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I'm sure everybody is aware that February 12th is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth.

But Professor Carl Safina is throwing a wet blanket on the birthday cake.  In a New York Times op-ed piece, he argues that scientists and science journalists are inflaming the "creation science" debate by treating Darwin as a kind of cult fetish.

Which brings us to this week's word: "Darwinism".

It is the Word Sommelier's practice to be charitable to those he is about to deal with behind the lexical wood pile.  Therefore I must note that what Professor Safina is saying is that making an "ism" of "Darwin-ism" is not really consistent with the spirit of science.  I understand what he's trying to do, but it's not going to work.

Science has marched on. But evolution can seem uniquely stuck on its founder. We don’t call astronomy Copernicism, nor gravity Newtonism. "Darwinism" implies an ideology adhering to one man’s dictates, like Marxism. And "isms" (capitalism, Catholicism, racism) are not science. "Darwinism" implies that biological scientists "believe in" Darwin’s "theory." It’s as if, since 1860, scientists have just ditto-headed Darwin rather than challenging and testing his ideas, or adding vast new knowledge.

Now this, as you might well suspect, is right up the Word Sommelier's alley: an argument over the semantics of the word suffix. The professor is arguing that the "-ism" suffix denotes a kind of doctrinal orthodoxy. Unfortunately, this is easily demonstrated to be false.   What, pray tell, are the tenets of "rheumatism"?   As for "-isms" being inconsistent with science, then what are we to make of "electromagnetism"?  

The "-ism" suffix is an interesting morpheme, in that it doesn't carry any meaning in itself.  Its function is to transform a word into a different word for a associated concept. It has performed that office as far back as we can trace it.   "Association" pretty much captures its scope of action, which is very broad.  For example, "ism" transforms the noun "hero" into "heroism", a quality associated with heros.   It transforms the word "terror", which is a state of mind, into "terrorism", that practice which seeks to install that state of mind as a goal.   It transforms "race" into "racism" a word denoting a preoccupation with race.  "Rheumatism" comes from a root words meaning "stream" or "flow".  To suffer rheumatism is to be inflicted with symptoms associated with "rheum" -- the nasal and ocular discharge which often accompanies infection.

Of course, "-ism" is often used to denote doctrines or practices with a noted proponent, as in the case of "Marxism".  And it is in this sense that the professor objects to "Darwinism", and to quote W.S. Gilbert, you're allowing, I'll expect that he was right to so object.  Except that that objection is misplaced.  

I have never, despite rubbing elbows for many years with a large number of scientists, ever heard the word "Darwinism" to pass their lips, except accompanied by very exaggerated "quotation marks".    "Darwinism" is one of those terms that is used exclusively by those who are opposed to it to give them a convenient label for the object of their odium.  Once you accept the term, then it leads naturally to questions like, "If Darwinism is taught in schools, then why should Creation Science be given equal time."  I should note that "Creationism" is much more popular among proponents of evolution than it is with proponents of "Creation Science".  But the point is clear: if they are both "isms", why should one be treated differently than the other?

The answer is, simply, that they are different kinds of "isms", in fact they are "isms" that are employed in diametrically opposite ways by their users.  Therefore to accept one for the uses of the other is actually undermine any usefulness it may have in its native sphere.

This is the confusion that results in part from the generalized alchemical potency of "ism" in transforming words.   The relationship of the rheumatic to rheumatism is not at all the same thing as the relationship of a Catholic to Catholicism.  It is true that "Creationism" and "Darwinism" (if we may admit both terms for the moment) are both species of orthodox knowledge.   However, the way orthodox knowledge is used in each field is quite distinct.

For example, consider the proposition that human beings are descended from a certain hominid species in the fossil record, say H. habilis.  A creationist theologian refers this to what he already knows to be true, and sees that God created Adam on the sixth day. Since these notions are inconsistent the idea is rejected.  An anthropologist, on the other hand, does something very different with his "Darwinist" orthodoxy.     He sets out to prove that H. sapiens descent from H. habilis is inconsistent with anatomy and the fossil record.  In effect, he sets out to prove that evolution did not happen in this case.

Statisticians call this notion "the null hypothesis".   In science, you set out to prove the null hypothesis (the opposite of what you believe to be the case), under rules which consider any remotely reasonable basis whatsoever adequate proof of the null hypothesis.   If you fail, you have just shown that the original hypothesis is consistent with all known facts.

In informal reasoning, one may use scientific theories in the same way that one uses religious dogma, but that is not what scientific theory is for. In a nutshell, the difference between scientific theory and religious dogma is this: scientific theories are not touchstones against which the truth of an idea is tested.  It is published, empirical data which performs this function.  Instead, a scientific theory is nothing more than a stock of ideas which experience has shown form a reliable basis for forming null hypotheses.   If you can relate a hypothesis to a known tenet of evolution, and the idea is consistent with all known facts, then it is productive to set out to disprove that hypothesis as framed in terms of evolution.  When it comes to the real work of science, evolution is there to be assumed wrong.   People believe evolution of course, but only because they set out every day to disprove it and fail.

So, it is certainly not the case that scientists have made a fetish of Darwin. They set out to disprove his theories every day of their working lives.  As is often the case, lexical confusion is leading people to talk past each other.  When a Catholic theologian rejects Protestant theories of justification, it's because he believes he can prove them wrong.  When a scientist reject "Creation Science", it is because it's not a useful source of null hypotheses: it is all too easy to prove, under the liberal rules for judging null hypotheses, that the facts are consistent with the intervention of a supernatural entity.  This makes "Creationism" useless as a scientific theory.

Originally posted to grumpynerd on Tue Feb 10, 2009 at 08:01 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  "-ise" and "-ize" (9+ / 0-)

    Note how "-ise"/"-ize" perform the same function for creating verbs that "-ism" does for nouns (e.g., "Bowdlerize").  And of course there "-wise" for modifiers (e.g. "clockwise").

    As Isaac Asimov once noted, "Those w-i-s-e words are a real help, conveniencewise."

    I've lost my faith in nihilism

    by grumpynerd on Tue Feb 10, 2009 at 08:04:40 AM PST

  •  They invent all kinds of words (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wee Mama

    The creation-types. They have pounced on "micro-evolution," and "specified vs unspecified" information - two novel coinings. And "albiogenesis" wasn't very common until they dusted it off. Still, at the end of the rainbow, they need a Leprechaun.

    Every day's another chance to stick it to The Man. - dls.

    by The Raven on Tue Feb 10, 2009 at 08:21:45 AM PST

  •  Another reason Creationists like to use... (3+ / 0-)

    the word "Darwinism"- it connotates the worship of a man, or the elevation of something created by man to the sense that they understand faith.  

    Then they'll raise their hands, Sayin' we'll meet all your demands, But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered.

    by gooners on Tue Feb 10, 2009 at 08:46:30 AM PST

    •  Well, then, what bout "Lutheranism"? (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Canadian Reader, Wee Mama, gooners

      Of course, I doubt Luther called his doctrines "Lutherism", but people have a way of adopting pejoratives used against them as a badge of pride.

      It's not general the case that "ism" connotes blasphemy or idolatry, although it can (e.g. with improper use of "Mohammedanism" to refer to Islam).   Most generally we see discussions of heresy generating "isms", because it is extremely inconvenient to rail against something without a word for it.  Here the transformative power "ism" comes in handy, when you need to describe something new (and therefore in a context of received wisdom wrong): adoptionism, arianism, monophysitism, the list goes on.

      I've lost my faith in nihilism

      by grumpynerd on Tue Feb 10, 2009 at 08:58:48 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Then why not call it "evolutionism"?... (3+ / 0-)

        I don't think it is generally the case, I just think it is true in this case.  By emphasizing the man, they emphasize that the theory comes fallible man, it emphasizes the profanity of the theory.  It also avoids any association with science, so it is Darwin vs. religion, not science vs. religion.

        Then they'll raise their hands, Sayin' we'll meet all your demands, But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered.

        by gooners on Tue Feb 10, 2009 at 09:07:18 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well, I take your point. (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Canadian Reader, Wee Mama, gooners

          I think, though, the important point isn't that "Darwinist" are blasphemers (see the Word Sommelier's earlier entry on this). Rather, they are heretics.   If you believe in received truth, then innovators are necessarily producers of untruth.  "Darwinism" could not, according to poetic logic, exist before Darwin was born, where as "evolutionism" could.  One might even comb the Bible for support of "evolutionism".

          "Heresy", by the way, comes from Greek roots implying that one thinks for oneself, rather than following "orthodoxy" (ortho - "right" + doxy - "teaching").

          I've lost my faith in nihilism

          by grumpynerd on Tue Feb 10, 2009 at 09:15:46 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Neutonian physics? Euclidian geometry? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wee Mama, The YENTA Of The Opera

    It seems to me there are plenty of fields of science where the founder is still remembered with respect.


    •  Modifiers denoting obsolescence (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Wee Mama, The YENTA Of The Opera

      In both examples you provided, the founders' names are as modifiers denoting the obsolescence or incompleteness of their models.  Euclidian geometry falls apart in the case of spatial warping, while Newtonian physics similarly breaks down in the face of relativistic conditions.  I would similarly expect that if and when a General Theory has been achieved, that physicists will then begin referring to Einsteinian physics.

      Which isn't to say that there might not be other examples of fields which have their names reflecting an important founder, although I can't think of any off the top of my head.

    •  "ian" eponyms are a different phenomenon. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Canadian Reader, Wee Mama

      We can add "-ian" to the list of word generating suffixes; it generates new adjectives, particularly eponymous adjectives. Often it is used to generate retronyms, words which express distinctions that were formerly unnecessary.

      Before Lobachevsky, I suppose one might use "Euclidean Geometry" a way to honor the great organizer of Greek mathematics, but for nineteen century geometry was Euclid.   Likewise  it would be very interesting to hunt for instances of "Newtonian" before the twentieth century.  I'm sure usages must have existed, but I doubt they carried anything like the sense the word has now.

      I've lost my faith in nihilism

      by grumpynerd on Tue Feb 10, 2009 at 09:11:42 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Unfortunately, I know almost nothing (0+ / 0-)

        about Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky except for that Tom Lehrer song. And I assume he was not a plagiarist.

        •  He died in 1856 (0+ / 0-)

          a century before the Tom Lehrer song.

          In a nutshell, there are five "postulates" or axioms in Euclidean geometry, the fifth of which states, roughly, that when a line lays across two other lines, and the angles it makes on on side add up to less than 180 degrees, that the lines crossed must meet on that side; if the lines equal 180 degrees, then the lines never meet (are parallel).

          This postulate has always struck thoughtful mathematicians as not fitting in with the other postulates, which are much simpler, e.g. you can draw a line between any two points, or if you have a line segment you can draw a circle with the center at one endpoint which has the other endpoint on the circumference.   It seems like the sort of thing you should be able to prove, not assume.

          For two thousand years, mathematicians tried to prove the fifth postulate in terms of the prior four, and failed, until Lobachevsky (and Bolyai) had the idea of making a contradictory assumption, and found that at least according to the requirements of logic, the resulting, strange version of geometry hung together perfectly well.  

          Does this make him the greatest that ever got chalk on his coat?  Well, for one thing it shows Euclid was right to make the fifth postulate an assumption, but since Euclid presumably wore a chiton (an artfully draped rectangle of cloth), then the honor might well be Lobachevsky's (or Bolyai's).

          I've lost my faith in nihilism

          by grumpynerd on Tue Feb 10, 2009 at 03:38:11 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  I'll confirm that I've never heard an active (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    biologist speak the word "Darwinism" without air quotes. What do you make of the molecular biologist's tendency to enshrine discoverers' in genetic sequences? I'm thinking of examples like a Pribnow box or Watson-Crick base pairing (used to distinguish from rarer kinds).

    •  For the most part (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Wee Mama

      I don't.  Think about it, that is.

      As you know, I'm generally liberal when it comes to admitting neologisms.  I don't fear the linguistic threat posed by the barbarians beating down the gates.  If it weren't for the barbarians beating down the gates, we wouldn't have the English language.

      However, what you are talking about is outside the scope of the Word Sommelier's competence (astonishingly broad as that may be).   I suppose the alternative to using eponymous jargon would be to use some kind of descriptive nomenclature.  Organic chemistry generates all kinds of jaw breaking nomenclature.  The compound known by the IUPAC designation as "2-(2-chlorophenyl)-2-methylamino-cyclohexan-1-one" could be called "menaquinone" or just "Vitamin K". The IUPAC designation could not reasonably be called a "word".

      So I suppose since recognition is most important currency in which scientists are paid, the creation of eponymous words for their discoveries is the most practical course.

      I've lost my faith in nihilism

      by grumpynerd on Tue Feb 10, 2009 at 09:54:25 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Our Language is the Problem (0+ / 0-)

    I wanted to comment earlier, but didn't have a chance.  Now I see this diary has dropped down to about 150 on the recent list, so it has in many respects disappeared.

    Well, I don't care.  Here's what I want to say -- The word "believe" is the problem.  Do you "believe" in God?    Do you "believe" in evolution?  Do you "believe" in Rock and Roll (Can music save your mortal soul?)

    If someone were to ask me if I "believed" in evolution, I would likely answer, "No, I "think" that evolution offers the best explanation of the development of the species according to generally accepted scientific knowledge.  'Believe' in the sense of accepting without proof is not part of science."  

    That person would have by then probably lost interest in the conversation.  But my point is that Creation-ism-ists use the word "believe" to mean whatever they want it to mean, sometimes several things in the same dialog.  I wish I were clever enough to invent a phrasing that would clear away this fog.  Maybe you can.

    "Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything even remotely true." -- H. Simpson

    by midnight lurker on Tue Feb 10, 2009 at 05:38:45 PM PST

  •  I always like these diaries (0+ / 0-)

    will be back later to read more thoroughly and maybe comment

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