One of the peculiar things about Darwin is that it is often difficult to know when we can trust something he says. In his letters, he sometimes, to put it frankly, sucks up to his correspondents. One example of this is in an early letter to his friend and mentor Charles Lyell. He adds a postscript claiming he has no idea what Lyell thinks of Lamarck, but he wants to reassure him that he took nothing from Lamarck. In fact, Darwin had to have known that Lyell disparaged Lamarck in his Principles of Geology. Darwin was being disingenuous when he claimed ignorance about Lyell’s thoughts on this.
In his published work, his sincerity can also at times be questioned because it may be something he offers for public consumption, but was not really committed to. In the published version of his Beagle Diary, he twice expresses melancholy for the Natives who are losing all their land (for the Maori in New Zealand and for the Indians in Argentina). The original Diary contains no such lament. He is more hard-hearted about the Native losses and their eventual extinction (as he also is in later work and letters). The melancholy might be in the published version because it had become customary for Europeans to express compassion for what was happening to Indigenous peoples. He needed to appear to be a proper civilized person. The melancholy properly disguises what he really thought.
I recently came across another example of Darwin’s occasional duplicity which I had previously been unaware of. It surprised me; a case where I thought Darwin was trustworthy turns out not to be the case. This again concerns Lamarck. In his early letters, he always denigrates Lamarck to his friends, even though in his private Notebooks, he has some good things to say about him. His public stance was always to put down Lamarck. But, as is well-known, in the “Historical Sketch” which he added to the third edition of Origin (under some pressure from people who thought he was taking too much credit for himself), he made it up to Lamarck and praised him to the skies. He did a better job for Lamarck in that Sketch than he did with anyone else he treated there; certainly much better than he did for Robert Chambers. I had always believed that Darwin was quite sincere in his praise for Lamarck.
What surprised me is that just a couple of years later, in a letter to Lyell, Darwin again attacked Lamarck. He called his work “a wretched book” and said he “gained nothing” from it. Then he righteously quoted his daughter Henrietta’s comment about how unfair it is that Lyell calls Darwin’s theory “a modification of Lamarck’s” (Lyell was not the only one to say this). In letters to friends and colleagues, he would profess humility and said he never claimed to take all the credit for evolutionary theory for himself. But the fact seems to be that Darwin did not like sharing the limelight. (Wallace was an exception to this probably because Wallace himself was so self-effacing and gave all the credit to Darwin, so Darwin did not mind sharing it with him.)
He had trouble admitting that he took the theory of evolution with him on his Beagle voyage; it had been given to him by Lamarck and his grandfather. Charles Darwin just wanted to see if he could find more evidence to confirm it. He did a lot of work on this, but he was building on the work of others. To claim that he gained nothing from Lamarck was ridiculous. Lamarck saw the greater probability of evolutionary theory, the gradual changes between species, the analogy of domestic productions, and the effect of external conditions on change in organisms (all of which Darwin admits in the “Historical Sketch”; he could see these things but he could not stick to admitting them). Darwin would have gotten nowhere if all this had not been given to him and if his grandfather Erasmus had not offered similar stimulation.
I can also recall something he took from Alfred Wallace and used in The Descent of Man, without giving Wallace credit (it was the point about the most patriotic men being out in front and dying in battle, and therefore not living long enough to give their good traits to the progeny they would never have). He also misquoted Wallace on another point which Wallace immediately pointed out on the first publication of Descent, but Darwin never corrected it. He was not filled with faults like these, but they come up enough times that one has to take care when reading Darwin.
© 2018 Leon Zitzer