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.

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