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


Supreme Court Mulls Citizenship Question for Census

Washington -- The oral arguments the Supreme Court will hear on Tuesday will be more decorous than the gusts of judicial testiness that blew the case up to the nation’s highest tribunal. The case, which raises arcane questions of administrative law but could have widely radiating political and policy ... Read More
White House

Another Warning Sign

The Mueller report is of course about Russian interference in the 2016 election and about the White House's interference in the resulting investigation. But I couldn’t help also reading the report as a window into the manner of administration that characterizes the Trump era, and therefore as another warning ... Read More
Film & TV

It’s the Deep Breath before the Plunge

Warning. SPOILERS are ahead. If you don’t want to know anything about episode two of the final season of Game of Thrones, stop reading. Now. One of my favorite moments in Peter Jackson's outstanding adaptation of Lord of the Rings happened in the final movie, The Return of the King. On the eve of Mordor's ... Read More