Thursday, February 12, 2009


Cut to the chase. February 12, 1809. Birthday of Abraham Lincoln. Oh, also of Charles Darwin. I suppose it's possible to have both of them for heroes. Both are truly important figures in history.

Hey! Did you known Charles Darwin contributed virtually no original ideas to science? Instead, he organized and popularized ideas that were current in his day, and added some clever new examples. The term ‘Darwinism’ was first used to describe the ideas of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), who seems to have been the first to use the term ‘evolution’ in its modern sense (it had been used to describe the development of the embryo). He believed, as the Encyclopedia Britannica has it, that “species modified themselves by adapting to their environment in a purposive way,” and that “species descend from common ancestors and that there is a struggle for existence among animals.” His belief rested on “changes undergone by animals during development (...tadpole to frog) and on changes by plants and animals under cultivation and domestication as well as on vestigial organs, crossing, monstrous births, and resemblances in comparative anatomy.” So, in Erasmus Darwin we find the same arguments as those used today, of adaptation, natural selection through competition, embryology, vestigial organs, genetic recombination, mutations, and homology.

Jean Baptiste de Monet de Lamarck (1744-1829), probably the most important evolutionist before Darwin, believed there was a “role of isolation in species formation; he also saw the unity in nature and conceived the idea of the evolutionary tree.” His tree included inert matter at one end, and mankind at the other. These too are fixtures of contemporary Evolutionism. One analysis of Origin of Species found that 77% of its paragraphs related to Lamarckism, while fully 92% of Darwin’s The Descent of Man were Lamarckian.

Good old Ben Franklin noted the effects of competition in a pamphlet: there is “no bound to the prolific nature of plants or animals but what is made by their crowding and interfering with each other’s means of subsistence. Was the face of the earth vacant of other plants, it might be gradually sowed and overspread with one kind only...” Thomas Malthus read Franklin’s treatise, and developed the theme further in his seminal Essay on the Principle of Population, which was read in turn by Charles Darwin.

Indeed, historian of Evolution C.D. Darlington tells us that almost half a century before Darwin’s ascendance, William Wells, James Pritchard, and William Laurence (in his Natural History of Man, maintaining that the races of man arose by heredity, and that man could be improved by selective breeding) had all “advanced explicitly and in detail the alternative theory of natural selection foreshadowed by Erasmus Darwin.”

In 1813 William Wells, a physician, read a treatise - Account of a Female of the White Race of Mankind, Part of Whose Skin Resembles That of a Negro - before the Royal Society of London. This paper explained the origin of human races by means of natural selection. Wells had noticed patches of dark pigmentation on a patient, and had previously known of the resistance that Africans had to certain tropical diseases to which Europeans succumbed. Correlating these two observations, he concluded that, “Of the accidental varieties of man, which would occur among the first few scattered inhabitants of (Central) Africa, some would be better fitted than others to bear the diseases of the country (and might also be dark). This race would consequently multiply .... [If] the darkest would be the best fitted for the climate, this would at length become the most prevalent...”

In 1831, the very year the inexperienced Darwin set out on his famous journey, an obscure Scottish naturalist, Patrick Matthew, published On Naval Timber and Arboriculture, which contained an appendix outlining in specific detail precisely the ideas for which Darwin became famous. He wrote, “it is only the hardier, the most robust, better-suited-to-circumstance individuals, who are able to struggle forward to maturity, these inhabiting only the situations to which they have superiour adaption. The weaker, less circumstance-suited, being prematurely destroyed.” Matthew was indignant at the fame Darwin achieved from the same idea: “to me it did not appear a discovery...” But the simple fact is that Darwin amassed a huge amount of data, applied in an impressive way, while Matthew viewed the observation of natural selection as almost incidental.

In the 1840’s, the renowned publisher Robert Chambers anonymously authored a very popular book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, lauding the ideas of a primeval earth and of higher animals arising directly over geologic time from minutely less-complex forms; Darwin’s own copy of this tome was well-thumbed, with many notes written in the margins.

Alfred Russell Wallace had sent Darwin a paper called Ternate Paper (On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type). In this work Wallace speaks of “the struggle for existence in which the weakest and the least perfectly organized must always succumb .... [while] useful variations will tend to increase .... Here, then, we have progression and continued divergence...” Mythology aside, the evidence tells us that this is the first truly comprehensive and formalized expression of natural selection as the mechanism of 'Darwinism.'

Erasmus Darwin, Edward Blyth, Diderot, Franklin, Wells, Pritchard, Laurence, Matthew, Wallace, all adduce theories of natural selection. Darwin, alas, never acknowledged a debt, and never failed to refer to natural selection as ‘my theory.’

Darwin confessed in his species notebook that “how selection should be applied to organisms living in a state of nature [is] a mystery to me.” Only after receiving Wallace’s paper did this idea appear in Darwin’s correspondence. Darwin admits in his autobiography that the natural selection solution escaped him until almost the last moment. When writing to his friend Charles Lyell, shortly after receiving Wallace’s paper, Darwin calls it a “striking coincidence.” Hmm.

How did Darwin become associated with Wallace’s speculations? We read of the “joint paper” read before the Linnean Society. In fact, neither Darwin nor Wallace were present. Darwin’s two close friends - Lyell and Joseph Hooker of Kew Gardens, Britan’s botanical institution - arranged for the reading of some extracts from Darwin’s writings, and also of a vague and boastful letter Darwin had written to Asa Gray, claiming he had discovered much (but not telling what he had discovered). After this reading of Darwin’s irrelevancies, Wallace’s careful and thorough paper was read. Darwin, older and already prominent, became associated with Wallace’s work by his claim to precedence, his prestige, by being read together with Wallace, and most of all by the credence given to his vague claims in the letter to Gray.

What was Darwin’s part in these machinations? The record is incomplete. But to Hooker, Darwin wrote of the pending publication, “You must let me tell you once again how deeply I feel for your generous kindness and Lyell’s on this occasion, but in truth it shames me greatly.” To Wallace, on the other hand, he wrote he “had absolutely nothing whatever to do in leading Lyell and Hooker to what they thought a fair course of action.” A year after the reading of Wallace’s paper, Darwin published his Origin of Species. Was it a rush job? Darwin’s apostle, Thomas Huxley, called it “difficult” to read, its obscure style making it “one of the hardest books to master.” Darwin’s close friend Hooker said it was “the very hardest book to read.”

Darwin gave little or no credit to theorists who went before him, perhaps unconsciously, or perhaps deliberately - and frankly, considering his treatment of Wallace, it seems deliberate. He is called “slippery” by Darlington, who says Darwin used “a flexible strategy which is not to be reconciled with even average intellectual integrity...” In fact, Darwin in his essays of 1842 and 1844 seems to have plagiarized naturalist Edward Blyth. He was hostile to criticism, as evinced by the fact that he simply ignored the correspondence of Pasture, who pointed out a number of biological objections to the Theory.

Indeed, despite the fact that he seems to have been a master of detail, his grasp of some rather obvious biological truths appears to have been embarrassingly weak. While it sounds ridiculous to say this of the man who is single-handedly responsible for the promulgation of an intellectual revolution, I offer this simple proof: he married his first cousin, and thought his children would be superior as a result. He selected his wife - his cousin - as prime breeding stock. He gave his authoritative imprimatur upon his sister’s marriage, when she too married a cousin. His belief that species transformed was the motive for his marriage, but of his ten children, one daughter died shortly after her birth, another in childhood, another had a debilitating breakdown at age fifteen; his son Charles was mentally defective and died before his second birthday, and three of his other sons were chronic semi-invalids. I mean no unkindness in these observations, but the man did not know what he was doing.

Despite all this, he appears to have been a relatively decent man (at least in suffering pangs of conscience), and by the time the last edition of his Origin was published in 1872, Darwin was riven with doubt and frustrated to distraction by his failure to answer the countless holes and contradictions others noted in his writings. These self-doubts did not prevent the Theory from spreading pandemically through the rising generation of young scientists of that era. The fad so firmly captured the imagination of the times, that the inconsistencies each new edition of Darwin’s book required (to answer objections from critics), went largely unnoticed, even by his critics.

Finally, despite popular opinion, it seems Darwin was not an avowed atheist, but rather a self-described agnostic. (It is interesting to note that Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s close friend, admirer, and chief propagandist, is given credit for having coined the word ‘agnostic’ in its contemporary meaning. Actually, Darwin was some sort of vague pantheist, who imbued matter with godlike creativity, and viewed God (if He existed) as irrelevant. Origin is studded with references to the “Creator,” but hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. As for the rumor that Darwin became a Christian on his deathbed, this is unhistorical. An examination of his correspondence from the last few months of his life gives no indication of such leanings, and no testimony from those who knew him supports such a claim. The rumor seems to be a pious fraud.

Interesting, huh? And isn't it funny that today is the birthday of both Lincoln and Darwin -- two important men. Sad to say, only one of them was great.



Will C. said...

Out of the two men of historical importance, is it no surprise which one GOOGLE paid homage to?

Jack H said...

The eternal tension between Church and State. Google goes with its religion, Evolution over freedom.