Monday, January 5, 2009

Ten myths about Darwin and his theory of evolution

One of the things I discovered while writing The Rough Guide to Evolution was how much that I thought I knew about Darwin and his theory of evolution turned out to be wrong. There are many suppositions masquerading as facts-- for example, how many times have you seen it written that Darwin suffered from Chagas disease or his daughter Annie died from tuberculosis, when there is no way anyone can make a definitive diagnosis in either case. These are just educated guesses. And despite what Claire claims in the TV series Heroes, Darwin never said "It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change"--that quote originates from Clarence Darrow!. But worse still, there are plenty of myths among the dozen things that everyone "knows" about Darwin that have no substance in fact or which can neither be falsified nor verified.

To liven things up for the Year of Darwin, here is my choice of ten myths about Darwin and his life and times! I do not have time and space in this one post to elaborate the history of all the myths here nor the reasons why they count as myths rather than reality (some are discussed in the book), but I will set my self the challenge of exploring one myth in detail each month for the ten months (Feb-Nov) that span the two Darwin anniversaries this year.

Feel free to suggest your own myths in the comments section or challenge my assignments. But please don't just parrot biographers and other self-styled authorities: challenge the assignments only if you are prepared to quote the primary literature--there is no excuse not to, now with Darwin Online and The Darwin Correspondence Project available online and freely searchable.


Myth 1. Darwin lost his Christian faith because of the death of his daughter Annie.
Brief response: There is no direct documentary evidence for this in anything Darwin or his contemporaries wrote. Darwin certainly never said anything about it. It is a hypothesis formulated by Darwin biographer Jim Moore. Darwin describes his own loss of faith in his Autobiography and brings in plenty of other good reasons that explain his loss of faith that have nothing to do with Annie's death. See earlier posting.

Myth 2. Darwin delayed publication of his work on evolution fearful of its consequences for religion and the reception it would receive.
Brief response: He didn't delay. He was busy working on lots of other projects. Plus there is little or no evidence for this myth from anything Darwin or his contemporaries wrote. It is a modern invention. See van Wyhe's paper. [covered in the book]

Myth 3. Marx offered to dedicate Das Capital to Darwin.
Brief response: No he didn't. This myth is the result of a mix-up in letters assigned to Marx and his common-law son-in-law Aveling. [covered in the book]

Myth 4. Darwin lied about the timing of when Wallace's package arrived and stole some of his ideas.
Brief response: No he didn't. This issue is explored in the introduction to the relevant section of Darwin's correspondence.

Myth 5. Darwin was scooped by the Baghdad scholar Al-Jahiz, who hit on the idea of evolution a thousand years earlier than Darwin did; Darwin learnt Arabic from his Cambridge friend Samuel Lee and then stole ideas about evolution from the Islamic tradition.
Brief response: There is little or no evidence in English as to what Al-Jahiz actually wrote, but a lot of uncritical acceptance of material misrepresented in the Wikipedia. There is no evidence that Darwin ever knew anything of Al-Jahiz and other Islamic scholars and evidence for only one brief dinner party meeting with Lee. [covered in the book]

Myth 6. Huxley and science trounced Soapy Sam Wilberforce and religion at the BA meeting in Oxford in 1860
Brief response: there are few contemporary accounts of what happened here and at least three participants claim to have won the day (Wilberforce, Hooker and Huxley). Huxley did not deliver any decisive knock-out blow and Wilberforce argued against Darwin on scientific not religious grounds. [covered in the book]

Myth 7. Darwin underwent a deathbed conversion to Christianity.
Brief response: no he didn't. This myth starts with the accounts of certain Lady Hope, who claimed to have visited Darwin during his final illness. The family strongly denied that she was ever there and if she was, she never claimed that Darwin underwent a conversion.

Myth 8. Darwin abandoned a belief in God as a direct consequence of his discoveries in the field of evolution.
Brief response: as noted above, in his Autobiography, Darwin put forward plenty of other reasons for abandoning his belief in conventional Christianity and on several occasions stated that he saw no incompatibility between evolution and religion. He never became an atheist and even well into middle age claimed that "the conclusion was strong in my mind" [that] "I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist". See earlier posting.

Myth 9. Darwin was responsible for the Holocaust.
Brief response. There is no direct link between Darwin and Hitler. Darwin never advocated anti-semitism or genocide. Hitler never cited Darwin as an influence. Even if it could be established that Darwin's view had any kind of impact on Nazism, attaching personal blame to a historical individual for the unforeseen consequences of their work is fraught with difficulty. Should we blame Jesus for the Inquisition or Mohammed for 9/11? A more obvious historical figure to blame for the Holocaust is Martin Luther, who advocated the burning of synagogues. [covered in the book]. See this earlier posting.

Myth 10. Darwin experienced a eureka moment while visiting the Galapagos, where on glimpsing the resident finches and tortoises he immediately hit upon his theory of evolution.
Brief response: no, he didn't. His notebooks reveal that it was only months later, during the journey home in the summer of 1836, that the Galapagos mocking birds (not finches) raised his first doubts as to the fixity of species. Darwin's finches played only a minor role in his thinking and only well after his return to England. He does not specifically mention the Galapagos finches in The Origin. [covered in the book]


Janet said...

Quite. This just goes to show that the more famous and important you are the more myths you encourage.

BTW, do you know of a good biography of Darwin?

Adrian Thysse, FCD. said...

I would say the best biography so far is Janet Brownes's 'Voyaging' and 'The Power of Place'. A spellbinding account of Darwin and his place in science and in Victorian society.

Mark Pallen said...

I agree, Browne's is best but long. I liked David Quammen's recent biography, but if I remember correctly, you have to steer around the Darwin's delay and Darwin-stole-from-Wallace myths.

Janet said...

Thank you Adrian and Mark. I'll try the Janet Browne to start with - I enjoyed her introduction to Emma's diaries on the Darwin Online project; both volumes are on Amazon. Will keep the David Quammen in reserve.

Mark Pallen said...

John Wilkins has just made a very timely posting on the Darwin-stole-from-Wallace myth:

jamie hale said...

Another myth that is associated with Darwin is the "Survival of the Fittest" Phrase. The phrase was not coined by Darwin but Herbert Spencer. Darwin did approve of the phrase coined by Spencer.

Great article.