Part 8 - Going Public, Maybe

Theory, Fact or Fiction?

Using the information in Part 7 of this paper, we can now suggest answers to the other two questions - did Darwin start with facts or a theory, and why was he so hesitant about publishing his (r)evolutionary idea?

Firstly, if, as seems clear beyond any reasonable doubt, Darwin drew many of his most important ideas from Blyth's work, then he had good reason to fudge the issue over which came first, the theory or the facts.
According to Sir Gavin De Beer:

"[Darwin] recognised that there are no such things as purely inductive observations, for if the observer had not already in his head an idea of what he was looking for ... he would not observe anything at all ..."1

In other words, no of course he wasn't making pure observations with no theoretical basis to work to.  But then Sir Gavin does his best to justify Darwin's claim to be working on Baconian principles by adding that Darwin was:

"[spinning] a hypothesis about anything that struck his attention"2

"anything that struck his attention"?  So how did he chose which books, journals, etc., to read, - remember Bowler's claim that Darwin was working to a "systematic reading programme".3
With respect, Bowler's version seems to make a lot more sense than De Beers'.

The task of reading The Origin of Species is not one that readily commends itself to even the most dedicated student.  The text has the consistency of muddy clay, and even if the writing were of a higher order, it is still the case that the book is very largely nothing more than a collection of 'facts' and observations.  Darwin may never have had an original thought in his life, but he certainly could compile a list!
Here, then is the likely answer to our first puzzle.

If Darwin had stuck to the 'facts first' claim then someone might reasonably ask which particular fact(s) had suggest the theory.  Referring back to his time aboard the Beagle wasn't a viable answer (though he did try it on for size), because it was painfully obvious that he didn't have a particularly good grasp of the significance of the "evidence" he had collected.  Nor would it have made much sense to claim that Malthus was his sole guide, for Darwin had been moving in a more or less straight line for years before he came to Malthus' explanation.  Moreover, as we shall see later, Darwin almost certainly had not one but two separate sources for his notion of the struggle for existence both of which substantially pre-dated his reading of Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population.

If, on the other hand, he allowed that he started with a theory then, once again, he would need to explain where that theory came from - and thereby reveal his real debt.  Only by fogging the issue, never being consistent to one explanation or the other, was Darwin able to maintain the vagueness that lasted over 20 years and protected him from the charge of 'cats-paw', or plagiarist, or both.

To Publish - Or Not to Publish

The final question we have to answer really breaks down into two related parts:

  1. When was Darwin really first ready to publish his work?
  2. Why did it take him so long to commit himself in print over the species question?

The answer to the first part of the question depends on how gifted a naturalist we imagine Darwin to have been.  We said earlier that he was definitely not an academic incompetent (he actually came 10th out of the 178 students who took a B.A. degree without honours that year).  But this doesn't mean he was a scientific genius, either.  He was, in practice, an amateur naturalist with enough money to devote himself to his hobby as and when it suited him.  In short, quite a typical sort of Victorian English country gentleman.

It is only if we cling to the Darwinian Myth that we will be surprised by the criticisms of The Origin offered by Mayr4 and Simpson5, or by Eiseley's admission that The Descent of Man (1871):

"... is contradictory in spots, as though [Darwin] had simply poured his notes together and never fully read the completed manuscript to make sure it was an organic whole."6

Despite all his books and papers, on closer inspection Darwin's abilities as a scientist of any kind seldom if ever rose above a poor average.  And why should they?  At the time when he sailed aboard the Beagle his entire scientific training amounted to less than twelve months casual association with members of the science faculty at Cambridge - Henslow, Sedgwick, et al).  His choice as naturalist on the Beagle was due to his social standing - his suitability to act as companion to Captain Fitzroy - rather than his talent as a naturalist.  What he did know, mainly related to geology, was very largely restricted to what he had taught himself from books.  Time and again he achieved his results not by his scientific ability but by his ability to get others to do his work for him.  Harsh judgement?  Let's consider the known facts.

On his return to England, Darwin found that he had already achieved some standing in scientific circles and was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society in November of that same year.  But on what basis?  Although he had learnt a little geology from Sedgwick and from reading Lyell, still one of his earliest concerns when he returned home was to find someone who could help him to describe the "mineralogical nature" of the geological specimens he had collected.7

The government-sponsored Zoology of The Voyage of The Beagle was indeed edited by Darwin, and it was centered on the specimens which he had collected during the 5 year voyage.  But it was a consortium of some of the leading scientists of the day who were inveigled into doing the real work, including8:

  • Henslow, and later Hooker, dealt with the plants
  • Leonard Jenyns worked on the fish
  • F.W. Hope dealt with most of the beetles
  • M.I. Berkeley handled the fungi
  • Richard Owen took charge of the large fossil bones
  • George Waterhouse dealt with the mammalian and some entomological specimens
  • John Gould was responsible for the birds
  • Thomas Bell dealt with the reptiles
  • William Lonsdale took charge of the corals
  • C.G. Ehrenberg handled the infusoria

Of course it would be unreasonable to expect Darwin to be an expert in such a diverse range of specialisms.  But what kind of 'scientist' is an expert in none!
It seems quite clear from the evidence that Darwin's early reputation was based primarily on his work as a kind of round-the-world human vacuum cleaner, sucking up specimens for the delectation of the experts.  Darwin himself was so ignorant of the nature of many of these specimens that he felt bound to admit that:

"... I knew no more about the plants which I had collected, than the Man in the Moon."9

Nor is this lack of knowledge restricted to the days of his youth.  For example, though he ended up writing a total of 6 books having to do with the plant kingdom, after Darwin's death his son Frances noted:

"... without Hooker's aid Darwin's great work would hardly have been carried out on the botanical side."10

This dependence is amply supported by Darwin's own comment in a letter to Hooker, in June, 1855, (by which time Darwin was 46), in which he complains, and rejoices:

"... how dreadfully difficult it is to name plants ... I have just made out my first grass, hurrah! hurrah! ... I never expected to make out a grass in all my life, so hurrah!"11

By the way, it might be noted that Darwin had made this particular breakthrough under the guidance of his children's governness.

From all of the evidence I have now seen, (far too much to include in this one paper), I cannot believe that Darwin was capable of inventing the ideas that came to be known as his evolutionary hypothesis.  Indeed, I'm not even convinced that he ever fully understood the hypothesis that bears his name.
On the contrary, I believe that those 50 pages missing from the 1837 notebook, together with the missing letters from Darwin to Edward Blyth, have conveniently disappeared because they showed far too clearly just how far Darwin had already progressed in his thinking on "the species question".  They might also show how completely Darwin was in Blyth's debt, and that Darwin was constantly referring points back to Blyth (from Blyth's own work) which Darwin could not otherwise comprehend.

To the extent that these arguments are true it seems reasonable to say that, though he had access to all of the key features of 'his' hypothesis in 1838-39 - when he first claimed that he was ready to publish - Darwin was, in reality, never totally ready to go public on this particular subject.

Indeed, I will go further and say that I believe (and will explain more fully later in this paper) that Darwin hoped that he would never need to publish his ideas on evolution, and had to be tricked into doing so by a long time colleague who had a very personal reason for wanting Darwin to publish the ideas which this colleague had taken so much trouble to instill in Darwin's mind.

From Darwin's perspective, I think there came a point where he no longer had any pressing reason to publicly announce his (r)evolutionary notions.  After all, he had achieved his primary aims - to be associated with the foremost men of science of the day, and to justify himself to his father - without having to publish a single word of overt support for the evolutionary hypothesis.  He had, in fact, built a very satisfactory reputation based entirely on promises of what he would write 'at some future date'.
Why put everything at risk by actually trying to fulfil that promise, by trying to exceed his own limitations and by leaving himself open to exposure as a plagiarist?

  1. Darwin, Sir Gavin De Beer.  Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago:1974 (15th edition). Vol. 5. p.495.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Charles Darwin: The man and His Influence, Peter J. Bowler. op. cit. p.82.
  4. Animal Species and Evolution, Ernst Mayr. op. cit. pp.12, 13 and 484.
  5. This View of Life, George G. Simpson. op. cit. p.81.
  6. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X., Loren Eiseley. op. cit. pp.201-202.
  7. Charles Darwin, Peter Brent.  op. cit. p.219.
  8. This list is taken from Charles Darwin, John Bowlby.  op. cit. p.206.
  9. Charles Darwin, Peter Brent.  op. cit. p.221.
  10. Cited in Charles Darwin, John Chancellor.  op. cit. p.167.
  11. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed.). op. cit.  Vol. 2. p.59.

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 6 - Without Reference ...
Part 7 - The Missing Link
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