“A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, – a mere heart of stone” – Charles Darwin
In 1815, a German geologist called Leopold von Buch visited the Canary islands, causing him to formulate his ‘crater of elevation hypothesis’. He published his findings in 1825 in a German book whose English title would be “Physical Description of the Canary Isles”, in which he also expounded the view that species in geographical isolation changed to the point of becoming different species. In the first Volume of Charles Lyell’s hugely influential book, “Principles of Geology”, published in 1830, Lyell refutes von Buch’s ‘crater of elevation hypothesis’ and cites his 1825 book by its German title. Despite their being geological rivals, and opponents over geological theories, Lyell never expressed anything but admiration for von Buch’s work, and liking for him as a person. The second Volume of Lyell’s book also contained an extensive critique of Lamarck’s evolution theory.
Whilst on the “Voyage of the Beagle”, the young Charles Darwin read both volumes of “Principles of Geology” and became an exponent of Lyell’s ‘uniformitarian’ views. After his return to England in 1836, he not only became a friend of Lyell’s, but also, possibly on Lyell’s recommendation, read von Buch’s book on the Canaries, which had been translated into French in 1836. As recorded in his notebook of 1837, what Darwin particularly picked up on was the issue of species transition, in admiring tones:
Von Buch. — Canary Islands, French Edit. Flora of Islds very poor. (p. 145) 25 plants………………. I can understand in one small island species would not be manufactured. Does it not present analogy to what takes place from time? Von Buch distinctly states that permanent varieties become species p. 147, p. 150, not being crossed with others.
Compares it to languages. But how do plants cross? — — admirable discussion.
However, by 1844, Darwin expressed opposition to von Buch’s geological views in his correspondence:
With respect to Craters of Elevation, I had no sooner printed off the few pages on that subject, than I wished the whole erased.— I utterly disbelieve in Von Buch & de Beaumonts views…….
In 1845, Darwin expressed in a letter to Lyell his dismay over the known friendship between Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist whom Darwin greatly admired, and von Buch:
I grieve to find Humboldt an adorer of Von Buch….
In 1846, Darwin wrote to another correspondent:
I might perhaps have been some degree prejudiced by Von Buch’s remarks, for whom in those days I had a somewhat greater deference than I now have.
In 1849, in a letter to Lyell, Darwin says:
Albemarle Isld instead of being a Crater of Elevation as Von Buch foolishly guessed is formed….
In 1853, von Buch died, and in 1854, Darwin was invited by the Royal Society to write an Obituary for him. This is Darwin’s reply:
My dear Sir
I must consider the request you make me as a very high compliment, but several reasons lead me to wish to decline it. In the first place (& this alone would suffice) I should not do it at all well, for I have no particular taste for criticism or for attempting biography; & I should not, consequently, do it with gusto. Moreover I could not conscientiously rank Von Buch so high as the world at large does, though certainly some of his descriptions are models in that line; & this would make the task, even if easy in itself, very difficult for me, & disagreeable to anyone holding my opinions.— I am, also, a slow worker, & have heaps of my own half-worked out materials; & I think I should do better by plodding on in my own line, than by attempting a quite new field of literature & the History of a Branch of Science.—I fear I must have wearied you with the superfluity of my reasons for not most willingly accepting that which in the eyes of many, I do not doubt, would be considered as a high priviledge.
Pray forgive me & believe me | Your’s very sincerely | C. Darwin
In 1859, Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was published and he came in for some criticism from naturalists for giving the impression he had thought it all up himself and for failing to acknowledge his many predecessors. Not least of his critics was the Revd. Baden Powell, father of the famous Scout and contributor to the species debate in 1855, who wrote to Darwin in January 1860. These are extracts from Darwin’s two replies:
My health was so poor, whilst I wrote the Book, that I was unwilling to add in the least to my labour; therefore I attempted no history of the subject; nor do I think that I was bound to do so. I just alluded indeed to the Vestiges & I am now heartily sorry I did so. No educated person, not even the most ignorant, could suppose that I meant to arrogate to myself the origination of the doctrine that species had not been independently created. The only novelty in my work is the attempt to explain how species become modified, & to a certain extent how the theory of descent explains certain large classes of facts; & in these respects I received no assistance from my predecessors. To the best of my belief I have acknowledged with pleasure all the chief facts & generalisations which I have borrowed. If I have taken anything from you, I assure you it has been unconsciously; but I will reread your Essay. Had I alluded to those authors who have maintained, with more or less ability, that species have not been separately created, I should have felt myself bound to have given some account of all; namely, passing over the ancients, Buffon (?) Lamarck (by the way his erroneous views were curiously anticipated by my Grandfather), Geoffry St. Hilaire & especially his son Isidore; Naudin; Keyserling; an American (name this minute forgotten); the Vestiges of Creation; I believe some Germans. Herbert Spencer; & yourself.—
The task would have been not a little difficult, & belongs rather to the Historian of Science than to me. I ought also to have alluded to chief maintainers of opposite doctrines.— I had intended in my larger book to have attempted some such history; but my own catalogue frightens me. I will, however, consult some scientific friends & be guided by their advice.
I have just bethought me of a Preface which I wrote to my larger work, before I broke down & was persuaded to write the now published Abstract.In this Preface I find following passage, which on my honour I had as completely forgotten as if I had never written it. “The “Philosophy of Creation” has lately been treated in an admirable manner by the Revd. Baden Powell in his Essay &c &c 1855. Nothing can be more striking than the manner in which he shows that the introduction of new species is ‘a regular not a casual phenomenon’,or as Sir John Herschel expresses it ‘a natural in contradistinction to a miraculous process’.”
By February 9, Darwin had written, re-written or retrieved that Preface and sent it to his American publisher. It contained a brief sketch of all the evolutionary predecessors named in the letter to Baden Powell, and a few more, but not von Buch. That Preface was included in both the American and German 1860 editions of “The Origin of Species”. He hadn’t forgotten about von Buch though, since, in July, he included the following in a letter:
I entirely & absolutely disagree with Von Buch’s elevation-crater-theory—indeed I think it proved false.
Either later that year or early in 1861 – and the timing is of some relevance – Darwin received a letter (whose first page is missing, causing the uncertainty about its date) from Alfred Wallace, seemingly drawing to his attention the following:
From “Von Buch on the Flora of the Canaries”. “On continents the individuals of one kind of plant disperse themselves very far, and by the difference of stations of nourishment & of soil produce varieties which at such a distance not being crossed by other varieties and so brought back to the primitive type, become at length permanent and distinct species. Then if by chance in other directions they meet with an other variety equally changed in its march, the two are become very distinct species and are no longer susceptible of intermixture.”
In April 1861, the expanded Preface was included in the 3rd English edition of “The Origin of Species” under the title of “An Historical Sketch”, but it still didn’t include von Buch. If Darwin received Wallace’s letter before he submitted the Historical Sketch to his publisher in February, the decision not to include von Buch must have been based solely on either his obvious distaste for von Buch or the desire not to alert readers to von Buch’s existence, or both. If Darwin received Wallace’s letter after he submitted the new material, it is conceivable that the omission might have been an oversight, but that doesn’t seem likely. His first letter to Baden Powell exemplifies one of Darwin’s paramount concerns – that he should not be thought to have been influenced by anyone. However, the evidence shows that he was primed by his grandfather’s writings, made very aware of Lamarckian theory by Robert Grant at Edinburgh in 1826, and reminded of Lamarckian theory by Lyell’s “Principles of Geology” at a very opportune time – while he was on the Voyage of the Beagle. These cannot have been anything other than major influences. When he knew he couldn’t get away with ignoring his predecessors, his first Preface and subsequent Historical Sketch said the minimum amount about the fewest people that would satisfy his critics, without admitting to having been influenced by any of them. He didn’t need to include von Buch, because no-one, apart from probably Lyell, knew that Darwin was aware of him. About Robert Grant – the man who had certainly sown the seeds of transformism in his mind, even though they would not sprout for ten years – Darwin had only this to say in the Historical Sketch:
In 1826, Professor Grant, in the concluding paragraph in his well-known paper (Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, vol. xiv. p. 283) on the Spongilla, clearly declares his belief that species are descended from other species, and that they become improved in the course of modification. This same view was given in his 55th Lecture, published in the ‘Lancet’ in 1834.
That is unfair and deceptive, since it doesn’t even indicate that Darwin knew about Grant, let alone that he “knew him well”. He wouldn’t acknowledge that until his Autobiography, published posthumously in 1887 in a censored form, in which he would also repeat a false claim he made in the 6th Edition of “The Origin of Species”:
I formerly spoke to very many naturalists on the subject of evolution, and never once met with any sympathetic agreement.
Whether due to Wallace’s prompt, or his own conscience, or the prompting of someone else (of whom Lyell is the most obvious candidate), Darwin’s Historical Sketch for the 4th English edition, in 1866, did include the following:
The celebrated geologist and naturalist, Von Buch, in his excellent ‘Description Physique des Isles Canaries’ (1836, p. 147), clearly expresses his belief that varieties slowly become changed into permanent species, which are no longer capable of intercrossing.
That passage was included in the Historical Sketch in the two subsequent editions, in each of which there were significant revisions. In August 1881, the year before his own death, Darwin included the following passage in a letter to his friend, Joseph Hooker:
I cannot aid you much, or at all. I should think that no one could have thought on the modification of species without thinking of representative species. But I feel sure that no discussion of any importance had been published on this subject before the “Origin,” for if I had known of it I should assuredly have alluded to it in the “Origin,” as I wished to gain support from all quarters. I did not then know of Von Buch’s view (alluded to in my Historical Introduction in all the later editions). Von Buch published his “Isles Canaries” in 1836, and he here briefly argues that plants spread over a continent and vary, and the varieties in time come to be species. He also argues that closely allied species have been thus formed in the SEPARATE valleys of the Canary Islands, but not on the upper and open parts. I could lend you Von Buch’s book, if you like. I have just consulted the passage.
To return to geographical distribution: As far as I know, no one ever discussed the meaning of the relation between representative species before I did, and, as I suppose, Wallace did in his paper before the Linnean Society. Von Buch’s is the nearest approach to such discussion known to me.
The only other person I am aware of (Malcolm Kottler, 1977) who has picked up on this ‘discrepancy’ between the 1837 notebook and the 1881 letter to Hooker puts it down to amnesia. I find that totally implausible. According to his friends, Darwin had a prodigious memory, of which he himself was proud, though that would have been unknown to Baden Powell. The extracts above show that there was no prolonged period in which Darwin could have forgotten about von Buch. The only possible memory lapse is that, in 1881, he might have forgotten that he had left evidence in his 1837 notebook of having read von Buch’s book. He certainly couldn’t have anticipated that everything he ever wrote (which survived) would get published.
Though, in itself, this incident may be regarded as trivial, the duplicity on Darwin’s part does add weight to the arguments employed by many people that Darwin was ruthless when it came to establishing his precedence in evolution theory – the survival of the fittest – and that he was guilty of shabby treatment of several predecessors and influences, including Lamarck, Grant and Edward Blyth. If the supporters of Patrick Matthew are to be believed in their most extreme claim – that Darwin did know by 1842 about Matthew’s 1831 theory of evolution through a ‘natural process of selection’ – then Darwin was not just devious but guilty of gross moral turpitude.
Hugh Dower 2009
P.S. In 2020, an article was published in the Annals of Science titled “Charles Darwin did not mislead Joseph Hooker in their 1881 Correspondence about Leopold von Buch and Karl Ernst von Baer”. It was co-authored by Joachim Dagg and J.F.Derry, (who have undoubtedly known about me since at least 2018, since they have collaborated with Mike Weale, who had named me, and cited my 2009 essay about Patrick Matthew, “Darwin’s Guilty Secret”, in his 2015 article about Matthew). In a long-winded and well-researched manner, containing 93 citations of mainly-irrelevant material, the article progresses to the unjustified and specious conclusion that Darwin did not lie to Hooker but made an honest mistake.
Along the way they cite my essay “Darwin’s Guilty Secret” and this Appendix, but they do not name me in the text. Neither do they make it clear, as was self-evident in a 2019 blog by Dagg from which the article was developed, that their article had been written as an attempted refutation of my statement in “Darwin’s Guilty Secret” that “Darwin even told an unequivocal lie, in a letter to Hooker, about his not having known about Leopold von Buch’s contribution to evolution theory, while the notebooks show that he did.” They mention and cite Kottler, but they were inspired to research this issue in January 2019, so I leave you to draw your own conclusions as to whether they first learned about Kottler through this Appendix, which Dagg cites in his blog. Apart from Kottler, no-one else is cited as having noticed the ‘discrepancy’ about von Buch, so their article was clearly directed at me (even though they didn’t have the grace to name me, as Dagg had done in his blog). This Appendix had also supplied other leads for them to research further. In addition, a whole paragraph in their article is devoted to making inaccurate sweeping generalisations about a whole host of people who have questioned Darwin’s integrity. In particular, in that list of people who were/are not ‘historians of science’, they include Loren Eiseley, who was a Professor of Anthropology and the History of Science.
However, my main criticism of the article is in relation to the specious argument used to reach their totally-unjustified conclusion. In order to understand the argument, I need to repeat the letter that Darwin wrote to Hooker in 1881:
But I feel sure that no discussion of any importance had been published on this subject before the “Origin,” for if I had known of it I should assuredly have alluded to it in the “Origin,” as I wished to gain support from all quarters. I did not then know of Von Buch’s view (alluded to in my Historical Introduction in all the later editions). Von Buch published his “Isles Canaries” in 1836, and he here briefly argues that plants spread over a continent and vary, and the varieties in time come to be species. He also argues that closely allied species have been thus formed in the SEPARATE valleys of the Canary Islands, but not on the upper and open parts. I could lend you Von Buch’s book, if you like. I have just consulted the passage.
If that letter is literally what Darwin meant to write, then the second sentence is technically a lie, since it is well-established that Darwin did know of von Buch’s view, as early as 1837. (On a point of technicality, that letter contains two lies, since there were a large number of sources that Darwin knew about and could have alluded to in the “Origin”, but didn’t.) Even Dagg and Derry admit that, since they dismiss Kottler’s notion that Darwin was suffering from amnesia. What they are contesting is that Darwin meant what he actually wrote.
It almost seems as though Dagg and Derry were thinking, “We don’t want Darwin to be lying, so how can we re-interpret that sentence so that it’s not a lie?” In the article, they claim that Darwin had made a mistake when writing one word. The word is the first ‘Buch’, and they are saying Darwin meant to write ‘Baer’. That would inevitably make the second sentence a truism, because von Baer’s relevant book wasn’t published (in German) till 1859, and Darwin didn’t find out about it till 1860. The second ‘von Buch’, in the third sentence, has to be von Buch in order for the sentence to be true. Darwin mentioned both von Baer’s and von Buch’s views in the Historical Introduction in later editions.
As justification for their argument, Dagg and Derry point out that, in the previous letter (to which Darwin was replying), Hooker had asked about von Baer. That much is true. However, in Darwin’s next paragraph, he does say that he can’t remember exactly what von Baer said, probably because he had never read it. That undermines Dagg and Derry’s preposterous argument. Whilst it is technically possible that Darwin could have made that precise mistake, that would make the ordering of his sentences extremely illogical, and it cannot conceivably be the basis of a logical argument. It beggars belief that it is used as an argument in an academic science journal. Even the title of the article is erroneous, because we have to assume that Hooker was misled. So the issue is over intention, and we will never know what was going through Darwin’s mind when he wrote that sentence. The title of their article should have been “Charles Darwin might not have intended to mislead Joseph Hooker in their 1881 Correspondence about Leopold von Buch and Karl Ernst von Baer”.
My Personal Affront
As indicated in Dagg’s blog, Dagg and Derry were originally inspired to write their article by a civilised Twitter conversation between myself and Derry in January 2019. In the latter stages of that conversation, he accused me of ‘construct[ing] a story to fit an agenda’. That was in connection with Patrick Matthew, not von Buch, about whom he then knew nothing. In the light of their article, I should have said he accused me of constructing a story to fit a desired conclusion. Within a day, I had indignantly written and sent him (as a jpeg) the short essay, “My Personal Evolution”, which appears at the end of my essay, “Six of the Best – Of Darwin’s Lies”. It is fitting that the essay ends with reference to Samuel Butler – the man who I think was most injured by Darwin’s duplicity. When I read Dagg and Derry’s article, I felt like I imagine Butler must have felt when he read Darwin’s biography of “Erasmus Darwin”, most of which was written by Ernst Krause. There are in fact several parallels, which I won’t go into here. I don’t know which of Dagg and Derry is Darwin and which is Krause (and it isn’t necessarily anything to do with nationality), but I feel that they have shafted me in much the same way as Darwin and Krause did to Butler.