Six of the Best of Darwin’s Lies

“You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family.”

No, that was not one of Darwin’s lies. It was said to Darwin in his youth by his father. The fact that Darwin remembered it some 50 odd years later when he wrote his autobiography (for his family’s benefit) suggests that it made a great impression on him. He obviously wanted to prove his father wrong by making an impact on the world. He took his time about it, but, when he did, it turned out that he would go to any lengths, including telling lies, to protect his coveted originality and priority.

This essay selects six of the many lies Darwin told, in the order in which the six people they relate to came to Darwin’s awareness. These are the six people to whom I maintain Darwin was most unfair, to the point of underhand duplicity, during his life. I am not claiming that Darwin was a criminal, or even that he was objectively immoral. I am just saying that he was an ambitious, flawed, human being, not a superhero.

In his youth, probably at around the same time as the above reprimand was made, Darwin read the books of his grandfather, Dr Erasmus Darwin, who was an early evolutionist. Like most 18th century evolutionists, including Buffon, Diderot and Goethe, Erasmus Darwin did not go into any detail, or explain how evolution occurred; he just indicated that he believed that evolution, rather than creation, was the means by which all the different species had come into existence. Though Darwin would not acknowledge his grandfather till 1861, and Erasmus Darwin was generally regarded as an eccentric maverick, those writings must have made him aware that there were people who did not believe the Bible account of origins.

Darwin went to Edinburgh University where he was befriended by a lecturer, Robert Grant, who had cited Erasmus Darwin in his Ph.D. thesis. Grant had gone on to study in Paris, where he ‘discovered’ Lamarck (and may even have met him, though Lamarck had gone blind, and retired, in 1819), and was befriended by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who was Lamarck’s chief advocate. At the time Darwin met him, Grant was the leading advocate in Britain of Lamarck’s “Zoological Philosophy”, which was the most comprehensive, though somewhat naïve, treatise on evolution (which Lamarck called transformism) in existence. As later admitted by Darwin in his autobiography, Grant talked to Darwin about Lamarck’s ideas, and may have lent him the book, which must have given Darwin cause to doubt Biblical orthodoxy.

Nonetheless, when he set off on the “Voyage of the Beagle” in 1831, he was still not a convert (as far as we know). By the time he returned to Britain, in 1836, he was, but that may have been due to what he was reading on board rather than what he was observing on shore. He had with him on the Beagle Lamarck’s follow-up to “Zoological Philosophy”, the 7 volume “Histoire Naturelle des Animaux sans Vertèbres”, which continues Lamarck’s unequivocal argument in favour of transformism. Also on the voyage, Darwin had sent to him Volume II of Charles Lyell’s “Principles of Geology”, which contains an extensive critique of Lamarck’s “Zoological Philosophy”. So Darwin was well-steeped in Lamarck’s ideas on his return to Britain, where he lived in London for a few years, not far from where Robert Grant was then living, though there is no evidence they ever met again.

Darwin decided to keep notebooks, starting in 1837, concerned with his thoughts and evidence concerning transformism. In his notebook of early 1838, he wrote:

“Lamarck was the Hutton of Geology, he had few clear facts, but so bold & many such profound judgment that he foreseeing consequence was endowed with what may be called the prophetic spirit in science. The highest endowment of lofty genius.

What the Frenchman did for species between England and France I will do with forms. – ”

Clearly, Darwin had been profoundly influenced by Lamarck, both via Grant and directly, and a case could be made that Darwin would never have become an evolutionist if it were not for Lamarck’s existence and writings. Nonetheless, when Darwin started writing about evolution, firstly in the form of the preliminary essays of 1842 and 1844, later in the form of a vast tome in the 1850s, and finally in the form of the published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, he made very little reference to Lamarck, and even that wasn’t in connection with Lamarck being a transformist. He obviously did not want to alert anyone to the fact that Lamarck had influenced him.

So the First Lie is in a letter that Darwin wrote to Lyell in 1859:

You often allude to Lamarck’s work; I do not know what you think about it, but it appeared to me extremely poor; I got not a fact or idea from it.

When Darwin returned to Britain, he befriended Lyell, who recommended (and possibly lent him) a book by the German geologist, Leopold von Buch. The book had recently been translated into French, and its English title would be “Physical Description of the Canary Isles”. Darwin wrote the following in his 1837 notebook:

“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.”

That was exactly what Darwin had observed on the Galapagos Islands – that in geographical isolation species can change significantly, to the point of becoming (possibly) different species from their equivalent on the mainland (or different isolation). In all Darwin’s early writing on evolution, he concentrated on geographical isolation as being the circumstance where change happens, so he had clearly been influenced by von Buch. Nonetheless, over the next 25 years, all Darwin’s references to von Buch, mainly in correspondence in connection with Geology, were disparaging. See Appendix. He only included von Buch in his “Historical Sketch” (in 1866) after he had been prompted by Wallace.

So the Second Lie is in a letter to Hooker in 1881 concerning 1859:

I did not then know of Von Buch’s view (alluded to in my Historical Introduction in all the later editions).

As indicated in his notebooks, Darwin spent most of 1838 searching for the method by which transformism could take place, He wasn’t satisfied with Lamarck’s ‘Use and Disuse’ or indeed the ‘direct effects of the environment’, and he knew that if he didn’t find something else he could justly be accused of having merely replicated Lamarck. In the spring of 1838, he read three articles in the Magazine of Natural History written by Edward Blyth, who was an amateur ornithologist. Though not a total evolutionist, Blyth believed that varieties represented a change from the parent species, and that in nature those varieties were better suited to their particular environments than the parent species would be. In discussing varieties, Blyth went so far as to say, “May not, then, a large proportion of what are considered species have descended from a common parentage?”

More importantly, Blyth also discussed many aspects of what Darwin would later call artificial, natural and sexual selection. In August and September 1838, Darwin met Blyth at the Zoological Society of London. By October 1838, Darwin’s notebooks indicate that he had formulated ‘his’ theory of ‘evolution by natural selection’. In the opinion of many 20th Century scholars, including Loren Eiseley, Susan Sheets-Pyenson and Cyril Dean Darlington (a loyal Darwinist if ever there was one), Darwin was heavily influenced by Blyth, and even copied from Blyth’s essays in his preliminary sketches of 1842 and 1844. Nonetheless, in his later writings, Darwin only acknowledged Blyth for factual information (of which there had been plenty) and gave no indication that Blyth had unwittingly handed him Natural Selection on a plate. If he had ever cited Blyth’s essays, he knew it would alert readers to the true source.

The Third Lie, which so far applies to Lamarck, Grant and von Buch, as well as more specifically to Blyth, was in a letter to Baden Powell (father of the famous scout) in 1860, after Powell had accused Darwin of failing to acknowledge his predecessors:

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.

There was also a fifth man who undoubtedly worried Darwin throughout the 1840s and 1850s. Darwin wrote his larger essay in 1844, with no intention of publication except in the event of his death, and his vast tome in the1850s, also with no intention of publication. Why would someone who had hit upon a unique and plausible method by which evolution had occurred, and had built up a vast amount of evidence in favour of it, be so reluctant to publish? The answer is that he knew someone else had got there before him. I have dealt extensively with the case of Patrick Matthew in my essay “Darwin’s Guilty Secret”, and my evidence has subsequently been amplified by Mike Sutton, both on his website www.patrickmatthew.com and in his 2017 book, “Nullius in Verba”. We show, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Darwin knew about Patrick Matthew, probably before 1842 and certainly before 1858. I think Darwin may have been holding off publication in the hope that Matthew might have died in the meantime. He feared the confrontation that materialised in April 1860.

So the Fourth Lie, published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle in April 1860, is this:

I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, had heard of Mr. Matthew’s views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the appendix to a work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture.

What had caused Darwin to have “On the Origin of Species” published in 1859, and hence risk incurring the displeasure of Matthew, was the arrival in June 1858 of a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace in Indonesia containing the outline of a theory that was also the same as Darwin’s. Though he agonised to his friends, Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell, about what the honourable thing to do was, it is obvious that his main desire was that Wallace should not usurp his 20 years of research by claiming priority. Fortunately, Hooker and Lyell took the same view (on the basis of what they knew), and they presented Wallace’s article alongside one by Darwin to the same meeting of the Linnaean Society. Darwin was thereafter able to prune down his vast tome into “On the Origin of Species”, and hence gain all the public recognition of his priority to the idea of ‘evolution by natural selection’.

In 2008, a book was published, “The Darwin Conspiracy” by Roy Davies, who has comparatively little understanding of evolution theory but is seemingly a good researcher into international shipping and postal services in the 1850s. Amongst other incriminating evidence, Davies shows that the letter, which Darwin allowed posterity to believe had arrived on the 18th June, had in fact arrived on the 3rd June. What was Darwin doing between the 3rd and 18th June? He was writing a chapter about Divergence in his vast tome, because he knew he had to have evidence of a superior view of divergence to the one Wallace was advocating. He was not in any way plagiarising Wallace, as claimed by Davies, but he was attempting to forestall any perception of plagiarism, particularly in the eyes of his best friend, Hooker.

The Fifth Lie is in a letter to Lyell on the 18th June 1858, in which the words ‘to’ and ‘day’ are definitely separate in the handwritten letter, suggesting that Darwin could claim, if later challenged by Lyell, that he meant ‘to date’:

He [Wallace] has to day sent me the enclosed & asked me to forward it to you.

Long after the publication of “On the Origin of Species”, Darwin was once again accused of failing to acknowledge his predecessors, as he had been by Baden Powell, but this time it was not in a private letter but in a book by a populist writer, “Evolution, Old and New, or the Theories of Buffon, Dr. Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck compared with that of Mr. Charles Darwin” by Samuel Butler. The imminent publication of that book, in May 1879, had been announced in all the leading journals in late February and the first few days of March, and it is difficult to see how Darwin would not have been aware of it. If he didn’t see the announcement himself, he would have been told about it.

Early in February, Darwin had been sent a German magazine article about his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and on February 12th (his 70th birthday) Darwin wrote to the author, Ernst Krause, to thank him, but he did not then ask for permission to publish an English version of the article. On March 9th (i.e. after Butler’s book had been announced), Darwin wrote to Krause, asking for such permission, and on March 12th Darwin wrote to William Sweetland Dallas to ask him to translate Krause’s article for English publication. On March 27th, Darwin wrote to his cousin, Reginald Darwin, telling him that he was intending to publish a biography of their mutual grandfather in order “to contradict flatly some calumnies by Miss Seward”. Anna Seward’s reputedly unflattering Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin had been published in 1804, and had surely been forgotten by 1879.  Darwin probably had reason to suspect that it was about to get some unwelcome publicity. On May 3rd, Butler’s book was published. It contained extensive quotes from Seward’s Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin. Please note that Butler never knew any of the information about correspondence in this paragraph.

In November 1879, Erasmus Darwin, by Ernst Krause, translated from the German by W. S. Dallas, with a preliminary notice by Charles Darwin, was finally published. Butler purchased a copy, and immediately suspected, on several counts, that it had been written in the light of “Evolution, Old and New”, even though, according to Darwin’s Preface, that was not possible. What caused him a personal sense of injury was the final sentence in Krause’s secretly-expanded article:

Erasmus Darwin’s system was in itself a most significant first step in the path of knowledge which his grandson has opened up for us, but to wish to revive it at the present day, as has actually been seriously attempted, shows a weakness of thought and a mental anachronism which no man can envy.

Butler correctly inferred that it referred to him. The bitter, public row that thereafter erupted is well-documented both in Darwinian history and in most of Butler’s subsequent writings, as well as in my essay on Samuel Butler. Butler wanted to prove his suspicion that Darwin had arranged for the (English language) biography in the light of the announcement of Butler’s book, but lacked the evidence which Darwin’s correspondence later supplied.

The Sixth Lie is from a letter Darwin sent to Butler in January 1880:

I may add that I had obtained Dr. Krause’s consent for a translation, and had arranged with Mr. Dallas before your book was announced.

Hugh Dower, 2021

Just in case you are tempted to think I have researched this essay recently, in order to fit an agendum, please see my book review of 2010, The Darwin Conspiracy, and Letters 2012 on this site. Every single piece of information, except that regarding Mike Sutton, was in my computer files and email attachments by 2011. The writing of it was inspired by a Richard Dawkins Tweet:

After reading “Darwin’s Guilty Secret”, in January 2019 a Darwinian scholar (J.F.Derry, one of Mike Sutton’s detractors) accused me of ‘constructing a story to fit an agenda’ (which technically should have been agendum). It turns out that he is a past master at that. I wrote the following essay, and sent it to him.

My personal evolution by Hugh Dower

Before late 2008, my interest in evolution was basically concerned with my opposition to neo-Darwinism. As a Lamarckist, I wanted to promote the idea that there was more to evolution than random mutations and natural selection. I regarded Darwin as a hero, and I resented the fact that his views had been censored in respect of the inheritance of acquired characteristics to form neo-Darwinism. My only criticism of him as a person was that he had been bad about acknowledging predecessors, but that was commonplace and hardly reprehensible.

I had read both Eiseley and Dempster, and been unconvinced with regard to Matthew, by which I mean I believed that Darwin had not known about him. I was convinced about Blyth, since Blyth’s 1830s essays were just what Darwin was looking for in 1838, which was when he read them. But that is only a case of under-acknowledgement of influence, which is now widely acknowledged among scholars.

It became clear to me at the end of 2008 that 2009 was going to be a Darwinfest. I wanted to present the case for his predecessors and influences, so I researched what became my website essay, “Darwin’s Influences”. In the process I discovered the ‘discrepancy’ between the 1837 Notebook and the 1881 letter to Hooker concerning von Buch. (See Appendix ) I couldn’t put it down to amnesia, because there was never any prolonged period between 1837 and 1881 when Darwin wasn’t being reminded of von Buch, as shown in his correspondence. Therefore, it was a lie, which made me question Darwin’s integrity in other matters.

I researched the Matthew case and came up with several pieces of evidence in addition to those presented by Eiseley and Dempster. In particular, I found numerous of Loudon’s writings on the internet, and came to the conclusion it was inconceivable that, in Darwin’s cited researches in the 1850s, he had not frequently come across references to Matthew and his book. I was also flabbergasted by the issue of Darwin’s declared ordering and receipt of Matthew’s book in April 1860. I consulted antiquarian booksellers, and was told that Victorian booksellers usually went on reducing the price of unsold books until they were worth buying for use as toilet paper (my inference). Therefore, no bookshop could conceivably have had a copy of an unsuccessful book published 29 years earlier. The result of my researches was my website essay, “Darwin’s Guilty Secret”.

In 2010, I read, and wrote my website Review of, “The Darwin Conspiracy” by Roy Davies, in which the author accuses Darwin of plagiarism from Wallace and lying about dates. I thought Davies was wrong about plagiarism, due to his not understanding that Darwin and Wallace used the word divergence to mean different things, but he was right about mis-representation of dates. Since then, Darwinists have gone to desperate, convoluted lengths to account for this, which seem to amount to Wallace having hallucinations (which we know he did in malarial fever) and getting his dates wrong. Once again, it seemed Darwin was prepared to lie in order to protect his coveted priority and originality. My re-examination of the Samuel Butler case, as demonstrated in my website essay, only piled on the evidence of underhand duplicity on Darwin’s part.

I did not start out wanting to prove Darwin was a liar. He did that all by himself.