The truth behind the ‘Origin of the Species’

by Robin Mckie

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And Wallace was impetuous. While Darwin fully understood the implications of his theory, holding back publication because he knew he would upset believers, including his wife, Wallace plunged in, happy to upset society. He didn’t give a damn, said Jonathan Rosen, in an essay on Wallace in the New Yorker magazine last year. “This utter independence from public opinion is one of several reasons that he has all but vanished from popular consciousness.” In addition, Wallace believed in spiritualism (which Darwin and his friends detested) and later campaigned against vaccination. “Wallace was an admirable man and was almost saintly in his treatment of others,” says David Attenborough. “However, as a scientist, he was no match for Darwin. Wallace came up with the idea of natural selection in a couple of weeks in a malarial fever. Darwin not only worked out the theory, he amassed swathes of information to support it.” This point is backed by historian Jim Endersby. “Natural selection was a brilliant idea but it was the weight of evidence, provided by Darwin, that made it credible. That is why we remember Darwin as its principal author.” On his round-the-world voyage on the Beagle, between 1831 and 1836, he had filled countless notebooks with observations, particularly those of the closely related animals he saw on the different islands of the Galapagos. And then, in his vast garden at Downe, Darwin had crossbred orchids, grown passionflowers and on one occasion played a bassoon to earthworms to test their response to vibrations. He collected masses of data about plant and animal breeding to support his arguments in “The Origin of Species.” Wallace could provide nothing like this.

This has not stopped accusations that Darwin and his supporters used some very dirty tricks indeed to scupper Wallace. According to these ideas, Darwin received Wallace’s paper from Ternate several weeks earlier than he later claimed, filched its contents and then used them as his own in “The Origin of Species.” This argument is outlined in two American books — by Arnold Brackman and by John Langdon Brooks — that were published 20 years ago and depict Darwin as an unscrupulous opportunist and intellectual thief. Neither book provides anything like a convincing case, however, and the vast majority of academics have since concluded their claims are neither fair nor credible.

As Wallace’s own biographer Peter Raby concludes: “Never has an intriguing theory been built on slenderer evidence. As for the human factor, there is nothing in Darwin’s life to suggest that he was capable of such massive intellectual dishonesty, even if he was not especially generous in acknowledging his sources and debts.”

Indeed, historians argue that had it not been for Darwin, the idea of natural selection would have suffered grievously. If he had not been the first to develop natural selection, and Wallace had been the one to get the kudos and attention, the theory would have made a very different impact. “In the end, Wallace came to believe evolution was sometimes guided by a higher power,” adds Endersby, who has edited the forthcoming Cambridge University Press edition of “The Origin of Species.”

“He thought natural selection could not account for the nature of the human mind and claimed humanity was affected by forces that took it outside the animal kingdom.” This is perilously close to the idea of Intelligent Design, the notion — put forward by modern creationists — that a deity had a hand in directing the course of evolution. By contrast, Darwin’s vision was austere and indicated humanity as a mere “twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life which, if replanted from seed, would almost surely not grow this twig again,” as Stephen Jay Gould describes it. According to Darwin, there are no get-out clauses for humans. We are as bound to the laws of natural selection as a bacterium or a tortoise.

The roots of this unforgiving doctrine have a very human face, however. Darwin meshed his life and career tightly together. He was a family man to his core and while he was grief-stricken by the death of baby Charles in 1858, he had been left utterly shattered by the death from tuberculosis of his 10-year-old daughter, Annie, in 1851, as his great-great grandson, Randal Keynes points out in his book “Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, his daughter and human evolution.”

Mustard poultices, brandy, chloride of lime and ammonia were all that medicine could then offer Annie when she started to sicken. None had any effect on her worsening bouts of vomiting and delirium until Annie “expired without a sigh” on April 23, 1851, Darwin recalled. “We have lost the joy of the household and the solace of our old age.” Keynes argues persuasively that Annie’s death had a considerable impact on Darwin’s thinking. “In her last days, he had watched as her face was changed beyond recognition by the emaciation of her fatal illness. You could only understand the true conditions of life if you held on to a sense of the true ruthlessness of natural forces.”

Thus Darwin’s eyes had been opened to the unforgiving processes that drive evolution. “We behold the face of nature bright with gladness,” he wrote years later. “We do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing around us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life, or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds or beasts of prey.”

Or as he wrote elsewhere: “All Nature is war.” This pitiless vision — which stressed blind chance as the main determiner in the struggle for survival and the course of evolution — was upsetting for Victorians who put such faith in self-help and hard work. Nevertheless, this is the version of natural selection that has since been supported by a century and a half of observation and which is now accepted by virtually every scientist on Earth.

I t has not been a happy process, of course. Even today, natural selection holds a special status among scientific theories as being the one that it is still routinely rejected and attacked by a significant — albeit small — segment of society, mainly fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. Such individuals tend to have few views on relativity, the Big Bang, or quantum mechanics, but adamantly reject the idea that humanity is linked to the rest of the animal world and descended from ape-like ancestors.

“Twenty years ago, this was not a problem,” says Steve Jones, a professor of genetics at University College London. “Today, I get dozens of students who ask to be excused lectures on evolution because of their religious beliefs. They even accuse me of telling lies when I say natural selection is backed by the facts. So I ask if they believe in Mendel’s laws of genetics? They say yes, of course. And the existence of DNA? Again, yes. And genetic mutations? Yes. The spread of insecticide resistance? Yes. The divergence of isolated populations on islands? Yes. And do you accept that 98 percent of DNA is shared by humans and chimps? Again yes. So what is wrong with natural selection? It’s all lies, they say. It beats me, frankly.”

This dismay is shared by Dawkins. “These people claim the world is less than 10,000 years old, which is wrong by a great many orders of magnitude. Earth is several billion years old. These individuals are not just silly, they are colossally, staggeringly ignorant. I am sure sense will prevail, however.” And Jones agrees. “It’s a passing phase. In 20 years, this nonsense will have gone.” Natural selection is simply too important for society to live without it, he argues. It is the grammar of the living world and provides biologists with the means to make sense of our planet’s myriad plants and animals, a view shared by Attenborough whose entire Life on Earth programs rests on the bed-rock of Darwinian thinking.

“Opponents say natural selection is not a theory supported by observation or experiment; that it is not based on fact; and that it cannot be proved,” Attenborough says. “Well, no, you cannot prove the theory to people who won’t believe in it any more than you can prove that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. However, we know the battle happened then, just as we know the course of evolution on Earth unambiguously shows that Darwin was right.”