Origin of Darwin's theory in dispute
Jack Grimston, London | December 29, 2008
Article from: The Australian
AS the scientific world prepares to mark Charles Darwin's bicentenary, the
author of On the Origin of Species is facing accusations of plagiarism and
unjustly claiming credit as the father of evolutionary theory.
One group of critics has commissioned computer experts with specialised
anti-plagiarism software to scour Darwin's book, published in 1859, for
similarities to a paper released the year before by Alfred Russel Wallace, a
naturalist who worked for eight years in what he termed the Malay Archipelago -
primarily Indonesia and Malaysia.
Initial indications are that the analysis will show some of the most important
ideas in On the Origin of Species were taken from Wallace -- in particular the
idea that species with variations helping them to survive would thrive and pass
on these features to their offspring.
Darwin's defenders claim it was quite plausible for two scientists to have come
up with similar ideas independently at the same time and that Darwin did far
more than Wallace to setdown, develop and promote the ideas.
The fight over Darwin's legacy comes in advance of numerous events to mark the
200th anniversary of his birth.
Since November, Britain's Natural History Museum has been staging the largest
exhibition ever seen about Darwin's work. A film about his early life is due
for release next year.
The adulation has appalled Darwin's critics, including human rights lawyer
David Hallmark, a trustee of the Wallace Foundation of Indonesia.
"The descent of Wallace from equality to relative invisibility is the direct
result of the unlawful conduct of Charles Darwin by suppressing the true worth
of Wallace as author of the theory," Mr Hallmark said.
Mr Hallmark has spent years retracing the travels of Wallace in Southeast Asia,
where the naturalist's discoveries included the brightly coloured Wallace's
The software used by Mr Hallmark's copyright experts can detect where phrasing
is identical and also see signs of an author's style.
Where a word is repeated frequently or a consistent sentence structure is used
by two writers, this may suggest that one has copied from the other.
Mr Hallmark plans to submit his findings to the conference of the International
Association of Forensic Linguists in Amsterdam in July.
"It is not proven yet but early suggestions are that there are strong grounds
to suspect a direct link," Mr Hallmark said.
The crux of the Darwin-Wallace dispute is in two events in 1858.
First, Darwin, who had been labouring to develop his theory since his voyage on
board HMS Beagle in the 1830s, received a letter from Wallace setting out the
basis of his evolutionary ideas. At the time Wallace was recovering from
Soon afterwards, the work of both men was presented to the Linnean Society of
London. Darwin's contribution was two short extracts; Wallace's was a complete
Darwin hurried to finish his book On the Origin of Species the following year.
His critics claim he did so to avoid being "scooped". Later, Darwin wrote: "I
never did pick anyone's pocket."
Most mainstream scientists have taken Darwin's side, with Richard Dawkins, the
Oxford evolutionary biologist, calling the accusations "misplaced".
This is the view also taken in Creation, a film due out next year, starring
Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as Darwin and his wife, Emma.
It shows a young Darwin agonising over the implications of his theory, which
challenged the conventional religious view of God's creation, and shows him
receiving Wallace's letter.
"He is very, very distressed but also relieved in a way thatsomeone else has
done it,"said the film's producer, Jeremy Thomas.
The film rejects the plagiarism charge. "It's a nasty word in our trade,"
The Sunday Times