To some readers it will undoubtedly seem that we have dealt unfairly with Darwin thus far, alleging dishonesty and self-seeking as key features of his behaviour. Let's look, then, at a statement made by Darwin in 1876, when he was at the height of his fame:
"It has sometimes been said that the success of the 'Origin' proved 'that the subject was in the air', or 'that men's minds were prepared for it.' I do not think this is strictly true ... I never happened to come across a single [naturalist] who seemed to doubt about the permanence of species ... What I believe was strictly true is that innumerable well-observed facts were stored in the minds of naturalists ready to take their proper places as soon as any theory which would receive them was sufficiently explained."1
How can this statement be interpreted other than as blatant self-aggrandisement?
Did Darwin really believe that not one single person had been able to make sense of the species question until he came along with 'his' hypothesis! It seems that even at the time someone found this allegation hard to stomach and persuaded Darwin to back pedal. Thus, in the last edition of The Origin he admits, in what seems like a rather grudging manner, that:
"I formerly spoke to very many naturalists on the subject of evolution, and never once met with any sympathetic agreement. It is probable that some did then believe in evolution, but they were either silent, or expressed themselves so ambiguously that it was not easy to understand their meaning."2
They "expressed themselves so ambiguously that it was not easy to understand their meaning"! Isn't this a rather obvious case of the kettle calling the pot black?
What is even more remarkable is the way Darwin's 'disciples' have sought to excuse their hero's excesses. In relation to the first of the two quotations above, Professor George Simpson wrote:
"These are extraordinary statements. They cannot literally be true, yet Darwin cannot be consciously lying, and he may therefore be judged unconsciously misleading, naive, forgetful, or all three."3
Yes, these are "extraordinary statements". And no, "they cannot literally be true". But how do we jump from those observations to the claim "Darwin cannot be consciously lying". Why not?
What moves a leading scientist to such blind faith? No wonder evolutionists come close to deifying Darwin when their most eminent colleagues are afflicted with such irrational infatuation.
Fortunately there are also those in the scientific community, such as Professor Eiseley, who realise that a biography which merely mythologises its subject is worse than useless. Which brings us to the point where we must answer the most vital questions in this whole story. Questions like:
Note: We are aware of at least one website where it is claimed that Blyth does not rate serious consideration as a 'precursor' of Darwin's work on evolution, and that Eiseley's decision to champion Blyth's cause is misguided.
In Darwin Myth #7, later in this part of Charles Darwin - The Truth? we shall show that the material in question is yet another ill-informed attempt to whitewash Darwin's reputation.
It's one thing to adopt a new idea when it presents itself. It's something else again to drop a previously held belief in favour of an entirely contrary idea (unless that alternative idea is also your own). As mentioned in Part 2 of this paper, there is documentary evidence that argues that Darwin still held to the per saltum hypothesis after his return to England in 1836. That he was able to perform such a total volte face in favour of the possibility of the transmutation of species in the space of less than nine months is indeed remarkable. Which is presumably why we are urged by so many biographers to believe that Darwin actually changed his views on the species question whilst serving on the Beagle.
Where, then, should we look for the answer?
On the one hand we could suppose that Darwin was so immersed in scientific impartiality that he simply recognised the error of the per saltum hypothesis and changed his mind, in no more than a matter of days or weeks. In reality, however, we have ample evidence that Darwin showed very little impartiality in scientific matters, especially when his own views were on the line.
In mid-1838 Darwin travelled north, to Glen Roy, near Lochaber (in Scotland), to study the 'Parallel Roads', great horizontal lines along the sides of the glen. It was generally accepted, at the time, that these lines were ancient beaches rather than divisions between the strata, but there still was no common commitment to Louis Agassiz' idea that the beaches been formed by a freshwater glacial lake.
Darwin, in a paper read to the Royal Society in February, 1839, (based on just eight days of investigation) argued that glacial lake solution was basically unsound, and that the glen must therefore have once been an arm of the sea.
Taken in isolation this explanation was elegant, and made a great deal of sense. But it was wrong. In March 1847 a Scottish geologist, David Milne presented a paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh showing that Darwin was in error, and that the freshwater solution was indeed correct.
Darwin was unimpressed, and continued to cling to his own interpretation of the evidence for close on 15 years until, in September 1861 he finally wrote to another Scottish geologist, T.F. Jamieson to concede: "Your arguments seem to me conclusive ... My paper is one long blunder ..."4
Even that long after the original clash of ideas, Darwin wrote to Lyell: "I am smashed to atoms about Glen Roy."5 Not exactly the model of an objective scientist.
The main alternative explanation for Darwin's change of heart is that when he came upon the fauna and flora on the Galapgos Islands, they so impressed him that he immediately began to develop the basic ideas which would eventually develop into his evolutionary hypothesis. This is a wonderfully convenient notion, but it is at odds with the facts.
Darwin Myth #6: The Lesson Learnt From Darwin's Finches
The Beagle remained for about five weeks in the Galapagos Islands, during which time Darwin did indeed collect all sorts of specimens, but not in any kind of order. As Nigel Calder observed, it was only when a Mr Lawson, Vice-Governor of the islands, commented that he could tell which particular island a given Galapagos tortoise came from that Darwin began to realise that there were any observable differences between the plant and animal populations of the different islands. By this time it was too late to make a detailed study of the famous bird specimens from the various islands for "he had hopelessly muddled most of his specimens of the finches that were to make the Galapagos and himself jointly famous."6
Porter and Graham describe the situation with admirable candour in their anthology The Portable Darwin:
"In the 1930s and 1940s the Galapagos finches, now called 'Darwin's finches,' were found by the English ornithologist David Lack to be an excellent example of adaptive radiation - that is, the evolution of a number of closely related species occupying different ecological niches from a single ancestral species. Scientists assumed that Darwin had recognised the significance of the finches he collected, and thus that the Galapagos finches had played a major role in the development of his evolutionary ideas. But in spite of its presence in many biology texts, this account is largely inaccurate. Unfortunately, Darwin had not paid enough attention to where he had collected the individual finches, and in most cases he was never able to determine the island of origin. The Galapagos Islands were important to Darwin's understanding of how evolution takes place, but in fact it was not the island finches but mockingbirds and tortoises that provided him with examples."7
As one of Darwin's grandsons - Professor Richard Keynes - explains:
"One immediate mistake made by Charles was to assume ... that the blackness of the individuals was an important feature, for in fact it merely varies with age. Moreover, he was slow to appreciate that the vital distinguishing characteristic of the different members of the family would be the size and shapes of their beaks, so that like the shapes of the tortoises mentioned to him by Mr. Lawson, the appearance of the birds varied significantly between the different islands. He consequently got himself into serious trouble when he failed for once to label all his specimens properly with the name of the island where they had been shot, and had to appeal to Fitzroy and others for some of their hopefully better labelled birds."8
In fact, however, it turns out that Darwin has had the last laugh on the question of the Galapagos finches (see below).
Darwin's initial response to this information was far from being an intuitive leap in favour of the transmutation of species, as shown by his contemporary comments:
"... when I see [the Galapagos islands] in sight of each other and possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds but slightly differing in structure and filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties. The only fact of a similar kind of which I am aware is the constantly asserted difference between the wolf-like fox of East and West Falkland Islands. If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks, the Zoology of Archipelagoes will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of species."9
Taken at face value, Darwin seems to be saying that his collection of finches does not, in his opinion, constitute evidence that would "undermine the stability of species". And we now know that he was right.
The finches of the Galapagos Islands didn't receive a great deal of attention, after Darwin, until 1937, when a British ornithologist name David Lack visited the Islands for the duration of the natural breeding season. According to Lack, even when he put finches of different "species" in the same cage they "rarely" mated. And even those which did seemed to be pretty reluctant partners.
At which point the alarm bells should have started to ring like crazy. But they didn't. On the contrary, Julian Huxley - a leading evolutionist and descendant of "Darwin's Bulldog" (Thomas Huxley) - encouraged Lack to publish his findings as evidence of evolution in action!
Which was a fairly strange thing to do since Lack's findings showed exactly the opposite.
The point being that part of the widely accepted definition of speciation (the development of different species from a common stock) is that groups become new species when they can no longer produce viable offspring if they mate with members of the group from which they are directly descended.
So if any members of the 13 "species" of Galapagos finches could mate with members of another "species" then clearly those two birds at least, according to the standard definition, did not belong to different species at all. On the contrary, as Darwin suspected, they simply belonged to different varieties of the SAME species.
And Lack's findings should not be doubted simply because they were gathered during a relatively short period of time. For more than 30 years, starting in 1973, husband and wife team of Peter and Rosemary Grant (both evolutionary biologists) have spent 6 months of each year studying the flora and fauna of the Galapagos in considerable detail, especially on the island of Daphne Major. And including the various varieties of finches. Their observations, whilst providing solid evidence of natural selection at work at the level of adaptation to environmental pressures, such as drought, have also demonstrated that the various kinds of finch can and do interbreed and that Darwin himself was right all along.
What is seldom acknowledged is that there was yet another influence working on Darwin at that time, and this is as good a point as any at which to introduce that influence. In order to effect the introduction I'd like to set out two passages related to the feasibility of changes in species by a per saltum process (i.e. by sudden leaps). One passage is taken from Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859); the other is from the first of Blyth's papers - The Varieties of Animals - published 24 years earlier in the Magazine of Natural History in 1835 (see Appendices A and B for the full text of Blyth's paper):
"'True Varieties' ... what are, in fact, a kind of deformities, or monstrous births ... would very rarely, if ever, be perpetuated in a state of nature ..."10
"It may be doubted whether sudden and considerable deviations of structure such as we see in our domestic productions ... are ever permanently propagated in a state of nature."11
Well now, I've actually reversed the implied order of those two quotations. The first is from Blyth, and the second is from Darwin. And I'd be willing to bet not one evolutionist in a thousand would know the difference! For what real difference is there? The quote from Darwin could so easily be a simple paraphrase of Blyth's original observation. Having said that, I realize that some scientists, such as Professor Mayr (see Darwin Myth #7, below), might argue that the comment from Blyth demonstrates that he favoured the "natural selection as an agent for conservation" view. But if we're honest, doesn't the quote from Darwin indicate exactly the same stance? And more intriguingly, don't both comments leave room for the possibility that such changes might actually survive from time to time?
Of course, if this were the sole evidence of Darwin's debt to Blyth then there would be no case worth investigating. But it isn't.
In that first paper Blyth not only torpedoed the per saltum hypothesis, he also explained why it was wrong by referring to the process of sexual selection, the 'struggle for existence' (Blyth actually used that phrase), to natural selection and to the effects of differential reproduction. (See The Varieties of Animals - Part 1 and The Varieties of Animals - Part 2, both available on this site.)
It should be noted that the full significance of differential reproduction was only recognised in the early 1900s after Mendel's work on genetics became widely known. Up until that time natural selection was primarily defined in terms of differential mortality, the feature which Darwin had placed most emphasis upon.
In Blyth's second and third papers (jointly reproduced as a single paper in Eiseley's book, and on this site, under the title Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds12, published in 1836), he deals with adaptation and extinction, comparative anatomy (often referred to nowadays as homology), the difference between species and varieties, the spread of species by 'indefinite radiation', the difference between specialised and unspecialised life forms, and the concept of the ecological niche.
One of Blyth's main concerns in these two papers was to outline a means by which life forms might be more accurately classified. The terms he suggested to facilitate this task were affinity, analogy (which included reference to similar behaviour in apparently unrelated animals), and approximation. It is hard to resist the impression that this may have had some influence on Darwin's thinking when he write to tell his friend Charles Lyell, in 1838, that:
"... new views ... have been coming in thickly and steadily, - on the classification and affinities and instincts of animals - bearing on the question of species."13
A bit of a stretch? I don't think so. Instincts, as well as being a feature of Blyth's concept of analogy, were also the central topic of his fourth paper: Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals (1837).
It was also in this last paper that Blyth really opened the way for Darwin to subvert his views in the service of evolutionism. In what may have been, for science at least, the most important paragraph written in the whole of the 19th century, Blyth posed one very simple but profound question:
"... as man, by removing species from their appropriate haunts, superinduces changes on their physical constitution and adaptations, to what extent may not the same take place in wild nature, so that, in many generations, distinctive characters may be acquired, such as are recognised as indicative of specific diversity? ... May not then, a large proportion of what are considered species have descended from a common parentage?"14
(Italics added. This passage is highlighted in red in Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 4 on this website.) )
The paramount importance of those few lines may be gauged, in part, by the fact that many modern evolutionists, if they acknowledge this passage at all, carefully excise that final sentence. Not really surprising I suppose, especially if we compare Blyth's words with this passage from the chapter in The Origin which deals with natural selection:
"Under domestication ... [man] unintentionally exposes organic beings to new and changing conditions of life and variability ensues; but similar changes of conditions might and do occur under nature."15
Another example of "unconscious borrowing"? Not according to Ernst Mayr, who had another explanation altogether.
Darwin Myth #7: Professor Mayr Proved Eiseley wrong
According to John Wilkins, a contributor to the TalkOrigins website:
"Eiseley's argument that Darwin had borrowed from Blyth based on a similarity in terminology has been disproven, on the grounds that Darwin used the term before he could have read Blyth, and because Darwin had clearly developed some of the focal planks of his theory by that point, Mayr 1982, p.489"16
This comment is, in every respect, wrong! But it is a perfect example of the cavalier fashion in which many evolutionists, both grand and humble, have treated the Blyth question
What Mayr actually wrote was:
"Eiseley (1959)17 vigorously promoted the thesis that Edward Blyth had established the theory of evolution by natural selection in 1835 and that Darwin surely had read his paper and quite likely had derived a major inspiration from it without ever mentioning this in his writings ... Darwin quite likely had read Blyth's paper but paid no further attention to it since it was antievolutionary in spirit and not different from the writings of other natural theologians in its general thesis."18
Notice there is no mention that Darwin couldn't have read the articles in time, and no suggestion that he had already developed his own ideas too far to have been influenced by Blyth. Such suggestions are, in any case, disproved by the fact that the articles pre-dated Darwin's first 'species question' notebook.
Mayr's carelessness is hard to believe. He apparently had no idea that the 1959 paper was only part of Eiseley's argument, or that a body of relevant material had been gathered together in book form, so that the question of whether Blyth's description of natural selection preceded Darwin's definition of natural selection was no longer an isolated evidence of plagiarism but had become just part of an extensive and detailed case.
"[Darwin] was to spend a great amount of space in the trial essays [of 1842 and 1844] and the Origin answering the arguments of Edward Blyth."19
Mayr's problem was that he was so blinkered by his own beliefs that he could not conceive that Blyth might be capable of thinking rationally about a subject like evolution. Had he bothered to do a little research he would have found that Darwin's own copies of the relevant editions of the Magazine of Natural History were still in existence - with Darwin's handwritten notes in the margins. He might also have made a more careful examination of the extant correspondence between Darwin and Blyth (see Darwin Myth #8, below).
And even when Mayr is quoted correctly, we find that he has generated not one myth, but two:
Darwin Myth #8: Darwin couldn't have been influenced by Blyth, because Blyth was a "creationist" and/or an "antievolutionist"
As we saw in Darwin Myth #7, above, one excuse offered as "evidence" that Blyth did not make a significant contribution to Darwin's ideas is the allegation that Blyth was an "antievolutionist" at heart:
"Darwin quite likely had read Blyth's paper but paid no further attention to it since it was antievolutionary in spirit and not different from the writings of other natural theologians in its general thesis.."20
But how much truth is there in this allegation? In the restrictive sense that Mayr was using it, to support the allegation that Blyth was close-minded, the answer is that it was not true at all, as we can see in this section of a letter from Blyth to Darwin following the publication of Wallace's paper in 1855:
"What think you of Wallace's paper in the Ann M.N.H.? Good! Upon the whole!  Wallace has, I think, put the matter well; and according to his theory, the various domestic races of animals have been fairly developed into species."21
The first question this generates is: "Why was Blyth writing to Darwin about Wallace's paper - On the law that has Regulated the Introduction of New Species?" The most obvious answer seems to be that Blyth knew the paper would be of interest to Darwin because he knew what Darwin was working on. And if this is true then we are faced with the further question: "If Blyth was seriously opposed to the notion of evolution, why was he providing Darwin with all kinds of information?"
This does not, of course, prove that Blyth was actually a closet evolutionist. But when combined with various ideas in Blyth's 1835-7 articles there does seem to be very strong evidence that Blyth was actually a pretty open-minded character, and had long since recognised that under certain circumstances "natural selection" might actually encourage some degree of diversity, and therefore was not a hostage, as Mayr claimed, to the idea that natural selection only acted to conserve the status quo.
There is, in fact, far more evidence of Blythisms in Darwin's work than can be quoted here. Eiseley cites all kinds of examples, ranging from Darwin's sudden fondness for the word "inosculate" at the same time that it appears in Blyth's 1836 papers, through the use of similar lists of creatures in similar contexts23, to the citing of the same behaviour patterns in relation to external features. Attempts have been made to minimise the importance of indidual examples - such as the use of the word "inosculate". It should be emphasised, then, that the Eiseley's case did not rest on the appearance of a word here and there, but on the accumulation of parallel examples, together with the timing of their appearances.
Moreover, Eiseley's own list is not necessarily a definitive collection of such similarities. Eiseley depended on memory alone to recognise points at which Blyth and Darwin seemed to be 'plowing the same furrow', as in the next, very obvious example.
Note: The objection that Darwin could not have read Blyth's articles before his return to England also fails to hold much water. There is plentiful evidence that Darwin received post from home on numerous occasions during the voyage, including letters, magazines and even books! He received both the second and third volumes of Lyell's Principles of Geology whilst in South America, for example.
One of Blyth's major reservations regarding the evolutionary hypothesis which he himself had outlined lay in his understanding of the limitations imposed by two kinds of boundaries - the species boundary, and natural, geographical boundaries.
Blyth believed that species tended to be confined, by natural selection, within fairly rigid geographical boundaries, though he also recognised that, under certain circumstances (such as the overpopulation of a particular species' territory) these boundaries might be violated. He also realised that if such boundary-breaking were successful then adaptive changes might actually be encouraged, again by natural selection.
As far as Darwin was concerned, the more these boundaries might be broken, the better, but he remained uncertain as to the extent to which this might be possible. On the subject of the 'species boundary', for example, he observed that:
"On the [South American] continent ... pre-occupation has probably played an important part in checking the commingling of the species which inhabit different districts with nearly the same physical conditions."24
But it is the question of the limiting effects of geographical boundaries which are particularly interesting in the current context. In 1837 Blyth argued that:
"... we hear of the agency of sea currents in transporting seeds ... but it appears not to have been remembered that steeping in sea water destroys the vital principle; that moisture induces germination, which, once excited, can only be checked by the final cessation of the vital functions. ... This observation is ... intended to apply merely to [the seeds] of inland plants ..."25
And that, surely, is why, in 1855, as he returned to the species question, Darwin was immersing the seeds of inland plants in jars of salt water for days and weeks at a time26. It may be noted from Blyth's words ("we hear") that the notion of sea-going seeds was by no means his own idea. Yet the fact that Darwin was surprised when the seeds germinated (though they all died soon afterwards) seems to indicate that he still regarded Blyth's opinions as a reliable guide!
Note: In 2009, during the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, the BBC broadcast a programmee called Darwin's Garden in which they featured details of this experiment.
With the usual level od accuracy found in media versions of the Darwin Myths, the experiment was presented as though it were all Darwin's own work with not a hint that the idea for the experiment might have come from anywhere else - nor, of course, any mention of Edward Blyth.