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Darwin Correspondence Project

Six things Darwin never said – and one he did

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.

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.
Supposedly from *Origin of Species* , this one is all over the web (and even in a stone floor) but is from a management studies text.
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* , but actually from a 1960s textbook, *Civilisation past and present*.
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* . So far no one has found where it really comes from – but it definitely isn't Darwin.
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 be a fabrication.
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, in his introduction to the 1872 'Everyman' edition of *On the origin of species* . In fact, this is a misquote even of Matthews: he refers to an *unproved* theory, rather than an *improved* theory.

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 [1857] (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:


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.

Read more about what Darwin did say

Follow his 'Life in Letters'

Read his views on marriage, or the letters surrounding the death of his daughter

What was it like to visit him?


Home learning?

See our fun activities for 7-11 years

And for 11-14 years


Working from home?

View of Darwin's study showing his armchair and table

See how Darwin worked from home with our interactive of his study and garden at Down House.