12 February 2013

This Darwin Day, please stop using quotes that Darwin never wrote

Charles Darwin was a good writer, albeit one who suffers a bit from the wordiness typical of the Victorian era he lived in. He gave us many lovely passages and metaphors. This makes it all the more irritating that I saw multiple cases of people posting quotes from Darwin that weren’t actually Darwin, from folks who should know better.

First, the science show Nova blew it on their Twitter feed.


This quote actually comes from management professor Leon C. Megginson from Louisiana State University.

Then, Sigma Xi blew it on their Facebook page.


The original source of this quote has not been tracked down, but it is definitely not found in any or Darwin’s writings.

I’ll leave with a personal favourite quote of mine from Charles Darwin. Unfortunately, this one requires a bit of context; it’s not a pithy self-contained quote. It appears in the sixth edition of On the Origin of Species, as the last line of chapter VII. Darwin has spent much of the chapter answering objections from critics, particularly  Mivart, who argued for sudden appearance of new features; “momentous and abrupt transformations,” as Darwin calls them.

I just love, love, love the last line, which I’ve bolded:

He who believes that some ancient form was transformed suddenly through an internal force or tendency... will be almost compelled to assume... that many individuals varied simultaneously. ... He will further be compelled to believe that many structures beautifully adapted to all the other parts of the same creature and to the surrounding conditions, have been suddenly produced; and of such complex and wonderful co-adaptations, he will not be able to assign a shadow of an explanation. He will be forced to admit that these great and sudden transformations have left no trace of their action on the embryo. To admit all this is, as it seems to me, to enter into the realms of miracle, and to leave those of Science.

It is one of the most effective dismissals for special pleading that I’ve read.

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