Submitted by PeterPavement on Thu, 11/24/2016 - 19:34
Spot the fakes! Darwin is often quoted – and as often misquoted. Here are some sayings regularly attributed to Darwin that never flowed from his pen.
Context is everything
Darwin really did say this, but it is often quoted out of context to suggest that he had doubts about the validity of his theories (he didn't):
‘I am quite conscious that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of true science.’
Letter to Asa Gray, 18 June  (read the letter)
Darwin is not making a general comment on his evolutionary theories. He said this in the context of a discussion with Asa Gray about a very specific problem – how to account for the existence of species of plants for which there were no, or few, closely related species. Darwin had speculated that these
disjoined species would be found to come from genera which had very few species in total. This was not based on a great deal of observation however, hence it appeared to him to be
unscientific. This is an example of the sort of selective reading of Darwin that is fairly common.
Here's more of their conversation:
- Asa Gray to Darwin, 23 September 1856
- Darwin to Asa Gray, 9 May 
- Asa Gray again, 1 June 1857
- Darwin's reply (quoted above), 18 June 
- And finally Asa Gray again, 7 July 1857
Two down, one to go...
We offered a prize to the first person to securely identify – with a firm attribution to a published source – any of the first three misquotations, and so far we've had two solutions. But keep looking. We still don't know where the third one comes from, and an earlier, closer match for the first quote may also still be out there.