) is the only real explanation for the derivation of life as it is known, hence there is no scientific excuse for divorcing “evolution” from “Darwinism” like they do.

    Wells wants to pretend, like all IDists do, that evolution is one thing, “Darwinistic explanations” for it quite something else. Were he to learn science and to care to do it honestly, he’d notice that at this time theory and evidence are so closely matched, cause and effect so tightly linked, that accepting evolution as an explanation is the same thing as accepting the known causes for it. Heredity is no longer a black box, derivation is explained, and one has to come up with an explanation for derivation if one is going to deal honestly with the evidence of evolution.

    That is to say, “evolution itself” no longer is “the explanation” as it sometimes was before Darwin, and even as it remained substantially for a time after Darwin. In a sense, there no longer is a “theory of evolution”, there are various mechanisms which explain various aspects of the change through time which were inferred during the 19th century. This is as it should be, for “it evolved” explains not much more than “it was designed”. Wells wants to turn “evolution” into an over-arching principle instead of a set of reasonably well-understood phenomena, and to undermine the cause-effect relationships which are known, via this rhetorical ploy.

    The goal, then, is to treat evolution as if it is not a science of cause and effect, but rather as if it is a belief system coming from some Victorian gentleman. Wells likely doesn’t even understand all that he is trying to do, since his primary aim is to rubbish evolution however he can.

    Glen D

  2. Morgan says

    If Darwinism were scientifically sound or religiously neutral, we wouldn’t need Evolution Sunday to promote it. That’s why we don’t celebrate Gravitation Sunday or Immunization Sunday.

    I think what he should be saying here is that if ‘Darwinism’ were both scientifically sound and religiously neutral, it wouldn’t need defense against unreasoned propaganda; but since a large block of religious persons consider it inimical to their faith, it requires defense despite, being scientifically sound.

  3. Scott Hatfield says

    Let’s be clear: I detest the Rev. Wells, but his mendacity with respect to ‘Darwinism’ exploits a regrettable ambiguity that was exacerbated by the founders of the Modern Synthesis. Huxley and Simpson used such terms in their popular writings not as synonomous with the role of natural selection, but as representative of a world view (in Huxley’s case, a progressivist one).

    The average man on the street can not distinguish between this usage and the rather matter-of-fact British habit of using ‘Darwinism’ as shorthand for the theory of evolution by natural selection (which seems to be Dawkins’ practice).

    The creationists and (especially) Philip Johnson’s crowd have been quick to exploit that ambiguity. Whether we like it or not, terms like ‘Darwinism’ now appear doomed to be misunderstood and I think we should avoid using them or any other word that reinforces the mistaken connotation of a belief system…..SH

  4. jeff says

    All of this raises a question I have wondered about. What is the accepted one-to-three word phrase that encompasses all of the modern viewpoint of evolutionary biology?

  5. says

    Over at that Good Math, Bad Math post you linked to recently, I noticed an extreme case of this. Keep in mind that the subject was information theory applied to genetic coding and the genome; I’ll just quote what I said there:

    …I’ll just make a point of semantics here: when he writes “…’enemy’ of Darwinism, the biological theory according to which life and species arose without the need of intelligence?”, it comes off as even more absurd [than] usual to use the ‘slur’ of calling evolution ‘Darwinism’, since his post is all about genetic coding and DNA (or tries to be), about which Darwin himself had absolutely no idea, of course.

  6. says

    “you’re either going to witness a hilarious pratfall or a con man’s sleight of hand, or both”

    Yes, both. Though it seems an odd combination, there are numerous examples of people who tumble straight into their own oily bungholes in the course of chicanery and treachery, but do it with panache. Such luminaries include Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, Wile E. Coyote, and Enzyte Bob. Fine company, in other words.

  7. says

    I’ve definitely learned the exact opposite usage of the terms to Wells.

    Evolution = whole shebang
    Darwinism = a small part of alleged “microevolution” based mostly on natural selection keying in only survival and dissemination of fittest.

  8. says

    Somebody passed a rumor around here (Texas) about a year ago that Wells is no longer a committed Moonist, that he’d left the halls of Moonism.

    Is that so? Anybody know?

  9. Jud says

    In his latest letter to the Yale paper, Wells said: “For example, an article just published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA reports that the gene sequence data for Darwin’s branching Tree of Life ‘often disagree and can seldom be proven to agree.’ The article concludes that ‘the pursuit of a single true Tree of Life’ is ‘quixotic.'”

    Anyone happen to have a cite to the particular article he’s quote-mining? Is the full text available to the public? If not, can someone (within fair use parameters, of course) put the Wells quotes in some kind of context?

  10. Ichthyic says

    Correcting Jonathan Wells’ misrepresentations is practically a full time job.

    intentionally so.

    In fact, didn’t you cover this aspect of the creationist argument a while back? You pointed out how one misstatement by a creobot can often take an entire page to correctly explain what the truth of the matter is.

    I think it was during your dissection of Well’s views on development in the relevant chapter in his “new” book, IIRC.

    Yes, it really is like someone claiming “sky fairies sprinkle blue dust in the heavens, and that’s what makes the sky blue”, vs. the patient scientist having to elucidate the molecular structure of the atmosphere and go into light refraction in order to counter the “fairyist” and properly explain it.

    Most undeducated parents would simply prefer to tell their kids the explanation that is easy to explain, which for the most part ends up being similar to the sky fairy one.

    I think this is where a LOT of creationist arguments get propagated; it’s laziness on the part of parents who don’t already and have no care to know different. By the time their kids actually get exposed to the scientific explanations of how evolution works, many of them are already set in their thinking by their previous peers.

    give them something simple they can tell their kids that sounds all nice and “pretty”, and they’ll happily take that over the much more complicated reality any day.

    frankly, the only way I can see to combat this is by making sure science (not just evolution) is taught as early as possible, and that those that teach it are well prepared and have the necessary resources available to do so. Then time and generation will take care of the rest.

  11. sparc says

    Anyone happen to have a cite to the particular article he’s quote-mining?

    I guess it is this paper:

    Doolittle WF, Bapteste E. (2007) Pattern pluralism and the Tree of Life hypothesis.
    Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Jan 29;[Epub ahead of print]

  12. raj says

    “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less,” said Jonathan Wells

    Whenever I see things like this, I am reminded of a short story by Peter Bichsel, Ein Tisch ist ein Tisch. I’m sorry, but it’s in German, and I don’t have the energy to do a complete translation. The gist of it is that the main character basically made up his own language using words in common usage but in unusual modes, nobody could understand what he was saying, and so he stopped saying anything.

    That’s essentially what Wells is doing: making up his own language. After nobody can understand him, maybe he’ll stop annoying us.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Doolittle WF, Bapteste E. (2007) Pattern pluralism and the Tree of Life hypothesis.
    Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Jan 29;[Epub ahead of print]

    I’ve read that paper. After writing a couple of sentences that, out of context, could be misunderstood, they make very clear that they aren’t cre_ti_nists. All in all the paper merely says that lateral gene transfer is so rampant that (for bacteria and archaea at least) the “tree” of life is actually a complicated network and should be researched as such.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Doolittle WF, Bapteste E. (2007) Pattern pluralism and the Tree of Life hypothesis.
    Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Jan 29;[Epub ahead of print]

    I’ve read that paper. After writing a couple of sentences that, out of context, could be misunderstood, they make very clear that they aren’t cre_ti_nists. All in all the paper merely says that lateral gene transfer is so rampant that (for bacteria and archaea at least) the “tree” of life is actually a complicated network and should be researched as such.

  15. Steve LaBonne says

    I can only read the abstract, but it’s apparent from that that this is a review of an idea that’s been discussed for quite a few years now (just ask Larry Moran). No surprise that it comes as a revelation to Wells, of course. But why worry about current stuff? Since he seems to think “Darwinism”, whatever that is, is refuted by the discovery of any phenomenon that Darwin personally didn’t anticipate, he may as well just claim that Mendel refuted “Darwinism” and have done with it. What a fool.

  16. Jud says

    Thanks, sparc, for the cite. Not only the cited paper but earlier papers by at least one of its authors say exactly the same thing as David Marjanović noted in #19 above. See, e.g., the following from the abstract of a 2002 paper, http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/19/12/2226 :

    “The traditional view, that prokaryotic evolution can be understood primarily in terms of clonal divergence and periodic selection, must be augmented to embrace gene exchange as a creative force, itself responsible for much of the pattern of similarities and differences we see between prokaryotic microbes. Rather than replacing periodic selection on genetic diversity, gene loss, and other chromosomal alterations as important players in adaptive evolution, gene exchange acts in concert with these processes to provide a rich explanatory paradigm….”

    Some excellent discussions of this topic can be found in the following 2003 paper: http://mmbr.asm.org/cgi/reprint/67/4/550

    And finally, it appears from this abstract (full text for subscribers only at this point) that there is recent work on ways to find to find “roots” of phylogenetic “trees” even where lateral gene transfer has occurred: http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/24/1/130

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    Wells is getting really sloppy here: shouldn’t he have pulled out some harsh laissez-faire quotes from Herbert Spencer to show that (social) Darwinism is also the heartless enemy of the poor?