In Darwin’s Place

His Was One of the Most Brilliant Insights in the History Of Science: For Him, “It Was Like Confessing a Murder”

Charles Darwin

The evolution of Charles Darwin | Photo:


Imagine that, as a young scientist, you spent years collecting information about the foundations of how nature works. You built your reputation by collecting plants, animals, fossils, and geological samples from around the world, and sending back letters that tracked your development into a first-rate scientist. By the time you returned from a great five-year voyage, you were surprised to find that you were a rising star.Throughout your trip, and in the years afterward, the mists that had obscured some incredibly simple yet powerful natural explanations lifted. You came to realize that you were in virgin intellectual territory. Your academic mentors and the scientists whose works you had read were continuing to stumble over grand problems that now seemed, if not solved, at least soluble.

People had been talking about evolution for decades, but you have come up with a mechanism – natural selection – that just might explain much of it. You realize that to reveal what you’ve come to understand will not only revolutionize your science, but will potentially shatter many of your countrymen’s religious and philosophical foundations.

These were the circumstances in which Charles Darwin found himself in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s, when he developed the principle of natural selection and its revolutionary implication: all the Earth’s life forms could have evolved from a single common ancestor. His was one of the most brilliant insights in the history of science: a mechanism that enabled the principle of evolution to unify and inform all of biology.

Just for a minute, put yourself in his place. How would you feel? (“It is like confessing a murder,” he wrote at the time.) Here’s the translation to today’s world: your discovery might win you the Nobel Prize, but it also might get you a bullet in the brain from a religious fundamentalist. How would you feel about publishing now?

But then, at roughly the same time you finish drafting the first summary of your ideas, a book, written by an anonymous author, appears that also purports to explain how life might have changed through time, and considers some of the mechanisms that may underlie this grand history. Have you been “scooped”?

No, the author has many of his facts wrong and goes beyond reasonable speculation, which brings him disdain from scientists. Predictably, he fares as poorly with religious leaders, some of whom accuse him of blasphemy. And he hasn’t independently reached your new ideas – the ideas that matter.

But you empathize with his position: you will be pilloried in the same way if you don’t nail down your theory with the best arguments possible and marginalize your opponents so that they have neither theological nor scientific reasons to attack you. So you wait to publish.

Years roll by. You gather data, do experiments, read, and write. Your book becomes bigger.  Impossibly big. It is a good thing you do not have to work for a living.

Then, a bolt from the blue. A letter from an old colleague in Southeast Asia with whom you’ve corresponded for years, attached to a manuscript that lays out your whole theory of natural selection in a nutshell. He’s asking you, as a well-connected man of science, whether you would communicate his paper to the Linnean Society of London for reading and possible publication, if you think his arguments meritorious.

You are unsure about what to do. He’s scooped you on your main idea, although he hasn’t thought through the implications, or worked out all the other ideas that comprise your theory. You don’t want to lose your investment. You want credit where it’s due, and you want to control the game, because you have so much more to show and to support your arguments.

So you consult scientific colleagues who have known for years how you’ve been developing your theory. They agree that it is fair to broker an arrangement with your correspondent to publish together. This appears to satisfy everyone, but it puts you in panic mode.

Now you have to publish your entire theory right away, before someone else gets the credit.  It nearly kills you, but you get the book out – only an abstract of the magnum opus that you had planned – by the end of the next year. You call it The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

The reaction is immediate: 1,200 copies are published, and sell out immediately.  There are welcome reviews from scientists, but also sharp broadsides from religious people. Serious criticism comes from unexpected places: philosophers you knew and learned from, scientists to whom you had entrusted your priceless collections to describe. And yet: the genius of the argument is seen.

Natural selection as a theory becomes a proposition in play, needing much more work. But almost no serious intellectual can continue to doubt the common ancestry of all living things. You’ve changed the world: people will never again look at all species as fixed entities, but as part of a single tree of life.  How do you feel?


Kevin Padian is a Professor of Integrative
Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Curator of Paleontology, University of California Museum of Paleontology, and President of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California.  

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.

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