On the origin of the Darwin myths

June 24, 2009

Ever been told by a ruthless boss that, “as Charles Darwin said, it’s survival of the fittest”?

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.

Wallace was himself delayed in writing up his findings into a book by six years, as he sorted through packing casescrammed with the more than 120,000 beetles, butterflies, reptiles and mammals he had collected, while in what he describes in his book introduction as a “weakened state”.
Ever generous in his praise of Darwin, he dedicated his 1869 book The Malay Archipelago to him.  

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.

4 comments

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[...] On the origin of the Darwin myths Ever been told by a ruthless boss that, “as Charles Darwin said, it’s survival of the fittest”? [...]

IT’S NOT DARWIN’S OR WALLACE’S THEORYNothing here about William Charles Wells and Patrick Matthew.Yet both Wallace and Darwin admitted that these two scientists beat them to the theory of natural selection;a fact also admitted by Darwin’s bulldog,T.H. Huxley.For more details search “wainwrightscience” on Google,Best Wishes, Prof Milton Wainwright,University of Sheffield,UK

Posted by Prof Milton Wainwright | Report as abusive

[...] Debunking Darwin MythsTwo-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. (Gillian Murdoch, Reuters Blogs) [...]

[...] and Evolution: Celebrating a major paradigm shift in science” can be found at NUShub and on Reuters’ Environment Blog. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The 28th Annual Meeting of the Willi Hennig [...]

The idea that Darwin and Wallace published a “point paper” is another mis-conception. Wallace’s paper contained the complete theory of evolution, while Darwin’s presentaion was extracts from the Origin and a letter he had sent to Asa Grey. These were hastilly pulled together to show Darwin had already had the “complete theory”. There was no “joint” paper.Bill Wallace

Posted by Bill Wallace | Report as abusive

I think Darwin was absolutely wrong in his theory. Just search “Intelligent Design” and you will know how the great powers are suppressing the scientists not to defy his theory in open.

These comments reveal that Darwin’s greatness reflects 1) the synthesis of ideas already around 2) the willingness to defy moral conventions and supplant the then current ‘god theory’ of species development by a scientific and rational one (Wallace was a spiritualist!) 3) persistence and willingness to undertake the sheer drudgery of scientific work to establish his proposition 4) simple humanity and generosity (what is missing from these comments is Darwin the anti-slavery campaigner. Darwin’s ultimate genius is his non-bombastic, cautious and yet ever-questioning thoroughness. Darwin is the model of a scrupulous scientist who knows that this answers to questions will always be partial but resolved in the fullness of time. What a hero!

Posted by Charlie2 | Report as abusive