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May 30th, 2008 · No Comments

Survival of the letter shows that Darwin’s honesty is without doubt
May 30 2008 by Elaine Morgan, Western Mail

That’s a very poor argument: Darwin’s deceptive behavior and the destruction of various other letters is documented fact.

A R WALLACE was Welsh, working-class and actively left-wing. Despite leaving school at 14 he conceived, quite independently, the theory of natural selection that the world knows as Darwinism.
Like Darwin he explored far-flung territories, but Wallace had to pay his own way by selling the specimens he collected. I admire him so much that I once wrote a dramatised TV documentary about him, entitled “The Forgotten Voyage”. The two men were very different. When Darwin encountered the natives of Tierra del Fuego he was appalled that any human beings could lead such barbarous lives.

When Wallace lived for a time with the Dyak head-hunters of Borneo, he liked them. Apart from that cultural ritual, he said he witnessed very little violent behaviour among them.

Now, in “The Darwin Conspiracy: Origins of a Crime”, Roy Davies aims to enhance Wallace’s reputation by denigrating Darwin’s. In 1858 Wallace, during a bout of malaria in a wretched hut in the Moluccas, conceived the idea of natural selection, and sent an account of it to Darwin.

This new book claims to have evidence that that letter was sent from the island long before Darwin said it arrived. It suggests Darwin lied about that and claimed the idea as his own. Well, Cymru am byth.

And my warmest sympathy for anyone with the guts to challenge the scientists’ conventional wisdom. For those reasons, I wish I could say I believed him. But I can’t.

Frankly I don’t give a tinker’s cuss what liner that letter travelled on. I believe it arrived at Down House when Darwin said it arrived. Hardly anyone’s life is better documented than his and his character shines through every scrap of testimony. He was conscientious, scrupulously honest and as Stephen Jay Gould once vividly expressed it “kind to a fault”. He’d had the same flash of inspiration that Wallace had – but years earlier. He wrote an essay about it which J D Hooker had read in 1844.

He sent a confidential abstract of it to Asa Gray at Harvard in 1857. Were all these people lying? If they were crooks, that letter would have been destroyed, not published. But on receiving it Darwin wrote to a friend: “I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit.”

A joint paper was issued by the Linnaean Society, publishing Wallace’s account and Darwin’s 1857 essay side by side. Two good men, two men of genius, had separately conceived of an idea whose time had come. In 1858 Wallace wrote an outline of it in 20-odd pages.

Darwin had sweated blood over it for 20 years to collect around 400 pages of evidence. Wallace never thought it was unjust that the theory became known by Darwin’s name. And neither do I.

Tags: Booknotes · Evolution

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