When Darwin was wrong
|Fig. 1. The Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, as would have been seen by Darwin. (Photo by Bev Biggs.)|
Charles Darwin (1809-1802) is rightly famous, not for the discovery of evolution but for revealing the mechanism by which it may occur, natural selection. He not only formulated this idea, but he also presented evidence to support it and put it forward in a readily understood manner that could be comprehended by the world at large. Despite relapsing, debilitating illness he produced a prestigious volume of work, including some nineteen books. His most famous book, On the Origin of Species, ran to six editions. He is properly regarded as the father of modern biology, but his ideas were not always right; he also failed to make deductions, and some of his viewpoints are today seen as outmoded and incorrect.
Darwin was aware of some of his errors and always acknowledged them. His most famous error relates to the “Parallel Roads” of Glen Roy, three contour ridges formed by a varying shoreline of an ancient lake held by a massive ice wall remaining after the retreat of the last ice sheet (Figure 1). In a paper published in 1839 he concluded that they were raised beaches of marine origin.1 Some twenty years later he concluded that he was wrong and acknowledged their glacial origin. He wrote: “Jamieson [Thomas Francis Jamieson (1829-1913)] has smacked my marine view of Glen Roy in splendid & most satisfactory style: . . . The shelves are a magnificent record of the Glacial period. . . .”2
Darwin recorded observations when still a student, and during his famous Beagle voyage he kept a series of notebooks. The vessel on the homeward leg visited Sydney in Australia. With a guide and two horses, Darwin traveled far inland. In the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, he surveyed the massive, magnificent Jamison valley. In the Voyage of the Beagle, a record based on these notebooks, he wrote: “To attribute these hollows to the present alluvial action would be preposterous”; suggesting instead that the gorges may have been cut by a retreating coastline.3 (The Jamison Valley, although formed in soft sandstone from an ancient seabed, is, as seen today, the result of alluvial erosion over millions of years.) (Figure 2)
In his Australian excursion, the traveler was impressed by the inn in the Blue Mountains where he stayed a night on his outward journey: “The Blackheath is a very comfortable inn, kept by an old Soldier; it reminded me of the Inns in North Wales.” Darwin cannot be blamed for this minor error—it was a story put out by the proprietor to impress travelers. The builder and owner, Andrew Gardiner, had been deported to Australia years before as a convict.4
In his short sojourn, Darwin met and was impressed by a party of indigenous Australians but he never saw a kangaroo. He predicted that both would become extinct. Native Australians suffered a dramatic decline because of European-introduced disease and warfare with the new intruders, at times amounting to open genocide. However, they are now prominent in the Australian population, contributing to the richness of Australian culture. And the kangaroo, rather than extinction, has thrived, their numbers at times reaching plague proportion.
As well as actual errors, Darwin failed to find correct answers. He never discovered the mechanism of inheritance. His theory of “gemmules,” particles derived from every cell in the body that passed to the reproductive organs, was never widely accepted.5 He carried out numerous plant breeding experiments but did not determine the rules of heredity, now known as Mendelian inheritance. Darwin was a superb observer but no mathematician, unlike Gregor Mendel (1822-1884). Mendel knew of Darwin’s work but there is no evidence that Darwin knew of Mendel, or of the then little-appreciated results of Mendel’s pea-breeding experiments.6
|Fig.2 Darwin surveying the magnificent Jamison Valley, from what is now the Wentworth Falls Lookout (Painting Peter Jonson, in author’s possession)|
Then there was Darwin’s lifetime illness. He worried that his children, certainly a sickly lot, may have inherited this illness. He never thought that he might have inherited his sickness from his mother (Susannah Wedgwood, 1765-1817), who had a long history of being unwell and died when Charles was only eight. He may not have known of his maternal uncle Tom Wedgwood (1771-1805), who died before Charles was born and had an illness very similar to that of his future nephew, and he would not have known of the youngest child of that generation, Mary Ann Wedgwood (1765-1817), who died with symptoms typical of childhood mitochondrial disease at the age of eight.7 Darwin’s illness has been diagnosed many times;8 the diagnosis preferred here for the illness is that of adult onset mitochondrial disease due to a maternally inherited pathological mitochondrial DNA mutation.9 Mitochondria and the maternal inheritance of mitochondrial disease were unknown in Darwin’s time, but if he had known anything of the long history of strange maladies that had afflicted the Wedgwood family, he might have connected his illness and the illness of his brother Erasmus to those of their maternal forebears.
Many of Darwin’s attitudes were anachronistic but were characteristic of his time; today they would be considered as simply wrong. He was racist—white races, especially Europeans, were superior to other races; he was class conscious, believing in the superiority of the British nobility, and he believed males superior to females: “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.”10 And he was an anti-vaxxer: “There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”11
Darwin rejected all forms of contraception, even contraception in marriage. He wrote that “our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils must not be greatly diminished by any means,” and he expressed the opinion that any “artificial means of preventing conception” would likely “spread to unmarried women & w destroy chastity on which the family bond depends; and the weakening of this bond would be the greatest of all possible evils to mankind.”12 His own ten children were testimony to his rejection of birth control.
Darwin’s attitudes reflected the attitudes of his time. Fortunately, these attitudes have changed; white races are no longer seen as superior, and the nobility are no longer venerated. Women have leadership roles; they have more freedom, but family bonds remain strong.
If Darwin became aware of a mistake, he was the first to admit his error. If alive today, his way of thinking too would be different. Rather than for these faults, he is to be remembered for his observations and insightful deductions; his contributions are the basis of modern biology.
- Darwin CR. Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin. Phil Trans Royal Soci 1839; 129: 39-81.
- Darwin CR. Letter 3714 – Darwin, C. R. to Ramsay, A. C. Darwin Correspondence Project https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-3714.xml (letter no 3714; accessed on 25 August 2021) [Internet]. 1862.
- Darwin CR. Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N. London: John Murray, 1845. 2nd ed. p.439.
- Nicholas FW, Nicholas JM. Charles Darwin in Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 2nd ed.
- Darwin CR. The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. London: John Murray, 1868. Vol II. p.374-384.
- Fairbanks DJ. Mendel and Darwin: untangling a persistent enigma. Heredity. 2020;124:263-73.
- Hayman J. The illness of Tom Wedgwood: a tragic episode in a family saga. Hektoen International. 2019. https://hekint.org/2019/10/17/the-illness-of-tom-wedgwood-a-tragic-episode-in-a-family-saga/.
- Colp R, Jr. Darwin’s Illness. Gainesville: University Press of Florida; 2008.
- Hayman J. Charles Darwin’s Mitochondria. Genetics. 2013;194(1): 21-5.
- Darwin CR. The Descent of Man. London: John Murray, 1874, Vol II, p 327.
- Ibid. p 134.
- Darwin CR. Letter 10988 – Darwin, C. R. to Bradlough, C. Darwin Correspondence Project https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-10988.xml (letter no. 10988, accessed on 26 August 2021)[Internet]. 1877.
JOHN HAYMAN, MD, PhD, FRCPA, is an elderly pathologist who was a service pathologist for most of his professional life, working in public hospitals in Victoria, Australia. He retired from hospital employment to enjoy teaching pathology. He still retains an academic appointment and an interest in medical history. He obtained his PhD by thesis on the topic of Charles Darwin’s illness, which may be accessed here.