Darwin’s Untruths

A short follow-up to my detailed post on discussions with Dr Mike Sutton, presenting on his “Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret.

Firstly I’m NOT interested in arguing whether Darwin (and his bubble) told any untruths. I’m arguing about whether that makes any sense to therefore claim “Darwin was a liar”. Telling an untruth — with intent to deceive — doesn’t necessarily make you a liar. Do not pass go.

Got that?

OK, so given Darwin (and his bubble) told untruths (with intent to deceive), the question becomes one of his / their motives and the motives of anyone wanting to promote the “Darwin was a liar” message? (Sutton has not yet responded to the specific points in my original post.)

My best guess at Darwin’s untruths is that

  • (a) he probably did not consciously use Matthew’s work as a source,
  • (b) probably didn’t believe he’d been influenced when he published, and
  • © after subsequently corresponding with Matthew and giving acknowledgment in the 3rd edition of The Origin of Species he probably thought the matter closed — so he could get on with the ongoing task of expounding and defending the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection — for which Darwin is rightly recognised.
  • (d) over time he probably realised he may actually have been influenced by Matthew’s work, at first and/or second hand, and was embarrassed, but the bubble needed to defend the project now in progress primarily against the religious establishment at that time.
  • (e) Matthew was possibly seen as a nuisance crank in his personal claims — to various publishers, not just Darwin’s bubble, and
  • (f) an impression reinforced by the fact Matthew was a Chartist, part of a radical socialist campaign against the Victorian establishment.

Motivations were largely “politics” (small p) as I said already. When I said that several times in conversation with Sutton, he denied it initially, assuming I meant (partisan) Politics (capital P). I was pointing out he himself had made a political choice not to include the Chartism angle in his own book. Politically he has made tactical choices which truths not to include in his own book, given his own strategic aims in publishing. Which I’m questioning: the “so what?” — why make the claim?

Now, however, I’m not so sure the politics is simply tactical, given Sutton’s actual Politics — front and centre in his Twitter bio. I fear Matthew is to be cast as the downtrodden socialist sticking it to the Tory establishment. That context may indeed be real, but it’s not part of the content of the science.

Objective truths have to be valued above all within the processes of science itself. Sci-comm campaigns are of course always full of exaggerations, half- truths and white -lies. Shit happens in the real world, it’s how we get things done. Climate change — and (say) David Attenborough speaking at #COP24 — being the highest profile current example. Galileo as I mentioned, and his relationship with the Catholic church, being another high-profile historical example.

In my repeated experience, people who claim to be defending some narrow definition of truth above all else, tend to be doing so for reason of some extreme agenda. In balanced positions, most people can see that practical truth is usually more complicated. Science, and other topics claiming / wishing scientific qualities, tend to get blurred between use-mention / content-context distinctions, when dealing with this problem. [Many more examples in current dialogues.]

[If you want to respond to anything specifically written in this post please make sure you’ve read the original first, and considered the 4 explicit points summarised as being the questions at issue.]


Originally published at Psybertron Asks.