Misinformation in the Sunday Times

Stan Carey - Sunday Times errorsIn the Sunday Times Culture magazine of 14 June 2009, there is an article entitled “Life, the Universe and Ulysses”. It begins as follows:

The year1859 was a good year for books that changed the world. Darwin published On the Origin of Species, starting the debate on evolution, and John Stuart Mill published On Liberty, his influential essay on liberalism.

I have a few points to make about this seemingly innocuous sentence. Mostly I wish to draw attention to an error both subtler and more serious than the typo that clumped year and 1859 together: the debate on evolution did not begin with On the Origin of Species. This is not even a gross simplification; it is misleading nonsense. Darwin’s book is a milestone in evolutionary theory, but the debate on evolution had been going on – sometimes sporadically, sometimes vigorously – for decades, centuries, even millennia, before it. Take for example Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique. Lamarck’s ideas have fallen in and out of favour over the years; nonetheless, his book was a scientific treatise on evolution that predated Darwin’s by half a century.

Stan Carey - Charles DarwinThere are many other characters renowned in the pre-Darwinian debate on evolution, each of whom made valuable contributions of varying scientific and philosophical validity. They include Linnaeus, Paley, St. Augustine, Mendel, Lucretius, Al-Jahiz, Bruno, Schelling, Leibniz, Robert Chambers, Buffon, Von Baer, Cuvier, Goethe, Malthus, Lyell, Kant, Herder, Geoffroy St. Hilaire, and Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin. I could trace the debate on evolution back to Aristotle – or even further, to Plato, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Anaximander and Thales – but I don’t want to waste my readers’ time. You can confirm what I say, take it on faith, or look it up.

Nor will I not criticise the “changed the world” cliché beyond pointing out (pedantically) that all books change the world, some more than others. Everything changes the world, including the fallacious line I quoted at the top of this post. It is reasonable to assume that some people saw it in the Sunday Times and accepted it as true. It isn’t. No doubt a background in biology has sensitised me to this kind of misinformation, but the information I have cited above is available to anyone with a few minutes to spare and access to a library or the internet, which is the least one might expect of broadsheet journalism. A moment’s reflection, or a few moments’ research, is all that is needed to avoid such mistakes.

Edit: I thought I might be accused of overreacting! Maybe I did, or maybe it was a displaced rant. The public field of evolutionary theory is beset by creationist rubbish, while neo-Darwinism has talked itself into a corner. By obscuring much historical context, the Sunday Times’ lapse does not help matters, but it’s minor by comparison.

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12 Responses to Misinformation in the Sunday Times

  1. Sean Jeating says:

    Ah, that’s me! Forgot to ask, Stan, what to me was slightly metagrobolize-y:
    Nor will I not criticise [...]
    Am I wrong, and this is not a double negative?

  2. Stan says:

    Thanks Sean, for the tip of the hat and for pointing out a mistake. Double negatives are not necessarily improper or incorrect, but the one you mentioned was! I appreciate your careful reading, and I have emended the text.

  3. Lucy says:

    Let’s hear it for the unsung thinkers! Let’s make songs about them! Better start with Goethe.

  4. Stan says:

    That’s a great idea Lucy! We would need to compile a list, then see if we have some good rhymes for a rousing chorus.

  5. Lucy says:

    Yes, I have learned that rhymes are useful in a chorus.

  6. Sean Jeating says:

    Ah, Stan, I’d love to know as much about the English language as you do.
    Would I I had added <i<in this context.
    After this, do I have to confess I am an afficionado of double and multiple negations?
    Gosh, this blog is indeed a challenge for a maltreator of the English language. A wonderful challenge.

  7. Stan says:

    Sean: It’s a pity we can’t instantaneously exchange what we know about our respective first languages! So much of what little I learned of German has been lost through disuse.

    With your interest in double and multiple negatives you will probably enjoy this.

  8. Lucy says:

    I’m hoping to keep my Danish alive, it was a struggle to learn it, entirely by ear. I wrote my first email in Danish a couple of days ago, had been a while. The fluency of it goes so easily, but also comes back so easily, I find.

  9. Lucy says:

    “my first email in a while“…

  10. Stan says:

    Lucy: Writing in Danish is very impressive. At least it seems so to me who knows so little of it, apart from some famous names.

    It is definitely worth maintaining foreign-language abilities; as you say, fluency comes back easily. Or in my case, partial fluency comes back gradually. Claudia is such a help and inspiration to my keeping in touch with French, and maybe some day I will re-introduce a bit more German and Irish to my tongue – or fingers, as the case may be.

  11. Lucy says:

    I think with most languages it is easier to write first, the conversation part comes later. It was a remarkable experience, learning Danish, especially how I learned it. I have heard that there are some Japanese people who learn how to read it, so that they can read Kierkegaard in the original. Haven’t a clue how to speak it. It is not a phonetic language.

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