Did you hear the one about how Charles Darwin wasn't the creator of natural selection? Did you know that other people had had the idea before him?

Oh, you did know that? Because anyone who has ever spent five minutes learning about the history of evolutionary thought knows that? Well, tell that to Daniel Engber over at five thirty-eight. Apparently a big-time crackpot named Mike Sutton has made the astonishing discovery that Patrick Matthew, a Scottish farmer, anticipated Darwin in an appendix to an obscure book called Naval Timber and Arboriculture, published in 1831. Of course, the ever useful Wikipedia is on it here and here. As it happens, they also point out that the basic idea for natural selection goes back to the ancients.

So why is Engber presenting this as news?

In the last few years, Sutton has himself embarked on another journey to the depths, this one far more treacherous than the ones he's made before. The stakes were low when he was hunting something trivial, the supermyth of Popeye's spinach; now Sutton has been digging in more sacred ground: the legacy of the great scientific hero and champion of the skeptics, Charles Darwin. In 2014, after spending a year working 18-hour days, seven days a week, Sutton published his most extensive work to date, a 600-page broadside on a cherished story of discovery. He called it “Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret.”

It takes a mighty credulous reporter to accept at face value the claim of 18-hour days, seven days a week. All the more so considering that Sutton has produced little that wasn't already in Wikipedia.

But Engber is just getting warmed up:

Sutton's allegations are explosive. He claims to have found irrefutable proof that neither Darwin nor Alfred Russell Wallace deserves the credit for the theory of natural selection, but rather that they stole the idea — consciously or not — from a wealthy Scotsman and forest-management expert named Patrick Matthew. “I think both Darwin and Wallace were at the very least sloppy,” he told me. Elsewhere he's been somewhat less diplomatic: “In my opinion Charles Darwin committed the greatest known science fraud in history by plagiarizing Matthew’s” hypothesis, he told the Telegraph. “Let's face the painful facts,” Sutton also wrote. “Darwin was a liar. Plain and simple.”

Plain and simple indeed. When Wallace sent Darwin his short outline for a theory of evolution by natural selection, the barest sketch of the opus that everyone knew Darwin had been working on for twenty years, did Darwin try to bury it? He easily could have, but he didn't. Instead the basic ideas of the theory were presented at a prominent scientific society, in a paper jointly authored by Darwin and Wallace. Throughout the Origin, Darwin was scrupulous about giving credit to other scientists, at a time, recall, when you couldn't just use Google to look for anticipations. But now we are to believe that Darwin drew the line at giving Matthew any credit. You know, so he could perpetrate the greatest known science fraud in history. Totally plausible.

And he was so keen to cover this up that when he was later shown Matthew's work, he included an acknowledgment of it in all of the later editions of the Origin. Worst. Cover-Up. Ever. He also published this letter:

I have been much interested by Mr. Patrick Matthew's communication in the Number of your Paper, dated April 7th. I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, had heard of Mr. Matthew's views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the appendix to a work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr. Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication. If another edition of my work is called for, I will insert a notice to the foregoing effect. Charles Darwin, Down, Bromley, Kent

Truly the words of a liar perpetrating a fraud.

Of course, outside of Sutton's bloviating and Engber's embarrassing credulity, no serious historian has ever given Darwin credit for the idea of natural selection, or for realizing that it could lead to changes in populations of organisms. Nor did Darwin invent the idea that modern organisms evolved gradually from ancient forebears. His contribution was to show, in a way that was vastly more cogent and comprehensive than any previous effort, how these ideas could account for an impressive array of biological facts. That is why Darwin is remembered so favorably today.

Again, everyone knows this.

So what, exactly, does Sutton think he has discovered? It apparently has to do with Darwin's claim about what “any other naturalist” was aware of:

That statement, suggesting that Matthew's theory was ignored--and hinting that its importance may not even have been quite understood by Matthew himself--has gone unchallenged, Sutton says. It has, in fact, become a supermyth, cited to explain that even big ideas amount to nothing when they aren’t framed by proper genius.

Sutton thinks that story has it wrong, that natural selection wasn't an idea in need of a “great man” to propagate it. After all his months of research, Sutton says he found clear evidence that Matthew's work did not go unread. No fewer than seven naturalists cited the book, including three in what Sutton calls Darwin's “inner circle.” He also claims to have discovered particular turns of phrase — “Matthewisms” — that recur suspiciously in Darwin's writing.

Strong evidence. Seven mentions in the twenty-eight years between Matthew's work and the Origin. How could Darwin have missed it? They were practically posting billboards about natural selection.

If you're still not certain, though, whether Sutton is a crackpot or just overenthusiastic, consider this:

When Sutton is faced with the implication that he’s taken his debunking too far — that he's tipped from skepticism to crankery — he lashes out. “The findings are so enormous that people refuse to take them in,” he told me via email. “The enormity of what has, in actual fact, been newly discovered is too great for people to comprehend. Too big to face. Too great to care to come to terms with — so surely it can’t be true. Only, it's not a dream. It is true.”

Okay, we're done here. Nobel prize winners don't describe their discoveries so melodramatically. This sort of talk is the exclusive domain of crackpots.

Engber has embarrassed himself and the five thirty-eight website by giving credence to this idiocy. No doubt he will follow-up with articles about cancer cures and JFK conspiracies.

More like this

Also well known: that you can't select for wisdom, which isn't inherited:

Tom Paine:

“… Whatever wisdom constituently is, it is like a seedless plant; it may be reared when it appears, but it cannot be voluntarily produced. There is always a sufficiency somewhere in the general mass of society for all purposes; but with respect to the parts of society, it is continually changing its place. It rises in one to-day, in another to-morrow, and has most probably visited in rotation every family of the earth, and again withdrawn.

“As this is in the order of nature, the order of government must necessarily follow it, or government will, as we see it does, degenerate into ignorance.

” … by giving to genius a fair and universal chance; … by collecting wisdom from where it can be found.

“… As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its faculties should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by a quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions.”
Tom Paine, The Rights of Man

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 02 May 2016 #permalink

Interesting... I enjoyed Engbar's piece, and have liked previous pieces by him (though was a bit surprised by his new inclusion at FiveThirtyEight). It's just a form of pop science writing, and there are far worse examples of it out there (than Engbar), and I do agree with his basic message that skeptics ought be looked at skeptically... in fact, skeptics of skeptics ought be looked at skeptically, and so should skeptics of skeptics of skeptics, and so on.

I struggle to find a reason to care what Engber or Sutton think about this. They must have too much time on their hands.

sean s.

By sean samis (not verified) on 04 May 2016 #permalink

Like Darwin, Albert Einstein has been the subject of similar criticisms of being given too much credit for special relativity. It is claimed that Hendrik Lorentz should be given most of the credit because of a paper published some 10 years prior to Einstein's paper. In it, Lorentz proposed to explain the result of the Michelson/Morley by hypothesizing that the arm of Michelson's interferometer parallel to the incoming light was foreshortened by just the amount required to account for the null result. The problem is that Lorentz did not propose that the speed of light was independent of the speed of the observer and was thus a universal constant independent of the the frame of reference. That was Einstein's groundbreaking observation which leads to the foreshortening proposed by Lorentz. In addition there is the phenomenon of time dilation which was not directly observed until the invention of the cyclotron which produced mu mesons, the lifetime of which was shown to be dependent on their speed relative to the observer, just as predicted by Einstein's theory.

By colnago80 (not verified) on 07 May 2016 #permalink

Revolution in understanding Evolution. Must read!

'The Triple “I” and the Human Eye: Three Phases of Evolution in Vision and Thinking'

Published April 8, 2016
New Zealand Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. Vol.1. Issue 3.

By Allen Tager (not verified) on 07 May 2016 #permalink

"Charles Darwin wasn’t the creator of natural selection?"
Gasp! You just used the c-word! Someone - Charles Darwin or someone before him - created natural selection! Ultimately it must have been god!
This is the ultimate proof that creacrap is correct.

What's next? That Einstein was guilty of plagiarism because he used the work of Lorentz and Poincare? Never mind that both got honoured (the Lorentz transformations and the Poincare group).

Engbar & Sutton both appear to have missed the lore of spinach as a hangover remedy, which I've long thought a more likely reason for sailors in dire straits to chug a can.

Likewise, they overlook the story of Edward Blythe as laid out by Loren Eiseley in Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: Blythe laid out the basic of natural selection quite clearly, but - not up to speed on geologists' ever-expanding awareness of the earth's age - described it as a mechanism for equilibrium and stasis.

Wotthehell is 538 doing out of their polls-&-stats sandbox anyway?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 12 May 2016 #permalink

"Instead the basic ideas of the theory were presented at a prominent scientific society, in a paper jointly authored by Darwin and Wallace."

Minor point: it was separately authored papers, presented together.