Donald Prothero's scathing review of "What Darwin Got Wrong" in the latest edition of eSkeptic reminds me of a pet peeve. It's double sided.

On one side, I find the creationist habit of referring to rational people who accept the fact of evolution by natural selection as "Darwinists" really annoying. They usually also trumpet any scientific discovery or hypothesis that contradicts something Darwin wrote or said, and of course really cream themselves over the racist bits in Origin of Species and Descent of Man. They seem to believe that evolution depends on Darwin being inerrant, which could not be further from the truth.

On the other side, I'm disappointed with people on the side of science who deify Darwin. Several of the biographies and biographical articles I've read about him treat the details of his life story with Gospel-like reverence, as if his relationship with his wife or his father or his university professors, or his grief over the death of his daughter, or his competition with Wallace has some bearing on the validity of his insights.

I greatly prefer this narrative -- Darwin was the most prominent and successful early proponent of evolution by natural selection, but because the fossil record was so thin and the principles of genetics had not yet been discovered at the time he wrote his famous books, some of his ideas were incomplete or wrong. The beauty and strength of science is that it builds on itself and self-corrects. Darwin pointed the way, and subsequent generations of scientists have filled in the gaps and corrected the errors in Darwin's thinking, and have taken the field of biology further than Darwin could have dreamed.

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I think their invention of the word "Darwinist" is a direct attempt to equate faith in Darwin with faith in Jesus and then demolish evolution by pointing out flaws in Darwin or his work. The point they miss is that people with a scientific outlook do not have faith in Darwin, but merely appreciate the power of his insights and respect his work. It seems very similar to the way many believers want the object of the worship -- whether its Jesus, Mohamed, Buddha or Zeus -- to be perfect in every way.

My term "people on the side of science" was pretty vague, so that's my bad. I wasn't referring to any working scientists (other than perhaps the fine folks at the Discovery Institute, who deify Darwin for the above stated purposes). I meant journalists, bloggers and fans of science generally who often sound as if they idolize Darwin, and hence inadvertently further the creationist cause. They set themselves up for a rude shock the first time a creationist quotes some of Darwin's racially explosive statements.
Adriana -- I'm not sure if you get that I'm making the point that Darwin does not require defending. He did what he did, said what he said, much of which was really great, and whatever flaws someone in 2010 might see in the work or opinions of a man from the mid-19th century has no bearing on the truth, beauty or accuracy of biology as we understand it today. I'm saying, "Don't allow creationists to personalize it to Darwin because it's a trap. If they try, use it as an opportunity to extol the power of the scientific method to overcome the mistakes or biases of a single scientist."

As soon as you start getting into "he was remarkably un-racist for a man of his time," you have lost because now the contest is no longer about evidence versus magical thinking, but about whom you trust more -- a remarkably un-racist guy for his time, or Jesus, Moses, Mohamed, etc.


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