I sent Andrew Sullivan a note regarding his silly blog thread about the word "Darwinist". I copied it to my partner, and the following exchange ensued (I hope the formatting comes out intelligibly):

I wrote this to Andrew (and Cc'd my partner A) about the post here:


Hi Andrew, Love your blog, but you've really gotten up my nose with the "Darwinist" thread.

So let me get this straight:

1) You ask the question, "Is 'Darwinist' a loaded term?"

2) People send you what seem calm and reasonable messages explaining why, in fact, the term has connotations, negative and political, for those people it is used to describe. Those people would never use it to describe themselves. (I wonder if you, as a prominent gay man, have ever been referred to using a term like that?)

3) You accuse these interlocutors of being "touchy".

4) This response prompts further calm and reasonable attempts to explain the matter to you.

5) In response to which, you "rest [your] case". Meaning, I gather: yes look, they really are touchy!

Congratulations on this awesome new form of "logical" argument! When is Fox News going to pick up your contract?

To which A responded (and I responded to her) thus:

A wrote: > OK -- but why wouldn't the people in question use it to describe > themselves? What are those negative political connotations? > Sounds like
> people need to RECLAIM the term. "Marxist" is also often used in that
> negative way, but many people use it to self-identiy anyway.

[My reply to A:] All that was already covered by previous emails to Andrew, so there was no point in going into that in my message. The end of the thread is here:


The only point I was trying to make is that his declaration of victory over the touchy Darwinists was about as sensical as anything out of the mouth of Beck. (Atypically of Andrew.)

To answer your questions -- I think there's a lot we could discuss/argue about here, but this is just what I think at the moment :-) :

Personally, I don't think the term "Darwinist" is worth reclaiming. It connotes a worshipful respect for Charles Darwin the man, rather than a skeptical appreciation for the theory he developed and the confirmatory evidence. We use similar words in a similar way, intending that connotation ("Stalinist", for example). It's hard to see what good it would do to try to change that connotation in this one particular case. It means what it means, but that meaning is not applicable to people who understand the theory of evolution.

Self-identifying as a "Marxist" is an intentional political statement, is it not? If you self-identify as a Marxist, aren't you implicitly claiming some level (maybe not "worshipful") of attachment to the man himself, and to Marxist theory as articulated by Marx? Scientists who are identified by the religious right as "Darwinists" generally aren't trying to stake out any political position, and are usually adherents of a theory that looks rather different than Darwin's in important ways. (Mainly, Darwin didn't understand how inheritance worked, so the aspects of his theory touching on inheritance have pretty much been replaced wholesale with accounts based in modern genetics and molecular biology.)

Now the discussion I want to have here is: to what degree is defense of evidence-based scientific knowledge a "political" issue? Am I off-base in wanting to simply remove the term "Darwinist" from the debate, on the grounds that science isn't political, it's just the truth? Or is there some good reason to try to "reclaim" the term?

I can see that there are political aspects to the whole situation, but the thought of trying to reclaim "Darwinist", to use it as a positive term describing myself, makes me feel icky. I'd be interested in hearing varying opinions.

Have at it!

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Replies to This Discussion

Darwinist is a creationist slight, pure and simple. You have two choices, either claim the word is "ours" such as black dudes use the "N" word; or be less politic and remove it altogether.

I've been dealing with a PhD. recently who insisted on referring to Darwinian Theory (and neo-Darwininism by direct implication) "the greatest hoax of the 20th century".

I countered this by demanding that he admit that he was actually so poisoned by hatred of atheists/non-theists who didn't follow his particular Abrahamic belief that he had lost scientific perspective. I also concluded that he, like many of his kind, are completely deluded and only see what they want to see.

He became increasingly unstable and eventually resorted to ad hominem attacks - exactly as predicted by the description of the delusion spectra of symptoms. In his last post he accused me of flaming him, demanded an apology and (amusingly) referred to me as illiterate.
Let Darwinist go. Darwin never wanted to be a leader, never wanted to be idolized. But reclaim evolution as scientific fact, absolutely.
Darwinist and Evolutionist are riduclous terms. Next time someone uses it, deny and call yourself a Heisenbergian or an Einsteinist or a Jeffersonist (for us States folk) and see how they react.

If I had to label myself with every person I think came up with a good idea, I'd be here all day. Additionally, I don't know of anyone that describes them selves by the scientific theories they accept.

What could be more fun is asking the person trying to use the label about their views on science. They think it is a geocentric universe? Call them a Ptolemyist (spelling?).
Well, they've managed to demonize secular humanist, which is someone who thinks we should do things that actually help people and we should let everyone has their religious beliefs without interference from the government. What's especially amazing is I'd bet a good chunk if not a majority of Christians would say they believe this is a good thing, but then turn around and say secular humanists are evil.

They'll demonize rationalist is a simple way. You are arrogant for proclaiming you are the rational one, and you are close-minded for assuming people that disagree with your are irrational. Therefore only arrogant close-minded people would use the label rationalist.

Ta Dah! Another positive turned into a negative.
(Just ruminating, here...)

Homosexuals have "reclaimed" words like "gay", and even "fag"; and as Marc points out, blacks use the "n" word (which I can't even bring myself to write) routinely. Females use "bitch" similarly. This usage of pejorative words by victimized groups to describe themselves, really does seem (to me) to rob those words of much of their negative power.

"Darwinism" does seem qualitatively different to me, and I'm trying understand and articulate why that is. Scientists using the "D" word among themselves would simply seem absurd -- like playing into creationists' rhetorical hands. (But did many gays feel the same about using "fag"?)

Also, it's hard for me to see most working scientists caring enough about the issue to bother using the word.

If the "D" word did achieve currency in scientific circles, I suspect it would be used predominantly in a mordantly humorous way; not as a term of subversive pride, like "gay", "bitch", or "n". (?) (As a middle-class American white guy, I feel very ill-qualified to discuss the respective groups' use of those terms, so if you disagree or think I'm being a patriarchal dick, I'll understand.)

Another difference is that scientists don't exactly constitute a "victimized" group that has the "D" word used as a casual pejorative against them by dominant social groups. The "D" word is used in a calculated manner by scientific out-groups to try to reduce the social power of the scientific elite. Unfortunately, the sorts of groups that use the "D" word, while possessing zero credibility in the scientific community, certainly do have significant political power. Scientists received an object lesson in this matter during the Dubya administration.

I guess my feeling is that most scientists, confronted with the proposition that the "D" word should be reclaimed as a term of pride, would say "Why on earth would I care about that?" Whereas educated members of oppressed socio-political groups might react quite differently: "You have to take that term away from them, or they're going to use it against you at every turn."
I have never ONCE heard any lecturer or researcher in my 2 biology degrees (undergrad and 3/4 through a Masters) use the word "Darwinist". Not to describe themselves, their work, their attitude to life, EVER.
IIRC, when I was taught evolution at an undergraduate level, we got about half, maybe one full hour on Darwin himself and a bit more on the lines of evidence he was dealing with - I have a distinct memory of drawing a tree diagram of his 5 lines of evidence that was almost certainly an oversimplification for 19 year olds. We almost certainly spent more time on Mendel, whose work is absolutely critical for understanding the evolution as it is understood today.
We DO use the word "Darwinian" evolution, which means "focusing on the natural selection element", as oppossed to, for example "Fisherian run away selection" (whereby a trait becomes out of control because it provides a reproductive advantage for no apparent reason - peacocks tails are the prime example).
As Joseph said, if I told my supervisor (who is British, spent a lot of time in the US and now in NZ) that he should be using "Darwinist" as a source of pride, he'd look at me like I'd grown an extra head. So would everyone in my office. We had a discussion the other day about how Darwin screwed up mightily on some aspects, which he did. (Mostly inheritence.)

The Literature of Evolution, as we understand it today, owes a lot to Darwin. Not one biologist in the world will argue with that. But also a lot to Watson and Crick, who elucidated the structure of DNA; Mendel, who figured out how genes work without ever seeing DNA; Fisher, who invented some hella nasty statistics about it; Bateman, whose work on fruitflies finally made the differences between males and females make sense; Erasmus Darwin who wrote some damn trippy poetry; Alfred Russell Wallace, who nearly scooped poor Darwin; Malthus, who pointed out the interactions between population and resources and so on and so forth.

I saw remove it from the debate. It's a word creationists made up to make people who think about the world look bad, it doesn't mean what they think it means, it doesn't mean anything scientists want to be associated with.
Completely irrelevant to your point, Mel, but do you think that sexual selection of breast size (by men) is Fisherian or does another model describe that better? I'm reminded of the late 19th and early 20th centuries where bust size fluctuated dramatically from very large to very small (i.e the flappers).
I'm reminded of the late 19th and early 20th centuries where bust size fluctuated dramatically from very large to very small (i.e the flappers).

I know of no evidence of actual fluctuations in breast size, just fluctuations in fashion. When skinnier women were more in style, they got their pictures taken more often.
Very irrelevant :D

You'd be surprised what a huge variance in how busty you look can be acheived with different styles of underwear. Decades is not remotely enough time for evolution in human breast size, but there is a lot of other absolutely fascinating things about the relationship between the economy and the fashionable bust sizes. I know girls who can reduce from DD to flat chested as a male if you give them an hour and some elastic bandage. And a wonderbra or properly made corset does beautiful things to a pair of breasts.

Different mechanisms can work at the same time - sometimes they might contradict each other resulting in very little change, or sometimes they can emphasise each other.
Based on my research in this matter (wow, that sounds wrong if you think I'm a guy and don't know it's actually my thesis!!) I think there was a bit of Fisherian runaway selection involved. Fisherian runaway selection is characterised by massive and often very high speed enhancement of a trait, often with no relation to actual fitness, and often to the extent the "enhancement" is a proven detrement to the health of the possessor.

Breasts are the bane of many women's existence. They interfere with activity (they bounce and that causes them to ache even when they aren't that big), their sheer weight causes back problems, they can interfere with sleep, they chafe, and in the absence of westernised underwear they start to droop in a way that seems to only make activity even harder.
And for what? Bigger breasts don't seem to be better at breastfeeding - I have searched a LOT for any systematic evidence either way and can't find any. Most of the fat used in milk production actually comes from the hips and butt, not the breasts. The fat may be assisting the breastfeeding mechanically - making it easier to get the nipple into the babies mouth, but I have found no evidence there, only conjecture.

TL;DR: Breasts are expensive but don't seem to do anything except attract mates, so Fisherian run-away selection could have played a role. Of course the cultural issues make it so much more complex!
Woah! You got me out of bed for this... ;0) GD iPod email reader. Sorry, I know we're way off topic here: but discussions do have a habit of evolving.

I probably should say that three of my four children were breast-fed and seem better for it so I have some observational evidence...

I haven't seen any evidence to support the thesis that larger breasts are beneficial - and in fact (as per Fisherian) they are actually detrimental. Certainly the size has absolutely no effect - that I can find - on milk production but very large breasts are difficult to handle. Oddly, it seems that mid-sized breasts B-C are fairly handy for the typical infant. Very small breasts seem to make the "latch on" difficult for infants; very large breasts seem to actually block the airway and are difficult a nursing mother to guide.

Culturally, the effects seem as varied as there are cultures. I've even heard it said (but I don't believe) that men from Northerly parts of the UK prefer large breasts and southerners prefer small.

I'd agree that mutation selection couldn't occur over decades, but surely (wait, did I just call you Shirley) sexual section can happen over generations? If I understood the small amount I have read on the Fisherian thesis (?), sexual selection seems to play a major roll in that process (canonical example being peacocks/peahens).

It's interesting you note about cultural roles. I wonder if we look away from the naked apes, how much of these effects are visible in the natural world. For example, do our nearest ape cousins develop cultural preference for traits?

Seems that for higher-level and sentient life, evolution is a product of more than just random mutation and natural selection from adaptation. I'm not suggesting for a moment that there's a higher intelligence [shudders] but that our own sentience guides evolutionary aspects. I'm aware this fits within the umbrella of "selection of the best adapted" but its something we rarely see discussed.

Humans are really screwing with the natural order by aiding selection of weaker elements in both our own species and others. Woah! I love this stuff.
I probably should say that three of my four children were breast-fed and seem better for it so I have some observational evidence...

Breastfeeding good, all the evidence in the world for that. Whether having a kilo (or 5!) of fat wrapped about the glandular tissue is doing anyone any good is another issue.

I'd agree that mutation selection couldn't occur over decades, but surely (wait, did I just call you Shirley) sexual section can happen over generations? If I understood the small amount I have read on the Fisherian thesis (?), sexual selection seems to play a major roll in that process (canonical example being peacocks/peahens).

Sexual selection occurs over generations. However, peacocks/peahens have a generation every year (maybe 2?). Humans have a generation every 20 years. So we'd expect evolution to happen about 20 times slower in human populations, all other things being equal. The fluctuations in fashion that you're talking about are happening each human generation and the number of calender years is irrelevant. Which is way too fast.

Apes certainly have cultural differences that don't seem to be explained by environment or biology. Some groups crack nuts, others that live in an environment with the same type of tree (I forget which type it is) don't crack em. But ape mating is at least as complicated as human mating (even though they don't have facebook) and over similar timespans so telling a real cultural difference from a difference caused by having a particular set of personalities in the group would be extremely difficult.
The term "Darwinist" is inappropriate. "Evolutionist" would be more correct in more situations; though, it would remain the bastard incest antichrist that it is, having been cooked up by creationists because they're projecting.


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