Why aren’t you an evolutionist?

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?


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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11 Responses to Why aren’t you an evolutionist?

  1. Dear Joan,

    Hear! Hear! I think we should start a campaign. There is much to say about the temptation to avoid words that have become controversial–like evolution, group selection, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. All of them have important and straightforward face value definitions, but when they become controversial, there is a temptation to avoid the controversy by avoiding the word. A slight short-term advantage results for the user, but the long term consequences are confusing and counterproductive for everyone. It’s much better to stick to the face value definitions and squarely face the controversies. If enough people call themselves evolutionists, then the very meaning of the word will start to change in the general population.

    • µ says:

      I avoid the term “group selection” because everyone seems to use a different definition, and because figuring out what folks really mean leads generally to frustrating discussion.

      I don’t avoid the term “sociobiology”, but use “behavioral ecology” instead (same issues, less baggage). I know I am a coward, and maybe I should grow some backbone.

      I agree that novel language has frequency-dependent payoffs, and that, unless there is a critical mass, you don’t want to use too innovative language. Like, who would continue reading this comment if I call myself a commentatorist, blogreaderist, replyist

      • The difference between the words you suggest is that some clarify and some obfuscate. Evolutionist is quite clear. I don’t know why it has the feeling of advocacy, perhaps because of its rarity. We are using the new term organismality for something others might have considered to be individuality for good reasons, too many to go into here. The trouble with behavioral ecology is small most places, but at my current institution many think that means it falls under ecology, not evolution, if we are making that split. At least the way I practice it, evolution is more appropriate. Of course I don’t know what they would do with sociobiology. That term’s challenge is the early human determinism interpretation.

      • µ says:

        I agree, “evolutionist” is clearist.

        Also agree that there is really no boundary between ecology and evolution (as if evolution happens in an ecological vacuum, and as if ecology does not affect evolution). Maybe we should stop teaching these as separate fields.

        [FYI: Somehow this comment-thread does not allow me to reply to your comment from 9:50AM and I have to reply to my own earlier comment instead].

  2. Ben says:

    My guess is that because of the existence of the term “creationist”, “evolutionist” sounds like a believer in an opposing dogma, rather than a practitioner in a scientific field. But I agree that “evolutionary biologist” is clumsy, and it has often bothered me.

    • Joe says:

      Precisely what Ben said. It would do harm to science education.

      • Harm to science education? The ending makes it analogous to creationist? That by not calling ourselves evolutionists we win over a lot of creationists? We can’t now and never could rely on the word. We need to rely on the scientific process which is evidence based, subject to experimentation and falsification. This and this alone distinguishes evolutionist from creationist, astronomer from astrologist, chemist from alchemist, and so on.

  3. @EdGibney says:

    I’ve been using Evolutionary Philosopher to distinguish between just working on the science of evolution, and actually applying the findings from evolution to a broader understanding of the world and our place in it. I’m staying on that corner since no one else seems to have claimed it yet and I think it’s worth staking out, but I’m in agreement that we need to come together as a community. I could use both terms until one wins out.

    • It has been a while since I read his book but I think D. S. Wilson was using evolutionist for a similar definition. Evolutionists extract evolutionary theory from their professional life and apply it to their day-to-day life (that all being said, particularly due to his comment above, he may have been differentiating from Evo Bio simply as a nice primer for a book about seeing the effects of evolution in your day-to-day life).

  4. Pingback: Friday links: scientific publishing is unfixable, “Big Replication”, new ecology teaching videos, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  5. tjvision says:

    An “evolutionist” might well study the patterns and processes leading to solar systems, or societies, or art forms, so adding the ‘biology’ qualifier is helpful if the biological context is not already clear. Similarly, not all “developmentalists” are developmental biologists.

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