Darwin not guilty: shock verdict
Here’s the pre-edited version of my latest news story for Nature. There’s somewhat more to it than can all be fitted in here, or indeed that I am at liberty to say. It seems that some may still find the authors’ reconstruction of the shipping route of Wallace’s letter open to question, even if they accept (as it seems all serious historians do) that the ‘conspiracy theory’ is bunk.
There was also more to Wallace’s letter to Hooker in September 1858 than I’ve quoted here. He said:
“I cannot but consider myself a favoured party in this matter, because it has hitherto been too much the practice in cases of this sort to impute all the merit to the first discoverer of a new fact or a new theory, & little or none to any other party who may, quite independently, have arrived at the same result a few years or a few hours later.
I also look upon it as a most fortunate circumstance that I had a short time ago commenced a correspondence with Mr. Darwin on the subject of “Varieties,” since it has led to the earlier publication of a portion of his researches & has secured to him a claim of priority which an independent publication either by myself or some other party might have injuriously affected, — for it is evident that the time has now arrived when these & similar views will be promulgated & must be fairly discussed.”
So whatever one thinks of the evidence put forward here, the notion that Darwin pilfered from Wallace really is a non-starter. Not that its advocates will take the slightest notice.
Charles Darwin was not a plagiarist, according to two researchers who claim to have refuted the idea that he revised his own theory of evolution to fit in with that proposed in a letter Darwin received from the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.
This accusation has received little support from serious historians of Darwin’s life and work, who concur that Darwin and Wallace came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection independently at more or less the same time. But it has proved hard to dispel, thanks to some vociferous advocates of Wallace’s claim to primacy of the theory of evolution by natural selection.
The charge rests largely on a suggestion that in 1858 Darwin sat on a letter sent from Indonesia by Wallace, including an essay in which he described his ideas, for about two weeks before passing it on to the geologist Charles Lyell as Wallace requested.
After inspecting historical shipping records, John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker, curators of the archives Darwin Online and Wallace Online and historians of science at the National University of Singapore, claim that Wallace’s letter and essay could not in fact have arrived sooner than 18 June, the very day that Darwin told Lyell he had received it .
Darwin had begun work on the text that became On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, as early as the 1840s, but had dallied over it. In his letter to Lyell he admitted rueing his own dilatoriness. “I never saw a more striking coincidence”, he said. “If Wallace has my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better abstract.”
In the event – but not without misgivings about whether it was the honourable thing – Darwin followed the suggestion of Lyell and his friend Joseph Hooker that he write up his own views on evolution so that the papers could be presented side by side to the Linnaean Society in London. This took place on 1 July, but Darwin wasn’t present, for he was still devastated by the death of his youngest son from scarlet fever three days earlier.
The controversy about attribution would probably have mystified both Darwin and Wallace, who remained mutually respectful throughout their lives. Darwin was even ready to relinquish all priority to the idea of natural selection after seeing Wallace’s essay, until Lyell and Hooker persuaded him otherwise. And in September 1858 Wallace wrote to Hooker that “It would have caused me such pain & regret had Mr. Darwin’s excess of generosity led him to make public my paper unaccompanied by his own much earlier & I doubt not much more complete views on the same subject.”
Although most historians have accepted that Darwin’s account of the events was honest, others have argued that Wallace’s letter, sent from the island of Ternate in the Moluccas, arrived at Darwin’s house in Down in southern England, several weeks earlier than 18 June. They suggest that Darwin lied about the date of receipt because he used the intervening time to revise his own ideas in the light of Wallace’s.
The most extreme accusation came in a 2008 book The Darwin Conspiracy: Origins of a Scientific Crime by the former BBC documentary-maker Roy Davies. “Ideas contained in Wallace’s Ternate paper were plagiarised by Charles Darwin”, wrote Davies, who called this “a deliberate and iniquitous case of intellectual theft, deceit and lies.” Others have claimed that Darwin wrote to Hooker on 8 June saying that he had found a ‘missing keystone’ to his theory, and allege that he took this from Wallace’s essay.
“Many conspiracy theorists have made hay because of this unexplained date mystery”, says van Wyhe. He and Rookmaaker have now painstakingly retraced the tracks of the letter. They have discovered the sailing schedules of mail boats operated by Dutch firms in what was then the Dutch East Indies, and claim that these indicate the letter could not have left Ternate sooner than about 5 April. It was carried via Jakarta, Singapore and Sri Lanka, and then overland from Suez to Alexandria. “We found that Wallace’s essay travelled across Egypt on camels”, says van Wyhe. “That was not known before, and it’s a rather charming image to think of this essay that will change the world swaying on the back of a camel for two days.”
The researchers say that the letter then passed on by boat to Gibraltar and Southampton in England, arriving on 16 June. It was taken by train to London and then on to Down to arrive on the morning of the 18th.
“I'm not sure there really ever has been a controversy over this within the history of science community”, says evolutionary biologist John Lynch of Arizona State University, who has written extensively on cultural responses to evolutionary theory. He says that the claims of plagiarism “have had marginal, if any, influence - the evidence has failed to convince most readers.”
The story “has always seemed unlikely to me given what we know about Darwin’s generally kind and tolerant personality”, agrees geneticist Steve Jones of University College, London, whose 1999 book Almost like a Whale was an updated version of the Origin of Species.
But van Wyhe says that “these conspiracy stories are very widely believed. Thousands of people have heard that something fishy happened between Darwin and Wallace. I hear these stories very often when I give popular lectures.”
Historian of science James Lennox of the University of Pittsburgh says that “this is an important piece of evidence for Davies’ claim of deceit on Darwin’s part. I think that claim has been undermined.”
But Lennox adds that he doesn’t think it will close the ‘controversy’. “For a variety of different motives, there will, I fear, always be people who see it as their mission to attack Darwin's character as a way of undermining his remarkable scientific achievements.”
1. Van Wyhe, J. & Rookmaaker, K. Biol. J. Linnaean Soc. 105, 249-252 (2012). See here.