Part 6 - Without Reference ...

The Imperfect Abstract

Up until now we've been setting out, in chronological order, some of the most important events leading up to the publication of The Origin of Species.  Within that basic framework we've also seen a certain amount of information which, to say the least, provides strong circumstantial evidence that Darwin had a hard job telling the truth any time he thought he had more to gain by telling a lie.  In this section we shall look more closely at what it was Darwin stood to lose by telling the truth about his ideas on 'the species question', and why.

First and foremost, Darwin stood to lose his reputation as a man of science; a man of such intelligence and perspicacity that he alone could find the answer to one of the greatest of all life's mysteries.  A man, in fact, who might at last cast off the negative judgements of a dominating, even overwhelming, father figure.and as an an innovator.   As ever, whilst still trying to soften the full import of Darwin's attitude and behaviour, Eiseley goes to the very heart of the matter:

"There is every indication that Darwin found the historical introduction which was included in the Origin a painful task.  It would seem that beneath the political necessities which undoubtedly had early contributed to Darwin's reluctance to review his forerunners, there was a genuine and understandable hunger to possess the theory as totally his own"1

It will come as no surprise, by now, to find that Darwin endeavoured to give the matter an entirely different interpretation.  To recall an earlier quote, in 1856 Darwin wrote to Joseph Hooker to explain his persistent unwillingness to go to press:

"It yet strikes me as quite unphilosophical to publish results without the full details which have led to such results."2

Indeed, he repeated this excuse in several other letters about that time.  And even in his introduction to the first edition of The Origin Darwin is still apologising for the lack of documentation:

"No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this."3 (Italics added)

Why was it then, if not for self-promotion, that Darwin never produced those facts and references as he had promised?  Despite a host of amendments made in the course of the five later editions, Darwin never did set out the relevant facts and references in full, so that the introduction to the final (6th) edition still contains that same, unfulfilled promise.4

I should explain, at this point, that the 1st edition of The Origin is not entirely devoid of references.  Darwin did quote a number of other naturalists, some breeders, some gardeners, and so forth.  But he quite obviously does not provide anything like a complete list.  In this case, the presence of 'half a list' is stranger than if there had been none at all.

But let's return to that central burning question - why?

We can hardly suppose that lack of time was the cause, for at least two reasons.  Firstly, it is illogical.  Darwin had been preparing this work for over 20 years before it finally went into print.  He knew perfectly well that, when he eventually came to publish his work, he would be expected to provide this information, and it makes no sense to suppose that he would have collected all these facts without also noting where they came from.
The second reason is even more compelling.  It is the manuscript of Natural Selection (see the entry for 1857 in Part 3 of this paper), edited by Charles Stauffer, published in 1987 by the Cambridge University Press.  The blurb for this book on the CUP website states quite specifically:

An original, unpublished manuscript written before the Origin of Species which contains the references to journal articles and books that Darwin used in formulating his controversial ideas."5
(Italicised text added)

In other words, Darwin had indeed already collected and collated much of his documentation before he even started work on The Origin.

But perhaps he forgot?  Not very likely, it seems.
Thomas Huxley, a close friend of Darwin for many years (he became known as 'Darwin's Bulldog' because of his aggressive defence of Darwinism in public debates), declared that Charles possessed "a great memory"6.  And Darwin himself claimed that his memory alone was usually sufficient to recall both whatever facts he required, and also their sources.7

And in any case, the reliability, or otherwise, of Darwin's memory is mostly irrelevant because of the careful way in which he had recorded his 'facts and sources' over the years.
There were the notebooks, dating back as far as July, 1837, all of which (even the mysterious 50 "useful pages") had been lovingly preserved.  There were the books of natural history which, according to his letter to his wife in July, 1844, "are either scored or have references at the end to the pages ..."8

And then there was the impressive filing system which Darwin had developed:

"... from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves."9

According to Darwin, these portfolios played an essential part of his work:

"Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use."10

He also had a "large drawer" containing detached references, memoranda and abstracts of books he had borrowed, together with the "list of books of all kinds which I read and abstracted, including whole series of Journals and Transactions ..." which he had compiled after his return to England in 1836.11

To the Victor - the Spoils

On the basis of this evidence it seems incredible that Darwin could think of saying: "I cannot here give references and authorities for my several statements ..."12.  It is patently not true.  It makes no sense.  And the reason why it makes no sense, I think, is because it is yet another of Darwin's multitude of lies.  Darwin was not "unable to give references and authorities" but rather was "unwilling" to make full disclosure of his sources.
Because he knew that he could not reveal that information without destroying the reputation he had so carefully acquired over the previous 20 years.

Not to put too fine a point on it, when Alfred Wallace began to publicly address the species question, Darwin was suddenly, hopelessly trapped.  For years he had been taking other people's ideas and claiming them as his, and his alone.  If he now published he would have to do something about listing his sources.
If he was too thorough, if he listed all of his sources, he would have to include Blyth's four articles from 1835-37, and he would be exposed as a common plagiarist.  All the claims he had made in letter after letter to friends and scientists would be revealed as empty self-aggrandisement.
But if he concealed all of of his sources his action would be so inexplicable as to arouse the very suspicions he sought to avoid.  He would also alienate the many people who had done so much to help him (in less crucial manner) over the years.
Too many references meant trouble; too few references meant trouble.  What was he to do?

Being the kind of man he was, Darwin had only one option left - and he took it.  By listing only some of his sources - including three references to Blyth's later work - he preserved the hope that his failure to mention his true debt to Blyth might go unnoticed.  If it didn't, though the credit might pass to Edward Blyth, at least Darwin could save face by pointing to his publicly declared intention to publish a full list of his sources "in a future work".

It was a cunning plan, devised by a cunning mind.  And for over one hundred years it worked.

  1. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X., Loren Eiseley. op. cit. p.77.
  2. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed.). op. cit. Vol. 2, pp.69-70.
  3. On The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin. Reprint of 1st edition, edited by J.W. Burrow.  Penguin Books, Harmondsworth:1968. p.66.
  4. The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, (6th edition).  Watts and Co., London:1929. p.2.
  6. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X., Loren Eiseley. op. cit. p.92.
  7. Ibid.
  8. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed.). op. cit. Vol. 2, p.16.
  9. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X., Loren Eiseley. op. cit. p.92.
  10. Ibid.
  11. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed.). op. cit. Vol. 1, p.83.
  12. On The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin. Reprint of 1st edition, edited by J.W. Burrow. op. cit. pp.65-66.

Go to other sections

Part 0 - Introduction
Part 1 - Metaphors and Myths
Part 2 - The Mystery Begins
Part 3 - All At Sea
Part 4 - He Who Hesitates ...
Part 5 - Last Days
Part 7 - The Missing Link
Part 8 - Going Public, Maybe
Part 9 - ... Father to the Man
Part 10 - Mr Wallace, Mr Blyth ...
Part 11 - ... and 'Mr' Lyell
Part 12 - The Final Frontier

Appendices - The full text of Blyth's papers from 1835-37
Appendix A - The Varieties of Animals - Part 1
Appendix B - The Varieties of Animals - Part 2
Appendix C - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 1
Appendix D - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 2
Appendix E - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 3
Appendix F - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 4
Appendix G - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 1
Appendix H - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 2
Appendix I - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 3
Appendix J - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 4

This paper was written and produced by Andrew J. Bradbury