Darwin’s Untruths

A short follow-up to my more detailed post on discussions with Dr Mike Sutton, presenting on his “Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret.
[Edit note: emphases added.]

Firstly I’m NOT interested in arguing whether Darwin (and his bubble) told any untruths. (Quite possibly, they may have, but it’s irrelevant. Sutton is making no claims against Darwinian evolution itself. There may be evidence of untruth claims, there may not be any worthwhile peer-review of such claims, there are plenty of rebuttals of such claims. All irrelevant.) I’m arguing about whether, even if true, it makes any sense to therefore publicly claim “Darwin was a liar”.

Telling an untruth – even with intent to deceive – doesn’t necessarily make you a liar. Got that? Do not pass go.

OK, so even if Darwin (and his bubble) told untruths (with intent to deceive), the question becomes one of his / their motives and the motives of anyone wanting to promote the “Darwin was a liar” message? (Sutton has not yet responded to the specific points in my original post. JF Derry has provided plenty of rebuttals in the comments there.)

My best guess at Darwin’s untruths is that

  • (a) he probably did not consciously use Matthew’s work as a source,
  • (b) probably didn’t believe he’d been influenced when he published, and
  • (c) after subsequently corresponding with Matthew and giving acknowledgment in the 3rd edition of The Origin of Species, he probably thought the matter closed – so he could get on with the ongoing task of expounding and defending the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection – for which Darwin is rightly recognised.
  • (d) over time he may have realised he may actually have been influenced by Matthew’s work, at first and/or second hand, and was embarrassed, but the bubble needed to defend the project now in progress primarily against the religious / creationist establishment at that time.
  • (e) Matthew was possibly seen as a nuisance crank in his personal claims – to various publishers, not just Darwin’s bubble, and
  • (f) an impression reinforced by the fact Matthew was a Chartist, part of a radical socialist campaign against the Victorian establishment.

Motivations were (and still are) largely “politics” (small p) as I said already.

When I said that several times in conversation with Sutton, he denied it initially, assuming I meant Politics (capital P, partisan). I was simply pointing out he himself had made a political choice not to include the Chartism angle in his own book. That is, politically he has made  tactical choices which truths not to include in his own book, given his own strategic aims in publishing.

Which is the “so what?” I’m questioning: – Why make the claim?

Now, however, I’m not so sure the politics is purely tactical, given Sutton’s actual Politics – front and centre in his Twitter bio (*). I fear Matthew is to be cast as the downtrodden socialist worker sticking it to the Tory establishment. That context may indeed be real, but it’s not part of the content of the science.

Objective truths have to be valued above all within the processes of science itself. Sci-comm campaigns are of course always full of exaggerations, half- truths and white -lies. Shit happens in the real world, it’s how we get stuff done. Climate change – and (say) David Attenborough speaking at #COP24 – being the highest profile current example. Galileo as I mentioned, and his relationship with the Catholic church, being another high-profile historical example.

In my repeated experience, people who claim to be defending some narrow definition of truth above all else, tend to be doing so for reason of some extreme, misguided or dogmatic agenda. In balanced positions, most people can see that practical truth is usually more complicated. Science, and other topics claiming / wishing scientific qualities, tend to get blurred between use-mention / content-context distinctions, when dealing with this problem. [Many more examples in current dialogues.]

[If you want to respond to anything specifically written in this post please make sure you’ve read the original first, and considered the 4 explicit points summarised as being the questions at issue.]

[(*) Post Note – And, he he ha ha, he’s not ignored me entirely: He’s edited his @Dysology Twitter bio to remove the revolutionary leftie bollox. Hillarious. What a total charlatan. RIFF: This whole exchange – including rebuttals – nicely proving my real agenda that science is polluted by politics and that culture is infected by scientism. Together these form a vicious circle. Society is degenerately devolving to lowest-common-denominators – a kind of PC-autism. “Common” factors because the world of human communication is reduced to single noisy “village” – there is only one context, no boundaries or good fences to mediate – let alone facilitate – proper constructive dialogue.  (Brexit – populism without wisdom – is simply the latest example.)

Terry, we coined and shook-hands-on a two word name for this state of affairs when we spoke Friday last. Remind me 😉]

[Post Note: Key part of Sutton’s argument as presented to us (inc me directly) is Harry Frankfurt’s definition of truth. Sutton of course misses Frankfurt’s point “On Bullshit”. See follow-up on the distinction between careful good-faith lying and careless bad-faith bullshit in the ongoing draft / footnotes here. Care matters.]

3 thoughts on “Darwin’s Untruths”

  1. Hi Ian, my point on the definition of a lie always being with intent to deceive is in the comments to your previous post. Your blog is auto-editing my comments, but I’ll try place here some responses to your, “guess at Darwin’s untruths”, above.

    On the question of “Matthew’s work as a source”, nothing points to Darwin from Matthew for several irrefutable reasons :

    1) Matthew’s model of natural selection had been known for millennia, at least as early as Lucretius.

    2) Natural selection had not been successfully applied to the Species Question.

    3) Matthew did not successfully apply natural selection to the Species Question.

    4) Every detail in Darwin’s development of his model of natural selection can be traced to a particular experiment at Downe, his correspondence, and his observations made during the Beagle voyage. All this is thoroughly studied and available. That is the beauty of such a comprehensive archive on one man’s science. I am particularly excited by the AMNH project to reconstruct Darwin’s note fragments. His m.o. was to rip rough notes and stick them onto manuscript where relevant. This has often been used to accuse him of disposing of evidence. It’s simply not the case, and soon we’ll see why. To recreate those original intact notebook pages, some amazing algorithms are churning through the scanned fragments, matching up the torn edges! How cool is that?

    On the question of other sources of influence and also indirect links to Matthew, Baden Powell then Butler criticised Darwin for not referencing his sources, although their real reason was covert.

    5) Baden Powell argued from a theological viewpoint, but was accepting of evolution, as the result of constant change, as a function of God’s will, and as described in the natural theology of Chambers’ anonymously published Vestiges of Creation. Indeed, Darwin having read Baden Powell’s essay on evolution, has sufficient insight to point out how similar it is to Vestiges, suggesting it will have appealed to intellectual minds to the same degree as Vestiges had excited the populous.

    6) Butler had twice been knocked back by finding his own ideas already existed in print; Mivart and Lamarck were widely known in the field, whereas Butler was an ambitious novelist.

    7) No-one else had a problem with Darwin’s level of citation because what he produced was the norm, plus, he was clear in stating On The Origin… was an abstract of a larger work. Nonetheless, he did have a list of 30 or so names in preparation for the Historic Sketch, introduced into the 3rd British edition. Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts gives you all the evidence required to show he had no intention of not referencing in full, his larger work.

    8) Butler had escaped to the antipodes from a violent upbringing under his zealously devout father, which has been suggested as a psychological motivation in his accusing Darwin of not sufficiently acknowledging the previous work descending his own paternal line, via Erasmus Darwin.

    9) More telling is that Butler was as confused on evolution as is Sutton now. He rankled the Darwin family after Charles Darwin had died, making accusations that Darwin had simply taken Lamarck’s theory for his own.

    10) Lamarck’s and Darwin’s theories are as similar as Matthew and Darwin’s theories, in that, they have little in common.

    11) There is nothing except Sutton’s fiction and general ignorance on the history to suggest similarity between Matthew’s ideas and Darwin’s. In one sense, Sutton is not to blame for not knowing more on the subject, because it is not taught in sufficient detail in our schools, and most people bulk Darwin, Lamarck and Wallace in together. When one studies the subject in depth, huge divides separate these and the countless other commentators on evolution through the ages. A great deal of detail is available on the history of evolutionary thought, and no more than the development of Darwin’s understanding. As in the comments to your previous post (if not lost to the blog commenting mechanism), development of Darwin’s ideas are fully documented, and if anyone is going to make accusations about his sources, then they must first at least read some of the available literature, particularly the corpus of Dov Ospovat. It is telling that anyone who has read this literature, never accuses Darwin of plagiarism: his working is all laid out for anyone to see for themselves.

    12) When Matthew wrote to the Gardener’s Magazine, he included most of the relevant sections of his 1831 book, plus mention of a review that had appeared in a Loudon periodical. The latter is important because it told Darwin the proportion of the book dedicated to each section, and explains how he was able to comment on such in his letter of response. On reading Matthew’s sections in that first letter, Darwin thought he recognised a description of speciation moderated by natural selection, but commented it was unclear. It is now almost definite that he was mistaken, but he was under pressure, unwell, also nursing Henrietta, proofing the German edition, and hosting the Huxleys. He had not time nor energy to spend long on the detail, and was too polite to reply otherwise. Subsequently, in the 3rd British edition, he echoed his doubts on Matthew’s scheme, but as with the other entries in the Historical Sketch, acknowledges some progress by all listed, independent to his own complete explanation of natural selection in its many guises. This is the real issue. Even reading the paragraphs near where Matthew is mentioned, reveals that all of Matthew’s ideas on plasticity of form, transmutation, descent with modification, variation and inheritance, are all in the literature prior to 1831. Matthew’s unique contribution is to suggest geographical isolation as the means to maintain differential adaptation under contrastive conditions, however, it has to be questioned whether this counts as a contribution as, there is no suggestion of his evolutionary influence on any other writer, nor does his scheme work as a theoretical mechanism; it requires catastrophism to “reboot” the system, and natural selection is not actually a “positive” source of variation, only a “negative” filterer of suboptimal individuals, taking effect after his mystical “vacuation power” has separated varieties.

    Aristotle lib.2, cap.8, s.2 : adaptation, natural selection.

    Goethe 1794, Erasmus Darwin 1794, Lamarck 1801 : variation, adaptation, transmutation, descent with modification, analogy (between artificial selection and nature).

    Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire 1795, 1828 : variation, decent with modification.

    Wells 1813 : variation, natural selection, analogy.

    Herbert 1822 : variation, transmutation.

    Grant 1822 : transmutation.

    Matthew 1831 : adaptation, transmutation, decent with modification, isolation.

    Time has allowed us a closer read of those sections included in Matthew’s 1860 letter, claiming priority for natural selection. The oddity is that he was unaware of this history of evolutionary thought that went before, especially the well known Scottish agriculturalist James Hutton, whom explicitly described varieties and natural selection in the mid-18th century, also omitted from Darwin’s Historical Sketch.

    13) In addition to earlier sources, we also have Matthew’s later writing with which to compare his 1831 book, not least an 1866 letter in which he states,

    “a destructive change of circumstances occurs and in consequence an unrestrained field of existence is opened, near connected families intermix and from the absence for a time of selection the vacuation power, subject to be acted on by circumstantial change, has full scope”.

    This then is how he draws the best suited species into areas of their habitat. This, therefore, is the entirety of his isolation mechanism: if conditions are sufficiently varied, different species may result within a few generations. Matthew does not explain how these species re-intermingle because he holds that power of occupancy will maintain the best adapted species in place, outcompeting any intruders. The inevitable result of single species monopoly with natural selection only moderating adaptation, is an evolutionary cul-de-sac, from which progress is not possible. He has in his scheme then that species remain in stasis for millions of years. Matthew’s solution to break out of the cul-de-sac is to invoke a catastrophe, in the style of Cuvier. Notably, Matthew believes speciation is a saltation event between long periods of stasis, indicated by the fossil record. But, this is a misreading of that history, not seeing how the same patterns are generated by the biogeography that Darwin and Wallace introduced so successfully.

    14) Sutton thinks evolution by natural selection is just that as above, an isolated group, exposed to varied conditions with respect to others of the same initial species, with the filtering action of natural selection removing individuals least well adapted. However, this omits all of the most essential mechanisms that Darwin discovered, that more describes the natural world as a fluid, dynamic flow of varieties, of which only snapshots of their evolution have been maintained for us to find fossilised. The allopatry of Matthew is unrealistic, not least for the rapidity of change and species being held fast until a catastrophic reset of his system. The sympatry and parapatry of Darwin-Wallace is that which we observe in nature, as a gradual, ongoing, uninterrupted process that is mostly undisturbed by catastrophes.

    15) With respect to ongoing relations with Matthew, Darwin’s correspondence is exemplary in the way how not to suffer the gibberish of fools. When an interesting question is posed from someone demonstrating that they have engaged with the subject, he then entertains their request. otherwise, he is generally politely dismissive.

    16) It is not obvious what is meant by “bubble” but II suspect it is in relation to echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Matthew was an embarrassment to his family, a widely known opportunist, and was serially bankrupt. cantankerous, opinionated, self-taught, his achievement extended to the boundaries of his orchard. When seen in this light, an understanding gained from private papers and correspondence, a necessary archive to be visited, yet Sutton has declined to do so, it becomes apparent that the real Matthew and Sutton’s version are the not same.

    17) Sutton’s casting of Matthew as a working class hero is Sutton projecting his ideal onto Matthew. There is nothing to say he was anything other than a hypocritical, confused, egoist. Hypocritical for attacking entail in the landed gentry, but more than happy for his wife to inherit Gourdie Hill, and all the land it brought, from her family ties to landed gentry. He was confused about Darwin’s theory and likely never even read The Origin; his letter to lay claim for natural selection was sent only after reading a review in the Times newspaper, from which he quotes, and provides no indication of insight for evolution from that day forth. He was an egoist to suppose he had answered the Species Question within a few paragraphs of a confused book that started with trees, got distracted by the French July Revolution, started ranting about entail, into which was mixed his homespun evolution ideas, and then augmented with a densely difficult exposition and an erratum. Reading Darwin and knowing something about the history of evolution would have educated him to realise that his scheme was insufficient to explain diversity.

  2. Firstly, me. (I’m bored by more than a couple of sentences / paragraphs unless there is a narrative that attracts me – so let’s keep it brief.)

    Quoting you:

    1) Matthew’s model of natural selection had been known for millennia, at least as early as Lucretius.
    [IG] Yes, as I said, many before Matthew.

    2) Natural selection had not been successfully applied to the Species Question.
    3) Matthew did not successfully apply natural selection to the Species Question.
    [IG] Agreed both. Not even “Origin on Species” actually addressed this definitively.

    4) Every detail in Darwin’s development of his model of natural selection can be traced to a particular experiment at Downe, his correspondence, and his observations made during the Beagle voyage. All this is thoroughly studied and available.
    [IG] No doubt. No argument.

    None of the above “refutes” anything I’ve said.
    My guesses stand as an aside to the main point.
    But I’m not interested in assertion and refutation anyway (as I’ve said), I prefer constructive dialogue.

    The thing you are missing in my “a pox on both your houses” sentiment is that you continue with purely (would be) “scientific” detail – ever more detail – when I’m talking about motivation. Why, as in what for?

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