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Darwin Correspondence Project

Six things Darwin never said – and one he did


Darwin didn't say...
Darwin didn't say...
after CUL DAR 225: 175
Cambridge University Library

Darwin is often quoted – and often misquoted. Here are some sayings regularly attributed to Darwin that never flowed from his pen.

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.  

Nicholas J. Matzke, of the Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, found a source for the first. You can read Nick’s solution on the right.

Garson O’Toole sent us the results of his investigation into the second, which you can see on his Quote Investigator site (where he also links to an earlier Wikiquote article ).  It started life as a discussion of Darwin’s views in a 1960s textbook, Civilisation Past and Present, was quoted (with proper attribution to the earlier textbook) in The Living Clocks, by Ritchie R. Ward (1971), and escaped into the wild from there — presumably because someone didn’t read the footnote.

So two down, one to go.   Though an earlier, closer match for the first quote may also still be out there.

 So here are the “quotes”:

1) It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

2) In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.

Both supposedly from Origin of Species.


3) In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.

Supposedly from Descent of Man.


4) The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

Not Darwin but Richard Dawkins!


5) I was a young man with uninformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything; and to my astonishment the ideas took like wildfire. People made a religion of them.

This one is in an article claiming to describe Darwin’s deathbed return to Christianity. His children denied that the author, Lady Hope, was anywhere near Darwin as he was dying, and the story is generally considered to have been fabricated.


6) The fact of evolution is the backbone of biology, and biology is thus in the peculiar position of being a science founded on an improved theory, is it then a science or faith?

L. H. Matthews, introduction to Origin of Species 1872: Everyman. In fact, this is a misquote even of Matthews; his introduction refers to an unproved theory, rather than an improved theory.


And finally something Darwin did say, but which is often quoted out of context to suggest that Darwin himself had doubts about the validity of his theories:

I am quite conscious that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of true science.

Letter to Asa Gray, 18 June [1857] (see the letter)

This has to be read in the context of the areas that Darwin and Gray had been discussing (and which can be followed closely from the rest of the published correspondence) which was the problem of how to account for species of plants for which there were no, or few, closely related species. Darwin was attempting to come up with a theory to account for this and 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’. He is not making a general comment on his larger theory of speciation through natural selection.

This is a good example of the sort of selective reading that is fairly common. Caveat lector!

More about quote 1

None of these fake soundbites is more insidious than “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change“. This phrase is ubiquitous on the web, and is prominently placed in the stone floor of the headquarters of the California Academy of Sciences (the attribution to Darwin has since been removed).

As you can read on Nick Matzke’s blog, the source he has identified is in the writings of Leon C. Megginson, Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. As Nick points out, the quote started out as a paraphrase. Megginson wrote in 1963: ‘According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.’ (Megginson, ‘Lessons from Europe for American Business’, Southwestern Social Science Quarterly (1963) 44(1): 3-13, at p. 4.) A similar version is in Megginson’s ‘Key to Competition is Management’, Petroleum Management (1964) 36(1): 91-95.

Significantly, Megginson was a prolific author of textbooks and a prominent teacher in management studies, the field in which the bogus quotation remains most pervasive. Nick points out that one of Megginson’s former students recalled that ‘I learned a lot of good things from Leon Megginson’s classes. One of the most valuable things I heard him say went something like this: Charles Darwin didn’t say that only the strong survive. What he said was that those who survive are the ones who most accurately perceive their environment and successfully adapt to it.’ Megginson had an interest in the theories of evolution through ‘mutual aid’ advocated by the Russian zoologist Karl Kessler, and his statements about Darwin clearly reflect that.

At some stage Megginson’s paraphrase of Darwin, slightly recast, was turned into an actual quotation from Origin. That part of the story remains to be told.