Friday, August 04, 2006

Quote of the Day: Darwin's lie about getting his theory from Malthus in October 1838

This Quote of the Day is Darwin's claim in his auto- biography that after his return to England (in October 1836), he opened his "first [trans- mutation] note-book in July 1837" and "worked on true Baconian principles, and without any theory" (my emphasis).

[Graphic: `Tree' diagram from Darwin's 1837 first transmutation notebook.]

And that it was his reading of the economist Thomas Malthus' book, An Essay on the Principle of Population in "October 1838" that "it at once struck" him "that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed" (i.e. natural selection) and "The result of this would be the formation of new species." At this point, Darwin claimed, he "had at last got a theory by which to work" (my emphasis):

"After my return to England it appeared to me that by following the example of Lyell in Geology, and by collecting all facts which bore in any way on the variation of animals and plants under domestication and nature, some light might perhaps be thrown on the whole subject. My first note-book was opened in July 1837. I worked on true Baconian principles, and without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale, more especially with respect to domesticated productions, by printed enquiries, by conversation with skilful breeders and gardeners, and by extensive reading. When I see the list of books of all kinds which I read and abstracted, including whole series of journals and Transactions, I am surprised at my industry. I soon perceived that selection was the keystone of man's success in making useful races of animals and plants. But how selection could be applied to organisms living in a state of nature remained for some time a mystery to me. In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it. In June 1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory in pencil in 35 pages; and this was enlarged during the summer of 1844 into one of 230 pages, which I had fairly copied out and still possess." (Darwin, C.R., in Barlow N., ed., "The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882: With Original Omissions Restored," [1958], W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1969, reprint, pp.119-120)

Stephen Jay Gould called this "close to being an unconscious lie" because "Darwin did no such thing":

"Many historians have commented that the most curiously revealing statement in Darwin's autobiography comes close to being an unconscious lie-his claim that he `worked on true Baconian principles, and without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale.' For Darwin did no such thing. He tested theories from the start and abandoned several of them before fixing on one that he derived by creative transference from such disparate sources as the Scottish economists, the French positivist Comte, the Belgian statistician Quetelet, and the grimly conservative parson Malthus, leavened by some turtles, toxodonts, birds and five years of contrary argument from the devout Captain FitzRoy (Schweber 1977)." (Gould, S.J., "The promise of paleobiology as a nomothetic, evolutionary discipline," Paleobiology, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 1980, pp.96-118, p.97)

Loren Eiseley noted that Darwin's defenders had started to invoke "unconscious" as a "polite way of evading the exploration of a delicate subject" after Eiseley had shown that Darwin had plagiarised Edward Blyth, and this "can readily be explained by the fact that a cult of hero worship" of Darwin, since they "would never treat contemporaries so gently under similar circumstances":

"The theory of the `unconscious' has been emphasized by Darwinian defenders particularly following the publication in 1959, in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, of my article exploring the possible role played by Edward Blyth in the formulation of the theory of natural selection. The publication of Darwin's Notebooks on Transmutation of Species, in 1960, showed clearly that Darwin was aware of Blyth's writings on natural selection. The widespread popularity of the `unconscious' theory concerning Charles Darwin can readily be explained by the fact that a cult of hero worship has developed about the great biologist, such as frequently happens to a prominent innovator in any field. Darlington, the British geneticist, has commented ironically: `Among scientists there is a natural feeling that one of the greatest of our figures should not be dissected, at least by one of us.' In the face of evidence that Darwin made unacknowledged use of material from Blyth, the theory of the unconscious is the easiest, most polite way of evading the exploration of a delicate subject. Numerous naturalists who would never treat contemporaries so gently under similar circumstances are eager to make a `sleep-walker' of a scientist whose letters and notes are models of persistent conscious inquiry upon a great range of subject matter" (Eiseley, L.C., "Darwin, Coleridge, and the Theory of Unconscious Creation," in "Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X," E.P. Dutton: New York NY, 1979, pp.83,89)

Eiseley himself avoids actually calling Darwin a deliberate, conscious plagiarist and liar, but he does show that the "unconscious" theory does not hold water, therefore effectively doing so.

But there are so many examples of Darwin's dishonesty, that I see no reason to make special excuses for him, so I do regard Darwin as a deliberate, conscious plagiarist and liar (in certain matters to do with his theory). As I have said, I will bring together under a heading "Darwin's dishonesty" in my `Evolution Quotes Book' and my "Problems of Evolution."

Here are some quotes from Darwin's notebooks where before October 1838 he speaks of "my theory" (and remember Darwin claimed that he was "without any theory" up to his reading of Malthus in "October 1838" when he "had at last got a theory by which to work"):

"When country changes rapidly, we should expect most species. The difference [between] intellect of man and animals not so great as between living thing without thought (plants) and living thing with thought (animal). ... My theory very distinct from Lamarck's." (Darwin, C.R., "First Notebook (July 1837-February 1838)," in de Beer, G.R., ed., "Darwin's Notebooks on Transmutation of Species (1837-1839)," in Appleman, P., ed., "Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition," W.W. Norton & Co: New York NY, First Edition, 1970, p.76)

Note that Darwin wrote in the same First Notebook that his theory was "very distinct from Lamarck's" (my emphasis), so it must have been Darwin's theory of chance variation and natural selection (and not just descent with modification which Lamarck's theory included) that Darwin was calling "my theory" before February 1838:

"If my theory true, we get 1st a horizontal history of earth within recent times, and many curious points of speculation; for having ascertained means of transport, we should then know whether former lands intervened. 2d) By character of any two ancient fauna, we may form some idea of connection of those two countries. Hence India, Mexico and Europe-one great sea. (Coral reefs .'. shallow water at Melville island). 3d) We know that structure of every organ in A.B.C., three species of one genus can pass into each other by steps we see; but this cannot be predicated of structures in two genera. Although D.E.F. follow close to A.B.C., we cannot be sure that structure (C) could pass into (D). We may foretell species, limits of good species being known. It explains the blending of two genera. It explains typical structure. Every species is due to adaptation hereditary structure; Latter far chief element. ... Little service habits in classification or rather for the fact that they are not far the most serviceable. We may speculate of durability of succession from what we have seen in old world and on amount changes which may happen. It leads you to believe the world older than geologists think; it agrees with excessive inequality of numbers of species in divisions, -look at articulata!!?" (Darwin, Ibid., p.77. Emphasis original)

Also there is Darwin's references to "adaptation" and "the world [having to be] older than geologists think" which indicates that his theory was slow, gradual, natural selection. Still in Darwin's First Notebook (July 1837-February 1838), there is another mention of "my theory" in connection with "causes of changes" and that it "would give zest to recent and fossil Comparative Anatomy" and "it would lead to study of heredity and whole [of] metaphysics":

"With belief of transmutation and geographical grouping we are led to endeavour to discover causes of changes,-the manner of adaptation (wish of parents??), instinct and structure becomes full of speculation and line of observation. View of generation being condensation, test of highest organization intelligible. May look in first germ, led to comprehend true affinities. My theory would give zest to recent and fossil Comparative Anatomy; it would lead to study of instincts, heredity and mind heredity, whole [of] metaphysics. It would lead to closest examination of hybridity, to what circumstances favour crossing and what prevent it; and generation, causes of change in order to know what we have come from and I,, what we tend, this and direct examination of direct passages of structure in species might lead to laws of change, which would then be [the] main object of study, to guide our speculations with respect to past and future." (Darwin, Ibid, p.78. Emphasis original)

Clearly Darwin not only had a theory by February 1838, but he had already put a lot of thought into it. There is in fact evidence that Darwin's theory goes back to 1832 while he was on the Beagle, which I might present in future. The next "my theory" is in Darwin's "Third Notebook (July 15, 1838-October 2, 1838)":

"The line of argument often pursued throughout my theory is to establish a point as a probability by induction, & to apply it as hypotheses to other points, & see whether it will solve them. "(Darwin, Ibid, p.80. Emphasis original)

The last "my theory" is in Darwin's "Fourth Notebook (October, 1838-July 10, 1839)":

"I utterly deny the right to argue against my theory because it makes the world far older than what geologists think: it would be doing what others but fifty years since [did] to geologists,--& what is older- what relation in duration of planet to our lives. Being myself a geologist, I have thus argued to myself, till I can honestly reject such false reasoning." (Darwin, Ibid., p.80. Emphasis original)

Again Darwin refers to his theory requiring the "the world" to be "far older than what geologists think," which again means he must be referring to his gradualistic theory of natural selection.

Also, while these third and fourth notebooks covered the entire period of "October 1838", there is no mention in them of Malthus, which is inexplicable. Indeed, as Eiseley pointed out, "aside from the single remark in Darwin's autobiography" (see above) Darwin rarely mentioned Malthus:

"According to Darwin, his recognition of the principle of natural selection came in October of 1838 when he chanced to read Thomas Malthus on population and perceived that the geometric increase of living forms would create a struggle in nature which would in turn promote the survival of advantageous variations. Actually, however, this statement now appears open to some doubt. In the first place, it was not necessary for Darwin to read Malthus in order to realize the intensity of the struggle for existence. Leaving aside Blyth's contribution, mention of it occurs in the writings of Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, in Paley's Natural Theology, and in the Principles of Geology by Sir Charles Lyell. Even Lamarck mentions it in the Philosophie Zoologique. All of these were works Darwin had read when he was young and impressionable. His own son Francis expressed surprise that he should have had to turn to Malthus for inspiration. Furthermore, Francis pointed out what we know to be true, that in 1837 he had already given vent to the essential aspects of the principle. There are, it is true, a few references to Malthus in the trial essays before the Origin, but not to the exclusion of other workers such as de Candolle. Oddly enough, in confiding his great secret to a few of his intimates, Darwin seems to have placed little emphasis upon Malthus. One reads with surprise a letter from Hooker to Darwin written in January 1863. `Did you ever read that painful book, Malthus on Population?' Hooker writes. `I did the other day and was painfully impressed by it.' If one turns back to Darwin's letters of the 1840s, one gets the same impression of neglect. Though Darwin wrote often to Hooker, Gray and Jenyns about his work, and about the struggle for existence, Malthus remains unmentioned. In fact, the indices to the first three of the five volumes of Darwin's published letters record no reference aside from the single remark in Darwin's autobiography; and the following two volumes contain only three brief references, two of which concern letters to Alfred Russel Wallace." (Eiseley L.C., "Charles Darwin, Edward Blyth, and the Theory of Natural Selection," in "Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X," E.P. Dutton: New York NY, 1979, p.67)

So there can be no reasonable doubt that Darwin was here in his autobiography deliberately lying about him having "without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale" until "October 1838" when he "read Malthus" and "at last got a theory by which to work" (my emphasis).

The reason why Darwin lied about this I may post in a further Quote of the Day. Briefly it was (as Eiseley and an Arnold C. Brackman show): 1) for Darwin to avoid having to mention another scientist as his inspiration for his theory (since Malthus was an economist); and 2) to explain how Darwin's theory had some of Wallace's ideas, when in 1858 Wallace in Malaya sent his theory of natural selection (which was based on Wallace's reading of Malthus) to Darwin to pass on to Lyell, with a view to its publication. But Darwin held on Wallace's paper for a couple of weeks (pretending to Lyell that he had only received it that day) while Darwin modified his own theory.

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
`Evolution Quotes Book'

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