Book Review – The Darwin Conspiracy

Getting one’s priorities right

The conventional view of the origin of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” is that, having formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection, as contained in that book, in the late 1830s, Darwin spent 20 years accumulating evidence, with no intention of publication in his lifetime, until he was prompted into action by the arrival in 1858 of a letter from Alfred Wallace containing an article outlining exactly the same theory. Evolution scholars have always known that Wallace’s article was not out of the blue, since Darwin was well aware that Wallace had been writing about evolution since 1855. Before 1858, Darwin wasn’t worried because he knew Wallace hadn’t got one piece of the puzzle – natural selection. But there is another piece of the puzzle that Darwin appears not to have paid much attention to until comparatively late in the day.

Roy Davies’ recent book, “The Darwin Conspiracy”, essentially contains two separate, controversial claims. The first is that Darwin plagiarised some aspects of Wallace’s theory between 1855 and 1858, and the second is that he misrepresented dates to Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell, and subsequently to posterity, in order to cover up his plagiarism. Davies’ consequent, tenuous claim that Wallace, rather than Darwin, should be regarded as the originator of evolution by natural selection relies both upon that alleged plagiarism and on the notion that Wallace’s views were superior to Darwin’s pre-1855 views.

The charge of plagiarism is over the issue of divergence, which Davies claims Darwin had not considered important before Wallace started to champion it in 1855. The reality is that divergence is a logical necessity for any evolution theory (except, hypothetically, one that relies entirely on different pathways following spontaneous generation, which no-one has ever advocated).  Both men would have known that. The real difference between Darwin’s pre-1855 position and Wallace’s exaggerated position is that Darwin believed divergence only occurred when a species experienced a change of environment (following Lamarck, Lyell, Leopold von Buch and Edward Blyth), whereas Wallace thought that all species were undergoing divergence all the time. That, one may legitimately think, is a point of technicality, and there is no evidence that either man made a big deal over their polarised positions. Even if one were to accept that Darwin did attach more weight to ongoing divergence as a consequence of Wallace’s writings, that does not represent reprehensible plagiarism. Darwin was influenced by a great many people, and that in itself is no cause for shame. As Wilton Mizner famously said (which was repeated by Tom Stoppard in his play, Professional Foul), “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” Darwin’s only shame lay in his reluctance to acknowledge influences. (See essay, “Darwin’s Influences”)

With regard to the notion that Wallace’s view of divergence was right, it actually flies in the face of Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (which, incidentally, was briefly enunciated by both Lamarck and Patrick Matthew long before Gould and Eldredge). That may not carry much weight with many neo-Darwinists, but the fact that it also contradicts genetics should. One thing that caused Darwin lots of headaches was over how a change that happened initially to only one individual could become widespread across the whole of a subsequent species. Wallace’s answer, which fits entirely with his view of divergence, was that the same change could happen to lots of individuals in a breeding group. If one accepts the neo-Darwinian view that all change is ultimately due to genetic mutations, Wallace’s view of divergence is a non-starter. Far from being regarded as the originator of the full package of evolution by natural selection, Wallace could be seen as the person who attempted to steer the theory in the wrong direction.

The evidence that Davies provides for Darwin’s alleged plagiarism is both flimsy and hotly contested by Darwin scholars. However, the evidence he provides that Darwin engaged in duplicity with regard to Wallace – and posterity – is more impressive, largely uncontested by scholars, and consistent with the duplicity Darwin also engaged in with regard to numerous other characters, including Lamarck, Robert Grant, Leopold von Buch, Edward Blyth, Patrick Matthew and Samuel Butler. Darwin was much more concerned with what people – and most notably Hooker and Lyell – might think was the case than with what was actually the case. His duplicity was not necessarily to cover up actual plagiarism, but more in order to forestall any perception of plagiarism. He wanted to be considered an original thinker, probably because he knew he wasn’t one.  Darwin is rightly admired as the person who presented the most methodical, meticulous, well-argued case for evolution yet produced, but he should not be admired for his originality or integrity.

Amongst the exaggerated claims in his book, Davies portrays Wallace as a free-thinking radical, unconstrained by convention. The more conventional, and probably accurate, view is that Wallace was a deeply religious man who believed that the world and evolution had been deterministically created in order to produce man, and that God had intervened at three stages – the introductions of life, consciousness and the soul of man. We should all be grateful that it was Darwin, not Wallace, who became evolution’s spokesman, albeit only in writing and through Huxley. Though “The Darwin Conspiracy” effectively redresses some balance concerning Darwin’s over-rated reputation, its objective is far from desirable. Nonetheless, it is a very readable book, with numerous insights into Darwin’s character, not to mention the international postal system of the 1850s.

Hugh Dower, 2010.

As a postscript, I posted the following comment on a website article in The Scientist.

The new apologists for Darwin are claiming that the letter Wallace sent from Ternate went on the April steamer rather than the March steamer, as had previously been thought. They are ignoring Wallace’s own words where he says about February 1858, “…and in the two succeeding evenings wrote it out in full, and sent it by the next post to Mr. Darwin.” That would have been the March steamer.