Ism isn’t

Hello? (tap tap) Is this thing on?

You may be surprised to see a scholar of all six editions of (On) The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, and several other works by Charles Darwin open with a weary groan at the term Darwinism. I simply don’t use it, nor its individualized version with “-ist.” And it’s not just about avoiding the latter-day parallel with “Creationism” … I’m going way back before American evangelicals even cared about biological stuff, let alone molded it into a plank. That happened around 1900. Nor is it to do with Social Darwinism in the later sense of the term, which didn’t become a thing until the 1890s, or classified by that term until the 1940s. Let’s hop further back to the real action in the 1850s and 60s.

The first thing is the larger framing about biology and evolution – already both real words by this point. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species published in 1859 would have been much more obscure except insofar as it became raw material for the interaction among the following texts:

Chambers – a heavy hitter, crucial reading

  • The 1853 edition of The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, anonymously by Robert Chambers, which through its many editions from the 174os through the 1880s was pretty much the go-to text for intellectual and popular discourse on the subject. This edition was especially feisty, including takedowns of indignant responses to the earlier one.
  • In 1859, Essays and Reviews was published by several Anglican Churchmen writing to defy the anti-science, socially-reactionary content espoused officially by the Church – and the authors were instantly charged with heresy, something you didn’t see every day in the 19th century.
    • Darwin’s book was brought immediately into the limelight in the same year in exactly this context, because although Thomas Huxley’s famous verbal sparring with Samuel Wilberforce is famous, people forget the latter was the prosecutor in the heresy case.
  • Huxley’s review of The Origin, which coined the term “Darwinism” (one of his less good moves)
  • Herbert Spencer’s First Principles, published in 1862, which invoked “Darwinism” and coined the term “survival of the fittest”

Meaning, speaking strictly in this public and policy-oriented context, “Darwinism” was hot. Point the first being that it had nothing, and I do mean nothing, with anything actually textually present in On the Origin of Species, and point the second being that every imaginable political effort of the day wanted to own it, which included getting to define what it was. A lot of “isms” are at least somewhat connected with the proper noun they’re appended to, and some are logically so, but “Darwinism” was neither. It was nothing but hotness – if you could grab it and say that it said what you wanted to do. The following five editions of The Origin not only clarify Darwin’s thinking about the actual topic, but also clearly illustrate a failing struggle to keep it from being co-opted this way.

The second thing is what I like to call views as they shook out over the following decades, which is to say, foundations for a person or organization’s position about what to do. This was the century of what to do. And your thing to do absolutely had to be branded as a manifestation of some philosophical statement about what was naturally indicated that we should do. Fold “God’s law,” “the laws of man and God,” “Natural Law,” “scientific principles,” into the terminology as needed; they’re all the same thing in this construction.

Before I go on, no one held one of these single views. These are components used to build a given organizational ideological position. Keep that in mind – this is Figure 2.1 from my book:


Here, I’ll explain it to you – NO HERBERT PLEASE DON’T

Again: these aren’t positions but components used to build positions. Every position is a combination thereof, and anything could be with anything. The word “Darwinism” was gunpowder to be packed into your arsenal for battling it out with other positions, and it meant whatever you needed it to mean. This is why the very last place you should seek to define it is The Origin or in anything written or said by Charles Darwin, which by definition are the last things anyone using the term wanted to know about. Much more useful to say Darwin while reading (if anything) Spencer.

I spend some time on this in The Edge of Evolution. It especially ties into the varying mixes of Darwin, Wallace, and Spencer both within biology and in the larger political arena. In the novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, the debate between Prendick and Moreau in Chapter 14 is practically a dissection of these dynamics.

But I think it matters especially in the present day. History cannot possibly be more present than this. All the social movements of today have explicit origins in the 1880s, as this decade seems to have done a remarkable job of rewriting everything that happened before it, and all of them are fully rooted in the axiom of “find out how the world works and then do that,” for actively constructing human society. Whether how it works is based on God’s Plan or Nature’s Way or Human Reason or any confluence of these is of never-no-mind. What I’m stressing is that various isms always cast what they call Darwinism in a supporting role in their marketing rhetoric, either as part of the Plan/Way/Reason or as its foe. This is why social reformers and social revolutionaries, who battle one another far more than they do their nominal adversaries, bicker over who gets to be “evolutionary” or “evolved,” and why, meanwhile, a Spencer-like, rather smug version of evolution is espoused from imperially-positioned pundits, even as we speak.

Try it without the Ism and the Ist next time. In this case, semantics are not merely “just.”

(Quick pedantic point: The title of the first edition of Darwin’s book is titled On the Origin of Species, but the later editions abandoned the “On.” People refer to the work in general as The Origin as shorthand and to avoid tediously mentioning the “On” regarding when it does or doesn’t apply.)

Next: New Synthesis zaps


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