Global environmental challenges
On the origin of the Darwin myths
Rather than answering that it was actually a one-time sub editor for The Economist magazine, Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase, or fighting back with an equally wrong comment about someone being descended from monkeys, Darwin academics are calling for a moratorium on the everyday use and abuse of the great naturalist.
Two-hundred years after he was born, and 150 years after he published “On the Origin of Species”, it’s time to check the facts, as “most of what most people think they know about him is not true,” according to Darwin scholar John van Wyhe, a historian of science at the University of Cambridge.
Visiting Singapore for a Willi Hennig Society-organised talk about Darwin and his contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace, who is also the subject of several myths, van Whye ran through a series of widely-believed Darwin misconceptions that make humankind look pretty slow on the uptake.
First off, he the pointed out that Darwin and Wallace, were not, really, such iconoclasts.
By the late 1830s, two decades before Darwin’s Origin, the scientific community had already accepted that the world was far older than could be allowed by a literal reading of Genesis, he said.
The “Bridgewater Treatise” by the Reverend William Buckland, the first person to scientifically describe a dinosaur, detailed geology and mineralogy’s relevance to theology by drawing cross-sections of the earth full of the fossils of extinct creatures, decades before the two came on the scene.
Second, Darwin did not hold off publishing his theory for decades out of a paralysing fear of outraging his wife or conservative Victorian society, as the popular “Darwin’s delay” theory has it.
The more than 20 year gap between his return from the Voyage of the Beagle and publishing his theory of natural selection is better explained by the fact that he was simply “really busy”, according to Wyhe.
After completing several volumes of Beagle findings, he spent so many — eight — years writing about barnacles that, by the end, he wrote that “I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before”.
The next myth concerns the 1858 letter and paper, from his now comparatively little-known contemporary Wallace, that jolted both into publishing action, and has been cited as evidence that Darwin stole Wallace’s ideas.
Wallace’s years of specimen collecting in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and New Guinea led him to independently articulate a theory of evolution that, Darwin acknowledged in a June 1858 letter, was the most “striking coincidence” he had ever seen.
But rather than Darwin performing a nefarious, unattributed, Victorian equivalent of a cut and paste job from Wallace’s work, and racing to scoop the glory for himself, the two published a joint paper in 1858.
Anyone still not convinced doesn’t have to take my word for it.
Facts can be checked at Darwin Online, a complete archive of his works created by van Wyhe.
(Pictures – top Charles Darwin. Right: Darwin’s house, Down House in Kent, southern England, where he wrote “On the Origin of the Species” REUTERS/Tal Cohen)
* This article was modified on 29 June 2009. The original referred to Wallace as having travelled to Papua New Guinea. This has been corrected.