Plagiarism in the works of the 19th century evolutionists

“The most substantial apology that can be made for his [Darwin’s] attempt to claim the theory of descent with modification is to be found in the practice of Lamarck, Mr. Patrick Matthew, the author of the “Vestiges of Creation,” and Mr. Herbert Spencer, and, again, in the total absence of complaint which this practice met with.  If Lamarck might write the “Philosophie Zoologique” without, so far as I remember, one word of reference to Buffon, and without being complained of, why might not Mr. Darwin write the “Origin of Species” without more than a passing allusion to Lamarck?  Mr. Patrick Matthew, again, though writing what is obviously a resume of the evolutionary theories of his time, makes no mention of Lamarck, Erasmus Darwin, or Buffon.  I have not the original edition of the “Vestiges of Creation” before me, but feel sure I am justified in saying that it claimed to be a more or less Minerva-like work, that sprang full armed from the brain of Mr. Chambers himself.  This at least is how it was received by the public; and, however violent the opposition it met with, I cannot find that its author was blamed for not having made adequate mention of Lamarck.  When Mr. Spencer wrote his first essay on evolution in the Leader (March 20, 1852) he did indeed begin his argument, “Those who cavalierly reject the doctrine of Lamarck,” &c., so that his essay purports to be written in support of Lamarck; but when he republished his article in 1858, the reference to Lamarck was cut out.” Samuel Butler Luck or Cunning 1887

“If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” Wilson Mizner

“These are extraordinary statements. They cannot be literally true, yet Darwin cannot be consciously lying, and he may therefore be judged unconsciously misleading, naïve, forgetful, or all three.” George Gaylord Simpson, in respect of Darwin’s denials of influencers.

“If you’re in the public eye and you make an impression, people are going to steal your work. It’s actually the ultimate compliment. If in science you haven’t been plagiarized, it’s because you haven’t done anything decent. ” Brian J Ford, owing not just a little to Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism, “There’s only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Following on from those four quotes, I am going to argue that, in itself, plagiarism is no bad thing. Every scholar writes what they do in order to convince the reader of their point of view. If they succeed in doing so, they should be grateful for having achieved their purpose. If someone develops their ideas, that is the ultimate accolade. If someone uses their terminology, or expressions, that is a compliment to their writing. It is far better to have influenced someone who doesn’t acknowledge it than to have failed to influence anyone. Every time anyone writes anything, they are plagiarising the dictionary (or Thesaurus), though those are books which effectively say “Plagiarise Me” on the cover. I know from my own experience that a lot of my thoughts have been developed through reading, though I wasn’t noting down precisely what I got from where. Thus I frequently find myself unable to cite what I know to be stated facts that I have read, rather than opinions.

As shown by the Butler quote, in the 19th century it was common practice to fail to acknowledge predecessors and influences. They were all at it. I don’t think we should judge Darwin or Wallace harshly for having failed to acknowledge Patrick Matthew or Edward Blyth. It was evident in the 1850s that Matthew and Blyth were not going to develop their 1830s ideas, which in turn had been cribbed from Parisian ideas, in Matthew’s case, or probably from Robert Mudie, and even possibly Matthew, in Blyth’s case. In order to establish plagiarism, either of ideas or writing, one needs to establish what people had read, and who those authors in turn had read. If one takes the chains back far enough, one can only conclude that ‘previous history’ is the ultimate influence. As I show in my piece about Priority, it is impossible to determine precisely where any idea originated. In line with the Mizner quote, it is the combination of ideas that leads to a new outlook.

Darwin combined the well-established concept of evolution with the concept of natural selection, which had been propounded by many writers who were not evolutionists. As a matter of historical contingency, it was probably Blyth who wrote about natural selection most relevantly for Darwin, but Darwin never felt it was necessary to credit Blyth, because Blyth was not an evolutionist. Similarly, he never felt it was necessary to credit Lamarck, because Lamarck was not an exponent of natural selection. By developing that combination of ideas, Darwin probably genuinely believed he had originated something unique, and hence worthy of priority. It was only when he discovered, probably in 1842, that Matthew had got there before him, that he realised his only possible path to glory was to research and write extensively on the subject. That is what he did, and the result was one of the most important books of all time “On the Origin of Species”. I really don’t care who Darwin plagiarised in the writing of that book. The fact is that he wrote it, and no-one else did. That is what he should rightly be remembered and admired for, not for his purported originality or integrity. Living in relation to his times, I forgive Darwin his plagiarism. Neither Matthew nor Wallace would or could have written anything as convincing or acceptable to Victorian society.

What I cannot forgive Darwin for is his lying, both about influences and more specifically about what he knew (particularly concerning Matthew and Leopold von Buch). Simpson blithely says that “Darwin cannot be consciously lying”, because Simpson had become sold on the myth that Darwin was an honourable gentleman. Similarly, Ronald Clark excused Darwin of wrongdoing in his biography, “The Survival of Charles Darwin” on the grounds that Darwin’s honest character makes it impossible that he deliberately lied about Matthew. Butler knew that Darwin was not such an honourable gentleman, but stopped short of accusing him of lying. But it was Darwin’s lie to Butler, which Butler could not prove, which was in my opinion the most pernicious of Darwin’s many lies, since it was accompanied by the most heinous covert discrediting of Butler, simply because Butler had questioned his integrity and the veracity of ‘his’ theory. Lying is not a good strategy for potential influencers, and Darwin was extremely lucky that he never got exposed in his lifetime.

Where plagiarism becomes reprehensible, apart from the obvious case of someone copying verbatim and claiming it as their own, is over failing to acknowledge someone else’s specific research. It is the most difficult to prove, since it is easy for academics to claim that they had independently researched the same thing, and I cannot prove my suspicion that my research concerning Malcolm Kottler (who claimed in the 1970s that one of Darwin’s lies must have been due to amnesia) was plagiarised in an Annals of Science article. However, Mike Sutton is able to prove that his research concerning Prideaux John Selby was twice plagiarised in Biological Journal of the Linnean Society articles. If the world of academic publishing is to retain any degree of respect, it must root out any examples of research plagiarism and prejudiced conclusions. One of Sutton’s concerns is that, if plagiarism is not picked up early, the plagiarist can easily become assumed to be the originator.

To take two modern examples, I have previously expressed my astonishment, amounting to disbelief, that Suzanne Collins wrote “The Hunger Games” in 2008 without any prior knowledge of the Japanese film, “Battle Royale”, released in 2000. Their themes are so similar that nothing short of telepathy could otherwise account for the apparent plagiarism. Yet I gather Collins denies it. Even if that is true, the fame that she and the book/films have accrued means that the public assumes it was her original idea, which it wasn’t. Also, I have on several occasions heard hosts on Radio 2 shows refer to Celine Dion’s song, “The Power of Love”. I’m quite sure that Celine Dion has never claimed it as her song, but the process of other people casually doing so means that the public perception, particularly among the younger listeners, becomes that it is her song.