Darwin Unbuttoned

Charles Darwin's Notebooks, 1836–1844: Geology, Transmutation of Species, Metaphysical Enquiries

transcribed and edited by Paul H. Barrett and Peter J. Gautrey and Sandra Herbert and David Kohn and Sydney Smith
British Museum (Natural History) and Cornell University Press, 747 pp., $75.00

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin Volume 3: 1844–1846

edited by Frederick Burkhardt, edited by Sydney Smith
Cambridge University Press, 523 pp., $37.50

Sir Peter Medawar once described the scientific paper as a fraud. His point was not that the scientific paper misrepresents nature (though of course it may), but rather that it misrepresents science. Typically, a scientific paper presents a formal and highly idealized account of research, written according to a set of standard conventions. Problems are set up, methods of investigation are described, results are given, and conclusions are drawn; but nowhere does the reader learn very much about how scientific research is done, or about where original scientific insights come from.

The reason for this “fraud” is perfectly plain. The scientist’s first duty is not to explain the secret of his or her success, nor yet to provide a blow-by-blow account of how any particular investigation was actually conducted; rather, it is to gain professional recognition for what has been done. Such recognition is necessary to the scientist’s ability to continue research, and in practice it entails the recasting of research results according to the public conventions of the scientific community. The inevitable result of such recasting is that the scientific text becomes, in part at least, something of a public relations exercise.

There are few better examples of this process of recasting in the interests of good public relations than Charles Darwin’s most famous work, On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, Or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). The thesis of this book was that species are related to one another by descent with modification from common ancestors, the modification being caused principally by the survival and reproduction of advantageous genetic varieties in the universal struggle for existence. This idea of evolution by natural selection is familiar enough today: but in 1859 it was a truly revolutionary insight, full of the most profound and unsettling implications for traditional views of God, nature, human nature, and society.

Darwin was very well aware of how controversial his new theory would be, and he took great pains to present it as persuasively and unoffensively as possible. He took the trouble to make his book conform to the strictest Victorian scientific conventions. Natural selection was defended as a true cause (vera causa) by close analogy with the artificial selection familiar from the work of stock-breeders; and the theory was advanced, not as a proven fact, but rather as the best hypothesis capable of explaining a very great diversity of familiar biological and geological evidence. Similarly, Darwin also contrived to make his book conform to contemporary theological conventions. The argument was couched in theologically orthodox terms, and it excluded all but the most fleeting references to the religiously sensitive question of human origins.

By means of such strategies, Darwin constructed a brilliantly persuasive argument for evolution by natural selection. To a considerable extent, however, he achieved this public relations success by effectively covering his tracks as a creative scientist. The Origin tells us almost nothing worth knowing about how Darwin came upon his revolutionary…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.