He could have just said he didn’t believe in evolution, or that evolution had flaws. Or, he could have said that a book with a whole unit on evolution was just too much. But William Buckingham, of the Dover Area School Board in Pennsylvania, didn’t use the “E” word when he explained his objections to the biology textbook selected by the science teachers at Dover High School. Instead, he invoked a term that didn’t even appear in that textbook. Prentice Hall’s Biology: The Living Science, he claimed, “was laced with Darwinism from beginning to end.” Surely, he must have thought, “Darwinism” was a disqualifying slander that everyone could understand.

As he explained his remarks to a reporter, Buckingham expanded on that theme, once again invoking the name of Darwin rather than the name of the field itself. “It’s okay to teach Darwin,” said Buckingham, “but you have to balance it with something else, such as creationism.” Later that year, the school board attempted to do exactly that, pairing “Darwinism” with “Intelligent Design,” and leading to the landmark Kitzmiller v. Dover trial in 2005. The defenders of evolution won a resounding victory in that trial, but afterwards I was left to wonder how Darwin’s own name had come to be used as a slur against science.

To find the intellectual roots of that transformation, one need look no further than a 1998 essay by one of America’s greatest living writers, Marilynne Robinson. Author of novels such as Housekeeping, Home and Gilead, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, Robinson is also the author of “Darwinism,” a provocative essay that forms the cornerstone of her 1998 collection of essays, The Death of Adam. Robinson is no creationist. In fact, she writes that creationism, a “caricature of religion,” is “the best thing that could have happened to Darwinism,” since it “justifies Darwinist contempt for the whole of religion.” What, then, is her objection to evolution?

Surprisingly, she does not seem to have one, at least not a scientific objection. In fact, she regards Darwin’s work as “impressive,” and makes no argument for a young Earth, the fixity of species or any of the other usual creationist canards. But to her mind, “Darwinism” is something else again. She writes that Charles Darwin had a “cheerful interest” in the extermination of races, that “Darwinism is harsh and crude,” and that Darwinists regard the human animal as a “creature who shares essential attributes with whatever beast has recently been observed behaving shabbily in the state of nature.”

Credit: Simon & Schuster

Robinson makes no case for the existence of a historical Adam or the Garden of Eden, but she clearly laments the way in which evolution, or “Darwinism,” has dispelled the civilizing myth of Adam, and the key “assumptions” that once formed the bedrock of Western culture, even the culture of science itself. If one were to seek an intellectual founding mother for the use of “Darwinism” as a slander against evolution, Robinson would surely get that honor.

A number of purposes are served by reducing an entire scientific field to an “ism” based on the name of its founder. The first is obvious. Evolution then becomes an ideology, not a field of science. This view is on full display at the lavishly appointed Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, where visitors are assured that scientific data can be interpreted in two ways—from a Darwinist perspective, or from a creationist point of view. Because both depend only upon one’s preconceptions, the creationist viewpoint is just as valid as any other.

Like any supposed ism, Darwinism has an agenda, and it’s not just a scientific one. It dismisses moral values as the epiphenomena of natural selection, it promotes homosexuality, ruthless competition, selfishness and racism, and it seeks to explain the gems of western civilization, its art, music and literature, as nothing more than individual gambits that advance the artist’s own interests in sex and reproduction. These supposed evils derive from the way in which it advances a strictly materialistic view of nature, one that, in Robinson’s words, “denies the mind/soul as spirit,” and regards the brain as nothing more than a “lump of meat.” Darwinism requires “the disengagement of conscience,” and the “grand scale disparagement of the traits that distinguish us from animals.” And Darwinists, she notes, “take the darkest possible view of the animals.”

The overuse of Darwin’s own name facilitates another line of attack, by pretending that the field relies entirely on Darwin’s own work, fashioned in an age before the modern sciences of genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology emerged to confirm and expand his ideas. This allows the pretense that evolution is a stolid, unchanging field, with few new ideas that might refresh its 19th century heritage. Any scientist would scoff at this, of course, knowing the vigor that new discoveries constantly infuse into evolutionary biology. But to laypeople, unfamiliar with the rapid pace of scientific discovery, this can be a persuasive argument.

Finally, by constantly railing against pernicious “Darwinism,” the advocate can map the many personal faults and flaws of Charles Darwin and his like-minded contemporaries onto evolution itself. Darwin’s racism is thereby presumed to be inherent to the field, as is the imperial condescension that might be found in any upper-class Briton of the period. Closer to the present day, the eugenics movement can be linked to Darwinism as well, misrepresenting the science of evolution as justification for the horrors inflicted in its name.

What, then, is to be done? Should we abstain from the use of Darwin’s name, stop reading The Origin of Species or co-opt the term by applying it broadly to evolutionary science? While I don’t think that’s necessary, we should keep in mind that many of our professional colleagues have indeed attached the authority of evolution to assertions that are more political and cultural than biological. One such field is evolutionary psychology, a discipline in which evolutionary principles can indeed be used to great effect. But it is also a field in which Darwinian “just-so” arguments have been used to explain everything from male and female shopping behavior to music and to tell us that the impulse to rape was favored by natural selection—so all males are potential rapists. A gentler example of this cultural overreach is proudly advanced by David Sloan Wilson, president of the Evolution Institute, who proclaims that in this century the theory of evolution will expand “to include all human-related knowledge,” including “anthropology, art, culture, economics, history, politics, psychology, religion, and sociology.” In short, step aside, humanists and social scientists, we’re taking over.

Maybe so. But I’m still waiting for an evolutionary explanation of the thrilling beauty of a Mozart symphony or a James Joyce short story, to say nothing of a truly biological explanation for the particular political situations in the U.S., Venezuela or Germany. In advocating for greater public understanding of evolution, we might do well to keep in mind that it is a theory for the origin of species, not the explanation of all things human, great and small.

But there is a deeper, more powerful strategy that can get to the very heart of the fundamental concerns of intellectuals like Robinson and laypeople who share her concern that evolution diminishes the status of the human person. That is to use evolution itself to highlight the exceptional nature of our species. Yes, there was an element of truth in Henry Gee’s admonition that “There is nothing special about being human, any more than there is anything special about being a guinea pig or a geranium.” Frans de Waal made a similar point regarding the human intellect. We are, he asserted, “animals not only in body but also in mind.” Science blogger P. Z. Myers was even more explicit in his efforts to take us down a notch: “we [humans] aren’t any more special to the universe than a sea slug.” While all of these statements emphasize our full-fledged membership in the animal kingdom, they miss something—something essential to a genuine understanding of the place our species holds in the evolutionary narrative.

Referring to the work of two great pioneers of animal behavior, the late Jacob Bronowski wryly pointed out that their studies of birds and rodents fell somewhat short of accounting for the most important details of human behavior: “There must be something unique about man because otherwise, evidently, the ducks would be lecturing about Konrad Lorenz, and the rats would be writing papers about B. F. Skinner.” That is exactly the point.

We are the children of evolution in every sense, part of Darwin’s fabled “tangled bank.” We must never forget that. But we must also remember that we are the only creatures to emerge from that thicket and make sense of it all. “Darwinism” does not diminish us.  Rather, it puts the human experiment into a truly scientific perspective. We are not just hairless bipedal primates. We are creatures capable of the fugues of Bach, the verses of Yeats, the stories of Twain, the creations of Dalí and, for that matter, the mathematics of Gödel, Ramanujan and Turing.

In contemplating the lessons of evolution for our species and our culture, this is how we should overcome the mindless use of “Darwinism” as a slur. Some may feel demeaned by our evolutionary heritage, but I would argue that the more appropriate emotions are joy and delight. Joy that we are approaching a genuine understanding of the world in which we live, and delight at being the very first stirrings of true consciousness in the vastness of the cosmos. Far from diminishing us, knowing the details of Adam’s journey ennobles each of us as a carrier of something truly precious—the genetic, biological, and cultural heritage of life itself. Evolution describes not the death of Adam, but his triumph. That is the great truth of our story.