Friday, January 30, 2009

I am turning into a grumpy old man

I despair. Every day I am becoming more and more like Victor Meldrew. As if the twinges and aches that come with middle age weren't enough, nearly two years of immersion in Darwiniana has left me any unable to encounter any popular TV show or radio programme or magazine article about Darwin without shouting "No, that is not quite right!" And I am just an amateur on Darwin! How on earth do real experts like John van Wyhe or Janet Browne cope!

The latest outrage appears in this week's Radio Times, a publication from that bastion of British respectability, the BBC. There, on p. 20, is an article by Rod Liddle about David Attenborough, Darwin and religious belief (not available on-line). And slapped gratuitously on the image of Attenborough and Darwin's statue at the Natural History Museum is a quotation supposedly from "Charles Darwin, from On the Origin of Species":
"In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment."
Now my first thought was that this doesn't sound much like Darwin to me. Not his style...

So it took me all of five minutes to check on Darwin On-line. The phrase occurs nowhere in any of the six editions of The Origin. In fact, it doesn't appear anywhere in the vast corpus of Darwin's work that is available in Darwin On-line. And a quick check over at the Darwin Correspondence Project fails to find it in any of Darwin's letters. So I conclude: DARWIN NEVER SAID OR WROTE IT!

What's more he did not ever use several of the constituent phrases: "struggle for survival" "fittest win out" "expense of their rivals". This sentence is not even close to Darwin's style!

So, I guess we should blame the careless Liddle for not checking his sources? But where did the sentence originate?... 

Now it's time to get really grumpy! Because if you do a Google search for the sentence, you find about 10,400 results!! In other words, a sentence that Darwin never even uttered, has been copied around the Internet thousands and thousands of times without anyone even confirming its provenance! EVEN THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM ARE AT IT!--seems they haven't learnt from the tree of life fridge magnet gaffe and the left-handed polar bear fiasco!

I despair; I am now officially grumpy! 
And, if you, dear reader, know who made this phrase up, please let us all know!


Anonymous said...

Don't know if you saw this very similar howler (great photo at the end).

Anonymous said...

According to Wikiquote, the original source was in The Living Clocks (1971) by Ritchie R. Ward. Google Books implies on page 74, though I can't actually see it due to copyright restrictions.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Richard beat me to it. I was going to point you to this, Mark:

Mark Pallen said...

Richard, yes that one makes me wince too, despite the lovely Claire from Heroes thinking it right:

It is from Clarence Darrow.

This quote from Richard Dawkins is also often misattributed to Darwin:
“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”


As Victor would say, "I don't believe it!"

Janet said...

Thanks for this - I'd just opened my subscription copy of the Radio Times and groaned.

Apparently Freud never said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" either.

Karen James said...

David Williams and Malte Ebach have recently started what promises to be an excellent series called Paraphyly Watch and this gives me an idea...

I feel a new, multi-authored blog coming on called Darwin Watch on which those of us who care about such things can post our rants, raves, flames and other outraged corrections.

...and we can illustrate it with the picture of Darwin's spectacles.

What do you think?

p.s. I have tried (sometimes with success and sometimes not) to do a bit of internal politicking to fix NHM Darwin gaffes. If you find any more howlers emanating from South Kensington, please do let me know and I will do what I can.