Darwin is often quoted – and often misquoted. Below are some sayings regularly attributed to Darwin that never flowed from his pen.
We are offering a copy of Volume 16 of the Correspondence to the first person who securely identifies – with a firm attribution to a published source – any of the first three misquotations. So far we have one prizewinner, Nicholas J. Matzke, a graduate student at the Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley. You can read Nick’s solution to one of our puzzles on the right.
So here are the “quotes”:
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.
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.
Supposedly from Origin of Species.
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.
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!
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.
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  (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!