What, exactly, do you mean by “Darwinism”?

Now I’m generally more patient with Intelligent Design than with young earth creationism.

That doesn’t mean I think they’re perfect. There are some things about the ID community that trouble me: when I read articles on sites such as Evolution News, half the time I’m left with the impression that I’m reading tabloid rhetoric rather than scholarly analysis. But I’m not one for throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so if they have something constructive to say, then I’m prepared to consider it.

But there is one aspect of ID arguments in particular that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This is their use of the terms “Darwinism” and “neo-Darwinism”. You see this, for example, in the Scientific Dissent from Darwin, which was signed by a few hundred ID-supporting scientists, engineers, surgeons and other academics.

Rejecting Darwin but accepting common ancestry

Here’s a question for you. Without looking it up, or consulting Google, what, exactly, do you think that the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism was objecting to?

Chances are that you will be thinking something along the lines of “macroevolution rather than microevolution.” You probably think that they were objecting to common ancestry of chimps and humans. You may even think that they were objecting to geologic time.

Certainly, the chances are that half the people in your church think that.

If that is what you think, you’re in for a shock. Many of the signatories of the Dissent from Darwin affirm universal common ancestry of all life on earth, humans and animals included. One prominent example is Michael Behe, the chief architect of the “irreducible complexity” argument, which says that the bacterial flagellum is too complex to have evolved fron scratch.

How can this be?

It all becomes clear when you see exactly what they actually mean by “Darwinism”:

“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

This is a very broad definition. It only says that Darwinian evolution is an incomplete theory of the origins of biological diversity. It does not say that it is incorrect. As such, it encompasses most evangelical Christian viewpoints on origins, from young-earth creation right through to theistic, God-guided evolution.

This is not what most of their audience expect.

The fact of the matter is that the words “Darwinism” and “neo-Darwinism” are weasel words. They give the impression of meaning something specific, when in reality their true meaning is much more vague and ambiguous. The result of this is that there are many, many well meaning Christians who honestly and sincerely believe that evolution is “a theory in crisis” within the scientific community and that “scientists are always changing their minds,” when nothing could be further from the truth.

ID supporters, please don’t do this. You may think you’ve exonerated yourselves by clearly defining your terms, but if your definitions are not what your audience expect, you will still be misleading them. If you have a problem with evolution yourself, that’s fine. Just state clearly and unambiguously, exactly which aspects of the theory you are sceptical about and why. But be careful not to leave people with the impression that your scepticism runs deeper than it really does. And don’t try to give people the impression that the scientific community shares your scepticism when it does not. Don’t try to manufacture an inflated controversy where there is none to begin with. Because that is simply not honest.

And for that reason, I feel that the words “Darwinism” and “neo-Darwinism” are probably best avoided.

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