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.