Darwin WAS wrong

Today’s the day when we all blog and celebrate Darwin. I must admit, though, I have a lot of sympathy for Propter Doc’s position, Darwin was not God, and shouldn’t be treated that way. Especially as David Attenborough is God. But I’m a blogger so I’m not going to let this get in the way of a good post.


The thing is, Darwin’s ideas only work with a particular type of heredity: one where traits are determined by the parents. Of course, Darwin didn’t know about genes, and his model was one of blending inheritance. As we all know, this doesn’t work and this cause Darwin to revise this theory towards Lamackianism. Which is also wrong. There is a sometimes heard lament that things would have been fine if only Darwin had read Mendel, but it’s not clear to me that that would have solved things – remember Mendelian inheritance was a challenge to Darwin’s theory, because it implies that traits are discrete. It took R.A. Fisher to see that the two could be unified. Would someone without a strong mathematical training have been able to do this?
I think these discussions about whether Darwin was right with any part of hiss theory misses the point about what he did. I don’t think the argument that “if it wasn’t Darwin, it would have been someone else” is really accurate: if it hadn’t been Darwin, it would have been several other people, all adding bits to the overall picture. That’s generally how science works: Wallace had worked out parts, but not all1. Others, though, would have stepped in and filled the gaps – rather as Fisher did with the gulf between Darwin and Mendel. We might not then have been talking about a Darwinian theory: look at quantum physics. No one person invented that, it was the effort of several people and at least one unfortunate cat.
So, the reason why Darwin is regarded so highly stems not from his theory being right as a theory – it was wrong in several ways. But rather that it was correct enough, and provide a framework for us to understand the natural world. He put together a whole paradigm2 on his own. He drew on other people’s work as well, but he was able to synthesize it all into one big idea. He was, perhaps, fortunate that when he was wrong he wasn’t wrong enough that the whole edifice would collapse, but there are still a lot of ideas that had to be put together for the whole thing to make sense.
So, I will endeavour to raise a glass of sherry in the general direction of Down House. And should anyone wish to buy Mr. Darwin a present, I’ve heard that he isn’t keen on receiving lots of small gifts, but what he really wants is a new beagle.

1 I admit it, I’m not a historian of science.

2 Sorry, I try to avoid (mis-)using Kuhn, but it seems particularly appropriate here.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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6 Responses to Darwin WAS wrong

  1. Henry Gee says:

    and at least one unfortunate cat … but only from your frame of reference. From the point of view of the cat, it would either be alive (in which case it wouldn’t mind) or dead (in which case it wouldn’t care).

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    It would still be in the box, though. And it just wouldn’t know when its next meal would arrive.

  3. Christopher Mims says:

    Whether or not you are a historian of science, that first graf (when supplemented by google) is as succinct an education in the history of the through-line from Darwin to parts of the modern synthesis as I have ever received. Being a science journalist among scientists always makes me feel 1) ignorant and 2) excited to finally be learning something again.

  4. Bob O'Hara says:

    Oh … thanks!
    Obviously it’s simplified, and the histories as told by scientists can often be wrong.

  5. Richard Wintle says:

    Oh, forget about the wretched cat. Who will pity the poor, poor fox?
    [shameless self-linky goodness, but all for Darwin Day]

  6. JR Atkins says:

    I think it’s also important to note that another reason Darwin is still held in such high regard is that he communicated his ideas in a very accessible and even beautiful way. Origin is actually fun to read, even 150 years later, and I don’t think we can say that for a lot of science writers.