Monday, December 12, 2011

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 [1].

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.


Mong H Tan, PhD said...

RE: Revisiting Darwin & Wallace: Who had plagiarized whom!? -- Absolutely none, as they each had worked independently and respected each other's works honorably since their professional acquaintance in the mid 1800s!

I thought they both were great and diligent naturalists of the 19th-century England, both arisen from the preeminent British scientific naturalism, industrialism, and Enlightenment milieu!

Whereas since the publication of The Origin of Species (TOS) in 1859, Darwinism has had been admired or cursed by its respective admirers/worshippers (including neo-Darwinists, sophists, etc) and detractors alike (including religious fundamentalists, creationists, etc) as they all have attempted to use and abuse (or misrepresent and mischaracterize) Darwinism as the ultimate truth or false (by their own epistemology of life) in accordance to their each own uncritically pseudoscientific or religious beliefs!

Especially, since the mid 20th century worldwide, the neo-Darwinists, sophists have had reductively extended -- or rhetorically dogmatized -- Darwinism -- of the natural selection (NS) fame or rhetoric -- so as to dictate everything existed in biology -- and in humanity -- as "evolutionary" both uncritically and unscientifically; or un-empirically in our modern-day science and philosophy pursuits, at all!

As such, the neo-Darwinists, the evolutionary dogmatists have had caused undue confusion and corruption in and among the high academia even today, since the 2 NS reductionist domineering views -- the group selectionism vs. the kin selectionism -- of neo-Darwinism par excellence have had been too indelibly sensationalized and seductively implanted in the general public psyche; especially by the proclamations established in the 2 most controversial mid-1970s books: Sociobiology: The New Synthesis by EO Wilson, and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins -- the 2 neo-Darwinist, reductionist pseudoscience and rhetoric pursuits, that I began to fervently refute since after the Darwin's 200th birthday here: Altruism can be explained by natural selection -- RE: Resuscitating neo-Darwinism, the "evolutionary geneticism-memeism" par excellence of the 20th century -- or, How "altruism" has been oversubscribed by NS, to even beyond Darwin's original intent (1859)!? (NatureNewsUK; September 2, 2010); and more recently here: Frightened birds grow longer wings -- RE: How neo-Darwinists, reductionists, have "darwinized" Mendelism (or genetics, since the 1930s); missed the current discovery of epigenetics in cell & molecular biology and biomedicine; and started to quarrel among themselves -- in big time! (NatureNewsUK; April 1, 2011), and here: Epigenetics Offers New Clues to Mental Illness -- RE: Biologism & Geneticism vs. Behaviorism: How Epigenetics has distinguished the 2 neo-Darwinist pseudoscience pursuits in our Modern (developmental) Biology and Biomedicine -- Unequivocally! (ScientificAmericanUSA; November 20, 2011).

Likewise unscientific nor critical erudition: it is no surprise that the one Darwin detractor Roy Davies, a former documentary-maker for the BBC, has had indeed attempted to discredit Darwin's original ideas, by perpetrating lies -- or at best misrepresentations -- in his 2008 book The Darwin Conspiracy: Origins of a Scientific Crime that Darwin had plagiarized Wallace's ideas in 1858 -- a year before Darwin published his naturalist masterpiece: TOS! (to be continued below)

Mong H Tan, PhD said...

RE: Revisiting Darwin & Wallace: Who had plagiarized whom!? (continued from above)

On the contrary, upon carefully revisiting Darwin and Wallace: the theory of NS in TOS was in fact geologically-derived in nature and in original thinking (primarily derived from Darwin's fossil finds and collections in South America in 1832-35) and Darwin further extended his budding theory of NS to subscribe the geographically-derived species variation, modification, adaptation, etc as well -- of species of organism worldwide -- as all these had had been independently observed and collected by Darwin (per Galapagos visit in 1835) and by Wallace (per Ternate exploration in 1858)!

Furthermore, by 1837, Darwin had already begun to intuit and conceptualize his soon to be formalized the "geogenic" theory of evolution (of species) in the form of a branching "tree of life" configuration: whereby all species of life might have had evolved from a common ancestral species, that might have had existed deep in our Earth's geological times (per Lyellism or geology; and taxonomy and paleontography of the time), as I first critically analyzed and revealed here: Matthew Cobb reviews 2 evolution books -- RE: Revisiting Darwin's "tree of life" sketch-hypothesis!? (WhyEvolutionIsTrueUSA; December 5, 2009).

If the Wallace Ternate essay On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type (1858) had had done anything to Darwin's originally conceptualized theory of evolution of the species on Earth (1837), it would be the fact that the Wallace essay had had indeed persuaded, energized, affirmed, and expedited Darwin to ultimately complete, and publish, his then already-over-20-years-in-the-making-of-the-masterpiece TOS, as soon as possible following 1858; at a time when Darwin did recognize that Wallace (in Ternate) had also clearly observed and surveyed and eventually come up with a similarly observable phenomenon of evolution of species (as Darwin did on Galapagos in 1835) by the ecologically-derived species variation and adaptation in Nature worldwide: in and by an observable process -- or the Natural phenomenology of species -- that Darwin would later dub NS as published in TOS in 1859!

Ergo, there was NO plagiarism involved, at all, in either case of Charles Darwin and of Alfred Russel Wallace; or vice versa! QED!

Best wishes, Mong 12/19/11usct12:24p; practical science-philosophy critic; author "Decoding Scientism" and "Consciousness & the Subconscious" (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).