Today, scientists are extremely careful in making sure they cite others’ works, if not for ethical reasons because plagiarism destroys reputations and is potentially a career ender. However, in the past for some scientists including Charles Darwin and James Watson, the public has controversially given them credit for game changing discoveries and catapulted them into rock star status.
In Darwin’s Ghosts (Random House 2012), Rebecca Stott, an English and creative writing professor at the University of East Anglia, explores Darwin’s story and his actual role in the concept of natural selection. Specifically, she examines the truth behind a letter accusing Darwin of plagiarism. Random House’s publicity sheet accompanying the book states:
One month after he finally published On the Origin of Species, in December 1859, Charles Darwin received a disturbing letter. He had expected criticism, in fact, swarms of letters arrived daily expressing outrage and accusations of heresy. But this letter was different. It accused him of failing to acknowledge his predecessors, of taking credit for a theory that had already been discovered by others. Darwin realized that he had made an error in omitting from Origin of Species any mention of his intellectual forebears.
That letter came from Reverend Powell, an Oxford professor who supported evolution and was on the brink of being prosecuted for heresy. After being chastised for ignoring those who contemplated evolutionary ideas before publishing Origins, Charles Darwin added a preface entitled ‘An Historical Sketch’ to the third edition.
On the front cover of the book, the publisher states: Stott argues that contrary to what has become standard lore, at the risk of committing heresy individuals across the globe over many centuries shared a similar idea that natural selection is responsible for nature’s ways. Although not explicitly stated, my interpretation of Stott’s thesis is that it implies Darwin did plagiarize and that the public’s perception on Darwin’s role in the concept of natural selection and subsequently evolution is flawed.
On the first point of plagarism, in a polished writing style that one would expect from someone in her profession, Shott provides readers with a historical background on a number of the so-called ghosts. Among those included are Aristotle, the artist of The Last Supper Leonardo da Vinci (who knew?), and even Charles’ own grandfather Erasmus Darwin. Stott also discusses lesser known naturalist’s works not translated into English in Darwin’s time and those anonymously written for fear of heresy charges.
Stott’s thorough research, demonstrated by over 70 pages of sources, clearly shows us that Darwin was not the originator for the concept of natural selection. Although Darwin corrected his mistake of originally not giving other like-minded natural historians their credit by discussing them in later additions of Origins, we may never know Darwin’s original intentions for the omissions. Unfortunately, this is where the book stops.
As an affiliated scholar with the department of history and philosophy at Cambridge University, Stott passes on the opportunity to provide analysis and commentary on the second point, Darwin’s legacy. Perhaps this is because she prefers leaving it up to the readers to draw their own conclusions.
Although the public considers Darwin a cultural icon, in my analysis, this status is based on an inadequate understanding of evolutionary biology and for the wrong reasons. As a result, the public gives Darwin more credit than he deserves. For example, in praise for Darwin’s Ghosts, two reviews on the back cover of the book caught my attention. The publisher quotes Sir Patrick Bateson, an animal behaviorist, stating Darwin provided a mechanism for the evolution of exquisite adaptations and Kirkus Reviews stating that Darwin discovered the mechanism of natural selection.
In the English language, the nuances of word choice are important for science historians. Are natural selection and evolution synonymous? Either way, from a scientific perspective Darwin provided the mechanism for neither. Although natural historians in Darwin’s time generally accepted natural selection as a concept, he was unable to propose an acceptable mechanism to make it work. This is why biology texts do not refer to any Darwin’s laws, rather discuss his proposed theories.
In his search for the mechanism for natural selection, Darwin built on existing theories supplemented by his own ideas. Darwin was distinct from his ghosts in proposing gemmules and pangenesis for mechanisms that make natural selection work in context of evolution. Theories he believed in but others proposed include the use and disuse theory, and blending inheritance. Scientists later disproved these theories which are based on vitalism. Darwin also believed in the survival of the fittest which is nothing more than a circular argument.
Darwin also integrated several accepted concepts into his own theory. He advocated sexual selection and competition for limited resources, but these were not his original ideas. Darwin correctly believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics proposed by Lamarck. Unfortunately his peers, including Alfred Wallace, who believed it was impossible to cross the Weismann barrier, did not. Consequently, the concept of neo-Darwinism prevailed.
With the mechanism for natural selection unsettled and following Mendel’s work with pea plants and genetics, in the words of Darwin scholar Peter Bowler, the eclipse of Darwinism took place. It was not until plant physiologist Hugo de Vries discovered mutations in the evening primrose in 1901 and the work of mathematicians in the 1930s leading to the Modern Synthesis that reconciled natural selection, the laws of Mendelian genetics, and mutations into a unified equation that the elusive mechanism emerged.
With the Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme (1979) by Lewontin and Gould, the role of natural selection is diminished in the broader picture of evolution. The two Harvard professors brilliantly point out that the Modern Synthesis explains microevolution (changes in allele frequencies within populations), but ignores macroevolution (changes at the species level).
With advances in understanding evolutionary biology, we now have proof that Darwin’s instincts were correct when he advocated the inheritance of acquired characteristics and his peers were wrong. Why August Weismann failed to see how the environment could influence germ cells is partially due to the fact that before Mendel there was no understanding of the concept of a unit of heredity, much less DNA or genes. We now know that evo-devo, epigenetics, and niche construction explain how the environment can affect gene expression without actually changing genomes.
With the accumulated advances in understanding evolutionary biology, science historians are now able to put Darwin’s place in history in proper perspective. Based on how scientists now understand natural selection in context of evolution, philosopher of biology Michael Ruse provides the perhaps most highly evolved understanding of Darwin’s legacy. In the March 2005 issue of the Journal of the History of Biology, Ruse explains that the Darwinian revolution was cultural, not biological.
Ruse elaborates on the Darwinian Cultural Revolution by placing Darwinism in historical context with other scientist’s works. Along with contributions by others in the fields of geology, astronomy, taxonomy, anatomy, paleontology, and Pasteur’s discovery that germs cause plagues; Darwin made evolution a believable theory and created a more receptive audience in the scientific community. This is because Darwinism was not just an alternative to the Judeo-Christian account of origins, but also used society as a tool of reform to move science forward.