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Let’s Start Calling Ourselves Evolutionists!
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

My esteemed colleague Joan Strassman wrote the following post on her Sociobiology blog:

We have ecologists, economists, sociologists, and biologists. We have Marxists, capitalists, artists, and psychologists. We even have the tongue twisting physicists. Why don’t we call ourselves evolutionists? Well, one of us does, D. S. Wilson. Think what you will of his ideas and initiatives, no one would deny he is an evolutionary biologist, as it says on Wikipedia. No one would deny either that he thinks for himself, apparently arriving at the conclusion that it make sense to call himself the short and sweet term, evolutionist.

What’s wrong with the rest of us? Are we worried people won’t realize evolution is part of biology? Does evolutionist sound funny? No more so than ecologist, I’d say. Some fields don’t add -ist to their practitioners. We have historians, not historicists, computer scientists, not computerists, but isn’t it time for us to shorten our name to 5 syllables from 10 and become evolutionists?

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Huzza! Let’s start a movement! I started to call myself an evolutionist for two reasons. The first is explained on the first page of my book Evolution for Everyone:

I am an evolutionist, which means that I use the principles of evolution to understand the world around me. I would be an evolutionary biologist if I restricted myself to the topics typically associated with biology, but I include all things human along with the rest of life. That makes me an evolutionist without any qualifiers. I and my fellow evolutionists study the length and breadth of creation, from the origin of life to religion.

Given that most human-related subjects such as anthropology, economics, history psychology, religion, and sociology are not associated with the word “biology”, evolutionist is the broadest and most appropriate term.

My second reason is a stubborn desire to restore the meaning and honor of stigmatized words. Imagine that your brother has been wrongly convicted of a heinous crime. You might be tempted to disavow any relationship with him to avoid being tainted by association. This temptation is only human, but the more courageous choice would be to stand by your brother and do what you can to restore his good name.

So it is with tainted words. The word evolution became tainted during the first half of the 20th century when it was invoked to justify social inequality and ruthless competition, an association that still colors the term “Social Darwinism”. The term “group selection” became tainted when it was widely rejected during the 1960s. The terms “sociobiology” and “evolutionary psychology” also became tainted in their own ways.

Stigmatizing these words led cautious people to avoid them. Why cause trouble? But avoiding tainted words does cause trouble down the road. All of them have important face-value definitions that need to be distinguished from particular schools of thought that might be problematic. Group selection is evolution via the differential survival and reproduction of groups. The particular form of group selection espoused by V. C. Wynne Edwards might be right or wrong, but shouldn’t change the face-value definition of the term. Sociobiology is the study of animal (including human) societies from a biological perspective. E.O. Wilson’s development of the subject might be right or wrong but shouldn’t change the face-value definition. Evolutionary psychology is the study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective. The particular school of thought associated with Leda Cosmides and John Tooby might be right or wrong, but shouldn’t change the face-value definition.

To say that cautious people avoided these terms doesn’t quite capture what was at stake for them. In many cases their careers were on the line. Numerous colleagues have told me that their articles and grants framed in terms of group selection were rejected, only to be accepted when the term was removed. Two pioneers of human sociobiology, Bill Irons and Napolean Chagnon, who were recently interviewed on TVOL (here and here), recall how their careers were threatened in the 1970’s and 80’s, which was not so very long ago.

My career has not suffered by championing group selection and studying evolution in relation to human affairs. Somehow I manage to get along with most of my intellectual opponents. Like athletes, we joust on the field but respect and enjoy each other’s company. This is science as it should be.

The same goes for presenting evolution to the general public. My business card used to read “Evolutionist” under my name as my profession. I enjoyed handing it out and watching the reaction. Typically there was a surprised chuckle that led to a friendly conversation about what such a thing could mean.

Now my business card reads “Co-founder and President, Evolution Institute“; and I must explain what it means to formulate public policy from an evolutionary perspective to prospective donors, politicians, and policy experts of all stripes. I am frequently counseled to avoid using the E-word so prominently. Why cause trouble, especially when it is likely to trigger negative reactions or deer-in-the-headlights looks? I am no more persuaded than when I was counseled to avoid using the term group selection. Replacing old associations with new associations is what it’s all about. There’s no better way than to use the word and explain what it means to the best of our current knowledge. I’m proud of a special issue of the Journal of Economic and Behavior Organization titled  “Evolution as a General Theoretical Framework for Economics and Public Policy” that does exactly that for a professional audience. I’m also proud of This View of Life for reaching a broader audience with the same message. Another good title for this magazine would be The Evolutionist.

If everyone who uses evolution as an explanatory framework unabashedly called themselves evolutionists and took the time to explain what that means to the best of our current knowledge, then acceptance and understanding of evolution might be vastly accelerated in all sectors of society. Let’s start calling ourselves evolutionists!


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  1. Chris Kavanagh says:

    I don’t like the idea. It sounds somewhat similar to the initiative by Dawkins & co. to rebrand atheists as ‘Brights’. As you point out not all academic disciplines require an -ist and it doesn’t make them any less credible. Evolution is also a theory which emerged from within an existing discipline, natural science/biology, so labelling yourself after the theory seems something akin to a scientist calling themselves ‘a quantumist’ or a doctor calling themselves a ‘germist’. It also seems to invite comparisons with fundamentalist/creationist as if it is just an alternative doctrinal position. I know that’s not correct, nor is it appropriate given how -ist is used, but I still think that for the general public it would create a false equivalence.

    At present, I don’t see that we have that many problems using the existing terminology as it allows us to identify from what area people are approaching a topic i.e. an evolutionary psychologist is not necessarily the same as an evolutionary anthropologist or an evolutionary linguist.

    Just my opinion.

  2. Fred Welfare says:

    I don’t mind the invigorating effect of reorganizing the field to address all of the issues, but the issues are not simply ‘our field’ against the world, but instead must address problems within evolutionary biology. Namely, biology must take a position concerning the origin of life and the universe and may not simply hide behind naturalism by disavowing every religion. The origins question is relevant to addressing people with religious sentiments; disregarding origins is the opposite of explaining and justifying your claims, the foundations of science. Biologists cannot stand behind a biblical god or any god formulated by humans, only a god which has created matter and energy from before the big bang is acceptable and further more any psychological or perceptual appearance of god must be explained through biology. Secondly, the various modes of evolution must be addressed by contrasting natural selection, kin selection, group selection and drift and not by valorizing natural selection or denying kin selection (inclusive fitness) or rejecting drift. Thirdly, the difference between genetics and epigenetics must be clearly stated in every explanation of behavior. Also, it is important to explain the role of human genetic change during the lifespan for each organism and between generations through biological reproduction. The sticking point point for biology is to address human social institutions: religions, marriage, education (the Baldwin Effect), the professions, industrialization, technology, and governance. The reason for addressing social institutions is to address the environmental and ecological impacts of human behaviors upon the human genome and the interdependencies with all other living things. Biology will not be taken seriously unless the well understood mechanisms of biological development and ecological contexts are linked to moral beliefs and ethical standards, that is, there must be some attempt to address their effects on the biological contexts.

  3. Mukk Rakker says:

    I don’t think it matters: our side is not so radicalized by labels that we would feel marginalized by an incorrect category, whilst the other will willfully and pedantically misconstrue any name we choose to apply. Call yourself what you will, but be prepared to ignore the obfuscation that will ensue – semantics and word play are their fail-safe positions.

  4. Michael Blume says:

    Great idea! Here’s my confession as an Evolutionist 😀
    link to