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.

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.]

Also published on Medium.

11 thoughts on “Was Darwin A Liar And So What If He Was?”

  1. Thanks for an interesting and a wonderful tough debate tonight and here in your blog.

    I expect some will take exception to anyone referring to Harry Frankfurt’s (he of the famous Princeton University press book “On Bullshit”) definition of a lie being an intention to deceive with a deliberate falsehood as autistic – as opposed to a philosophical definition of what a lie and lying is as opposed to what “bullshitting” is but I’m sure you do not mean to offend anyone. I’m not sure, but I don’t think I’m autistic or a binary thinker in adopting Frankfurt’s definition to reason that Darwin surely lied (by writing many times the exact opposite to what he had been shown was true) as I demonstrate in a peer reviewed article on the topic along with fully referenced details on the newly discovered data that show the routes for potential pre-1858 knowledge contamination of Matthew’s original ideas and explanatory examples to Darwin’s and Wallace’s brains and work via their known friends, editors, influencers and influencer’s influencers:


    The other paper we discussed is the one I co-authored with Professor Griffiths, it shows more BigData mythbusts and explains that Google’s autonomous AI called “Rank Brain” has reduced the functionality of Google to make and further such discoveries in the historic publication record.


    Both articles are peer reviewed by experts in the field and are open access.

    Best wishes


  2. Thanks Mike,

    To “articles are peer reviewed” I say “nullius in verba” 😉

    As predicted, the whole topic (even in your response) boils down to understanding truth and lies.

    Lying-101 is kindergarten stuff – as adults we really need to be thinking about best actions for the future – a communications strategy. So as I read your additional references, you need to respond to points 1 to 4.

    Two observations:

    A. Frankfurt – like Wittgenstein (and Schrodinger’s cat and Trolleyology) – was largely tongue in cheek – to make people think, not to “define” anything real (also discussed above – getting from 101 to adulthood). Much longer “post-post-modern” story.

    B. Your own disingenuous point is the hidden establishment vs chartism “politics” for institutional, rhetorical “lying” …. more later.

    1 to 4 ?

    [PS I should add – “autistic” was in scare quotes – I’m not accusing you. It’s why I refrained from using it and only tested your view of the word in our individual conversation at the end. The “autism” is science’s problem, not yours. You understand the use-mention distinction?]


  3. If you doubt the articles were peer reviewed in these peer reviewed journals then ask the editors. What reason do you have to doubt it? These are expert peer reviewed journals. You cannot publish in them without the papers being submitted for external review to experts in the area. I have seen and had to respond at length to the reviewers comments. The second paper had 4 expert peer reviewers. If I am lying then that is a serious academic irregularity. If the journal is not submitting the papers for peer review then that is very serious indeed. Have you been influenced in your doubt they have been peer reviewed in that regard no evidence whatsoever, other than by utter demented tripe written in Wikipedia by demented Darwin worshipping cyberstalkers – the world’s worst encyclopedia ? 😉

  4. Dear Psybertron, Terry and other Teesside Skeptics,

    sorry not to have attended last night. Would have been a pleasure pulling the presented straw men apart. I can provide endless demonstrative evidence for the errors in this work, and would simply point you to the dedicated blog site. Unfortunately, the only form of defence received in support of the unsubstantiated claims, regards Darwin’s and Wallace’ and colleagues’ lying, deceit and plagiarism, has been a Cease & Desist letter from the Nottingham Trent University lawyers, with a demand to remain silent for a decade, on this and their apparent cover up of multiple allegations of misconduct by your guest speaker. Perhaps it taints their clean record and capacity to win awards.

    Regardless, because whatever we call truth, is something worth fighting for, and the talk given to your group was based on many falsehoods (happy to provide endless evidence — just ask jfderry@gmail.com), therefore, to clarify this important misconception regarding peer review first:

    it is imperative that editors allocate reviewers according to their expertise. This is not the case in every single one of the associated publications (see below). Why? An odd mixture of crazy.

    The stated expectation for all editors and publishers of academic literature, is to uphold the quality of that literature with respect to quality of content, and standards of research integrity.

    • authors will do their best to maintain standards,
    • editors will appoint qualified reviewers,
    • reviewers will honestly declare their inability in subjects outside their specialism.
    • authors will be amenable to challenges and will take responsibility for the accuracy of their work,
    • editors will reconsider papers and take appropriate action as mediators and arbitrators when correction is required,
    • employer universities and professional bodies will seek to maintain research integrity, and fully investigate possible misconduct.

    Organisations such as the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE https://publicationethics.org/) provide guidelines to journals, however it is obviously in each discipline’s interest to expect the highest standards of work.

    The publications in question follow, with annotations regarding peer review, about which the author has griped and been insulting, and drawn on conspiracy theory. Please request full documentation with correspondence as required jfderry@gmail.com :

    1. paper #1
    The Hi-Tech Detection of Darwin’s and Wallace’s Possible Science Fraud: Big Data Criminology Re-Writes the History of Contested Discovery.
    Papers from the British Criminology Conference 14, 49-64. 2014b http://britsoccrim.org/volume14/pbcc_2014_sutton.pdf

    A conference proceedings, supposedly peer-reviewed, but evidently not so, and edited no more than for format and legibility. Millie, the editor sent a disclaimer in response to a request to consider retraction, saying that he, the journal, Sutton, and the BSC had no liability for the content. This is ridiculous, and editor disclaiming responsibility for the content of their journal!

    2. e-book #1
    Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret.
    Cary, NC. Thinker Media Inc. 2014 https://archive.li/QDdMA

    Essentially self-publishing, although under the umbrella of Bob Butler’s brand name Thinker Books. Butler wanted provocative thinkers to form a nexus of critical intellectuals. He shut down at the start of this year citing it hadn’t turned out as expected and that it had attracted to much unwelcome contestation. Yet he published this title.

    3. paper #2
    On Knowledge Contamination: New Data Challenges Claims of Darwin’s and Wallace’s Independent Conceptions of Matthew’s Prior-Published Hypothesis.
    Filozoficzne Aspekty Genezy — 2016 t. 12 Philosophical Aspects of Genesis s.1-39. http://www.nauka-a-religia.uz.zgora.pl/images/FAG/2015.t.12/art.05.pdf

    A group of intelligent design advocates run out of Philosophy department in a Polish university (3 independent sources of verification). They want to get ID into mainstream scientific journals by applying pluralism — the idea that knowledge can be sourced from many endeavours. However, even with a mantra of Feyerabend’s, “Anything goes”, they weren’t prepared for the inability of the author to present worthwhile ideas (the reviewer almost failed it for incomprehensibility), and then his vileness in response to one of their students who provided a review of the above e-book #1 (the author had to redraft his first response as it was too insulting to be published). Suffice to say their ulterior motive of attracting attention for their campaign backfired. My first move was to contact their scientific committee to ask why they allowed the paper entry. Most didn’t even know they were on the panel, and a colleague of mine resigned as soon as he learned it was ID linked. The author has since spun this as a response to his paper, about which evolutionary biologists and historians of science are supposed to be defeated and jealous in equal measure. The self-delusion is palpable.

    4. book/e-book #2
    Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret. 2nd volume, abridged.
    CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2017. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nullius-Verba-Darwins-greatest-secret/dp/1541343964

    Self-published on Amazon’s platform. No review. Rewritten e-book #1 with more elements of Matthew’s Chartist interests, but no relevance to the evolutionary claims. Entire sections excised, presumably because we refuted them, but which the author has never admitted. Teesside is in possession of same evidence, including comprehensive refutations of the author’s central evidence for his claims in their entirety, compromising List 1 and List 2 published in e-book #1.

    5. paper #3
    Routine Activity Theory’s ‘Mindless’ Chemistry Meme masquerades as a theory of crime causation.
    Internet Journal of Criminology 2018 https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/b93dd4_c8e6f33885374e62ae67156703a390fe.pdf

    This is the author’s own online journal. He is the editor. One of his ex-students, now in the same department, and a long-term friend and colleague were the reviewers. They wrote obsequious nonsense making it clear they didn’t check a single claim.

    6. paper #4
    Using Date Specific Searches on Google Books to Disconfirm Prior Origination Knowledge Claims for Particular Terms, Words, and Names.
    Social Sciences 2018, 7(4), 66; (with Mark D. Griffiths) https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0760/7/4/66/htm

    Again, a journal where the editor didn’t appoint qualified reviewers, and the reviewers weren’t honest about their lack of expertise, etc., yet, “Social Sciences Journal is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). We fully adhere to its Code of Conduct and to its Best Practice Guidelines” https://www.mdpi.com/journal/socsci/instructions

    There is an obvious need to remove these sources of misinformation from the academic and public spheres. They are of insufficient standard for the former, and misleading to the latter. There has been a multitude of wrongdoings based on their existence, but let’s leave it there for now, suffice to say, it is the author’s belligerence and unprofessional disdain for academic protocol (namely being open to debate within the discipline), that perpetuates these to this day, despite being told of his mistakes in 2013, and again in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

  5. Sometimes our Skeptics nights aren’t long enough to cope with the breadth or depth of interesting subject areas and this was one of those occasions. It was almost closing time when we broke up the discussion. Many interesting points were made about the case put forward by Mike Sutton and he had some good responses to the questions that had been well thought out. Unusually I would like to continue some of the discussion in the Facebook Group where most members are hooked in and I would like to distribute a link to this blog plus comments if you are happy for me to do so?

  6. Hi Mike,
    Not suggesting they weren’t peer reviewed, maybe they were, maybe they weren’t.
    Just that peer review is more “somebody else’s word for it”.
    (Lots of Darwinists work has been peer reviewed, so it’s irrelevant.)

    Are you not going to address my points?
    [Edited for emphasis.]
    (PS whilst waiting, I’ve posted a follow-up http://www.psybertron.org/archives/12948 )

  7. Thanks for your comment (and emails) JF.
    (Missed it in the spam folder for a few days.)

    A fascinating academic institutional battle either way.
    Disappointed that Mike has not continued the conversation.
    I may have to move on to other topics.

  8. Hi Ian,

    thanks for resurrecting the comment.

    Regarding “A fascinating academic institutional battle either way.” NO, no, a million times no!

    There is nothing in Sutton’s work that even approaches academic standards. Please do not add to his self delusion that there is anything of value in his research output for the last years of his career, since starting in this subject in 2013. From the get go, he has assumed things are overly simple, from his ignorance of evolutionary science history, and an odd belief that he doesn’t need the knowledge accrued by experts in the field during entire careers. He says Darwin was berated by Murray for “natural selection”, and that Darwin said that it was a common term in the breeding literature.

    Please, do what Sutton did — it’s important to see how his mistakes are blatantly obvious, and how none of his findings are reproducible; his catchphrase “independently verifiable facts” is meaningless because several independent researcher have been unable to repeat his discoveries. Either, he is using a different Google Books to everyone else, or he is mistaken. Let’s see.

    Open up Google Books, and search for “natural selection”. See if it occurs before 1859. You may need to push the search window back a bit to not get bogged down in modern texts, eg, from 1800 to 1900. Whilst playing with the date setting, try a couple more combinations. Do the same results dated within the specified period appear each time? More likely, you’ll see some drop out and mysteriously reappear, even though they are within 10 or 20 years of the time limits. This has caught out Sutton repeatedly, missing the earlier publication that pips his claim of the oldest appearance of a term, just because he’s careless, and hasn’t fully calibrated his equipment. A scientist would know this, whether using a pipette or a parallel computer. It’s all just data, and has inherent properties that need to be taken into account.

    You should have found that indeed “natural selection” does not appear before 1859. But, Darwin claimed it did. That’s his justification for using it, when replying to Murray, his publisher.

    At this point, what does an intelligent person do? Another quality of any scientist qualified to hold that name, is modesty and doubt. These combine to create an inherent uncertainty in all science, that R.A. Fisher parameterised, and others have formalised with respect to types of error: type I, type II, sampling.

    Sutton lacks both modesty and self doubt. This confidence comes from believing himself to be highly intelligent, when in reality, the cause of that blinkered state is quite the opposite. It is stupid to think you’re going to be correct all the time. Doing so causes mistake after mistake after mistake, and that’s Sutton’s achievement.

    So what are your options? 1) Think you have made discovery that contradicts something Darwin said to his publisher in a well-known, documented incident, such that it has been overlooked by millions of professionals and amateurs interested in that history, or, 2) wonder whether you may be mistaken, and decide to review what you know about the relevant aspects of the story.

    Hint: it’s not 1

    You may look at the sources of the events, looking to see if they are consistent. They are. From where else might this anomaly have been produced? Review what you did … search “natural selection”. Repeat it. Same. Check those time limits. Nothing untoward, as in moving them doesn’t suddenly produce a cluster of previously overlooked breeder books. Okay, what was Darwin on about it being in the breeding literature. Time to engage. Look at his reading lists. Find a reference to a title that mentions breeding or farming or animal husbandry, etc. Read it. Find another. Read it. Keep going, you’re now starting to build up a better understanding of the literature that Darwin was reading. Still no “natural selection” though. Plenty of “selection”, but no “natural… Oh!

    Now look at everything that you’ve already done again, holding the idea in your head, i.e., testing the idea, that Darwin was talking about “selection”. From all his correspondence and exposition in the Origin, through to Sutton’s ignorant misreading, it should now be apparent, the term at the time was “selection”. An independent source of evidence would be useful. I usually reach for the 1828 Johnson’s Dictionary. To have a way into the vocabulary of the time is fantastic in avoiding anachronistic errors.

    Everything points to “selection”: Darwin was talking about selection in breeding, selection in nature, and selection related to reproduction: artificial, natural and sexual. Whether he misunderstood Murray’s question or not, which is unlikely given Darwin was the more familiar with breeding literature, his reply was with respect to the process with which he had made an analogy, a functional comparison between human intervention to modify domestic varieties, compared to the process in nature, filtering out the least well adapted individuals for all varieties occurring naturally.

    Fyi, Sutton is also wrong to claim Matthew was first to use that artificial-natural analogy. As just one example, Erasmus Darwin predates him by a long shot. He is also wrong to claim the filtering affect of natural selection was discovered by Matthew, as the same is written about by Lucretius c.55 BC.

    I do hope you have followed the actions of doing some of this checking of Sutton’s research. You should start to feel the bile rising, and loathing and detestation, at the loss of so much time, to refute such blinkered idiocy. That is the real crime here, refusing to be accountable, to engage in civil debate, and instead carrying out the wanton theft of people’s time, as they are forced to wipe up the mess, instead of proceeding with their lives, with their families. That is the disgusting reprehensible person Sutton is, and you would be best not writing anything that cuts him slack, before you have throughly checked it, as above. As far as the mistakes go, that just his incompetency.

    More reading from the usual place:


  9. Hi JF,

    You clearly didn’t read my words here or the follow-up post.
    I’m not cutting him ANY slack. I accuse him explicitly of reprehensible POLITICAL motives. End of.

    If you have anything to say about what I’ve written, I’d be interested, but I’m not interested in more detail on your rebuttals of Sutton’s claims. The claims are already worthless IMHO.


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