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The Quote Mine Project

Or, Lies, Damned Lies and Quote Mines

Darwin Quotes

by the newsgroup
Copyright © 2004-2006

As noted in the Introduction, our intent was to continue to add to our collection of quote mines. This is the first such addition and no fitter subject could be chosen than to address some more quote mines of Charles Darwin.

However, since these quotes are not from a single source, as was the case in the original Quote Mine Project, there are some differences in how they are organized. Before each quote there appears in brackets a brief description of the Editor's impression of the proposition that the quotes are cited for by creationists. That is followed by at least one link to a creationist site using the quote mine. Naturally, these descriptions cannot be exhaustive and are only as accurate as any impression. By all means, you are encouraged to check for yourself as to creationist usage of the quotes. The easiest way to do so is to go to the Google Advanced Search page and, in the "Find results" box designated "with the exact phrase," enter a short, but distinctive, phrase from the quote mine and click on the "Search" button. Of course, if you are here researching a particular use of a quote, you will already have an idea of how it is being used.

The numbering of the quotes is different as well. While the original set of quote mines was numbered simply 1 - 86, these are numbered 2.1, 2.2, . . . etc.

Finally, at the bottom of the page, there are links to responses in the original Quote Mine Project concerning Darwin.

Quote #2.1

[Re: Evolutionary theory violates the basic rules of science]

"I am quite conscious that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of true science." - From a letter to Asa Gray, Harvard biology professor, cited in Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, N.C. Gillespie, p.2)

Representative quote miner: Evolution: Theory Or Fact? Scientists comments on the scientific basis of Darwin's Theory of Evolution

It should be noted at the outset that the above citation is incorrect. The quote does not appear on page 2 of Professor Gillespie's book (Gillespie, Neal C. 1979. Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) but, rather, on page 63, in a paragraph carrying over from page 62.

Neal C. Gillespie is Professor Emeritus of History at Georgia State University in the United States and is a recognized expert on the era in science that includes Darwin's work. The citation he gives as the source of the quotation is: "Some Unpublished Letters of Charles Darwin," Royal Society of London Notes and Records, 14 (1959) but he does not give the date. Further checking located it as coming from a letter by Darwin to Gray on June 18, 1857. The original letter can be found in: Burkhardt, Frederick and Smith, Sydney, eds., 1989. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 6:412.

Obviously, this quotation and citation have been passed around by creationists uncritically and without checking the source. Here are some of the anti-evolution websites that have the same mistaken citation:

As the use of this secondary source for a quote by Darwin is telling of creationist tactics, let us first turn to Gillespie's book. Some context as to the subject matter is needed to understand what the creationists are doing. In large part the book deals with the change that was underway in the methodology of science at the time Darwin published Origin of Species. The method of "induction," championed by Francis Bacon, had been the "standard" for scientific reasoning up until that time, although perhaps paid lip service more than strictly followed. Ideally, in induction, facts are gathered until "lower" axioms or propositions can be derived, from which more general axioms can be arrived at by induction. As these more fundamental laws of nature are discovered, they can then, in turn, be used to deduce other lower axioms, which can then be tested by experimentation. (See Klein, Juergen, "Francis Bacon", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).)

By the time Darwin published Origin of Species, philosophers of science such as John Herschel, William Whewell, and John Stuart Mill had begun to recognize that science was not limited to strict induction. Darwin (according to Gillespie) operated with a methodology that came to be known as "actualism," whereby the existence of uniform and lawful causes of phenomena in nature are assumed. This assumption, in turn, allowed the use of analogies from those causes known to exist (vera causa) to fill in any gaps in our knowledge, as well as to serve as a basis for future research. Thus, "theorizing" was not strictly limited to being done only after fact gathering but could proceed concurrent with and as a guide for ongoing research.

It is in this context that Gillespie refers to the quote, as follows (p. 62-63):

Darwin's application of these principles to particular scientific problems seems to have taken shape in the early period of his species work and to have changed little in later years. Surrounded by "inductionists," he was not always confident of the propriety of his practice. Thomas Kuhn has remarked that "all crises begin with the blurring of a paradigm and the consequent loosening of the rules for normal research." In the present case, those who drifted away from special creation also showed a tendency to abandon "induction" as normal scientific method. Darwin embodied the innovative use of "hypothesis" at its best, but he never fully accepted its philosophical implications, nor did he completely overcome the inhibitions of one who knew that he was innovating and necessarily violating the supposed Baconian methodological canons of his time: "I am quite conscious," he wrote to Asa Gray on the eve of the publication of the Origin, "that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of true science."When [it was reported that John Stuart Mill had characterized the Origin of Species] as being "in the most exact accordance with the strict principles of logic (and that) the method of investigation (was) the only one proper to such a subject," Darwin was relieved. ... [H]e suffered much at the hands of mathematicians, who usually, like so many of his critics, approached the Origin as if it were a proof of evolution, which of course it was not. Its supporters, on the other hand, commonly viewed it correctly as a hypothesis, based on plausibly ordered evidence and heuristic in purpose.

For Darwin, then, explanatory theory was equally as important in scientific inquiry as fact-gathering, and the test of the truth of a theory was its ability to group facts under a single generalization. "I believe in the truth of the theory [of natural selection], because it collects under one point of view, and gives a rational explanation of, many apparently independent classes of facts," he wrote in 1868. It seemed incredible, he told Hugh Falconer, that "a false theory would explain, as it seems to me it does explain, so many classes of facts." ... Again, following the principles of positive science, the explanation had to be within the bounds of natural causation and had to employ causes and processes known or believed on good evidence to occur. Any hypothesis that met these two criteria could be held provisionally as work went on, and then modified if necessary. ... Natural selection, he thought, met both criteria; special creation met neither. It merely verbally accounted for species; it "explained" nothing.

With this context, including the additional quotations from Darwin, it is clear that Darwin had some qualms about his use of this new methodology in place of the traditional idea of "true science," not least of which was the reception it would receive from the rest of the scientific community. But it is also clear that he had great confidence in the results he had achieved. Needless to say, the methodology Darwin used is the basis of much of modern science.

More importantly for the issue of quote mining, it is impossible to believe that anyone can actually read the above, in context and with even a pretense of objectivity, and honestly come away with the impression that Gillespie was using the quote to establish some sort of admission by Darwin that he felt his method was not sound.

So, at this point, the creationists using this quote have produced a single sentence by Darwin, taken from a secondary source, that many, if not most, have not bothered to check even that far. Any of them that did go on to read the secondary source must either have been willfully blind to what was being said or dishonest in their use of this snippet.

Now back to the original letter, remembering that creationists most often cite Darwin's words to "demonstrate" that even he doubted the scientific foundation for the theory of evolution. Could it be that the quote itself supports the creationists, even if Gillespie's use of it does not? One major problem for that position is that Darwin was not speaking of evolution when he wrote those words to Gray. In fact, Darwin did not reveal the nature of his theory to Gray until July 1857, after the quoted letter of June 18, 1857. Here is the quote in context, which comes from the opening of his letter and refers to two previous letters from Gray:

My dear Dr. Gray

I must thank you for your two very valuable letters. It is extremely kind of you to say that my letters have not bored you very much, & it is almost incredible to me, for I am quite conscious that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of true science.[The rest of the letter goes on to discuss what Darwin and Gray have been calling "disjoined species" of trees.]

As Darwin explains his interest in the subject:

I inferred that genera & Families with very few species (i.e. from Extinction) would be apt (not necessarily always) to have narrow ranges & disjoined ranges. You will not perceive, perhaps, what I am driving at & it is not worth enlarging on, but I look at Extinction as common cause of small genera & disjoined ranges & therefore they ought, if they behaved properly & as nature does not lie to go together!

Gray responds on July 7, 1857 (The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, supra, at 6:422):

I accept [extinction] as best explaining disjoined species. I see that the same cause must have reduced many species of great range to small, and that it may have reduced large genera to so small, and of families. But why is it not just as likely that there were as many small genera (nearly) at first as now, and as great a disproportion in the number of their species? . . . Is it philosophical, is it quite allowable, to assume (without evidence from fossil plants) that the family or any of the genera was once larger and wide spread? and occupied a continuous area?

This is the issue they have been discussing all along (extinction as a cause of the reduction the range of various species and causing the remnants to be located in widely separated locales), not evolution. It is only on July 20, 1857 that Darwin lets the cat out of the bag to Gray (The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, supra, at 6:431):

What you say about extinction, in regard to small genera & local disjunction, being hypothetical seems very just. Something direct, however, could be advanced on this head from fossil shells; but hypothetical such notions must remain. It is not a little egotistical, but I [should] like to tell you, (& I do not think I have) how I view my work. Nineteen years (!) ago it occurred to me that whilst otherwise employed on Nat. Hist, I might perhaps do good if I noted any sort of facts bearing on the question of the origin of species; & this I have since been doing. Either species have been independently created, or they have descended from other species, like varieties from one species. I think it can be shown to be probable that man gets his most distinct varieties by preserving such as arise best worth keeping & destroying the others, -- but I [should] fill a quire if I were to go on. To be brief I assume that species arise like our domestic varieties with much extinction; & then test this hypothesis by comparison with as many general & pretty well established propositions as I can find made out, -- in geograph. distribution, geological history -- affinities &c &c &c,. And it seems to me, that supposing that such hypothesis were to explain general propositions, we ought, in accordance with common way of following all sciences, to admit it, till some better hypothesis be found out. For to my mind to say that species were created so & so is no scientific explanation only a reverent way of saying it is so & so. But it is nonsensical trying to show how I try to proceed in compass of a note. But as an honest man I must tell you that I have come to the heteredox conclusion that there are no such things as independently created species -- that species are only strongly defined varieties. I know that this will make you despise me. -- I do not much underrate the many huge difficulties on this view, but yet it seems to me to explain too much, otherwise inexplicable, to be false. ...

I must say one word more in justification (for I feel sure that your tendency will be to despise me & my crotchets) that all my notion about how species change are derived from long-continued study of the works of (& converse with) agriculturists & horticulturists; & I believe I see my way pretty clearly on the means used by nature to change her species & adapt them to the wondrous & exquisitely beautiful contingencies to which every living being is exposed.

Darwin would then go on to explain his theory in depth to Gray in a letter on September 5th, 1857, which would later become part of Darwin's part of the joint presentation, with Wallace, of the theory of Natural Selection to the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858 (see the second volume of Janet Browne's biography of Darwin, The Power of Place, 2002, New York: Alfred A. Knoft, p. 37-41).

Gillespie, whose book is otherwise quite good, certainly put the context of the quote clumsily, especially in saying it came "on the eve of the publication of the Origin", when it was nearly two a half years before the publication date, November 24, 1859, and before Darwin ever wrote about his theory to Gray. Gillespie definitely appeared to make a connection between the Origin and the quote. But, once you know the date of the letter and the background of Darwin's relationship with Gray, it is obvious that the letter is not referring directly to Darwin's theory, much less the Origin, though it was speaking to the general scientific methodology Darwin was using. That Gillespie was a bit sloppy, however, is no excuse for creationists to seize upon it without checking and blow it out of proportion.

Sadly, if the creationists only bothered to learn rather than merely quote mine, they might have stumbled on the much more interesting issue of the methodology used by Darwin and the questions it raised in the philosophy of science. In the end, however, it would not have been of any more avail to their case. Darwin's method was clearly valid and is still widely used to this day in all the sciences, not just biology. But at least it would have been a real issue, not this pale cardboard imitation of one.

- John (catshark) Pieret

Quote #2.2

[Re: Evolution not being scientific]

"You will be greatly disappointed (by the forthcoming book); it will be grievously too hypothetical. It will very likely be of no other service than collocating some facts; though I myself think I see my way approximately on the origin of the species. But, alas, how frequent, how almost universal it is in an author to persuade himself of the truth of his own dogmas." - Charles Darwin, 1858, in a letter to a colleague regarding the concluding chapters of his Origin of Species. As quoted in 'John Lofton's Journal', The Washington Times, 8 February 1984.

Representative quote miner: The Theory Of Evolution 1: What Is The Scientific Status Of The Theory Of Evolution?

The complete text of the letter can be found in F. Darwin & A.C. Seward, eds., More letters of Charles Darwin. 2 vols., London, John Murray, 1903, vol. 1, pp. 449-50, and can be seen at The writings of Charles Darwin on the web, Edited by Dr John van Wyhe.


Down, December 1st [1858?].

I thank you for so kindly taking the trouble of writing to me, on naturalised plants. [Darwin then discusses the spreading of clovers and trees.]

With respect to your idea of plants travelling west, I was much struck by a remark of yours in the penultimate "Linnean Journal" on the spreading of plants from America near Behring Straits. Do you not consider so many more seeds and plants being taken from Europe to America, than in a reverse direction, would go some way to account for comparative fewness of naturalised American plants here? Though I think one might wildly speculate on European weeds having become well fitted for cultivated land, during thousands of years of culture, whereas cultivated land would be a new home for native American weeds, and they would not consequently be able to beat their European rivals when put in contest with them on cultivated land. Here is a bit of wild theory! [1]

[Here Darwin asks Bentham for a favor in connection with names of species involved in certain cross breeding experiments.]

Thank you heartily for what you say about my book; but you will be greatly disappointed; it will be grievously too hypothetical. It will very likely be of no other service than collocating some facts; though I myself think I see my way approximately on the origin of species. But, alas, how frequent, how almost universal it is in an author to persuade himself of the truth of his own dogmas. My only hope is that I certainly see very many difficulties of gigantic stature.

[Here Darwin asks Bentham if he can remember cases of one introduced species beating out another and whether he supposed the seedlings of the wild corn-poppy indigenous in Sicily would win against the acclimatized English poppy.] If this could be shown to be so in this and other cases, I think we could understand why many not-trained American plants would not succeed in our agrarian habitats.

[1] See Asa Gray, "Scientific Papers," 1889, Volume II., page 235, on "The Pertinacity and Predominance of Weeds," where the view here given is adopted. In a letter to Asa Gray (November 6th, 1862), published in the "Life and Letters," II., page 390, Darwin wrote: "Does it not hurt your Yankee pride that we thrash you so confoundedly? I am sure Mrs. Gray will stick up for your own weeds. Ask her whether they are not more honest downright good sort of weeds.")

- More Letters of Charles Darwin, p. 341-2

Darwin clearly anticipates that he will be taken to task by a good many of his fellow naturalists for proposing a speculative theory, as it was not the fashion at the time for British naturalists to propose theories (they left that to the French and German speaking Europeans). He seeks here and elsewhere to defuse some of this. It didn't work - from the outset he was attacked for speculation.

- John Wilkins

In understanding this (and many other of Darwin's letters) it should also be kept in mind that he was writing privately, not giving a formal defense of his work. That Darwin could be less-than-serious in his correspondence is shown by the letter referenced in the footnote above. Darwin was often self-deprecating in his humor and generally modest about himself and his theory, which was not the worst aspect of Victorian manners. Less charitably, perhaps, but no less accurately, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, in their biography, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1991. W.W. Norton & Co., p. 456), call them his "half-begging, self-mocking letters."

- John (catshark) Pieret

Quote #2.3

[Re: Do the facts prove evolution?]

"For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this is here impossible." - Charles Darwin, 1859, Introduction to Origin of Species, p. 2. Also quoted in 'John Lofton's Journal', The Washington Times, 8 February 1984.

Representative quote miners: The Theory Of Evolution 1: What Is The Scientific Status Of The Theory Of Evolution ? and Crossfire: What Would Darwin Say? The Ohio Intelligent Design Controversy

A fuller context:

This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. I cannot here give references and authorities for my several statements; and I must trust to the reader reposing some confidence in my accuracy. No doubt errors have crept in, though I hope I have always been cautious in trusting to good authorities alone. I can here give only the general conclusions at which I have arrived, with a few facts in illustration, but which, I hope, in most cases will suffice. No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts; with references on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this. For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this cannot possibly be here done. - First edition, quoted from p 66-7 of the Penguin edition.

By the sixth edition, the exact phrasing "is here impossible" has been inserted.

[Editor's note: Since the quote mine dated the reference to 1859, that necessarily implies the first edition. It is a minor difference in the quote but further evidence of the sloppy or, more correctly, nonexistent scholarship of creationists. The different editions can be found on the web here: first edition (p. 2), and the sixth edition (pp. 1-2).]

Darwin originally intended to have a large and academic book, with footnotes and exhaustive factual illustrations. His plan was defeated when Wallace sent his outline of the theory, so Darwin had to publish this "abstract" of the larger essay. It was eventually published in the 1970s, over a century later.*

The phrase quoted is an apology for the paucity of facts used in the argument. The "both sides" are, of course, special creation and evolution.

- John Wilkins

* R. C. Stauffer, ed., Charles Darwin's Natural Selection : Being the Second Part of his Big Species Book Written from 1856 to 1858, 1975. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Quote #2.4

[Re: The fossil record is incorrectly presented as incontrovertible evidence of the validity of evolutionary theory]

"The case at present (problems presented by the fossil record) must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained." - The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Penguins Books, New York, Edition 6, p. 310.

Representative quote miners: The Fossil Record: Proof of Special Creation and The Creation Explanation: The Primeval World -- Fossils, Geology & Earth History: What Do the Fossils Say?

The more complete context is:

To the question why we do not find rich fossiliferous deposits belonging to these assumed earliest periods prior to the Cambrian system, I can give no satisfactory answer. Several eminent geologists, with Sir R. Murchison at their head, were until recently convinced that we beheld in the organic remains of the lowest Silurian stratum the first dawn of life. Other highly competent judges, as Lyell and E. Forbes, have disputed this conclusion. We should not forget that only a small portion of the world is known with accuracy. Not very long ago M. Barrande added another and lower stage, abounding with new and peculiar species, beneath the then known Silurian system; and now, still lower down in the Lower Cambrian formation, Mr. Hicks has found in South Wales beds rich in trilobites, and containing various molluscs and annelids. The presence of phosphatic nodules and bituminous matter, even in some of the lowest azoic rocks, probably indicates life at these periods; and the existence of the Eozoon in the Laurentian formation of Canada is generally admitted. There are three great series of strata beneath the Silurian system in Canada, in the lowest of which the Eozoon is found. Sir W. Logan states that their "united thickness may possibly far surpass that of all the succeeding rocks, from the base of the palæozoic series to the present time. We are thus carried back to a period so remote that the appearance of the so-called primordial fauna (of Barrande) may by some be considered as a comparatively modern event." The Eozoon belongs to the most lowly organised of all classes of animals, but is highly organised for its class; it existed in count less numbers, and, as Dr. Dawson has remarked, certainly preyed on other minute organic beings, which must have lived in great numbers. Thus the words, which I wrote in 1859, about the existence of living beings long before the Cambrian period, and which are almost the same with those since used by Sir W. Logan, have proved true. Nevertheless, the difficulty of assigning any good reason for the absence of vast piles of strata rich in fossils beneath the Cambrian system is very great. It does not seem probable that the most ancient beds have been quite worn away by denudation, or that their fossils have been wholly obliterated by metamorphic action, for if this had been the case we should have found only small remnants of the formations next succeeding them in age, and these would always have existed in a partially metamorphosed condition. But the descriptions which we possess of the Silurian deposits over immense territories in Russia and in North America, do not support the view, that the older a formation is, the more invariably it has suffered extreme denudation and metamorphism.

The case at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained.To show that it may hereafter receive some explanation, I will give the following hypothesis. From the nature of the organic remains which do not appear to have inhabited profound depths, in the several formations of Europe and of the United States; and from the amount of sediment, miles in thickness, of which the formations are composed, we may infer that from first to last large islands or tracts of land, whence the sediment was derived, occurred in the neighbourhood of the now existing continents of Europe and North America. The same view has since been maintained by Agassiz and others. But we do not know what was the state of things in the intervals between the several successive formations; whether Europe and the United States during these intervals existed as dry land, or as a submarine surface near land, on which sediment was not deposited, or as the bed on an open and unfathomable sea. - Origin of Species, 6th Ed. John Murray, 1872, Chapter 10, pp. 286-288.

Darwin is concerned about the lack of fossils before the Cambrian, and seeks to explain it in terms of the wearing away of the earlier strata. He notes here (sixth edition, 1872) that he had said in 1859 (first edition) that fossils would be found in earlier strata, and they eventually were. However, Darwin was probably mislead about the Eozoon formations, as they are not currently considered a real fossil but a metamorphic feature formed from the segregation of minerals in marble through the influence of great heat and pressure.

Tectonic subduction, something that Darwin could not known of, has destroyed some of the relevant material but mostly he was right. The older the sediment, the greater the chance that it has either eroded away or been metamorphosed to an extent that fossils are destroyed. Even so, we have multicellular fossils now back to the Ediacaran (circa 580 million years before the present) and single cell fossils arguably back to 3.75 billion years. The valid argument no longer has any purchase, and Darwin has been vindicated.

Citing it out of the specific context suggests Darwin thought there were a lot of things he could not explain using evolution, and that he knew it was false. This is extraordinarily bad quote mining.

- John Wilkins and John Harshman

Quote #2.5

[Re: "General difficulties with the theory of evolution]

"Long before having arrived at this part of my work, a crowd of difficulties will have occurred to my reader. Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered . . ." - Charles Darwin (ed. J. W. Burrow), The Origin of Species (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1974.), p. 205.

Representative quote miner: Evolution and Recent History: Darwin, Evolution and His Critics--Part Two (PDF)

Ellipses: creationism's tool of choice for dishonesty. Unless, of course, they do not even bother with them and simply insert a period, as here: "Creation: Believe it or Not--Part 1" Selected Scriptures by John MacArthur and here: Creation #1.

From Chapter Six, "Difficulties On Theory" in the First Edition, p. 171:

LONG before having arrived at this part of my work, a crowd of difficulties will have occurred to the reader. Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered; but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent, and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to my theory.

Darwin is proceeding by his usual method of first posing a problem and then responding to it. The omission of the rest of the sentence could have only been deliberately intended to give a false impression of Darwin's own assessment of his work. The only possible "excuse" for using the quote in this form is that it was copied mindlessly from a secondary source without the minimal effort of checking the original. It is either a display of an absolute lack of scholarship or else an absolute lack of morals.

- John (catshark) Pieret

Quote #2.6

[Re: "lack" of transitional fossils]

But, as by this theory, innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth?" (Origin of Species, 1859).

Representative quote miners: The Theory of Evolution vs and Creation Evidence Discredits Evolution

There is no surprise here. Darwin is proceeding by his usual method of asking a question and then answering it. Creationist quote miners classically omit his answer.

In the sixth edition this appears in Chapter 6, "Difficulties on Theory", on p. 134 (in the first edition it appears on p. 172 with a different follow-up):

But, as by this theory innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth?It will be more convenient to discuss this question in the chapter on the Imperfection of the Geological Record; and I will here only state that I believe the answer mainly lies in the record being incomparably less perfect than is generally supposed. The crust of the earth is a vast museum; but the natural collections have been imperfectly made, and only at long intervals of time.

Besides leaving out the context, this is misleading in a subtler way when used for the proposition that there are no transitional forms. Darwin is not talking about the existence or nonexistence of transitionals here, but of an "innumerable" series of finely-graded transitionals linking together all extinct and existing forms. As he says later in Chapter XI of the sixth edition on page 342:

These causes [the imperfection of the fossil record, the limited exploration of the record, poor fossilization of certain body types, etc.], taken conjointly, will to a large extent explain why -- though we do find many links -- we do not find interminable varieties, connecting together all extinct and existing forms by the finest graduated steps. It should also be constantly borne in mind that any linking variety between two forms, which might be found, would be ranked, unless the whole chain could be perfectly restored, as a new and distinct species; for it is not pretended that we have any sure criterion by which species and varieties can be discriminated.

In short, the use of the quote to imply there are no transitionals misstates Darwin's argument, intentionally or out of ignorance. Darwin was not stating that there was an absence of transitionals but, in fact, stated there were "many links." Instead, he was discussing why there are not more transitionals in an easily read pattern of gradual change. As Darwin correctly noted, where the fossil record does not approach "perfection," it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell by morphology alone exactly where any particular organism would fall within such a graduated series. Thus, such an organism might be classified as a distinct species from either the original or the subsequent ones. However, such organisms, being general morphological intermediates between different forms, as in the case of Archaeopteryx, would, along with other evidence, support an inference of evolutionary change over time through common descent. The fossil record may not be easy to read, but it is not devoid of information either.

Even if the quote stood for what the quote miners claim it does, Darwin was writing almost 150 years ago, at a time early in the scientific study of fossils and when few scientists were expecting to find "transitional forms." Much has been learned since, some of which can be seen in various articles in the Archive, such as: Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ, Archaeopteryx FAQs, and 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, among others.

J. (catshark) Pieret

Quote #2.7

[Re: Evolution is a faith not based on evidence]

"When we descend to details we can prove that no one species has changed (i.e., we cannot prove that a single species has changed): nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory. Nor can we explain why some species have changed and others have not. The latter case seems to me hardly more difficult to understand precisely and in detail than the former case of supposed change" - Darwin, 1863.

Representative quote miner: Treasures: Why Evolution!

First of all, the quote is from a "P.S." to a letter to G. Bentham, May 22, 1863 [Darwin, F., ed. 1905. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton & Co., p. 209-10].

As an aside, the main part of the letter is discussing, interestingly enough, the aspect of the fossil record that eventually lead to proposal of the theory of Punctuated Equilibria:

The objection . . . of certain forms remaining unaltered through long time and space, is no doubt formidable in appearance, and to a certain extent in reality according to my judgment. But does not the difficulty rest much on our silently assuming that we know more than we do? ... [I]n judging the theory of Natural Selection, which implies that a form will remain unaltered unless some alteration be to its benefit, is it so very wonderful that some forms should change much slower and much less, and some few should have changed not at all under conditions which to us (who really know nothing what are the important conditions) seem very different.

In essence, Darwin is saying that the stasis in the morphology of species found in the fossil record is partly due to the imperfection of the record itself and, possibly, partly due to differential rates of change in species. While Darwin's default position was for gradualistic change in species, such concepts are relative. He saw that some change in species could take much longer than others and, of course, the Punctuated Equilibria theorists only claim that change tends to come "rapidly" in geologic terms but over very long times in human terms.

Now to the actual quote:

P.S. -- In fact, the belief in Natural Selection must at present be grounded entirely on general considerations. (1) On its being a vera causa, from the struggle for existence; and the certain geological fact that species do somehow change. (2) From the analogy of change under domestication by man's selection. (3) And chiefly from this view connecting under an intelligible point of view a host of facts. When we descend to details, we can prove that no one species has changed [i.e. we cannot prove that a single species has changed]; nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory. Nor can we explain why some species have changed and others have not. The latter case seems to me hardly more difficult to understand precisely and in detail than the former case of supposed change. Bronn may ask in vain, the old creationist school and the new school, why one mouse has longer ears than another mouse, and one plant more pointed leaves than another plant. . . . the fact that they have not been modified does not seem to me a difficulty of weight enough to shake a belief grounded on other arguments.

Here Darwin is pointing that Natural Selection can be seen to operate and serves as a single coherent explanation for many diverse phenomena. Even if all the details of the individual phenomena are not known, the "consilience", in William Whewell's phrase, of his mechanism cogently explaining a wide range of events is, itself, support for its status as a "vera causa". [See Snyder, Laura J., "William Whewell", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).] Add to that the fact that the fossil record generally shows change in life over time and the clear analogy from animal breeding, and there is substantial support for his proposed mechanism.

As to the quote mined portion, Darwin is saying that, based on the fossil record (the only evidence available at the time, before genetics), there wasn't enough detail to say that a particular species was the descendant of a particular earlier species. By the same token, then, it would be impossible to show from the fossils that any particular species had changed into another. This is a "problem" with all fossil evidence, at least until and unless we can recover DNA or other genetic material. It constitutes some sort of refutation of evolution only to those who are determinedly hopeful of one and willfully ignorant.

The other point Darwin was making in the P.S. is that it is not necessarily possible to determine just what about a trait makes it advantageous, given the complexity of the interaction of the organism with the environment. In fact, Darwin is here warning against the "just so stories" that Stephen Jay Gould would inveigh against 120 years later. Once again, this is an excellent example of just how deeply and comprehensively Darwin understood his theory.

This quote mine is similar to Quote 82 but longer and without additional text (not from Darwin) that was included in Quote 82.

- John (catshark) Pieret

Quote #2.8

[Re: Evolution is impossible]

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. - Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, 1st Ed., p. 186.

The Talk.Origins Archive has two articles on this famous and flagrantly out-of-context eye quote: Evolution of the Eye and An Old, Out of Context Quotation. This quote as been used by many creationists, for example Creation Moments: Radio: The Deceptive Eye and An Overview of Intelligent Design. The Archive has the full text of what Darwin wrote online. Alternately try The Writings of Charles Darwin on the Web for full text of what Darwin wrote about this in the first edition or the sixth edition and use your browser's "find" feature to search for "absurd." Reading what Darwin wrote following the text the creationists quote mine clearly shows that Darwin did not in any way find the evolution of the eye absurd. Also see a creationist site lists the quote as an argument not to use saying that it is "subtly out of context."

- Mike Hopkins

Quote #2.9

[Re: Evolution leads to immorality]

A man who has no assured and ever-present belief in the existence of a personal God, or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. - Charles Darwin, The Morality of Evolution, Autobiography, Norton, p. 94, 1958

Answers in Genesis uses this quote with in Answers... with Ken Ham: Is there really a God?: Study Guide (PDF) where it puts the quote right before a quote attributed to Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous murderer who dismembered his victims so he could eat them. Revelation And Creation: Genesis: Key To Understanding (part 6) also uses this quote:

The relevance of a belief system is found in its influence on behavior. Charles Darwin got it right when he said, "A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones" (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1887, as republished by The Norton Library, p. 94). Similarly, Solomon wrote long ago, "For as he thinks in his heart, so is he" (Prov. 23:7). Clearly what we believe affects our behavior. If one believes that he is a product of chance and random processes, why should one place any value on life? He is simply guided by the strongest impulses and his choices are based on such (rape, euthanasia, abortion, etc.). Adolf Hitler could be justified by evolution!...

The passage can be found at Extract from Nora Barlow ed. The autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882: with original omissions restored. The fuller context shows a rather nasty out-of-context quote that makes it look like Darwin renouced morality when he did just the opposite.

I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives ; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive ; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.--As for myself I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science. I feel no remorse from having committed any great sin, but have often and often regretted that I have not done more direct good to my fellow creatures. My sole and poor excuse is much ill-health and my mental constitution, which makes it extremely difficult for me to turn from one subject or occupation to another. I can imagine with high satisfaction giving up my whole time to philanthropy, but not a portion of it; though this would have been a far better Line of conduct.

Also see the Ethics entries of An Index to Creationist Claims, the God and Evolution FAQ, and Evolution and Philosophy: Does evolution make might right?.

- Mike Hopkins

Quote #2.10

[Darwin and evolutionary theory is racist]

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. - Darwin, Descent, vol. I, 201.

Representative quote miners: Answers in Genesis: Darwin's 'savages', Creation Digest: Charles Darwin: Candidate for High School Teacher?, and The Christian Broadcasting Network: Dissecting Darwin and the Scopes Monkey Myths

Quotes 2.10 and 2.11 are dealt with in the discussion of Quote #4.6.

Quote #2.11

[Darwin and evolutionary theory is racist]

The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world. - Charles Darwin, Life and Letters, p. 318.

Representative quote miners: Bible Believers: Darwinism, Evolution, and Racism, Creation Worldview Ministries: Bible Lab, and Evolution Cruncher: Evolution, Morality, and Violence Part 2

Quotes 2.10 and 2.11 are dealt with in the discussion of Quote #4.6.

Links to Other Darwin Quotes

The Quote Mine Project has dealt with other Darwin quotes elsewhere:

Additional resources include:


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