Darwin’s Dilemma

The following op-ed piece by James Tabery, assistant professor of philosophy at the UofU, was published in the sltrib (9 Feb 2012):

In the summer of 1858, Charles Darwin received an extraordinary manuscript from the young scientist Alfred Russell Wallace.

By this time, Darwin had long ago worked out his theory of evolution by natural selection, but he delayed publishing it, opting instead to spend nearly 20 years collecting more data that would confirm what he knew was a controversial theory.

Charles Darwin Pondering His Ethical Dilemma

Shockingly, Wallace’s manuscript contained in it almost exactly the same theory of evolution by natural selection.  Wallace had independently hit upon Darwin’s theory, potentially undermining the last two decades of Darwin’s work.  What should Darwin do with Wallace’s manuscript?

. . . Though the occasional dissident still exists, the received view among historians is that Darwin realized he had conflict of interest in the matter.  As a result, he turned Wallace’s manuscript over to Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, two eminent scientists form the day.  Lyell and Hooker then arranged for a joint presentation of Wallace and Darwin’s independent discoveries to the Linnean Society.  Darwin realized that conflicts of interest require independent review and management, and Lyell and Hooker realized that independent discoveries deserve independent reognition.  Those principles remain the standard of responsibility to this day.

Sunday, Feb 12, marks Darwin Day, the 202nd anniversary of Darwin’s birth.  Throughout the world, reflectors will ask, “What is Darwin’s scientific legacy?”  But the way Darwin handled Wallace’s manuscript suggests that Darwin represents a model of both scientific and ethical action.

We can also ask, “What would Darwin do?”

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