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What Charles Darwin Got Wrong

Darwin was his own harshest critic, but he couldn’t naturally select his blind spots.

by Becky Ferreira
Nov 24 2014, 8:59pm

​Charles Darwin at 46. Image: Maull and Polyblank for the Literary and Scientific Portrait Club.

Exactly 155 years ago today, Charles Darwin published his masterpiece The Origin of Species, unleashing a vibrant intellectual shitstorm upon the world that still rages today.

The University of Cambridge celebrated the momentous anniversary this morning by releasing over 12,000 high-res images of Darwin's research as part of the ongoing Darwin Manuscript Project. Included in the collection are some of the influential thinker's earliest musings, some of which were penned while on his eye-opening voyage on the HMS Beagle, a ship that would grant him access to mountains of hard evidence to inform his later evolutionary theory.

For a genius, Darwin was an adorably humble guy, and was perhaps more in tune with his own intellectual fallibility than even his worst detractors. The new archive provides abundant proof of that modest streak—several of the passages are crossed out and rewritten with new information.

Excerpt from Darwin Manuscript Project. Image: Cambridge University Library.

He clearly thrived on chucking out old ideas and hedging his bets with new ones, leaving plenty of breathing space for future generations to expand on his accumulated evidence. As he wrote to A. Stephen Wilson in 1879, "to kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing a new truth or fact."

This methodical revision explains why The Origin of Species remains so astonishingly airtight 155 years later. But even Darwin didn't have a perfect record, and his missteps—few though there were—provide an interesting window into his brain. We took Nikola Tesla down a few pegs on his birthday this year, so it's only fair that Darwin gets a dose of red ink on "Evolution Day."

Let's kick off with Darwin's theory of "pangenesis," an idea that earned him a place in Mario Livio's book Brilliant Blunders, published this past May. The complexities of genetic inheritance were unknown in Darwin's day, leading to a number of conflicting theories on how hereditary traits were passed on through each generation.

Darwin speculated that hypothetical "gemmules," or biological molecules of inheritance, were shed by the organs of the body to accumulate in the male and female reproductive systems, and were eventually combined into a new individual. Darwin expanded on the idea in his 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, arguing that these gemmules were actively moulded by the environment of an organism, which in turn would influence the organism's offspring.

First edition copy of The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. Image: PD/Charles Darwin.

The pangenesis theory was a throwback to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's widely discredited idea that traits acquired during the life of an organism could be passed on to the next generation (a rat with its tail removed, for example, would go on to produce offspring with shorter or missing tails).

It was an understandable error considering the limitations of the time, and in fact, some scientists have argued that the theory may yet be vindicated. Certainly when compared to the other "brilliant blunders" that Lopez covered in his book—such as Lord Kelvin's wildly inaccurate estimate of the Earth's age—Darwin's error in pinning down the mechanism governing inheritance seems pretty much as modest as the man himself.

Darwin's attitude towards other races was more troubling, however, his staunch abolitionist values notwithstanding. As evolutionary biologist Douglas Allchin pointed out on Darwin's bicentennial birthday, he assumed that the indigenous peoples he encountered on his voyage were biologically more similar to apes than European Caucasians.

It's surprising that Darwin, who was very socially progressive for his time, would stumble into such a basic trap of privilege

There's some irony in that, considering that Europeans are the ones running around with Neanderthal DNA stamped all up in their double helixes, which could be used to argue that they are closer to "lower" primates with the same flimsy thinking. It's also surprising that Darwin, who was very socially progressive for his time, would stumble into such a basic trap of privilege (though it's important to note that he never argued that one ethnic group had innate dominion rights over others, as so many people have falsely claimed).

As Allchin points out, it's not a case of historical relativism, because it wasn't as if all of Darwin's contemporaries considered racial stratification to be a given. In fact, his collaborator Alfred Wallace came to the opposite conclusion while visiting with tribes in Borneo in 1855. "The more I see of uncivilized people, the better I think of human nature on the whole," Wallace wrote, "and the essential differences between civilized and savage man seem to disappear."

Darwin's sketchy thinking on this subject was much more of a blunder than his support for pangenesis, and there wasn't anything brilliant about it.

Like any human being, Darwin also made a series of smaller mistakes in his research, most of which are fairly arbitrary. For example, he flubbed the evolutionary heritage of chickens by tracing the line back to the red jungle fowl, as opposed to the gray jungle fowl. But even tiny errors like this are blown way out of proportion by the predominantly creationist anti-evolution crowd, which highlights how little ammunition they actually have against him.

The mistakes of influential thinkers define them as much as their triumphs, and Darwin is no exception. But his careful revisions and natural modesty resulted in hardly any errors slipping through the cracks of his research. Now, thanks to the University of Cambridge and the Darwin Manuscript Project, you can see the fruits of that process for yourself.