Thursday, February 12, 2009
Reinventing Darwin: Quotable things he never said
Even the guardians of Darwin's flame got it wrong. Charles Darwin, born 200 years ago Thursday, single-handedly shapeshifted our understanding of the natural world.
But his powerful insights into evolution were written in a wordy, Victorian style and did not always emerge in compact, haiku-like nuggets of wisdom.
"His writings can be quite hard going," notes Darwin scholar and Cambridge professor John van Wyhe. "Often you have to read a whole chapter to know what he is talking about."
Which may be why no single sentence is cited more frequently as a distillation of the great man's ideas than this one: "It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change."
It's etched in marble at the California Academy of Sciences and was cited last week by the Cite de Sciences in Paris.
A close runner up: "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."
The British Natural History Museum website singled out that gem for a massive celebratory exhibit.
To make matters worse, neither quote is faithful to his ideas about the role of natural selection in evolution.
"These pithy little sayings try to encapsulate Darwin," Wyhe said by phone, amused and annoyed in equal measure.
"Unfortunately all of them are actually rather wrong."
It is not the species that are most responsive to change that are likely to survive, he explained.
"It is the ones that are lucky, or already have the right features that can be passed on to the next generation."