Was Darwin A Liar And So What If He Was?

Teesside Skeptics in the Pub had a talk from Dr Mike Sutton last night (6th Dec 2018). He presented the gist of his book “Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret.” as a simple timeline of events and communications in the development, publication and promotion of “Darwin’s” theory of evolution by natural selection.

[First (late night) Draft — will add more reference links and reserve the right to editorial corrections.]

Sutton is pretty much rejected by the science establishment because he treats the venerable Darwin as a target of accusations. We’re a sceptical bunch, so he came to the right place. It was a lively discussion.

The Amazon blurb is a good (combative) summary of Sutton’s position. Briefly, it is already well known and acknowledged by those involved in the history of evolutionary science that Patrick Matthew had earlier published a “similar” version of the Theory of Natural Selection for which Darwin is famous. Sutton goes as far as claiming — and citing much objective evidence — that Darwin lied in claiming that he couldn’t have been influenced by Matthew’s prior work.

Rather than a further report on the presentation itself — slides will be made available — the following summarises the key discussion points, and my own conclusions.

There is no doubt Darwin could have been influenced by Matthew (as Matthew was by others). No doubt some of the people in Darwin’s “bubble” had read some of what Matthew had previously published. Whether Darwin or any of these had spotted the significance and relevance of Matthew’s work — and phrasing — to Darwin’s origin of species is moot. As is whether the “full theory” of the processes of natural selection was complete before Darwin put his efforts into developing (and revising) his own full theory already existed in Matthew’s work — as some have claimed — but that’s a level more detailed than we could go into in one talk.

One things is clear is that Darwin himself acknowledged in the 3rd edition of the Origin of Species, as have many evolutionary biologists since, that Matthew had published the essence of — even most of and more — Darwin’s theory earlier. Another thing that is clear is that the “origin” of an idea, the intuition of its significance is never one person one time. It takes time and effort to get any idea promulgated and recognised — tell me about it! — by multiple publications and dialogues, fleshed-out and revised. First to publish carries some institutional weight, but doesn’t trump the fact that science is more than having and publishing an idea — that’s more like patenting for commercial gain, a proprietorial claim.

To me now, as a pan / neo-Darwinist more excited by 21st century developments in Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES), Darwin is simply the most influential name attached to the basic theory, a reward for the effort put into its development and promotion. Origination isn’t really the point as noted above. Science is complicated and dynamic, and history is messy and unscientific. “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, to quote (my hero) Dennett, alliterates nicely, but doesn’t idolise Darwin as the sole originator, simply as the most influential name attached to the idea.

Now I’m the first to acknowledge science is hidebound by numerous myths that seriously cramp progress and lead scientists into bad behaviour. That’s mostly what this blog is about in fact, keeping science and humanism honest. Galileo is often positively mythologised in much the way Darwin is. Science and atheism negatively mythologise the irrational nature of religious belief, and so on.

Whether or not Darwin was influenced by Matthew, the real claim is that he and his bubble lied about the significance of his work and about whether he and they could have been influenced.

As ever such debates come back to what we mean by truth and lies, and in fact that is the main myth of scientism — that all truth is about objective facts. And we can further “define” what we mean by lies as knowingly telling untruth with intent to deceive (a la Frankfurter). But this is just first-base, with further loops and Hofstadterian “strange loops” of intent in deception — a la white-lies, less-than-whole-truths and creative claims. As Dennett says — hold your definitions. By all means declare them to clarify discussion, but definitions are your conclusions, not constraints on the dialogue. Definitions — like every other “species” — evolve by natural selection.

Even on that basic Frankfurter definition of lying, I’d still say on the evidence presented, Darwin could have lied, but there was only circumstantial evidence that he might have, with only a couple of exceptions. It is important to note that those examples are in correspondence about the work, after the event, not part of the theory. Ongoing context not content.

For example: “No single person” had / could have actually read Matthew’s work. “No natural scientists” had “apparently” been aware of Matthew’s work. Clearly these are deliberate assertions which are not true in any literal objective sense, and much easier to show with 21st century “big data” technology not available to Darwin at the time. But these are rhetorical statements, they are not part of the scientifically objective content, required to meet basic logical standards of truth and falsehood. That mega-myth I call scientism, that ALL truths must meet the logical objectivity of science itself. Real life, and large parts of social-science and psychology, are not reducible to repeatable scientific paradigms.

In some sense Darwin may have lied, but what do we gain by simply calling him a liar? We certainly get the polarisation response — adoption by conspiracy theorists and enemies, and rejection as a pariah from the establishment. Is that what we want? More noise and heat than light and knowledge.

Obviously we “care” about truth, but standards of truth are contextual. Beyond science we have rhetoric, politics and religion. Politics definitely cares who it “offends” with raw whole truths — pragmatic tactics and strategies prevail. It’s always necessary to predict potential reactions that may get in the way of successfully getting your message out there. Let’s face it, there was plenty of choice-politic in how Darwin and his bubble dealt with the religious climate facing their theory. Maybe he hadn’t been conscious that he had been influenced by Matthew and was embarrassed when he realised he might have been? Maybe he had to lie? Maybe his establishment bubble made him lie? It was necessary to manage the messaging in order to get evolution by natural selection established. None of this “lying” compromised the content of the theory. Even Sutton himself took care not to include truths about Matthew’s position as a Chartist in his own book, in order to remove one distracting line of (spurious) objection to the content of his work. That’s life. No doubt some of Matthew’s difficulty getting more of his own work published and having his own claims rejected, failing to gain any establishment allies at the time, also hinged on him being seen as a dangerous nut-job thanks to his overt politico-religious position.

Anyway, after all the ifs and buts, what would we like to achieve, and what would explicitly calling Darwin a liar add to that?

  1. We care about truth, but should we promote a narrow “autistic” conception of absolute objective truth as the only game in town? No.
  2. Darwin is already a pretty successful branding for the basic idea built on so successfully by so many scientists and philosophers in so many (non-biological) fields since. Does it help to confuse that message with unnecessary detail truth and/or denigration of the name most associated with it? No.
  3. Should we give Matthew more credit in public consciousness? Sure, but no doubt other important contributors to the science and to the sci-comms.
  4. Should we educate the public (and the scientific establishment!) in lessons of how scientific progress is messier and less scientific than science itself? How science is itself trapped in myths that are holding it back? You bet. Philosophy of Science and the History of Philosophy and Science are subjects distinct from science itself. Rhetoric is not a dirty word.

Not sure calling Darwin a liar adds to that.

[Since those 4 points above have not been addressed yet, I have in fact posted follow-up with additional considerations.]

Originally published at Psybertron Asks.