Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists
Samuel Butler, a master of acrimonious polemic, confronted Charles Darwin with the sorest of all scientific subjects—a dispute about priority. In Evolution Old and New (1879), Butler accused Darwin of slighting the evolutionary speculations of Buffon, Lamarck, and his own grandfather Erasmus. To this book, and to later, more specific taunts,1 Darwin reacted with the most effective ploy of all: silence. Darwin’s son Francis later wrote of this incident: “The affair gave my father much pain, but the warm sympathy of those whose opinions he respected soon helped him to let it pass into a wellmerited oblivion.”2
Yet since the currency of science is originality in ideas, the subject of priority never passes into oblivion. Historians and sociologists have demonstrated over and over again that no revolutionary idea arises without a pedigree and that most major discoveries are, in the sociologist Robert Merton’s term,3 “multiples.” (A.R. Wallace, of course, independently invented the principle of natural selection during a malarial fit on the island of Ternate eighteen years after Darwin had devised it, but before its publication.) The subject of Darwin’s predecessors had been aired long before Butler’s attacks. Most revolutionaries in science either ignore history or revise it for their own purposes. Darwin had not been generous toward previous evolutionists,4 and their claims had led him to add a historical introduction to later editions of the Origin of Species.
Nor did the subject die with Butler’s demise. In 1959, the centenary of the Origin inspired a flood of scholarship, much of it devoted to Darwin’s evolutionary predecessors.5 In the same year, Loren Eiseley, distinguished anthropologist and a notable prose stylist among scientists, published a long paper in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society: “Charles Darwin, Edward Blyth, and the Theory of Natural Selection.” In it, Eiseley charged that Blyth had developed a version of natural selection before Darwin in the 1830’s and that “Darwin made unacknowledged use of Blyth’s work.”
Edward Blyth (1810-1873), the “mysterious Mr. X” of this book’s title, was a gifted natural historian who, through misfortune and poverty, labored much of his life in relative obscurity as a curator in the museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Eiseley, who died in 1977, did not pursue the subject much beyond his original paper, and this book is little more than a reprint of the 1959 essay, fleshed out with seven additional essays, none original, many of doubtful relevance, and only one written later than 1965.
Two standard misinterpretations, one fostered by Darwin himself, have plagued conventional commentary on the genesis of natural selection. In the story that ought to be true, Darwin entered the Beagle laden with the theological prejudices of his age. During the next five years, nature herself cut Darwin’s chains and he saw the truth in giant fossil bones from South America and in the tortoises and finches of the Galapagos. This heroic tale reinforces the false stereotypes that scientists often like to convey about their discipline—science…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.