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.