Give a little bit ...

If I had $50,000 -- and no mortgage -- I'd love to bid on a letter that's just surfaced and is about to be auctioned off by Sotheby's. It's from the revered Charles Darwin to the Reverend William Denton. New Scientist has a short item with a couple of excerpts:

"I am very far from being surprised at anyone not accepting my conclusions on the origin of species."
"Those naturalists who go a little way with me, the more they reflect on the subject the further they go."

Just makes you want to love the guy even more, doesn't it?


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"Owen says my book will be forgotten in ten years, perhaps so; but, with such a [short but prestigious] list [of scientific supporters], I feel convinced that the subject will not." [Darwin in a letter to J. D. Hooker, 3/3/1860].

"I have read lately so many hostile views [of The Origin of Species], that I was beginning to think that perhaps I was wholly in the wrong, and that Owen was right when he said the whole subject would be forgotten in ten years; but now that I hear that you and Huxley will fight publicly (which I am sure I never could do), I fully believe that our cause will, in the long run, prevail." [Darwin in a letter to J. D. Hooker, 7/2/1860]

Darwin's little prediction that "the subject [of evolution] would not be forgotten," and that, "our cause will, in the long run, prevail," proved true. While, Richard Owen's prediction that the "whole subject" would be "forgotten in ten years" proved false. By Biblical standards, that makes Darwin a "true prophet," and Richard Owen (who was a creationist) a "false prophet." (Chuckle.)


That reminds me, there's a creationist work titled, The Revised Quote Book (produced by an Australian Creationist group, Answers in Genesis), that heads off the entire book with a quotation from Charles Darwin that sounds similar to the letter you mentioned that was up for auction:

`You will be greatly disappointed (by the forthcoming book); it will be grievously too hypothetical. It will very likely be of no other service than collocating some facts; though I myself think I see my way approximately on the origin of the species. But, alas, how frequent, how almost universal it is in an author to persuade himself of the truth of his own dogmas.'
--Charles Darwin, 1858, in a letter to a colleague regarding the concluding chapters of his Origin of Species. As quoted in `John Lofton's Journal', The Washington Times, 8 February 1984. (p. 2 of Rev. QB)

By citing such a quotation, the editors of The Revised Quote Book leave their readers with the absurd impression that Darwin did not think very highly of the theory of evolution, nor, of his particular theory of "how" evolution occurred, i.e., "natural selection." In actual fact, Darwin was convinced not only that "evolution" had occurred but also that his particular theory was a valuable scientific contribution. Take for instance, these letters Darwin sent to leading scientists of his day (along with copies of his book), which were all written during the same period as the letter above:

"If it [The Origin of Species] should stagger you in ever so slight a degree, in this case, I am fully convinced that you will become, year after year, less fixed in your belief in the immutability [changelessness] of species. With this audacious and presumptuous conviction, I remain, Yours most truly, Charles Darwin." [letter to Hugh Falconer, 11/11/1859]

"If you are in even so slight a degree staggered (which I hardly expect) on the immutability [changelessness] of species, then I am convinced with further reflection you will become more and more staggered, for this has been the process through which my mind has gone." [letter to J. S. Henslow, 11/11/1859]

"I know perfectly well that you will not at all agree with the lengths which I go. It took long years to convert me. I may, of course, be egregiously wrong; but I cannot persuade myself that a theory which explains (as I think it certainly does) several large classes of facts, can be wholly wrong..." [letter to L. Jenyns, 11/13/1859]

"I fully admit that there are very many difficulties not satisfactorily explained by my theory of descent with modification, but I cannot possibly believe that a false theory would explain so many classes of facts as I think it certainly does explain. On these grounds I drop my anchor, and believe that the difficulties will slowly disappear..." [letter to Asa Gray 11/11/1859]

Such letters were written in such a modest fashion because Darwin was trying to gather responses from leading scientists of his day without inciting any sort of offense or prejudicing them against evolution and his theory of natural selection. That way he could ensure a fair hearing for his theory. As such, these letters do not reflect Darwin's lack of certainty regarding evolution and natural selection so much as his attempt not to offend others who may have thought otherwise.

Take this other letter of Darwin's, resembling the excerpts cited in The Revised Quote Book, and written nearly the same year, but this other letter appears in relatively complete context:

"I ask for...a brief idea of your general impression [of The Origin]. From your widely extended knowledge, habit of investigating the truth, and abilities, I should value your opinion in the very highest rank. Though I, of course, believe in the truth of my own doctrine, I suspect that no belief is vivid until shared by others. As yet I know only one believer, but I look at him as of the greatest authority, viz., Hooker. When I think of the many cases of men who have studied one subject for years, and have persuaded themselves of the truth of the foolishest doctrines, I feel sometimes a little frightened, whether I may not be one of those monomaniacs...A short note would suffice, and I can bear a hostile verdict, and shall have to bear many a one."
[letter to W. B. Carpenter, 11/19/1859]

So, when the editors of the Revised Quote Book cited the following passage from one of Darwin's letters: "Alas, how frequent, how almost universal it is in an author to persuade himself of the truth of his own dogmas," the context, as we have seen, was not one in which Darwin was personally despairing over the validity of his theory, but was one in which Darwin was convinced of the validity of his own views, yet employed polite candor attempting to coax others to respond and to think about the very same matters he had been thinking about for the previous two decades.

Darwin's early supporters were numerically insignificant. His detractors were legion. (Most scientists in his day did not even believe that species could "transmutate" into different species!) How else was he to present his theory in such an atmosphere, except with the utmost politeness, felicity, modesty and candor? Asa Gray wrote to Darwin, "Your candor is worth everything to your cause. It is refreshing to find a person with a new theory who frankly confesses that he finds difficulties, insurmountable, at least for the present. I know some people who never have any difficulties to speak of. The moment I understood your premisses, I felt sure you had a real foundation to hold on. Well, if one admits your premisses, I do not see how he is to stop short of your conclusions, as a probable hypothesis at least."

G. H. Lewes wrote in the Pall Mall Gazette (Feb. 10,15,17, 1868), eight years after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, "We must call attention to the rare and noble calmness with which he [Darwin] expounds his own views, undisturbed by the threats of polemical agitation which those views have excited, and persistently refusing to retort on his antagonists by ridicule, by indignation, or by contempt. Considering the amount of vituperation and insinuation which has come from the other side, this forebearance is supremely dignified."

It's plain that the "context" in this case is as wide as the sociological/historical situation Darwin faced when he wrote his first tentative letters introducing his Origin of Species to a wide and hostile audience. The editors of The Revised Quote Book are either unable or unwilling to admit any "context" larger than the meager few sentences they blithely cite to make Darwin look totally "wishy-washy," when in fact he was trying to be polite and inoffensive, to gain the best hearing that he could for his work.

Here's yet another quotation from Darwin that appears in The Revised Quote Book...

`For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this is here impossible.'
Charles Darwin, 1859, Introduction to Origin of Species, p. 2. Also quoted in `John Lofton's Journal', The Washington Times, 8 February 1984. (p. 3 of Rev. QB)

This quotation has been lifted completely out of context. Darwin is not stating that his theory was no better than its opposite. Quite the contrary. Examine Darwin's full statement below, which includes the sentences that directly preceded the above quotation: "This abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. I cannot here give references and authorities for my several statements...I can here give only the general conclusions at which I have arrived, with a few facts in illustration, but which, I hope, in most cases will suffice. No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this. For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this is here impossible."

In context, Darwin was merely admitting that it was "impossible" for him to state his case completely, and balance it out by raising and answering all possible objections, since the Origin was merely an "abstract." For instance, elsewhere in the introduction he stated, " will take me many more years to complete it [my work], and as my health is far from strong, I have been urged to publish this abstract." Being merely an "abstract," he expected that people would raise questions, "adducing facts...apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived." Note his use of the word "apparently." But once "both sides of each question" had been "fully stated," Darwin was confident that a "fair result" would vindicate his theory rather than "the opposite." Darwin also stated in his introduction, "I have not been hasty in coming to a decision," a "decision" built on many years work, many more examples, and finely tuned arguments, than he could possibly fit between the covers of his little "abstract."

In fact, Darwin was so certain that a "fair result" would favor his view, that he ended his introduction with these words: "I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists until recently entertained, and which I formerly entertained -- namely, that each species has been independently created -- is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable [changeless]; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendant of some other and generaly extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged variations of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the most important, but not the exclusive means of modification." Why don't the editors of The Revised Quote Book cite that summation of his introduction? Don't they want their readers to know what Darwin said in full context? Perhaps they are ignorant of it themselves.