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    Was Charles Darwin a Plagiarist? Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution
    By Randall Mayes | July 20th 2012 04:09 PM | 31 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Randall Mayes is a policy analyst specializing in biotechnology. His areas of expertise include technology based economic development and public...

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    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.

    Comments

    Charles Darwin was punctilious in mentioning theories of evolution that were put about before he came on the scene and behaved with a scrupulousness unequalled in scientic history. For example he was prepared ro giv up hi claim to have published his theory fitst when he received a short and incomplete account of his 1842 version of his theory from Wallace nd was only persuaded o joint publication by his intellectual colleagues in 1858.

    For Darwin knew his theory was so controversial he had to acknowledg all the criticisms he could find and present them for the position of a profesiobal biologist, within the information available at the time. That is why his theory if inheritance is not problmatical, for Darwin was dealing with issue that would take 100 years to solve.

    Gerhard Adam
    Specifically, she examines the truth behind a letter accusing Darwin of plagiarism.
    What's to examine?  Either there is a work that pre-dates Darwin's that clearly indicates plagiarism or it's speculative nonsense.  A letter isn't anything, except a letter.
    Mundus vult decipi
    randallmayes
    Stott examines the 'truth' to the letter. In my analysis or review of the book, I am proposing a paradox i.e. Darwin was not the originator of natural selection, nor did he discover the mechanism. So why is he such an icon? I attempt to provide an answer quoting Ruse at the end of the article.
    Randall Mayes
    Gerhard Adam
    So what is your basis for proposing that Darwin is not the originator of natural selection?
    Mundus vult decipi
    randallmayes
    In the third edition of Origins, Darwin adds a supplement listing the people before him that investigated the same idea. Stott discusses others. I'm not sure what Darwin's motive was though omitting others in the first edition. I just had a book published this week titled Revolutions (Logos Press) that has two chapters discussing this topic in more detail.
    Randall Mayes
    Gerhard Adam
    I think that Darwin would even acknowledge others that investigated the same idea is a tremendous credit to him.  Beyond that he owed those individuals nothing. 

    I'm curious as to why you would question Darwin's motive.  There is no need to assess a motive.  It is common sense, that it doesn't matter how many people express an idea, if they don't publish it, or develop it, then they don't count.

    This is nit-picky nonsense, unless there is a demonstrable publication some place that shows a developed natural selection theory that directly indicates Darwin was not the originator.  The simple reality is that evolution has been discussed for centuries, and NO ONE put all the pieces together in the manner that Charles Darwin did.  If anyone has any definitive proof of something different then it should not be because of individual interpretation or innuendo. 

    Mundus vult decipi
    randallmayes
    William Charles Wells presented a paper to the Royal Academy which was published around 1820 and Robert Chambers wrote a book titled Vestiges around 1840, both discussing natural selection. When you say Darwin put all these things together, what exactly are you referring to?
    Randall Mayes
    Gerhard Adam
    Darwin acknowledged that Wells recognized the principle of natural selection, but Wells never developed it.  He was interested in how it might apply to the races of man, and some hint at such changes in animals.  However, such a mention is not sufficient to formulate a theory, and consequently Wells doesn't deserve any more credit than he's already gained.

    Chambers is irrelevant since Vestiges was published anonymously. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    randallmayes
    So we both agree that Wells and Chambers discussed natural selection before Darwin. For the mechanism what actually did Darwin contribute? I'm still confused as to what you are giving him credit for.
    Randall Mayes
    Gerhard Adam
    It's really quite simple.  You're type of revisionist history only makes sense after people like Charles Darwin have put together the whole argument.  Then suddenly everyone sees all the correlations in hindsight that they failed to do for the preceding decades.

    The reality is that neither Wells nor Chambers did anything of consequence and especially publishing anonymously ... it doesn't get any sillier than that.
    I'm still confused as to what you are giving him credit for.
    That's apparent, although you seem to have no problem in trying to deny credit to the man that did all the actual work, while everyone else sat around mumbling bits and pieces and failed to produce any coherent work.
    Mundus vult decipi
    randallmayes
    In my article, I take the pieces of Darwin's theory and talk about them. His only contribution was gemmules and pangenesis. These are based on vitalism. I think Darwin should get credit for what is warranted. If he put it all together as you suggest, his peers would have acknowledged the fact with Darwin's laws of evolution. Instead, many joined the Mendel camp or Galton and eugenics. If you can articulate exactly what his genius is, I am happy to discuss it.
    Randall Mayes
    Gerhard Adam
    You're not interested in discussing Darwin. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    I think the logical error is in assuming Darwin's peers were as brilliant as Darwin.  Natural selection, anyway, let's not claim Darwin's descent with modification was up in the air because it wasn't, wasn't accepted until modern synthesis because because the evidence did not show it.   If his peers had accepted it on anything more than a 'hunch' basis they would not have been doing their jobs.

    Invoking Lewontin and Gould, the former whose mistakes are so famous he gets a Fallacy with a capital F after his name, and the latter who knew just enough to be wrong (but was a baseball fan so I have to be a little nicer), isn't evidence against the accomplishments of Darwin, it's just bucking convention in the interests of taking up The Indefensible Position.  I'm cool with that and it works well in ordinary forums because people don't get the specifics of evolution so appeals to authority suffice, but on a science site it isn't really going anywhere.   It's like if you went to a linguistics site and claimed the Bible's Red Sea account was really the Sea of Reeds and it was a bad translation. 
    randallmayes
    In response to the Lewontin quote, I am not attacking Darwin rather Lewontin is attacking people who think that natural selection and adaptations are the whole story behind evolution. It was written over 30 years ago and genomics confirms their thesis. I agree with you some of Lewontin's thoughts are wrong, but not in this case.
    Randall Mayes
    It's news to me and lots of others that Robert Chambers discussed natural selection. You seem to be getting 'species transmutation' (=evolution) mixed up with the mechanism which drives this process i.e. natural selection. Also note that 'survival of the fittest' = natural selection.

    randallmayes
    Chambers was aware of natural selection before Darwin published, but added a new twist. Darwin is very grateful to Chambers since he published not knowing what reaction he would get. His name was latter attached to the book.
    Randall Mayes
    Gerhard Adam
    Regarding Chamber's Vestiges:
    The author apparently believes that organisation progresses by sudden leaps, but that the effects produced by the conditions of life are gradual. He argues with much force on general grounds that species are not immutable productions. But I cannot see how the two supposed "impulses" account in a scientific sense for the numerous and beautiful co-adaptations which we see throughout nature; I cannot see that we thus gain any insight how, for instance, a woodpecker has become adapted to its peculiar habits of life. The work, from its powerful and brilliant style, though displaying in the earlier editions little accurate knowledge and a great want of scientific caution, immediately had a very wide circulation.
    Charles Darwin, 3rd Edition of Origin of Species (1861)
    Mundus vult decipi
    randallmayes
    This is referred to as saltation. I'm not sure if Chamber's first proposed this or just discussed and explored the concept. This concept is correct as larger scale mutations that perhaps can make a change in one generation or contribute to speciation. In a broader sense this supports macroevolution and is one point that Lewontin and Gould talk about in the paper.
    Randall Mayes
    Gerhard Adam
    While few dispute how well the book was written, there was much to criticize regarding scientific accuracy, so I find it peculiar that you should attribute any claims to it beyond being a popular speculative version of biology.  It would be like trying to credit Jules Verne for the space program, or any number of other scientific phenomenon that similar authors have speculated about. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    randallmayes
    Lets say you are correct about Chambers, he did not have all the pieces in the 1840s.

    Back to the topic of Darwin's role in natural selection, what he did to advance it, and his appropriate legacy. Obviously people have different reflections based on their knowledge and beliefs. I stated my opinion i.e. I am a fan of his, but perhaps he is given too much scientific credit and too little from a cultural perspective. I happen to agree with Ruse.
    _
    What is it exactly you are trying to say? Once we establish that, maybe that will lead to points that we can discuss that lead to our differing perspectives.
    Randall Mayes
    The nature of this very attack and many of the author's remarks make it clear he is an opponent of evolution. Publishing a book in Logos Press confirms this, since this is a christian publishing house opposed to evolution.

    Discrediting modern evolutionary biology by attempting to discredit Darwin is attacking the problem from the wrong end. I read some some Shapiro, I read the false dichotomy of micro vs. macro evolution, and I read a significant discount of genomic change in heritable characteristics.

    Have I characterized you unfairly?

    A similar controversy could be raised about the origins of physics and the calculus needed for classical mechanics. In almost all English text books, Newton is given credit for both. However, if you talk to Germans, you get a totally different perspective. As with most scientific perspectives, there must a front face.

    Why not go after evolution using modern science rather trying to discredit Darwin?

    randallmayes
    To set the record straight I am a strong advocate of evolution and not religious. The Logos Press I am working with specializes in biotechnology. It is part of thinkbiotech which also publishes a commercial biotechnology journal. The two presses are very different.
    Randall Mayes
    randallmayes
    It is unfortunate that two presses have the same name. This is the link to my press. www.logos-press.com/books
    Randall Mayes
    This is a very unfortunate overlapping of business names. Looking at the wrong web site certainly colored how I reviewed your article.

    randallmayes
    This was an honest mistake and I need to clarify this from now on. I started out in developmental biology, but switched to history and philosophy of biology. People in this area can like Darwin, but also be critical and analytical. At conferences, the discussions are not so much critical of Darwin, rather the public's perception. I also should clarify that the purpose of my article is not to attack Darwin, rather I am a book reviewer and I am reviewing Darwin's Ghosts.
    Randall Mayes
    I would still like to raise the point whether discrediting Darwin or clarifying his role as the "originator" of evolution matters. Evolutionary biology has moved forward 150 years since Origin of Species. It seems like arguing about who invented calculus - Newton or Leibniz. Since we are almost 300 years beyond the deaths of both of these people and real analysis or measure theory has long since moved beyond classic calculus, it just doesn't matter. I would argue the same thing applies to Darwin - the data errors, limitations, and conceptual errors in his version of evolution and who he might have included without citing just are NOT relevant anymore.

    For example, common descent between humans and apes was not fully accepted until genome mappings between humans and great apes were completed. Human chromosome 2 as a merged version of great ape chromosomes 2a and 2b, the appearance of retroviral markers and pseudogenes, and differences such as transcriptions of sequences, which were used to establish our genetic similarity and distance from other great apes are some of the modern science that confirmed common descent. No amount of similar morphology or fossil evidence appeared to be sufficient.

    Science is under constant revision and focusing on who should be correctly attributed with consolidating evidence to form the original theory of evolution just doesn't matter. Even if Darwin were stripped and replaced with a group of scientists and naturalists who deserve more credit, it just doesn't matter.

    randallmayes
    First, I think you should preface your last paragraph as your opinion rather than as a definitive statement. Second, I just wrote a book entitled Revolutions. Thomas Kuhn wrote the best selling science book of all time. He discusses revolutions in science. There is quite a bit of academic scholarship on the so-called Darwinian Revolution. To these people it seems to matter. I hoped someone would discuss the topic in terms of Kuhn's model rather than abstractions.
    Randall Mayes
    My point is the revolution is over when it comes to evolution. With the notable exception of countries such as the United States, most developed first world countries accept evolution as established science. The paradigm shift is for all intents and purposes complete. We are in the refinement and expansion stage. Unless there is some earth shattering shift, evolution will simply continue to be refined regardless of the icon status of Darwin.

    In the 20th century, the discovery of DNA and the resulting explosion of molecular genetics based research and biochemistry in general, which continues today, has probably had the more important impact on evolution and biology as a whole. With respect to evolution, molecular genetics and biochemistry have served as refinement mechanisms, which was one of my points in my previous post. It is too bad more people don't know the names "Watson and Crick."

    In defense of my last paragraph, do you honestly believe that research in evolutionary biology would make any changes whatsoever if Darwin were replaced as the "father of evolutionary biology"? More importantly, if you proved out this hypothesis that the role of Darwin is at least overstated, would anyone other than a handful of academics even care?

    I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate, focusing on 20th century analytic philosophy and logic. An important quotation attributed to Richard Feynman dramatically altered my perspective on the role of philosophy of science:

    "Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds."

    With the exception of ethics, the impact of philosophy on science is near zero. Practitioners go where the evidence leads them. When the framing theories in a particular discipline shift, this is also a result of evidence and not philosophical debates. We are long past the time when the church could place proponents of the Big Bang or abiogenesis under house arrest. What I see in areas such as QED and evolution is a muddling of thought by philosophers rather than a clarifying debate. For example, entire books have been written based on misunderstandings of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle - ugh!

    randallmayes
    Thanks for clarifying your question. Interestingly, I am watching cspan and a discussion of grading past presidents. Perhaps the utility is determining genius versus failure. You hear of presidents reading about other presidents to avoid mistakes and see what works from the vantage point of hindsight. With science, what we have learned is dogma is a mistake. Nothing is sacred. For example, the central dogma set us back decades. Crick admits he was wrong, despite people defending him. Watson is also overrated in my opinion based on what he actually contributed. Have you heard of Oswald Avery? He arguably made the most important discovery in biology.
    Randall Mayes
    "Was Darwin Wrong?" (National Geographic 2004)
    "Why Darwin was Worng about the Tree of Life" (New Scientist 2009)
    "Was Charles Darwin a Plagiarist?" (2012)
    Etc... Etc... Etc...

    Articles such as these have more to do with publicity than they do with science or history. It's a shame.

    randallmayes
    Thanks for reading my book review and helping validate my point that most people are unable to provide relevant and intelligent discussion of Darwin, a cultural icon.
    Randall Mayes