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Darwin’s Lies?


Sutton’s case

Mike Sutton claims that he has “100% proven” that Darwin lied in some of his statements regarding Matthew. Sutton uses this claim as part of his broader claim that it is “more likely than not” that Darwin plagiarised his ideas from Matthew. See, for example, Sutton (2016) and Sutton blog post 18 April 2016.

Sutton’s case is built as follows:

  1. In his letter (7 April 1860) to the Gardeners’ Chronicle claiming priority over Darwin for the idea of large-scale evolution by natural selection, Matthew wrote: “This discovery recently published as “the results of 20 years’ investigation and reflection” by Mr. Darwin turns out to be what I published very fully and brought to apply practically to forestry in my work “Naval Timber and Arboriculture,” published as far back as January 1, 1831, by Adam & Charles Black, Edinburgh, and Longman & Co., London, and reviewed in numerous periodicals, so as to have full publicity in the “Metropolitan Magazine,” the “Quarterly Review,” the “Gardeners’ Magazine,” by Loudon, who spoke of it as the book, and repeatedly in the “United Service Magazine” for 1831, &c” (my emphasis added in bold).
  2. In addition to authoring many works on gardening, rural architecture, agriculture, and horticulture, J. C. Loudon (1783-1843) was the author of an encyclopaedic multi-volume reference work on trees and shrubs – Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum (1838) – and the founder and editor (from 1828-1836) of the Magazine of Natural History). Even if we accept that the 19th century definition of “naturalist” may have been more narrow than today’s, it is reasonable to label him a naturalist.
  3. In his reply (21 April 1860) to Matthew, Darwin wrote: “I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, had heard of Mr. Matthew’s views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the appendix to a work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture” (my emphasis in bold).
  4. In his reply (12 May 1860) to Darwin, Matthew wrote: “I have not the least doubt that, in publishing his late work, he [Darwin] believed he was the first discoverer of this law of Nature. He is however wrong in thinking that no naturalist was aware of the previous discovery. I had occasion some 15 years ago to be conversing with a naturalist, a professor of a celebrated university, and he told me he had been reading my work “Naval Timber,” but that he could not bring such views before his class or uphold them publicly from fear of the cutty-stool, a sort of pillory punishment, not in the market-place and not devised for this offence, but generally practised a little more than half a century ago” (my emphasis in bold).
  5. Despite Matthew’s previous references to Loudon and to an unnamed naturalist professor, Darwin later wrote in a private letter (25 April 1861) to the French naturalist J. L. A. Quatrefages de Bréau: “I have lately read M. Naudin’s paper; but it does not seem to me to anticipate me, as he does not shew how Selection could be applied under nature; but an obscure writer on Forest Trees, in 1830, in Scotland, most expressly & clearly anticipated my views — though he put the case so briefly, that no single person ever noticed the scattered passages in his book–” (my emphasis in bold).
  6. Finally, in his “Historical Sketch” included in the 3rd Edition (1861) and all subsequent editions of On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote: “Unfortunately the view was given by Mr. Matthew very briefly in scattered passages in an Appendix to a work on a different subject, so that it remained unnoticed until Mr. Matthew himself drew attention to it in the ‘Gardener’s Chronicle,’ on April 7th, 1860” (my emphasis in bold).


The case against Sutton

Below I present my case against Sutton’s views. Far from it being “100% proven” that Darwin lied, there is a strong case for Darwin not lying at all.

1) It is not possible to “100% prove” that someone is lying
Darwin wrote what he wrote, and Matthew wrote what he wrote. This is not in contention. We can treat these as facts, and indeed, aside from Darwin’s private letter to Quatrefages de Bréau, these facts have been in the public domain for the past 150 years. But one cannot “100% prove” that Darwin was lying. This would mean one knew for sure that Darwin was deliberately setting out to mislead or deceive (this is what defines a lie). There is simply no way that one can do this with 100% certainty, as this requires ‘knowing the mind of Darwin’.

2) Some statements are not meant to be interpreted literally
Of course, statements are usually intended literally, but there are exceptions. Statements along the lines of “nobody read that book” belong to that latter category. Indeed, turning to Dr Sutton’s favourite research tool – Google – I was unable to find a single case where a statement of this nature was intended literally (to take just two examples, see here and here). The reason should be obvious. Books published in the usual way, by a reputable publishing house, are bound to be read by some people. And a book about trees (like Matthew’s On Naval Timber and Arboriculture) is bound to be read by some people who are naturalists. And a medium-sized book (again, like On Naval Timber and Arboriculture) is bound to be read cover-to-cover by at least some of those naturalists. It would take a truly extraordinary set of circumstances to overturn that. Thus, in this case, the “literally-no-naturalist-read” interpretation is not sensible, it is not supported by general usage (cf. Google), I argue therefore it was not the intended interpretation, and thus there was no deliberate deception and hence no lie.

3) Darwin’s choice of words support a “no-transmission-of-idea” interpretation
In his first statement, Darwin used the verb “heard of”. In his second and third statements, Darwin used the verb “noticed” (or it’s opposite “unnoticed”). Yes, both these verbs can be interpreted as meaning “read”, but both verbs also carry an additional meaning – leaning on the concept of transmission of Matthew’s ideas. In other words, it is reasonable to suppose that what Darwin was saying was that Matthew’s ideas were not transmitted to the wider community of naturalists. In particular, if the people reading Matthew’s ideas did not understand or appreciate what was new and different about these ideas, then this does not count as transmission.

4) Darwin’s timing strongly supports a “no-transmission-of-idea” interpretation
Darwin’s first statement followed in quick succession, and was a response to, Matthew’s earlier letter claiming priority. The readers of Darwin’s letter would have also read Matthew’s letter. Furthermore, the educated readership would have been well aware of Loudon’s name. This makes a “no-naturalist-read” interpretation of what Darwin wrote even more illogical, as it begs the question: who was he trying to kid exactly?

5) Darwin has no motive
Darwin had nothing to gain from a “no-naturalist-read” interpretation of what he wrote, and plenty to gain from a “no-transmission-of-idea” interpretation that Matthew’s ideas were not transmitted to the wider community of naturalists. Crucially, this is true regardless of whether Darwin is “innocent” (i.e. previously unaware of Matthew’s book) or “guilty” (i.e. a deceitful plagiariser of Matthew’s book). Whether “innocent” or “guilty”, Darwin had a motive for establishing that Matthew’s ideas had not been transmitted to the wider community of naturalists, because if they had then a natural question then be “so why didn’t you know about his ideas, Mr Darwin?” Contrarily, Darwin had no motive to establish that literally no naturalist had read Matthew’s book, as all that would do is make him look stupid.


No evidence for transmission

As it happens, history (and this includes Dr Sutton’s research) has vindicated Darwin’s point that Matthew’s ideas were not transmitted to the wider community of naturalists. Yes, some people read Matthew’s book, but there is a deafening silence surrounding his ideas on evolution by natural selection. The most reasonable explanation for this is that those who read Matthew’s idea did not appreciate them as novel, and thus they were not noticed and not transmitted:

  1. Loudon mentioned Matthew’s views in his review in the Gardener’s Magazine, but he professed himself unsure of whether Matthew had written anything original.
  2. The unnamed naturalist professor mentioned in Matthew’s second letter did not teach Matthew’s views in his class, and it’s unclear to what extent he considered them to be different to Lamarckian evolution.
  3. Matthew himself admitted in Matthew (1862e) that he had not made any other public statement regarding his views on large-scale evolution by natural selection between the time of his 1831 book and his letter to the Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1860.
  4. When Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, and his views become widely known, no one wrote to any journal or newspaper to say they were aware of Matthew’s prior work. No-one, that is, apart from Matthew himself, who did so 5 months after Darwin’s book was published (thus there was time for others to do so if they wished).
  5. When Darwin responded to Matthew’s letter to the Gardeners’ Chronicle, stating that neither he “nor, apparently, any other naturalist had heard of Matthew’s views”, no one wrote to say that yes, they had heard of Matthew’s views.
  6. Of course, Darwin didn’t have access to Google Books and other modern online repositories, but if he had he would have been pleased to see that modern scholarship has comprehensively validated the “no-transmission-of-idea” hypothesis. It turns out that Loudon’s single sentence regarding Matthew’s views on the origin of species (see above) is the only clear reference to Matthew’s views that has been found in all the literature between 1831 and 1860. The silence is truly deafening.


Stoltzfus’ case

Arlin Stoltzfus (pers. comm.) has argued for a weaker version of Sutton’s case. He accepts that Sutton’s evidence does not amount to proof that Darwin lied, due to the issue of unknown intentions. However, he proposes that the evidence proves that Darwin told a “self-serving falsehood”, and from this it is reasonable to infer (not prove) that Darwin lied. He also believes this to be part of a broader pattern of Darwin failing to give credit to other thinkers.

This is a more reasonable position. Both the “no-naturalist-read” interpretation and the “no-transmission-of-idea” interpretation are alternative possibilities, and either may be true. I personally find the “no-transmission-of-idea” interpretation more likely (for reasons outlined in “The case against Sutton”), but this involves a subjective weighing of evidence, and others are free to find the “no-naturalist-read” interpretation more likely.

I do, however, take issue with Stoltzfus’ claim that Sutton’s evidence proves that Darwin told a “self-serving falsehood”, as this statement is only true under the “no-naturalist-read” interpretation of what Darwin wrote. Under the “no-transmission-of-idea” interpretation, and further assuming that Darwin is innocent of the claim that he deliberately plagiarised Matthew, then what Darwin wrote was true as far as he knew it, and indeed is true as far as we know it today (see “No evidence for transmission”). Thus, under my favoured “no-transmission-of-idea” interpretation, what Darwin told was a “self-serving truth”.

In conclusion, I think there is an innocent explanation for what Darwin wrote, and this explanation is more plausible and makes more sense than Dr Sutton’s view that Darwin was deliberately setting out to deceive.

Page created 25 May 2016
Last modified 24 September 2016

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