Imagine if you will a rather pathetic little boy oppressed by a domineering father and overshadowed by older sisters assuming maternal roles that directed his every move. Under such conditions it’s not surprising that certain survival strategies would be employed by the boy to establish his place in the family pecking order. Thus it was, according to biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore, that a young Charles Darwin stole his father’s peaches and plums only to “discover” them later in heroic fashion and would invent “deliberate falsehoods” in order to gain attention. In school he would regale classmates with stories of fantastic birds and remarkable flowers, flowers he could change into different colors. “Once,” write Desmond and Moore, “he invented an elaborate story designed to show how fond he was of telling the truth. It was a boy’s way of manipulating the world” (1). But what happened when the boy, whose insatiable need for attention never waned, became a man. How might he then manipulate the world? This question, which few have dared to even pose, has been asked and answered in a provocative new book by former BBC writer/producer, Roy Davies titled, The Darwin Conspiracy: Origins of a Scientific Crime, just released by Goldensquare Books (http://darwin-conspiracy.co.uk/).
The publisher of this book describes itself as a “small independent publisher based in London with a background in publishing history-related titles.” The central theme of this rather slim 204-page volume is that Darwin lied and cheated his way into prominence as the principal discoverer of modern evolutionary theory and hence into the annals of science and world history as arguably the most influential theorist of Western Civilization. Who did he cheat? Several people – Edward Blyth for one, but most notably Alfred Russel Wallace. How was he able to do it? It’s a long and elaborate tale, but basically with the help of his friends Joseph Dalton Hooker and Charles Lyell, who “agreed to put their own reputations on the line” and read a joint Darwin/Wallace paper for the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, the two men in an unseemly collaboration “to ensure priority for Darwin” (their longtime friend and fellow gentleman of rank and standing), manipulated key dates and events to make it appear that Charles had indeed come up with the crucial features of adaption and natural selection independently of Wallace who at the time was away collecting specimens in the Malay Archipelago (see p. 153). They informed Wallace of the reading (selecting the details carefully, of course), and so half-informed and ignorant of most of their machinations, Wallace (a man of much more middling means and social class) was delighted to be thrust into such rarified atmosphere as that inhabited by the Linnean elite. He could never have done it on his own. But this joint paper exercise wasn’t really about Wallace; it was about Darwin. In fact, the whole preemptive reading was railroaded into the Society agenda rather quickly after Darwin received the now-famous Ternate letter from Wallace laying out in detail the essential features of natural selection. The whole scheme was designed to deflect an almost certain trumpery on the part of Wallace if something wasn’t done and done posthaste.
Much in this history depends upon what Darwin knew and when he knew it. “They [Lyell and Hooker] agreed,” writes Davies, “as Darwin was now claiming, that he had sketched out his evolutionary theory not in 1842, but in 1839. Moreover, they claimed that the contents of the 1844 essay [Darwin’s preliminary draft of his theory] had not only been read by Hooker, but had been communicated to Lyell himself. There was no mention of the fact that both men had voiced serious objections over several years to Darwin’s migration theory, which (alongside the idea of perfect adaptation) had been central to his thinking in 1844 and for a long time after” (p. 153). This is really only part of the story, but it is its salient feature. In short, “Had Alfred Russel Wallace sent his letter of March 1858 not to Charles Darwin but to the editor of the Annals and Magazine of Natural History,” writes Davies, “it is likely that we would today talk about Wallaceism rather than Darwinism” (p. 161). This is an important point and one that I will return to shortly.
The book itself rests upon Davies’ examination of postal and shipping records, seeking to demonstrate that Darwin failed to accurately relate when he received certain letters from Wallace. By either claiming that the letters were recieved much later than normal delivery times would now suggest or by simply destroying some of his critical (and damning) correspondence with Wallace, Darwin was, according to Davies, able to cut a clear path that would lead straight to him as the primary evolutionary theorist instead of Wallace who supplied the Down House naturalist with most of the critical features of what would become known as Darwinian evolution. Davies spins a detailed web of duplicity and manipulation on the part of Darwin, “a very secretive man with a driving ambition” (p. 160). To bolster his case Davies provides a series of four appendices that include a timeline of Darwin/Wallace ideas, 1831-1862; a shipping timetable between Southampton and the Malay Archipelago, the essential route of their correspondence; a routing map of Dutch mail steamers in the late 1850s; and a reprinting of Wallace’s crucial paper that had such a startling – Davies might say epiphanic! – effect upon Darwin, “On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type,” dated “Ternate, 1858.”
As Davies admits, the story of Darwin’s plagiarism not new. As the Origin celebrated its centennial, Cyril Dean Darlington openly questioned precisely how Darwin arrived the theory, admitting, “After a hundred years we are almost as uncertain of the authorship or editorship of Darwin’s writings as we are of those attributed to Homer or Hippocrates” (quoted on, p. 20). Darlington’s skepticism was of tremendous historiographic importance because it broke, for the first time, a Darwin industry that had been jealously gaurded and carefully crafted by the patriach’s family. But other doubters would follow: Loren Eisley became convinced that Darwin stole much of his theory from Edward Blyth’s articles in The Annals and Magazine of Natural History published between 1835 and 1837; then there was Howard Gruber who discovered that, “He [Darwin] completely rewrote his Galapagos entries to take in the new ideas and information he had gleaned from [the islands’ Vice-Governor Nicholas] Lawson and other specialists between 1837 and 1845 [long after his return], giving a distorted picture of how the Galapagos had struck him on the voyage ten years before” (p. 36). Others such as Yale graduate student H. Lewis McKinney and professor Leonard Wilson performed research that increasingly pointed to Alfred Russel Wallace as the leading dramatis persona in the unfolding saga of evolutionary theory. What Davies provides here is a synthesis of data constructing a grand narrative of Darwin’s duplicitous fraud with the addition of detailed, never-before-published, data relating to the Darwin/Wallace correspondence.
But why has it taken so long for this information to come to light? And why has the scholarly community been so reticent to even hear evidence against their putative hero? Davies cites several favors: national pride (every study questioning the authenticity of Darwin’s theory, Davies points out, was American not British); class, after all Darwin was a gentleman while Wallace was a man “with ideas above his station” (p. 50); and finally Wallace himself has been seen as a disreputable radical, a vehement champion of land reform and an adherent of spiritualism, something Davies dismisses as “outlandish” (p. 165).
All of these are likely explanations. However, there is probably a more important one, one not fully considered by Davies. It is that Wallace himself confused the issue by always insisting that he was an avid Darwinist. Even when keen Darwinian analysts such as Samuel Butler and A. A. W. Hubrecht began calling for Wallaceism, Wallace himself always refused the designation. Thus as time passed on Wallace simply faded away as a significant player in the development of the theory that would bear Darwin’s name.
This point is more important than one might immediately think. Why was Butler, Hubrecht and others talking about “Wallaceism”? What is Wallaceism? In brief it is teleological evolution. Instead of Darwin’s radical materialism, Wallaceism is a very different kind of evolutionary theory. It was first announced when Wallace made his break with Darwin’s metaphysical presumptions. Wallace simply couldn’t agree that the human intellect could be explained by natural selection; something else, a higher spiritual force or power had to be invoked. When Darwin read Wallace’s paper in the April 1869 issue of The Quarterly Review saying as much, he viewed it as a “murder” and scatched an emphatic “NO!!” in margin of his copy. Wallace would develop his ideas further, especially in chapter 15 of his 1889 Darwinism: an Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection With Some of Its Applications (reprinted in “Why the recent article in Nature calling for Wallace recognition is right AND wrong,” March 11, 2008, of this blog). Wallace insisted that natural selection and “survival of the fittest” (a term he suggested Darwin adopt) can account for much in nature but not everything. It cannot account for the origin of life, consciousness of animals, and the intellect of man; only an “Overruling Intelligence” can do that, he argued. Thus, Wallace had constructed a thoroughly teleological form of evolution. He gave full expression to this in what this reviewer believes to be his magnum opus revealingly titled, The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose (1910). Now this was WALLACEISM! It is hard to say why Wallace resisted the term, but I suspect much was imbedded in the long struggle for the preeminence of natural selection in the world of science. Wallace may have conjectured (wrongly) that adding Wallaceism would only endanger the theory and ruin years of promotion on its behalf. Additionally he may have made another miscalculation, namely, that to refuse Wallaceism would deny his opponents a clear target at which they could fire their materialistic arrows. This is Martin Fichman’s conclusion (2).
Whatever the reason, one of the problems with Davies’ analysis is that he fails to appreciate the significant differences between Wallaceism and Darwinism. In short, he knows the men but not the -isms. As one reads through The Darwin Conspiracy one is struck by how central Davies sees the work of both Darwin and Wallace in constructing their theory against the natural theologians of the day, seeing the two as united in their opposition to special creation. Thus Davies frequently misinterprets and misreads Wallace. For example, he asserts that Wallace “was not intellectually constrained by the idea of a world designed by God” and that he didn’t need “to make room for God in his theory” (p. 3). It is simply not true. As Wallace’s biographer Martin Fichman points out, “His Malay travels reinforced Wallace’s disavowal of adherence to any traditional orthodox religion. But,” he adds, “Wallace’s emerging evolutionary worldview was compatible with a broader spiritual and teleological framework that would become more overt on his return to England” (3). Davies’ inability to see the important difference between Darwin’s and Wallace’s worldviews prevents him from accurately reading key primary resources, such as Wallace’s “On the Habits of the Orang-utan in Borneo.” For Davies Wallace is simply linking the primate with man in ways Darwin later would in his Descent of Man. But an examination of this essay will demonstrate nothing of the kind. In fact, Fichman again applies a more nuanced and accurate interpretation of the essay suggesting “that Wallace’s observations of these apes were leading him to invoke more explicitly the concept of design in nature” (4).
As a consequence there is an important irony to Davies’s tale that purports to be “light-years away from the established orthodoxy” (xix). Despite the hype it is, in fact, rather mundane and uninteresting. For Davies it is merely a question of whose name belongs on the materialistic metaphysic we call evolution. If that’s the only issue, all we need do is get the typsetters moving to make the change. Even assuming he’s right changing the attribution alone won’t really matter much in the big scheme of things. In sum, Davies is merely suggesting a change of index terms not of ideas. This rather sobering realization reduces its grand promise to reveal “one of the greatest crimes in the history of science” down to something more akin to petty larceny.
But there is more at stake here, and I would suggest there is a deeper reason most of the Darwinian faithful have resisted – and indeed will continue to resist – the change: to open the theory up to the likes of Wallace may open the flood gates to true Wallaceism. For true Darwinians and even neo-Darwinians this cannot and most assuredly will not be allowed under any circumstances. Here we would find design triumphant! After all, Wallace constructed a theistic evolution that made natural selection “subservient to other, higher directed powers” (5). In his World of Life Wallace tackled what Darwin failed to do, the origin of life. It was a gap in evolutionary theory that the old German professor of natural history at the University of Heidelberg Heinrich Bronn had criticized Darwin for at the first appearance of his Origin book. In an extremely prescient chapter titled “The Mystery of the Cell,” Wallace argued that the simplistic view of one-celled oranisms as some kind vital protoplasm was wrong. The simple cell is not simple, it is amazingly complex. He chided Haeckel for his atheistic monism and wrote, “If, as I have attempted to do here, we take a broad and comprehensive view of the vast world of life as it is spread out before us, and also of that earlier world which goes back, and ever farther back, into the dim past among the relics of preceding forms of life, . . . we meet with ever greater and greater difficulties in dispensing with a guiding purpose and an immanent creative power” (6). For Darwinists this would never do! For such staunch materialists it would be better to believe the lie than admit that Darwin was alas a plagiarist. If the problem was just a matter of names that’s one thing, but Wallaceism is not Darwinism and the faithful followers of the Down House Saint know it. Unfortunately, Davies seems to have completely missed this point.
But on another level Davies’ book should not be ignored. The portrait painted of Darwin here is much different than the one we usually see – the quiet, mild-mannered, meticulous naturalist, careful, methodical, always thinking. Typical is Mark Ridley who wrote, “Wherever Darwin was – at the dinner table and watching people laugh and have a good time, or visiting the doctor with his children – he was observing carefully, reflecting, questioning and tentatively fitting his ideas into a grand theoretical system” (7). But perhaps this wasn’t the real Darwin we’ve so often heard described. Perhaps he was, in fact, a rather pathetic attention-getter, interested more in fame than facts, worried more about reputation than science, a borrower, a poseur, a cheat. It’s hard to say, but it has more than a distant ring of truth.
Why? Because it does comport to other details of his life. For example, Darwin always insisted he was in a perfect muddle about religion. He adopted Huxley’s term agnostic to describe himself. Yet in his actions we see something else. We see a man at the end of life, a man “looking old and ill,” perfectly willing to refuse friends as “too indisposed” for visitors but eager to entertain Edward Aveling and Ludwig Buchner, two the most prominent atheists of the age, in his home less than seven months before his death (8). In that meeting he made two statements that at least match with the character portrait painted by Davies. First, he asked Aveling about his atheism. “Why should you be so aggressive? Is anything to be gained by forcing new ideas on people?” (9). In other words, Darwin didn’t object to atheism as a truism, he objected to the word from a strategic standpoint. Darwin, I think, was revealing a glimpse of the hand he had been playing for years, namely, in a effort to establish radical materialism as the reigning worldview he simply adopted an attitude of atheistic minimalism. In other words, keep God out of it and He will gradually disappear under the weight of a theory that posits a uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. It was brilliant and it had a demonstrable model in the fossils that Darwin had spent so much time with. His evolutionary theory would be the materialistic poison that would bring God to extinction; his atheistic minimalism would be the sediment that buried Him and consigned Him to obscurity. That was Darwin’s master plan. But this was a very dangerous game. If the plan were too transparent the proverbial jig would be up. So to keep suspicions to a minimum and lend credence to his ostensibly “scientific” and “objective” image, he framed this strategy by carefully crafting an unwilling persona, the portrait of a man only slowly and reluctantly leaving his faith. When he told Aveling and Buchner that, “I never gave up Christianity until I was forty years of age” (10) he was telling a bold-faced lie. Darwin’s materialism was well in play as he wrote his Notebooks in the 1830s in his twenties and thirties. Sometime between May and June of 1838 (age 29!), for example, he was already admitting his philosophy with impish delight – “Oh you materialist!” he chimed (11) – when suggesting that thought, desires, and even “love of the deity” is a product of mere heredity. A bit later – but not much -in his Notebooks he would be captivated by David Hume’s skepticism and Auguste Comte’s secular humanism. And this was the man who didn’t leave Christianity until he was forty? Nonsense!
So there’s an element of believability to Davies’ book. Not because I believe Darwin stole Wallace’s theory (I find that quite possible but comparatively uninteresting), but because the duplicity demonstrated in The Darwin Conspiracy fits a pattern of behavior wholly in character with this revered naturalist. In short, I do not know if Davies’ thesis is correct or not. To sign on to it I would have to know much more about how Goldensquare Books peer reviewed this work (or even if it was peer reviewed). I would like to know what Wallace scholars like Martin Fichman and Ross A. Slotten have to say. For now I’ll simply say Davies has written an interesting albeit imperfect book that deserves serious attention and not perfunctory dismissal.
As it is one cannot escape the feeling that Darwin was up to some monkey business and had been all along.
1. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), p. 13.
2. Martin Fichman, An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 310.
3. Ibid., p. 34.
4. Ibid., pp. 39-40.
5. Ibid., p. 204.
6. Alfred Russel Wallace, The World of Life: The Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose (London: Chapman and Hall, 1910), p. 350.
7. Mark Ridley, How to Read Darwin (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), p. 111.
8. Desmond and Moore, p. 656.
9. Ibid., p. 657.
10. Ibid., p. 658.
11. Charles Darwin, Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844, trans. and edited by Paul H. Barrett, et al. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 291.