The Corner

A Question of Priority

I am enjoying Peter Robinson’s conversations with Tom Wolfe, but Tom’s assertion that Darwin committed plagiarism can’t be allowed to stand. I suppose Tom means that Darwin stole the idea of natural selection from Alfred Russell Wallace.

The Russell-Wallace priority issue has been worked over almost as much as Newton-Leibniz, and the vast mass of commentary on it includes a fringe of partisan and conspiracy-theory stuff, most famously Arnold Brackman’s book of 20-odd years ago, a great favorite with Darwin haters.

It is certainly unfair that, as Michael Shermer notes in his book about Wallace, “Darwin has become a household name and Wallace all but forgotten.” That’s not Darwin’s fault, though. He went to great lengths to give Wallace joint credit for the discovery of natural selection; Wallace himself acknowledged that fact, in writing; and the two men were always friends. There was none of the rancor of the Newton-Leibniz business. You can argue that Wallace ought to be better credited, and I think he ought; but it was Darwin who wrote the Big Book, and that’s what gets you remembered. To dismiss the whole relationship as mere “plagiarism” is just ignorant, Tom. Questions of priority in science arise all the time, as they are bound to from the nature of the enterprise. Very few of them involve plagiarism.

For anyone who wants a good overview of the priority issue, there is a long extract from Shermer’s book here. Those of my readers – rather a lot, to judge from the e-mail-bag – who regard Darwin as a limb of Satan who tortured small children in his basement, will not be moved, but for the fair-minded, it’s a good introduction.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

Most Popular

White House

Trump and the ‘Racist Tweets’

What does “racist” even mean anymore? Racism is the headline on President Trump’s Sunday tweets -- the media-Democrat complex assiduously describes them as “racist tweets” as if that were a fact rather than a trope. I don’t think they were racist; I think they were abjectly stupid. Like many ... Read More
White House

The Trump Steamroller

As we settle into high summer and the period of maximum difficulty in finding anything to fill in hours of television news, especially 24/7 news television, two well-established political trends are emerging in this pre-electoral period: The president’s opponents continue to dig themselves into foxholes that ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Ilhan Omar Is Completely Assimilated

Beto O’Rourke, the losing Texas Senate candidate who bootstrapped his way into becoming a losing presidential candidate, had a message for refugees who had come to America: Your new country is a hellhole. The former congressman told a roundtable of refugees and immigrants in Nashville, Tenn., last week: ... Read More

We All Wanted to Love the Women’s Soccer Team

For the first time in my life, I did not root for an American team. Whatever the sport, I have always rooted American. And if those who called in to my radio show were representative of my audience, many millions of Americans made the same sad choice. It takes a lot for people like me not to root for an ... Read More

The ‘Squad’ Gives a Gift to Donald Trump

On Sunday, Donald Trump gave the Democrats a gift -- comments that indicate he thinks native-born congresswomen he detests should “go back” to the countries of their ancestors. On Monday, the four congresswomen handed Trump a gift in return, managing to respond to the president’s insults in some of the most ... Read More

Why So Little Coverage of the ICE Attack?

Mostly unnoticed beneath the storm of idiotic presidential tweets and the Democratic struggle session over exactly how minority legislators should behave, a 69-year-old man conducted a terrorist attack on a government facility this weekend. Willem Van Spronsen, armed with a rifle and “incendiary devices”, ... Read More