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The relevance of Darwin the person July 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I usually don’t post much on contemporary science issues or on science journalism. There are plenty of science blogs out there. However, Olivia Judson’s piece “Let’s Get Rid of Darwinism” on the NYTimes website caught my attention. Essentially, she argues that a continued adherence to Darwin as an intellectual hero undermines public understanding of natural selection in science. This speaks directly to my understanding of why it matters to do history, which is to understand the persistence and transformation of rhetoric and practice over time. By continuing to concentrate rhetorically on the scientific accomplishments of this specific person (through terms like “Darwinism”), we tend to forget the tremendous robustness that natural selection has built up as a conceptual tool, rather than as a statement of fact. Generations of ecologists, paleontologists, and zoologists, straight down to medical researchers and molecular biologists have successfully adapted Darwin’s logic to their own work. Do we, counter-intuitively, strengthen the idea if we diminish the status of its “creator”?

Now, I don’t belong to the “if we just make our argument a little more clever, they’ll see the light” school of thought when dealing with highly ideological opponents. Public debates over intelligent design and creationism and the like are political rather than intellectual, so it’s best not to legitimize them by partaking. However, I would imagine it helps the semi-interested and receptive public think about the place of natural selection in science if we discuss it as the 20th-and-21st-century concept it is rather than the 19th-century concept it was. (By “semi-interested” I mean those who are neither well-educated in biology, nor keep up with science magazines that do, indeed, treat natural selection in a more contemporary way).

Two tangential points:

1) Popular debates about ID tend to reach their zenith around the point that ID is unscientific, because, by its nature, it is meant to close off further inquiry. But it strikes me as strange that it’s not often mentioned that ID is antithetical to Darwin’s major intellectual contribution, which was to propose a non-teleological mechanism for the evolution of species. Maybe too fine a point?

2) Thinking more about arguments in the sociology of science, do black boxes really represent “finished” science, or are they subjected to further, indirect scrutiny through their deployment in subsequent inquiries? In this case, natural selection, black boxed (for all intents and purposes) c. 1900, acquires additional intellectual robustness through successful deployment in subsequent science.

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