Edward Blyth (1810-1873)
Of course today, for biologists, Darwin is second only to God, and for many he may rank still higher.
— Michael White, 2002
1. Was Darwin a plagiarist and charlatan of limited intellect rather than the deity his followers portray him to be?
2. Was the creationist Edward Blyth the true pioneer of natural selection?
3. Was Blyth’s conception of natural selection as a mechanism of preservation versus a mechanism of innovation the more accurate characterization of what natural selection really is?
I wish to remain open-minded on these issues as they deal with history, and history is difficult to reconstruct. I assert is that these hypotheses are worth exploring, though not necessarily absolute truth. However, as I studied the topic further, it became clear a cloud of suspicion regarding Darwin could not be put to rest.
I now turn to the work of a very prominent anthropologist and ecologist by the name of Loren Eiseley (1907-1977). Eiseley was the head of the Anthropology Department at University of Pennsylvania and president of the American Institute of Human Paleontology before becoming the Provost of the University of Pennsylvania. By all counts he was a first rate scholar. He published several books about Darwin: Charles Darwin, Darwin’s Century, and Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists.
Edward Blyth in Wikipedia:
Loren Eiseley, Professor of Anthropology and the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, spent decades tracing the origins of the ideas attributed to Darwin. In a 1979 book, he claimed that “the leading tenets of Darwin’s work “the struggle for existence, variation, natural selection and sexual selection” are all fully expressed in Blyth’s paper of 1835. He also cites a number of rare words, similarities of phrasing, and the use of similar examples, which he regards as evidence of Darwin’s debt to Blyth.
The above is taken from Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists which was, curiously enough, published posthumously by Eiseley!
My hypothesis is that Edward Blyth should have been given far more credit for the theory of natural selection. Because Blyth was a creationist, he did not see natural selection as an adequate mechanism for biological innovation. He believed natural selection as primarily a means of preserving species, not primarily creating large scale biological innovations. Even though a creationist, he seemed open to some forms of evolution (as creationists are today), and it would be hard to argue that he believed in the absolute fixity of species. Blyth’s position on natural selection would be consistent with many IDers and creationists today.
It was Darwin who promoted the hypothesis that natural selection could be a designer substitute, but the basic concept of natural selection is attributable to Blyth. At the end of the essay I will provide links to papers by Blyth which I believe Darwin plagiarized. Keep in mind, Darwin’s book was published in 1859, 24 years after Blyth stated the fundamental tenets of Natural Selection. Here are a few highlights however:
Blyth in 1836:
It is a general law of nature for all creatures to propagate the like of themselves: and this extends even to the most trivial minutiae, to the slightest individual peculiarities; and thus, among ourselves, we see a family likeness transmitted from generation to generation.
When two animals are matched together, each remarkable for a certain given peculiarity, no matter how trivial, there is also a decided tendency in nature for that peculiarity to increase; and if the produce of these animals be set apart, and only those in which the same peculiarity is most apparent, be selected to breed from, the next generation will possess it in a still more remarkable degree; and so on, till at length the variety I designate a breed, is formed, which may be very unlike the original type.
The examples of this class of varieties must be too obvious to need specification: many of the varieties of cattle, and, in all probability, the greater number of those of domestic pigeons, have been generally brought about in this manner. It is worthy of remark, however, that the original and typical form of an animal is in great measure kept up by the same identical means by which a true breed is produced.
The original form of a species is unquestionably better adapted to its natural habits than any modification of that form; and, as the sexual passions excite to rivalry and conflict, and the stronger must always prevail over the weaker, the latter, in a state of nature, is allowed but few opportunities of continuing its race. In a large herd of cattle, the strongest bull drives from him all the younger and weaker individuals of his own sex, and remains sole master of the herd; so that all the young which are produced must have had their origin from one which possessed the maximum of power and physical strength; and which, consequently, in the struggle for existence, was the best able to maintain his ground, and defend himself from every enemy.
The concepts of natural selection and even sexual selection are laid out plainly, even the concept of adaptation and the struggle for existence!
Here is Blyth in 1836 again:
The true physiological system is evidently one of irregular and indefinite radiation, and of reiterate divergence and ramification from a varying number of successively subordinate typical plans; often modified in the extremes, till the general aspect has become entirely changed, but still retaining, to the very ultimate limits, certain fixed and constant distinctive characters, by which the true affinities of species may be always known; the modifications of each successive type being always in direct relation to particular localities, or to peculiar modes of procuring sustenance; in short, to the particular circumstances under which a species was appointed to exist in the locality which it indigenously inhabits, where alone its presence forms part of the grand system of the universe, and tends to preserve the balance of organic being, and, removed whence (as is somewhere well remarked by Mudie), a plant or animal is little else than a “disjointed fragment.”
This is astonishing! Blyth offers the concept of environments creating adaptive radiations!
Then Blyth in 1837:
A variety of important considerations here crowd upon the mind; foremost of which is the inquiry, that, as man, by removing species from their appropriate haunts, superinduces changes on their physical constitution and adaptations, to what extent may not the same take place in wild nature, so that, in a few generations, distinctive characters may be acquired, such as are recognised as indicative of specific diversity? It is a positive fact, for example, that the nestling plumage of larks, hatched in a red gravelly locality, is of a paler and more rufous tint than in those bred upon a dark soil.17 May not, then, a large proportion of what are considered species have descended from a common parentage?
Is this a stretch? Note what Ernst Mayr had to say:
Eiseley (1959) vigorously promoted the thesis that Edward Blyth had established the theory of evolution by natural selection in 1835 and that Darwin surely had read his paper and quite likely had derived a major inspiration from it without ever mentioning this in his writings … Darwin quite likely had read Blyth’s paper but paid no further attention to it since it was antievolutionary in spirit and not different from the writings of other natural theologians in its general thesis
In fact what is a bit incriminating is Darwin owned copies of Blyth’s work, and that these copies have Darwin’s notes in the margin. Reading Blyth, it really is hard to see that Darwin made any innovation except the illogical conclusion that natural selection can create large scale biological complexity and design. As Allen Orr said, “selection does not trade in the currency of design”.
Something interesting is also apparent: there were a lot of naturalists who doubted the permanence of species, and Blyth was among them. Nevertheless, Darwin wrote in 1876, contrary to the truth:
I never happened to come across a single [naturalist] who seemed to doubt about the permanence of species …
Darwin effectively claims that he was singularly exceptional in his belief that species could be transformed by the environment. This claim is clearly untrue! The suspicion then arises whether Darwin was lying. In fact, Professor George Simpson acknowledges the appearance of lying with a bit of disbelief (the missing link):
These are extraordinary statements. They cannot literally be true, yet Darwin cannot be consciously lying, and he may therefore be judged unconsciously misleading, naive, forgetful, or all three.
Thus, Darwin’s behavior was so obviously suspicious to some that his admirers had to make excuses to explain away the appearance of lying.
The discussion of this topic will obviously be more than I have space for here, and I welcome input in the comments section if there are any relevant data points. But I close with some thoughts regarding Darwin’s genius (or lack thereof) or Darwin’s integrity (or lack thereof):
Professor C.D. Darlington writes The Mystery Begins
[Darwin] was able to put across his ideas not so much because of his scientific integrity, but because of his opportunism, his equivocation and his lack of historical sense. Though his admirers will not like to believe it, he accomplished his revolution by personal weakness and strategic talent more than by scientific virtue.
Thomas Henry Huxley Darwiniana Obituary:
Shrewsbury School could find nothing but dull mediocrity in Charles Darwin. The mind that found satisfaction in knowledge, but very little in mere learning; that could appreciate literature, but had no particular aptitude for grammatical exercises; appeared to the “strictly classical” pedagogue to be no mind at all. As a matter of fact, Darwin’s school education left him ignorant of almost all the things which it would have been well for him to know, and untrained in all the things it would have been useful for him to be able to do, in after life.
Thus, starved and stunted on the intellectual side, it is not surprising that Charles Darwin’s energies were directed towards athletic amusements and sport, to such an extent, that even his kind and sagacious father could be exasperated into telling him that “he cared for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching.”
Sir Gavin de Beer:
The boy [Darwin] developed very slowly: he was given, when small, to inventing gratuitous fibs and to daydreaming
Lies-and the thrills derived from lies-were for him indistinguishable from the delights of natural history or the joy of finding a long-sought specimen.
John and Mary Gribben:
… he devised a plan so cunning that even Machiavelli would have been proud of it. During 1845, Darwin worked on a second edition of his successful journal of the Beagle voyage, and added new material to the descriptions of the living things he had seen in South America. These new passages look innocuous enough in themselves. But as Howard Gruber pointed out in his book Darwin on Man (Wildwood House, London, 1974), if you compare the first and second editions … you can locate all the new material … string it together to make a coherent ‘ghost essay’ which conveys almost all of Darwin’s thinking about evolution [in 1845]. It is quite clear that this material must have been written as that coherent essay, then carefully chopped up and inserted into the journal.
The whole case of Darwin’s plagiarism was laid out rather tediously in Charles Darwin — The Truth? Interestingly the essay mentions Brian Goodwin and our very own John Davison here.
I hope this essay inspire some to revisit these important issues. If the hypothesis inspired by Eiseley is true, and if natural selection is an inadequate explanation for biological design, and if it turns out that Darwin was little more than a plagiarizing opportunist making illogical extrapolations of Blyth, then Blyth will be the one history smiles on, and Darwin will be the one history despises.
References to Blyth:
An Attempt to Classify the ‘Varieties’ of Animals with Observations on the Marked Seasonal and Other Changes Which Naturally Take Place in Various British Species, and Which Do Not Constitute Varieties by Blyth in 1835.
Varieties of Animals Part 2 by Blyth in 1835
Observations on the Various Seasonal and Other External Changes Which Regularly Take Place in Birds by Blyth in 1836
Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds – Part 2 by Blyth in 1836
Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds – Part 3 by Blyth in 1836
Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds – Part 4 by Blyth in 1836
On the Psychological Distinctions Between Man and All Other Animals by Blyth in 1837
Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals – Part 2 by Blyth in 1837
Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals – Part 3 by Blyth in 1837
Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals – Part 4 by Blyth in 1837
UPDATE 8/31/2006 I will link to opposing opinions on the net if I feel the scholarship is worthy. Here is Dr. N. Wells at ARN : Salvador on Blyth and Darwin