Adventures in Ethics and Science

Belated Darwin Day post

I meant to post yesterday on Darwin Day, but I was swept up in doing tasks around the house that some have posited women are better at and/or care about more for reasons that lie deep in our evolutionary past. I don’t buy it (nor do others, who you are encouraged to read), and the Free-Ride household seems to me a good example that tidiness is not a sex-linked trait (or, if it is, it’s riding on the Y chromosome).

Anyway, first I wanted to link a fine appreciation of Darwin written by Michael Weisberg and Richard M. Leventhal, both of the University of Pennsylvania. The closing paragraphs left me a little verklempt:

The vision of life that moved Darwin to such poetic words is this: There are more than 10 million species on this planet, and despite this biodiversity, all species have profound similarities to one another. Humans, dogs, squirrels, and pigeons all have the same basic internal anatomy. Our cell structure is shared with most other animals, fungi, and plants. Most dramatic of all, every form of life on our planet shares the same genetic materials and amino acids.

Only Darwin’s ideas can explain these amazing facts. He taught us that the similarities among species are the result of shared common ancestry. All life is part of the same large and diverse family. We human beings are not distinct from the natural world – instead, we are as much a part of it as are giant redwoods, gray wolves, sea slugs, and chimpanzees. This profound discovery about the world and our place in it is indeed worth celebrating.

It’s hard to feel alone in the world when you start to see nature in this way!

I also had occasion yesterday to pick up a book I haven’t read in a while, the excellent biography Darwin : The life of a tormented evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. Doing so brought to mind one of the things I really respect about the man.

It is fairly well known that Darwin had more or less worked out his theory of evolution (and the role of natural selection in it) some twenty years before On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. There are various reasons it took Darwin so long to get his theory into print, but in 1858 he was chugging along getting all the details drafted. Then, on 18 June, 1858, he received some mail from Alfred Russel Wallace, another naturalist — a letter that laid out a theory of evolution that struck Darwin as very much like his own.

Desmond and Moore note that there were differences in the two theories. Darwin, however, fully emersed in spelling out his own theory, couldn’t help reading his theory into Wallace’s letter.

This could have become an object lesson for students of history in not waiting too long to put things on paper, and we might have been celebrating Wallace day. Or, if Darwin had had some Isaac Newton-style mean in him, he could have found a way to crush Wallace’s claim to priority (“Letter? What letter?”). Instead, Darwin showed admirable fellow-feeling for his fellow scientist. Desmond and Moore write:

Wallace asked him to send the paper to Lyell, which he did with a wailing note. Wallace did not mention publication, but Darwin would ‘of course, at once write and offer to send [the paper] to any journal’ of Wallace’s choice. Yet ‘all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.’ Lyell mulled over the problem and came up with the solution; they should announce their discoveries jointly. Darwin concurred, trying to suppress the niggling fear that this might look suspicious, as though he was stealing Wallace’s credit. Hooker had seen his 1844 essay, Asa Gray at Harvard had a long abstract of it

so that I could most truly say and prove that I take nothing from Wallace. I should be extremely glad now to publish a sketch of my general views in about a dozen pages or so. But I cannot persuade myself that I can do so honourably … I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit.

(p. 469)

In other words, Darwin not only encouraged and communicated with Wallace, a potential competitor, but when it seemed as though Wallace had gotten the answer (the same answer!) before him, Darwin was willing to help him get it published. Even when his mentor Lyell persuaded him that a joint announcement of the answer would be acceptable, Darwin was still concerned that no one think him to be behaving in “a paltry spirit”. He didn’t want Wallace to be robbed of credit, and he didn’t want anyone else in the scientific community to think him (Darwin) a jerk — because decent human relationships in the community of science mattered to him.

It’s enough to make me want to exhume him just to give the man a kiss. Can we reappropriate the word “Darwinist” to mean scientists who care deeply about being decent human beings — even when they’re doing science? Because really, could anyone be against that kind of Darwinism?

Comments

  1. #1 Doran
    February 13, 2006

    I believe Desmond and Moore place far too much emphasis on Darwin’s fear of an impending controversy regarding his theory of speciation as the cause for his sitting on his work. An alternative explanation is a combination of perfectionism and a tropical disease. While aboard the Beagle, Darwin came down with a fever and was subject to boughts of explainable coughing and fever for the rest of his life. It has been recently speculated that he contracted Chagas disease which along with the above described symptons also induces certain psychological effects such as paranoia and obsessive behavior. This may help explain his enormous endeavor of fact gathering in order to make his theory stand on solid ground.

  2. #2 Bill Hooker
    February 14, 2006

    In other words, Darwin not only encouraged and communicated with Wallace, a potential competitor, but when it seemed as though Wallace had gotten the answer (the same answer!) before him, Darwin was willing to help him get it published.

    It did me good to be reminded of this story. Thank you.

  3. #3 Elizabeth
    February 15, 2006

    Evolution has always instilled in me a deep reverence for this planet, its living critters and chemical composition. It’s far more remarkable and awe-inspiring than any mythological creation story could ever be.

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