The Darwin Papers


The following is an account of an exchange between Roland Watts and a young Earth creationist (YEC) that took place recently on the NAiG message board.

Hi [YEC's name omitted]


Darwin was a liar and a thief, or Darwin was not.  Claim and counter claim.  Maybe reality was more complex and somewhere in between.


To determine the truth, evidence is called for and you offered yours in the form of a web link to one of a series of papers collectively titled The Darwin Papers.  This particular one was number 2 of volume 1, written by James M. Foard and titled Edward Blyth.


As the 26 pages began to print I felt a bit daunted by the potential size of the task – which was to determine the adequacy of your evidence.  I needn't have worried.  Typical of most creationist literature, this "tome" was short on detail, particularly detail to support your accusation that Darwin was a thief.




1.         It only touches on your accusation.


Out of the 26 pages, the first two and a half deal directly with the accusation.  Even then much of Foard's writing appears more to be an attempt to raise sympathy for Blyth and his unfortunate life than to attack Darwin.


Foard hardly constructs a case against Darwin.  Rather his argument is little more than a sprinkling of quotes from others.  The most space devoted to one critic is given directly or indirectly to Loren Eisely who wrote a very influential book titled Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X.  Eisely was a respected evolutionist.  When one of a group criticizes, it is harder for the other members to ignore.  And so it was in this case.  Allow me to quote Richard Milner (The Encyclopedia of Evolution, Facts On File, New York 1990) - "… because of Eiseley's excellent reputation, several scholars took the trouble to investigate his conclusions about Blyth, but not one found the case or the evidence convincing."


The remaining 26 pages are little more than Foard's personal criticism of Darwinian evolution, with occasional praise for Blyth – even thought the title of the paper is Edward Blyth.  At no stage does one learn what Blyth really said about natural selection in the sense that Darwin constructed a theory and presented evidence for it.

In other words, you offer me a few quotes from Eisely made by Foard (who appears little more than a propagandist (see later)) against the words of several scholars who took Eisely seriously and following an investigation, concluded that he did not have a case.

Two other people whom Foard quotes, Butler and Darlington, appear to have axes to grind.  Of the others, Hitching appears to borrow from Eisely and it's hard to know whether Browne is criticizing or complementing Darwin.


So there you have it in essence.


2.         Foard is a propagandist.

Many creationists loath Darwin.  Witness Ham in The Lie: Evolution (Answers in Genesis printing, 2001) where the theory is accused of causing "lawlessness, immorality, impurity, abortion, racism, and a mocking of God."  In contrast, the fruits of Creation are "joy, love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self- control." (page 29).

Foard is no different, because in the first half a dozen or so pages we learn that Blyth was industrious, happy, born poor and always remained poor, unlucky, warm, not bitter.  He was a man whose words "flowed with his sense of awe", a man who cared for nature.  He was an ecologist and conservationist.  In contrast, not only do we have the accusation that Darwin was a plagiarist, but we learn that Darwin was pampered, and cruel.  His views were "gray, dreary and brutal".

In Foard's paper we get curiosities which Foard does not attempt to explain.  He writes on page 5 that natural selection "could only preserve and protect the integrity of already existing species, thus Blyth was correctly in line with what modern scholarship has to say about it."  [The highlighting is mine]   Modern scholarship does not say this at all, in the context that most modern scholarship outside of the creationist fold is Darwinian in its thinking.

Concerning Darwin's supposed admission that he got the idea of natural selection from Wells (page 5), Foard does not explain why those such as Butler who bought Darwin "to task", did not include Blyth.  Butler, it appears, was concerned about Lamark, Buffon and others.  If they did, Foard offers no quotations.  Because of his publication, Darwin had many enemies, and one, Patrick Matthew, a tree farmer, insisted that he had thought of the idea first.  When Darwin learnt of Well's much earlier version, he commented "[s]o poor old Patrick is not the first after all …".  (Encyclopedia of Evolution).

Given that Wallace is recognized as the co founder of the theory, Foard does not make this accusation of Wallace.  Why not?

Eisely, the one person Foard defers to the most, was a noted evolutionist.   Foard makes no mention of this fact, even though later on, another scientist, Darlington, is described as a "world famous geneticist and anthropologist".  It often strikes me as curious how credentials are used by creationists – popped in to add weight to some creationist claim, omitted when convenient, in this case because it may reveal some integrity within the group which Foard seemingly dislikes.  Of course Foard does not mention that Eisley's claims were investigated and dismissed.


In failing to mention the investigation of Eisley’s claim, Foard is guilty of omission.  No sense is given to the reader of the "Darwin Papers" that there could be another side to this story.  It's a bit like omitting any mention of Eisley's credentials, lest it give the reader an impression of honesty within the evolutionary camp.


Foard uses innuendo to support his claim.  Thus on page 2, he spends a paragraph mentioning the missing pages from Darwin's notes of 1835.  It is hard to see how this is good evidence that Darwin was attempting to hide anything.   Foard certainly does not make the case and turning to the references, 7 and 8, is of no help either.  The relevant notes there either quote Darwin writing about how he thought of natural selection, or they discuss the mythical nature of, and the irrelevancy of the Galapagos finches.  As evidence the first reference is very circumstantial and the second is irrelevant.


In dealing with Wells, the naturalist whom Darwin did later recognize as having been influential, Foard dismisses him as contributing nothing original because "the basic concept of natural selection had been around since ancient Greek time" (page 5).  But Blyth was not an ancient Greek.  So if Blyth "thought" of the idea of natural selection, then why does Foard not dismiss him equally?  The answer is clear.  Blyth was an "ardent creationist".


If fact, on this topic of the Greeks, Foard's logic can be tested.   Attempting to destroy any notion of Darwin as an original thinker, in number 3 of volume 1, Foard writes "The Greek Philosopher Epicurus (Epicurius) fully enunciated  Darwin's theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest over two thousand years before Darwin was ever born: …".  [The highlighting is mine]  In summary on page 21 of number 2 however, Foard writes "… Charles Darwin did not originate the idea, and borrowed much of its concept from a creationist scientist, Edward Blyth."  While not stating that Blyth did formulate the concept of natural selection, it begs the question.  If, on such scant evidence as presented by Foard, the accusation can be made that Darwin borrowed from Blyth, can one not make a similar claim for Blyth borrowing from Epicurus and other ancient thinkers?

This is particularly so since Epicurus "fully enunciated" natural selection, two thousand years before.  If Darwin is not original then why is Blyth, in contrast, original?




Foard does not tell us exactly what Blyth's theory was, nor does he give any indication as to how well or extensively Blyth argued for it.   At the end, Foard does mention that more will come in number 3 of volume 1.  However, number 3 is really a much better attempt than this one, number 2, at demonstrating how Darwin's idea could not have been original, simply because ideas on evolution and natural selection had been around for thousands of years.  (On a quick scan of it, I can see nothing about Blyth.)


In number 3 however, Foard merely demonstrates something that is well known in science.  Very few ideas or theories are completely original.  This begs the obvious question.  If few ideas are original, then why do some people get the credit but not others?  And if this is so common, why does Foard seemingly denigrate Darwin and praise Blyth when by Foard's own reasoning, Blyth was not original either?  There are peculiar twists in Foard's logic if this exercise is viewed simply as an attempt to set the record straight.


Darwin was an admirer of Blyth and the two thought well of each other (Blyth, along with Lyell were the two who told Darwin of Wallace's work).  Foard makes only passing reference to the relationship between the two.  Given that Darwin had influential supporters who knew both Blyth and himself, it's curious as to why they felt that Darwin's work was the ground breaking one.


And this is the point.  It is indeed possible that Darwin had read the work of many naturalists who came before him and in that sense his idea was not new.  However, it was Darwin who did the hard work, collected the evidence and argued with it to demonstrate that the theory just could not be ignored.  Until Darwin and Wallace came along, the ideas of the Greeks, Wells, Blyth, Lamark, Erasmas Darwin, Mathews, etc., were little more than curious or perhaps interesting ideas.  Furthermore, while Blyth argued for natural selection, he kept it within the realm of Biblical literalism – something reasonable for him to do, given the culture of the day.  It was Darwin and Wallace who demonstrated how the idea could be used to explain the origin of species and step outside of Biblical literalism.  Foard obviously dislikes that result.  It is nevertheless a very important point and Foard's personal views on this count for nothing.


It's a little bit like Jesus Christ.  Many of the words attributed to him can be found uttered by people of many cultures, across all times, including times before Christ.  The culture at the time of Christ derived most of its values from those who had come before.  Hence Christ's words were nothing original.  So what was one of the things important about Christ that made his words "original" to us in the West?  He uttered his words in a manner that many people of his time just could not ignore.  As a result, like Darwin, Christ became something of a mythic figure.  Unlike Darwin, Christ became a god.


I suspect that one problem for both Blyth and Wells is that they did not argue their cases forcefully.  Darwin considered Blyth "… a very clever, odd, wild fellow, who will never do what he could do, from not sticking to any one subject." [The Encyclopedia of Evolution quoting Darwin].  In other words, unlike Darwin and Wallace, Blyth was a dabbler.  The same charge was made of Wells. [The Encyclopedia of Evolution].  In a sense, deriving an idea can be easy.  Demonstrating that the idea has a basis in reality is the hard part.  It would appear that this is the difference between Blyth and Darwin.


Darwin must have been influenced by his culture and many who came before him.  Surely their ideas did influence him.  It's possible that he should have given much more credit to these others.  However, given that it was Darwin who argued the case so well, the idea will always be seen as his.  Perhaps the injustice is that the idea is not called the Darwin-Wallace Theory of Evolution.  In science there are often many claimants to a theory or a discovery (consider DNA, plate tectonics, MRI, calculus) and one group gets credit to the near or total exclusion of others.


That is unfair and it is up to historians to bring such issues to light and correct the balance – if at all possible.

However, with Darwin, Foard does not make his case.  Rather number 2 of the "Darwin Papers" is a badly argued piece of creationist propaganda.


There will always be a question mark over the precise origin of "the origin of species" and it is important that these equivocations be remembered.  Until something of substance is offered however, there is nothing to change ones mind on the pivotal role Darwin played in the question the origin of life's diversity and complexity.


Often accusations are levelled by Darwins detractors at the almost religious zeal with which the man is defended.  Many of these charges are not unreasonable.  Yet from the outset, extraordinary hostility was directed at Darwin's theory.   While much of the initial argument against the theory was sound, a lot was also nonsense.  In modern times, the percentage of nonsensical objection has become acute, given our knowledge of genetics, zoology, comparative anatomy, the fossil record, statistics, etc., which easily explains most of the early objections.


That creationists such as Foard can only operate effectively at this level of propaganda and ill defined argument is a tribute to the success of Darwin's theory and the inadequacy of modern day creationism to provide an explanation in the sense that Darwin and Wallace's theory does.


Regards Roland