Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Darwinian myths and Cartesian doubt

Ryan Gregory left this comment on my earlier post about Dawkins and Darwin's delay:

I enjoyed the post, and in general I agree. The point of my earlier post was simply that 1) people had been citing the essay without mentioning the fact that some other Darwin scholars do not agree with van Wyhe (the reason I cited Odling Smee is not the supposed search for a single keyword, but rather because it mentions other scholars who disagree and was the only source I knew of that made the point), and 2) that sometimes the fear of reaction leads to delay in a more complicated manner. As I concluded,

I think "yes or no" to the question of whether Darwin delayed publication out of fear is very simplistic. Anyone who has written anything of substance knows that sometimes the effect of fear of reaction is procrastination and/or excessive desire to include every piece of information available. Both can cause writing to take longer than it otherwise would. Was Darwin thorough? Yes. Is that one reason it took so long? Undoubtedly. Was he so thorough because of a fear of reaction? Probably at least in part.

But when I tried to respond with a comment, I found myself hamstrung by Blogger's inability to tolerate any complex HTML in a comment, so I am posting my response here.

Thanks for the comment. I agree there is no simple answer to this. I am sure I am the same as most scientists in that I have several projects on the go or planned out at any one time, and why I get on with some of them and procrastinate on others is a complex question. I guess the same was true for Darwin.

But in writing the Rough Guide to Evolution one thing that struck me was that, time and again, ideas that start off as suggestions or suppositions soon harden into dogma, without any new evidence.

Before I started the book I was certain that Darwin's insights relied on his studies on Galapagos finches, that Darwin became an atheist when his daughter died, that Huxley trounced Wilberforce in Oxford and that was some kind of plausible link between Darwin and the Nazis…

...and that Darwin delayed publication through fear of the consequences vis a vis religion. 

I even quoted the line about confessing a murder a few years back when we created the Origin of Species in Dub

But now I feel much more skeptical about all these claims—even to the point of Cartesian doubt! As John points out in his paper, some of the most recent additions to the story (e.g. the story that Darwin was so fearful he dreamt about being hung) melt away when one bothers to look at what Darwin actually wrote. In a sense, John, by putting all of Darwin’s writings on line for all to see amounts to a reformation in Darwin studies, where the rest of us no longer need an intermediate between ourselves and Darwin scholars to work out what he meant.

 Take a look at the absurd scene at 8.43 mins into this snippet from the PBS documentary series, where Darwin is led to the gallows!

And look at what Darwin actually wrote about the man being hung (in 1838, over twenty years before the Origin) and judge for yourself whether this justifies the interpretation depicted in the scene!

Sept. 21st Was witty in a dream in a confused manner. Thought that a person was hung & came to life, & then made many jokes about not having run away & having faced death like, a hero, & then I had some confused idea of showing scar behind (instead of front) (having changed hanging into his head cut off) as kind of wit showing he had | honourable wounds. all this was kind of wit.—I changed I believe from hanging to head cut off /there was the feeling of banter and joking/ because the whole train of Dr. Monro111 experiment about hanging came before me showing impossibility of person recovering from hanging on account of blood, but all these ideas came one after other, without ever comparing them. I neither doubted them or believed them.—Believing consists in the comparison of ideas, connected with judgment.

You can even look at Darwin’s handwritten original here:


Another key point is that although John might be seen as a new kid on the block in Darwin studies, none of the senior scholars in the field have attempted to counter his claims in writing, which is surely a key requirement of scholarship. I guess we have to watch this space. Maybe in another ten or twenty years, everyone will be laughing at the “Darwin’s delay” myth just like we laugh at the inheritance of acquired characteristics today?


T Ryan Gregory said...

I wonder if part of the issue is that the claim is often that he feared the reaction by the clergy or the public -- I think that myth is certainly overblown. If anything, I suspect he "feared" (read: spent a great deal of time working things out because of) the anticipated reaction of his wife and, perhaps more than anything, scientists whose opinion meant much (especially Huxley, Lyell, Hooker, etc.). Additional thoughts?

T Ryan Gregory said...

(I should also mention that my post wasn't critical of van Whye -- I was noting that some bloggers jumped all the way the other way, as though the issue was no longer worth discussing as a potentially complex one).

Mark Pallen said...

I tend to think he was more concerned about getting the science right, than worrying about religion.

But where is the evidence of fear? Darwin's life must be one of the best documented of all scientists, so those who want to portray him as fearful of the reception of his theory should point out the relevant lines in Darwin Online or the Darwin Correspondence Project! And don't worry about upsetting John van Wyhe--he has suffered far worse and survived :-)

One day soon I will do a post on John's trip to my home town of malvern and the adventures he had here!

T Ryan Gregory said...

I would be happy to say "concern" rather than "fear", certainly.