In 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.
There 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.