What is Darwinism?

The term Darwinism has taken on a negative connotation
Naturalist Charles Darwin. Getty/De Agostini / A. C. Cooper

Charles Darwin is known as the "Father of Evolution" for being the first person to publish his theory not only describing that evolution was a change in species over time, but also put together a mechanism for how it works (called natural selection). There is arguably no other evolutionary scholar as well known and revered as Darwin. In fact, the term "Darwinism" has come to be synonymous with the Theory of Evolution, but what really is meant when people say the word Darwinism?

And more importantly, what does Darwinism NOT mean?

The coining of the term

Darwinism, when it was first put into the lexicon by Thomas Huxley in 1860, was only meant to describe the belief that species change over time. In the most basic of terms, Darwinism became synonymous with Charles Darwin's explanation of evolution and, to an extent, his description of natural selection. These ideas, first published in his arguably most famous book On the Origin of Species, were direct and have stood the test of time. So, originally, Darwinism only included the fact that species change over time due to nature selecting the most favorable adaptations within the population. These individuals with the better adaptations lived long enough to reproduce and pass those traits down to the next generation, ensuring the species' survival.

The "evolution" of "Darwinism"

While many scholars insist this should be the extent of information that the word Darwinism should encompass, it has somewhat evolved itself over time as the Theory of Evolution itself also changed when more data and information became readily available.

For instance, Darwin did not know anything about Genetics as it wasn't until after his death that Gregor Mendel did his work with his pea plants and published the data. Many other scientists proposed alternative mechanisms for evolution during a time which became known as neo-Darwinism. However, none of these mechanisms held up over time and Charles Darwin's original assertions were restored as the correct and leading Theory of Evolution.

Now, the Modern Synthesis of the Evolutionary Theory is sometimes described using the term "Darwinism", but this is somewhat misleading since it includes not only Genetics but also other topics not explored by Darwin like microevolution via DNA mutations and other molecular biological tenets.

What Darwinism is NOT

In the United States, Darwinism has taken on a different meaning to the general public. In fact, opponents to the Theory of Evolution have taken the term Darwinism and created a false definition of the word that brings up a negative connotation for many who hear it. The strict Creationists have taken the word hostage and created a new meaning which is often perpetuated by those in the media and others who do no truly understand the real meaning of the word. These anti-evolutionists have taken the word Darwinism to not only mean a change in species over time, but have lumped in the origin of life along with it. Darwin did not assert any sort of hypothesis on how life on Earth began in any of this writings and only could describe what he had studied and had evidence to back up. Creationists and other anti-evolutionary parties either misunderstood the term Darwinism or purposefully hijacked it to make it more negative.

The term has even been used to describe the origin of the universe by some extremists, which is way beyond the realm of anything Darwin would have made a conjecture on at any time in his life.

In other countries around the world, however, this false definition is not present. In fact, in the United Kingdom where Darwin did most of his work, it is a celebrated and understood term that is commonly used instead of the Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection. There is no ambiguity of the term there and it is used correctly by scientists, the media, and the general public every day.