Friday, 6 March 2009


There have been times on this blog when I have alluded to my dislike for the word "Darwinism". Well, now I have an excuse to let rip with a rant on the subject, courtesy of a new article on BBC News by Andrew Marr:

The danger of worshipping Darwin

I have a lot of time for Andrew Marr; I think as a historian and particularly as a presenter of history, he has a great deal to offer. But in this case, he is either ignorant of the facts, or simply creating a controversy for the sake of having something to say on the matter. Because what does his article actually argue?

The majority of it is taken up with what he himself describes as "trivial" comparisons between evolution and religion, such as the observation that the natural history museums of Oxford and London bare a striking resemblance to cathedrals. Religion has heretics, evolution has heretics - Richard Owen. Religions have holy artifacts, evolution has holy artifacts - dinosaur bones. Religious people make pilgrimages, and Darwin's journey could be compared to such a trek. Marr's admission of the triviality of these weak parallels points to exactly how useless and arbitrary they are.

After this horrendous triviality, he goes on to what might be called the "meat" of his argument. Which is that the more striking similarity between what he calls "Darwinism" (shudder) and religion is that it "offers both a method and a message". The method is the scientific method of observation and experiment, contrasted with the religious method of prayer and mantras. The message is about the importance of the web of life, as opposed to religion's emphasis on, I suppose, nonsense.

He claims that "to deal with the consequences [of climate change and species extinction], we have to turn to scientific evidence, which will be brought to us by - yes - Darwinists." This reveals the definition of "Darwinism" with which he is working in this article: to my eye, it seems to be nothing more than a synonym for "scientist". The only criteria by which he judges someone to be a Darwinist is her adherence to the scientific method, something which predates Darwin himself by a good number of years (try hundreds if not thousands).

This is why I object to the term "Darwinism". Because that's not what it's describing. The word seems to describe a dogma whereby one man's word is taken as unquestionable truth; this is not the case with Darwin, as often it is scientists (those Marr would not hesitate to describe as Darwinists) who are the first to point out the flaws in his theory. Indeed, he himself devoted much of his great work On the Origin of Species to detailing the holes and flaws in what he had produced, challenging if not pleading others to improve upon it. When you use the word "Darwinism" to describe the pursuit of the scientific method, which unavoidably questions Darwin, you are setting up a confusing, oxymoronic term.

So what is the conclusion of Marr's argument, answering the question he asks at the start, "In this year of his double anniversary, are we in danger of turning Charles Darwin if not into God, at least into the founder of a secular religion?"?

"Darwinism, as I take it, is a creed of observation, fact, a deep modesty about conclusions and lifelong readiness to be proved wrong.

I don't say it offers everything that religion can. But I do say that, in this respect, it is better.

However we celebrate the old man, we mustn't let his work crust into creed or harden to dogma."

So, basically, there is no danger of Darwinism (taken as he takes it, in that oxymoronic way) turning into a religion - as long as we don't let it turn into a religion.

Thank you, Andrew. That was a truly tautological useful piece of journalism.

Maybe I'm just bitter because when I heard the TV programme announced upon which this article is based, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, I was hoping beyond hope for some kind of adaptation of the Dan Dennett book of the same name, which I guarantee you is a worthier read.


Jack of Kent said...

Excellent post holding up Marr to scrutiny on this.

Indeed, more sense in any one of your paragraphs than in the whole of Marr's non-article.

Janus said...

Agreed with Jack. I ended up laughing at the thought of it.

Mike Bracher said...


Like I said on the FB feed, good article.

It occurs to me that another event of thought from that period, Marxist political economy, might have benefitted greatly from a similar skepticism; a willingness for it not to grow into the overarching religion that characterised alot of 20th century political action on the left.

Oh and as an aside, I recently discovered that the whole story about Marx dedicating Das Kapital to Darwin is a myth

"Darwin wrote a letter declining the dedication of an unnamed book on atheism, but he wrote it to Edward Aveling. Aveling's common-law wife was Elanor Marx, Karl's daughter, and she inherited his papers. They got mixed up with Karl Marx's papers, and the letter was assumed to have been to Marx. This view found ideological favor in Russia, so it was widely repeated. Later, a letter from Aveling, requesting permission to dedicate his book The Student's Darwin to Darwin, was found among Darwin's papers. Darwin declined permission and argued that science should not address religious matters directly" (Colp 1982; Carter 2000).

Keep the good work coming!