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Thread: The Truth About Darwin

  1. #1 The Truth About Darwin 
    Universal Mind John Galt's Avatar
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    Jul 2005
    In another thread a member claimed that Darwin stole the concept of evolution by natural selection from Alfred Russell Wallace. I have started this thread to refute that nonsense and to provide a place where other lies, half truths and misunderstandings about Darwin can be aired and then dispensed with.

    This claim of theft likely originated from an individual who favoured contrariness over truth and notoriety over authenticity. It is the claim of the tabloid headline, aiming for shock value rather than insight, or accuracy.

    Superficially the claim seems to carry some weight. Wallace had spent several years collecting botanical and zoological specimens in the Far East. He read Thomas Malthus’s work on population. While lying abed with fever he had a sudden insight as to the role of natural selection in creating the variety of species that abound upon the planet. Recovered from his fever he commited the idea to paper and dispatched a copy to Darwin, whose work he was familiar with. He asked for comment and, if the idea seemed worthy, help in having it published.

    Within weeks Wallace’s paper and a paper by Darwin on the same subject were presented at the Linnaean Society in London. Superficially then, there seems some justification for the claim of plagiarism. The key word is superficially. What are the actual facts?

    Darwin did not, as some popular accounts would have it, conceive of his theory while on the Galapagos Islands. Specimens collected there were central in the development of the theory, but that followed his five year voyage around the world on HMS Beagle.

    The idea emerged slowly during the voyage and later as he catalogued and considered the specimens collected and pondered on all that he had seen. A triggering event was a report from the ornithologist John Gould who examined mockingbirds from the Galapagos sent to him by Darwin. Contrary to Darwin’s thinking Gould insisted these were separate species, not just varieties of the one species. Darwin discerned from this that species might arise through geographical isolation. This insight occurred in March 1837, six months after the return of the Beagle.

    From various documents of Darwin, written in 1837, it is clear that by then he believed in evolution by common descent as a consequence of geographic isolation. The next piece of the jigsaw puzzle can be pinned down to September 28th 1838. He was reading Essay on the Principle of Population by Malthus and realised that the struggle for existence described therein provided the answer he had been looking for: the theory of evolution by natural selection had been born.

    But Darwin was no fool. He realised the concept was controversial, even revolutionary. It could antagonise the Church and the mores of society on the one hand, and find technical objections from the scientific community on the other. So he chose to meticulously gather information and hone his argument over the next twenty years. (Some argue he was also reluctant to publish for fear of how the theory might impact on the faith of his beloved wife.)

    At last, in April 1856, he began to write his planned work on the theory. In June, two years later, he received Wallace’s manuscript. It astounded him. He arranged for it to be presented on July 1st 1858 along with exerts from his own writings including the masterwork he had embarked on two years earlier. Now that the theory was ‘out in the open’ Darwin realised there was no point in waiting to complete his planned opus. Instead he opted for what he thought of as an abstract of that work. That was published as On the Origin of Species in November 1859.

    Wallace is rightly credited with independently proposing the theory, but it is the diligence, detail and devotion of Darwin’s work that led to its acceptance by the scientific community. Twenty years of work and of writings preceding Darwin's receipt of Wallace's manuscript utterly refute the notion that Darwin stole the idea.

    Footnote: I will entertain complaints that Darwin largely failed to credit his grandfather Erasmus Darwin for earlier ideas on evolution. But that’s a family matter.

    Last edited by John Galt; March 16th, 2012 at 09:27 AM. Reason: Correct two typos.
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  3. #2  
    Brassica oleracea Strange's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by John Galt View Post
    He arranged for it to be presented on July 1[/SIZE]st[SIZE=3] 1858 along with exerts from his own writings including the masterwork he had embarked on two years earlier.
    That is the killer blow.

    Without wishing to overstate my case, everything in the observable universe definitely has its origins in Northamptonshire -- Alan Moore
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  4. #3  
    WYSIWYG Moderator marnixR's Avatar
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    just for completeness, Darwin had already written out 2 sketches, one in 1842 and another, expanded one in 1844, the latter forming part of the joint publication of 1858
    "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." (Philip K. Dick)
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  5. #4  
    Forum Radioactive Isotope skeptic's Avatar
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    Nov 2008
    New Zealand
    Congratulations John.

    A nice synopsis and the truth, to the best of my knowledge.
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