Charles Darwin: Mycologist and Refuter of His

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by Milton Wainwright
Department of Molecular Biology
& Biotechnology, University of Sheffield,
S10 2TN, UK
Although nearly every aspect
of Darwin’s work has been
scrutinised, his occasional
studies of microorganisms and
in particular fungi have been
overlooked. Darwin however, took
an interest in the Victorian debate
over spontaneous generation
and in the role of Phytophthora
infestans in causing potato blight.
Darwin was also interested in the
possibility that his long-standing
stomach complaint was caused by
a fungus. Considerable hyperbole
surrounds Darwin’s work. However,
while he was a first rate naturalist,
Darwin, by his own admission,
did not originate the ideas of
evolution or natural selection.
By using Darwin’s own words I
hope to show that the numerous
myths which have grown up
around Darwin diminish, rather
than elevate, the great man’s
contribution to biology.
KEYWORDS: Darwin, Darwin myth,
fungi, history of biology, history of
Although practically every aspect
of Charles Darwin’s life and work has
been scrutinised in minute detail,
the possibility that he worked on
microorganisms has been largely
ignored. However, considering Darwin’s
wide interest in natural history, it
seems inconceivable that he would have
ignored the opportunity to contribute
to the surge in interest in bacteria and
fungi during the mid-Victorian era.
As we shall see, Darwin did in fact
seize this opportunity and became
involved in some interesting work
on microbes, including fungi. While
researching Darwin’s contribution to
mycology I soon became aware that a
false impression of Darwin has emerged
and that the many myths that have
surrounded him have denied us a true
appreciation of his achievements. So
here, as well as considering Darwin’s
contributions to mycology, I will use
the great naturalist’s own words to shed
some light on Darwin’s true contribution
to the development of the theory of
natural selection.
Darwin’s Contribution to Mycology
Fungi and evolutionary theory
Fungi are rarely mentioned in
the history of the development of
evolutionary science. Darwin (1868)
however, in his The Variation of Animals
and Plants under Domestication
comments that when infected by
fungi, plants often assume some of the
characteristics of allied species. This
observation was, in fact, first made
by the German naturalist, S. Reisseck
(Masters, 1860), who mused:
Suppose, the conditions originally
caused by the fungus to become constant
in the course of time, the plant would,
if found growing wild, be considered a
distinct species, or even belonging to a
new genus.
The Reverend M.J. Berkeley, a leading
light of Victorian mycology, thought that
fungi might be used to good effect to
solve the “species problem” which was to
occupy the minds of so many naturalists
of this era (Berkeley and Broome, 1850):
The extremely close external
resemblance of objects belonging to very
different genera (of fungi) would make
a nice subject for amplification to those
who would adopt the notion prevalent
with some of the transformation of
Berkeley’s words clearly show that the
transmutation of species was already
being discussed as early as 1850 and, as
we shall see below, considerably earlier.
From Fuegian food to potato blight
Darwin’s first contribution to
mycology came when, while voyaging
on the Beagle, he noted that fungi were a
major component of the diet of Fuegians.
He observed that Cyttaria darwinii a
globular, bright-yellow fungus, grew in
vast numbers on trees and was collected
by women and children and eaten
uncooked, as their staple diet. Darwin
sent a specimen of this fungus back to
England, where it was identified by the
Revered Berkeley (Darwin, 1860a).
Much later in life, Darwin took a keen
interest in studies on the fungal blight
which had so devastated the potato
crop and caused famine throughout
Europe during the 1840s. Between
February 1876 and March 1882, Darwin
exchanged some ninety letters with a
certain James Torbitt concerning support
for one of Torbitt’s commercial projects
aimed at developing and distributing
potato plants which were resistant to
the light blight caused by the fungus
Phytopthora infestans (Dearce, 2008).
Torbitt selected the small number of
plants which survived in a field infested
with the blight fungus and used these to
hopefully produce blight-resistant seed
(Dearce, 2008). Darwin provided money
to support this important work and
lobbied civil servants on Torbitt’s behalf
in order to secure further funding.
Did Darwin suffer from a fungal
It is a well known fact that Darwin
suffered throughout most his life from
a debilitating stomach complaint, but
did Darwin’s long standing complaint
result from a fungal infection? Ever
the experimenter, Darwin (1863) used
his single lens microscope to examine
a sample of his vomit and was able to
inform Hooker that he found what “I
suppose are vegetable cells in the limpid
fluid which I throw up.”
Having observed such cells or
“animalcules” Darwin sought the
advice of one of the leading medical
practitioners of the day, Sir John Goodsir.
As early as 1842, Goodsir had shown
that an animalcule was present in the
vomit of people suffering from gastric
illness. He named the organism Sarcina
and claimed that it was the cause of
numerous stomach complaints. He then
prescribed hyposulfites in order to kill
the organism in vivo; this he claimed
produced a cure. Goodsir, was arguably
therefore the first person to demonstrate
the presence of a microbe in an internal
infection, suggest it caused the disease in
question, and then provide a cure; all this
some thirty years before Pasteur took an
interest in microorganisms (Wainwright,
2003). A great deal was known about
Sarcina goodsir, as it became known, by
the 1860s when Darwin sent Goodsir a
sample of his vomit for analysis. Some
authorities regarded it as an alga, while
others were certain that Sarcina was a
fungus, even possibly a morphological
form of common mold such as
Penicillium (Wainwright, 2003); it is now
known to belong to the bacteria. Goodsir
eventually tested Darwin’s sample
for Sarcina but doubtless to Darwin’s
disappointment, failed to find the
organism. Goodsir’s letter (1863) states:
I will most certainly examine a slide or
a small quantity of fluid with flocculent
Continued on page 14.
FUNGI Volume 4:1 Winter 2011
and tenacious matter sent in a tube or
small phial. The spherical bodies are
probably the eels of Torula and spores
of Penicillium. If Sarcina be present it
will be at once detected by its square
form and peculiar segmentation. Sarcina
and Torula often occur together. Mr
(William) Jenner prescribes hydrosulphite
of soda. Your medical advisor may try
creosote. One drop taken at bedtime and
afterwards, two drops in the forenoon and
two at bedtime.
Darwin, fungi and spontaneous
As early as 1866, Darwin (1866a)
entered the ongoing argument over
spontaneous generation by stating in a
letter to J.V. Carus that:
“As for myself I cannot believe in
spontaneous generation.”
During the 1870s, Darwin also
corresponded with John Tyndall who
was then very much involved with the
spontaneous generation controversy.
In order to show that microbes
inhabit the air around us, Tyndall
set up a large number of open tubes
containing extracts of vegetables and
somewhat exotic meats, like venison and
pheasant (Wainwright, 1985). These,
he found soon became contaminated
with airborne bacteria and fungi and
presumably would also infect humans
and animals. Tyndall also observed
numerous examples of microbial
antagonism, the ability of a microbe to
inhibit the growth of another. Although
he noted that species of Penicillium
could kill bacteria, he misinterpreted
his observations and so missed the
opportunity to discover antibiotics
(Wainwright, 2003).
Tyndall sent Darwin one of his closed
tubes which Darwin left exposed to the
air. In a letter dated 20 October 1875,
Darwin (1875) related the news to
Tyndall that:
The tube of boiled infusion, dated
October the 16th, was clear on the
19th, but on the 20th it was muddy and
contained bacteria in living movement.
On the first of February, 1871, Darwin
wrote a letter to Hooker and again
expresses his interest in the experiments
that were then ongoing on spontaneous
generation when he mentioned B.T
Lownes’ observations that boiling does
not kill certain moulds (Darwin, 1871).
This he thought was curious because it
contradicted Pasteur, who claimed that
his boiled extracts remained sterile and
would do so indefinitely.
Darwin Destroys His own Myth
Two thousand and nine, the
bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s
birth and the sesquicentennial of the
publication of On the Origin of Species
saw a remarkable out-pouring of nonscholarly hyperbole and misinformation
about this Victorian naturalist. As a
result, myths about Darwin’s role in the
development of the theory of evolution
by natural selection continue to be
uncritically disseminated in biographies,
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14 FUNGI Volume 4:1 Winter 2011
PUBLISHER’S NOTES: Although many wild
mushrooms are quite palatable, some are deadly
poisonous. It is advisable to avoid eating any wild
organisms, including fungi, unless absolutely certain
of identification. And although some mushroom
species are edible for many people, those same
species may cause allergic reactions or illness in
others. When in doubt, throw it out. FUNGI wants
to ensure that all to have any wild mushroom
checked by an expert before eating them. It should
be understood that the Publisher and all Editors are
not responsible for any consequences of ingesting
wild mushrooms. Furthermore, the Publisher and
all Editors are not engaged, herein, in the rendering
of any medical advice or services. All readers should
verify all information and data before administering
any drug, therapy, or treatment discussed herein.
Neither the Editors nor the Publisher accepts any
responsibility for the accuracy of the information
or consequences from the use or misuse of the
information contained herein. Unauthorized
reproduction of published content of FUNGI is
strictly forbidden, and permission for reproduction
must be obtained by application in writing to the
All rights reserved.
Printed in the U.S.A.
documentaries and through the
general media. During my studies on
Darwin’s interest in fungi, it became
increasingly obvious to me that many
of the ideas commonly attributed to
Darwin were in fact originated by
other Victorian naturalists and even
pioneers of transmutation (later to be
called evolution) who worked in the
eighteenth century; other writers have
also recently noticed aspects of what we
might call the “Darwin Myth” (Caton,
2007). Here, I will use Darwin’s own
words to refute this mythology.
Myth: Darwin invented “evolution”
This is the easiest of the many Darwin
myths to refute. It was doing the rounds
as early as the late 1800s, as is shown by
the following quote which appeared in
Grant Allen’s book of essays on science,
called Falling in Love (Allen, 1891):
Everybody is aware, in a dim and
nebulous semi-conscious fashion, that
evolution was all invented by the late
Mr Darwin.
By the time Darwin wrote his
famous book in 1859, evolution, or
transmutation, was a well established
idea and was already under attack
by theists, as well as scientists like
Sedgwick and Lyell. The appearance of
the Vestiges of the Natural History of
Creation did much advance the cause of
evolution. Anonymously published in
1844 by Robert Chambers (Chambers,
1844), this book took much of the
sting out of attacks on Darwin’s later
books on evolution (Secord, 2001).
Although Darwin was highly critical
of Chambers’ book, both Wallace and
Thomas Henry Huxley were admirers.
Chambers was not, of course, the first
to advocate evolution; the seventeenth
century contributions of Darwin’s
grandfather Erasmus Darwin, and most
famously Lamarck preceded him. It is
remarkable that the view that Darwin
originated the idea of evolution has
entered popular culture in the form of
a mantra. Darwin is, of course, more
properly associated with advocating a
mechanism by which evolution mainly
operates, namely natural selection.
However, as we shall see, Darwin
himself refuted what is perhaps the
most central of all Darwin myths,
namely that he originated the theory of
natural selection. A myth, as we shall
see, Darwin refuted in no uncertain
Myth: Darwin originated the theory
of natural selection
It is remarkable, considering the
evidence, that the myth that Darwin
originated natural selection has persisted
for so long. Nearly every book and
documentary on Darwin propagates
this myth, despite the fact that both
Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace
(who is sometimes referred to as the
co-discoverer of natural selection)
categorically stated that at least two other
Victorian naturalists came up with the
idea before them.
On April 10, 1860, Charles Darwin
(1860b) wrote to a letter to Charles Lyell
in which he mentions a depressing fact.
He had been informed that he had been
beaten to the theory of natural selection
and there was simply no way of avoiding
the fact. The startling news came from a
Scottish tree expert, or arboriculturist,
called Patrick Matthew.
Matthew was born in Dundee in
1790, into a wealthy family and died in
1874. Although he attended Edinburgh
University, Matthew appears never to
have graduated, but returned to his
family’s estate in Errol, Scotland, where
he devoted the rest of his life to growing
trees. It was here that he wrote his theory
of natural selection, which was published
in 1831 (Matthew, 1831); that is, at a
time when Darwin, still a creationist and
opposed to the theory of transmutation,
was just about to begin his famous voyage
on the Beagle.
The letter that Lyell received from
Darwin was factual, rather than emotional
(Darwin, 1860b):
Now for a curious thing. In last
Saturday’s Gardeners’ Chronicle, a
Mr Patrick Matthews (Darwin here
incorrectly spells Matthew’s name)
publishes long extracts from his work
on “Naval Timber & Arboriculture”
published in 1831, in which he briefly, but
completely anticipates the theory of Nat.
Selection—I have ordered the book, as
some few passages are rather obscure, but
it is, certainly I think, a complete but not
developed anticipation!... Anyhow one may
be excused in not having discovered the
fact in a work on “Naval Timber.”
Then, in a letter to J.D Hooker, dated
April 13, 1860, Darwin (1860c) wrote the
Questions of priority so often lead to
odious quarrels that I should esteem
it a great favour if you would read the
enclosed. If you think it proper that I
should send it (and of this there can hardly
be any question), and if you think it full
and ample enough, please alter the date
to the date on which you post it, and let
that be soon. The case in the Gardeners’
Chronicle seems a little stronger than
in Matthew’s book, for the passages are
therein scattered in three places; but it
would be mere hair-splitting to notice that.
If you object to my letter, please return
it, but I do not expect that you will but I
thought that you would not object to run
your eye over it.
In the above letter, Darwin also asked
Hooker to send the following statement to
the Gardeners’ Chronicle :
I have been much interested by Mr
Patrick Matthew’s communication in the
number of your paper dated April 7. I
freely acknowledge that Mr Matthew has
anticipated by many years the explanation
which I have offered of the origin of species,
under the name of natural selection.
I think that no one will feel surprised
that neither I, nor apparently any other
naturalist had heard of Mr Matthew’s
views, considering how briefly they are
given, and that they appeared in the
appendix to a work on Naval Timber and
Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer
my apologies to Mr Matthew for my entire
ignorance of his publication. If another
edition of my work is called for, I will insert
to the forgoing effect.
Here then, we have Darwin admitting
that he was beaten to the theory of
natural selection by Patrick Matthew. In
a subsequent letter, written in the same
month to the, American naturalist Asa
Gray, April 25, 1860 (Darwin, 1860d,), he
Have you noticed how completely I have
been anticipated by Mr P. Matthew, in
Gardeners’ Chronicle?
In a letter Darwin (1861) subsequently
wrote to Quatrefages de Bréau on
April 25, 1861, he yet again admits that
Matthew has beaten him, but continues
to insert the same caveats, namely the
contribution was small, it appeared in an
obscure book, and no one noticed it:
…an obscure writer on forest trees in
1830, in Scotland, most expressly and
clearly anticipated my views–though he
put his case so briefly that no single person
ever noticed the scattered passage in his
Darwin seems to becoming somewhat
Continued on page 16.
FUNGI Volume 4:1 Winter 2011
desperate here, since (as we shall see
later) he neglects to mention that two
reviews of Matthew’s book had in fact
appeared soon after its publication, both
mentioning Matthew’s reference to the
species problem; Darwin’s claim, that
no single person ever noticed Matthew’s
work, is therefore obviously untrue.
Clearly, the fact that Darwin admitted
that he lacked priority, on what is usually
considered to be his theory, has not just
come to light, nor was it hidden away in
Darwin’s letters. On the contrary, it has
been in the public domain for nearly a
hundred and fifty years, yet it continues
to be ignored.
Darwin eventually included reference
to Matthew’s work in the “Historical
Sketch” which he included in later
editions (such as the sixth edition, in
1872) of the Origin of Species. After
commenting that Matthew had the same
views as Wallace and himself Darwin
states that:
Unfortunately the view was given by
Mr Matthew, very briefly in scattered
passages in an Appendix to a work on
a different subject, so that it remained
unnoticed until Mr Matthew himself
drew attention to it in the Gardeners’
Chronicle” on April 7, 1860. The
differences of Mr Matthew’s view from
mine are not of much importance, he
seems to consider that the world was
nearly depopulated at successive periods,
and then restocked…
Although Darwin admits that he does
not understand much of what Matthew,
writes, he concedes that: “He (Matthew)
saw clearly the full force of the principle
of natural selection.”
What about Alfred Russel Wallace,
the man generally viewed as the codiscoverer of natural selection; what did
he think about Matthew’s contribution?
In a book review on Butler’s Evolution
Old and New Wallace (1879) made the
following comments (my emphasis in
We come next to Mr Patrick Matthew,
who in 1831 put forth his views on the
developmental theory in a work on
arboriculture: and we think that most
naturalists will be amazed at the range
and accuracy of his system, and will
give him the highest credit as the first to
see the important principles of human
and “natural selection,” conformity to
conditions and reversion to ancestral
types; and also the unity of life, the
16 FUNGI Volume 4:1 Winter 2011
varying degrees of individuality and the
continuity of ideas or habits forming an
abiding memory, thus combining all the
best essential features of the theories put
forward by Lamarck, Darwin and Mr
Butler himself.
And (Wallace,1900):
These and many other passages, show
how fully and clearly Mr Matthew
apprehended the theory of natural
selection, as well as the existence of more
obscure laws of evolution, many years in
advance of Mr Darwin, and myself and
in giving almost the whole of what Mr
Matthew has written on the subject Mr
Butler will have helped to call attention
to one of the most original thinkers of the
first half of the 19th century.
Although Wallace does not state what
he means by the “existence of more
obscure laws of evolution” in Matthew’s
work, I assume he is referring to
Matthew’s mix of natural selection and
Since both Darwin and Wallace
openly accepted that Patrick Matthew
originated the idea of natural selection
we need not discuss his ideas in detail.
Despite the fact that Darwin (1866b)
stated that Matthew’s ideas on natural
selection were “precisely” the same as
his own and Wallace’s, some recent
scholars have claimed that the two
ideas were different (Wells, 1973). If
this is the case, then one must conclude
that neither Darwin nor Wallace could
have understood the concept of natural
As has already been mentioned,
Darwin claimed that neither he, nor
anyone else knew of Matthew’s work.
This is clearly conjecture on Darwin’s
part and flies in the face of the fact
that Matthew’s book was reviewed.
Matthew’s book was also well-advertised.
For example, an advert for Naval
Timbers, published in the advertising
section of the London Literary Gazette
and Journal of Belle Lettres of 1831
states the book refers to the “the subject
of species and variety.” Clearly, such an
advert might have drawn Fitzroy’s or
Darwin’s attention to Matthew’s book,
although, as Darwin, in 1831, was not
interested in the species problem, any
such interest would probably have had
to await his return from his voyages
on the Beagle, when he began filling
his notebooks with already published
examples of work on transmutation.
The first of the above mentioned
reviews appeared in the Edinburgh
Literary Journal (Anon., 1831a).
Whoever wrote this review certainly
did not spare the vitriol but instead
mercilessly attacked Matthew’s ideas
and style. Passing reference is given to
Matthew’s ideas on natural selection, as
The very great interest of the question
regarding species, variety and habit has
perhaps led him a little too wide.
The next review, appearing in
Gardeners’ Magazine of 1832 (Anon.,
1832) emphasized that Matthew’s book
was important to the welfare of Britain
and to “her extension of her dominions;”
it then discusses the all important
Appendix which contained Matthew’s
ideas on natural selection, as follows:
An appendix of 29 pages concludes the
book…one of the subjects discussed in this
Appendix is the puzzling one, of the origin
of species and varieties; and if the author
has hereon originated no original views
(and of this we are far from certain), he
has certainly exhibited his own in an
original manner.
Clearly anyone, including Darwin, who
was interested in the “species question”
would have read this and wondered what
this somewhat elusive quote meant.
The final anonymous review (Anon.,
1831b), which appeared in the United
Service Journal, commended Matthew’s
description of naval architecture
and then states, “But we disclaim
participation in his rumination on the
law of nature……” The authors of these
two reviews were obviously well aware
that the book had something significant
to say including reference to the
development of species, i.e. evolution.
These two reviews also give lie to the,
frequently expressed, view that Matthew
buried his ideas in an obscure, little
known book.
Although they never met, Darwin and
Matthew entered into some friendly
correspondence, beginning on the 13th
of June, 1862, (Darwin, 1862) when, in
response to the suggestion by Matthew
that they might meet, Darwin replied
that he would like to meet “the first
enunciator of the theory of Natural
Selection” (yet another admission, by
Darwin, of Matthew’s priority), but that
he had to decline the offer because of his
poor health. In 1871, the two scientists
had further correspondence in which
Matthew complained that he had always
been unable to devote much time on
to the question of evolution because
of his long-standing commitment to
politics. Darwin’s wife Emma also was
aware of Matthew’s priority over her
husband, since she wrote to Matthew
(because her husband was ill) saying
(Darwin (E.), 1863) “Darwin is more
faithful to your own original child
than you yourself;” this presumably
refers to something Matthew said
which Mrs. Darwin thought might
weaken the theory of natural selection.
It is noteworthy that one of the main
purposes of Captain Fitzroy’s command
of the Beagle voyage was to study the
arboriculture of the countries visited
with a view to discovering where in the
world British warships and merchant
vessels might take on board wood for
repairs (Cook, 1839). It is possible
therefore that Captain Fitzroy may have
taken a copy of Matthew’s Naval Timbers
and Arboriculture with him on the
Beagle; if this was the case then Darwin
would have had ample time to learn of
Matthew’s views on natural selection. As
has been already mentioned, Matthew’s
book was well advertised during 1830
and 1831 in, for example, the Edinburgh
Literary Journal, London Literary Gazette
and The Magazine of Natural History,
so Fitzroy had plenty of opportunity to
become aware of the book before the
Beagle left England on Dec 27, 1831.
But is it Matthew’s theory?
An obvious problem facing anyone
attempting to correct the record on
priority in science is that the person
one is championing as the discoverer
of a scientific principle may likewise
have been beaten to the idea. Although
I have given prominence to the work
of Patrick Matthew in this essay, I have
not at any point claimed that Matthew
was the first to enunciate the theory of
natural selection. I have avoided this
pitfall simply because at least three
other scientists, Hutton, Edward Blyth
and William Charles Wells came up
with versions of natural selection before
Matthew (and therefore also Darwin
and Wallace). William Charles Wells’
contribution is particularly interesting
because Darwin admitted his priority.
Wells’ version of natural selection
appeared in 1813, some eighteen years
before Matthew’s work. The famous
Victorian scientist and evolutionist,
John Tyndall (1874) referred to Wells’
contribution during his inaugural
address of 1874, when he stated:
In 1813, Dr Wells founder of our
present theory of dew, read before the
Royal Society a paper in which, to use
the words of Mr Darwin, “he distinctly
recognises the principle of natural
selection; and this is the first recognition
that has been indicated.”
Tyndall then goes on to add his
endorsement of Wells as follows:
The thoroughness and skill with which
Wells pursued his work, and the obvious
independence of his character, rendered
him long ago a favourite with me, and it
gives me the liveliest of pleasure to alight
upon the additional testimony to his
The reference to Darwin’s comments
on Wells’ priority is given in letter to
Hooker he wrote in October, 1865
(Darwin, 1865) in which he says:
Talking of the Origin, a Yankee has
called my attention to a paper attached
to Dr Wells famous Essay on Dew, which
he was read in 1813 to the Royal Society,
but not printed, in which he applies most
distinctly the principle of N. Selection
to the races of man. So poor old Patrick
Matthew is not the first, and he cannot
or ought not any longer put on his Title
pages the “Discoverer of the principal of
natural selection.”
The last sentence relates to Matthew’s
habit of putting this statement, claiming
ownership of natural selection, in his
books and on his calling cards. It is
noteworthy that Darwin, in expressing
his obvious satisfaction in debunking
Matthew’s claim to be the originator of
the theory of natural selection, assigns
priority to Wells, and in so doing, once
again, admits that he, and Wallace,
clearly had no priority on the theory. In
his Historical Sketch (published in later
editions of the Origin of Species), Darwin
somewhat tempered his praise of Wells
by stating that:
He applies it (natural selection)
only to the races of man and to certain
characters alone.
By criticising Wells’ priority in this
way Darwin is, of course unwittingly,
re-asserting Matthew’s priority over him
on natural selection. Wells, by the way,
died in 1817, some four years after he
published his theory of natural selection,
so he never had the opportunity to
develop, or promote his ideas.
Since Wells was born in Charleston,
of Scottish parentage, it is perhaps
surprising that American writers have
failed to emphasise that one of their own
beat Darwin to natural selection; perhaps
the fact that he was a staunch loyalist in
the American Revolution has counted
against him (Duyckinck, 1855).
The Beagle myth
One of most enduring myths is
that Darwin developed his ideas of
transmutation while on the Beagle.
However, Darwin destroyed this myth
in no uncertain terms in the following
quote given to Huxley (1893a):
When I was on board the Beagle, I
believed in the permanence of species, but
as far as I can remember vague doubts
occasionally flitted across my mind. On
my return home in the autumn of 1836, I
immediately began to prepare my journal
for publication, and then saw how many
facts indicated the common descent of
species, so that in July,1837, I opened a
note-book to record any facts which might
appear to bear on the question. But I did
not become convinced that species were
mutable until I think two or three years
had elapsed
The above quote by Darwin shows
that it was not until after he returned
from his voyages on the Beagle, and
began studying the available literature
on transmutation, that he became to be
convinced that species could change or
were mutable.
What then of the generally held view
that Darwin observed that each island
of the archipelago had its own species
of tortoise and finch and that this
observation lead him to begin to think of
think of transmutation and even natural
selection? In fact, it was John Gould,
(and not Darwin) who first noticed the
difference in the beaks of the finches, as
the following quote points out (Anon,
Gould believed that the whole of these
birds to be undescribed, and remarked
that their principal peculiarity consisted
in the bill presenting several distinct
modifications of form.
Darwin also cannot be credited with
the original observation that Galapagos
tortoises varied on each individual
island, Darwin (1864) himself states:
By far the most remarkable feature
of the Archipelago is that the different
islands, to a considerable extent, are
Continued on page 18.
FUNGI Volume 4:1 Winter 2011
inhabited by a different set of beings. My
attention was first called to this fact by
the vice Governor Mr Lawson, declaring
that the tortoises differed from different
islands and that he could certainly tell
from which island any one was brought.
Darwin was a Lamarckian
A persistent myth about Darwin
was that he was opposed to the
possibility that acquired characteristics
could be inherited. This idea, whose
chief proponent was Lamarck, is
often regarded as being anathema to
Darwin’s ideas and Lamarck’s views
are, in consequence, generally ridiculed
so as to emphasise the difference
between Darwin’s ideas and the view
that acquired characteristics can be
inherited. However, as Alfred Russel
Wallace (1908a) points out in the next
quote, Darwin was always open to the
possibility that Lamarck was right, and
that acquired characteristics could be
Darwin always believed in the
inheritance of acquired characteristics,
such as the results of use or disuse of
organs, and the effects of climate food etc.
A less than gentlemanly affair
From the time he returned from
his voyages on the Beagle until 1858
Darwin had been scouring the Victorian
literature for anything he could find
concerning the “species problem.” In
addition, he wrote countless letters to
naturalists around the world asking
for their advice on specific points
concerning natural history. In this
way, we see Darwin, not as original
thinker but as someone determined
to synthesize other people’s ideas in a
coherent theory of transmutation. This
synthesis, of course, came to fruition
in his masterpiece On the Origin of
Species. Darwin was extremely well
placed to develop such a synthesis;
he was rich enough not to have to
work, and so could devote his time
fully to his transmutation work (at
least when he was not incapacitated
by illness); even the considerable cost
of postage involved would have been a
problem for a man of lesser means. In
addition, Darwin was a well known and
respected naturalist and had influential
and knowledgeable contacts around
the world. Darwin worked on this
evolutionary synthesis for some twenty
years from around 1838 until 1858,
when he received a devastating letter
18 FUNGI Volume 4:1 Winter 2011
from another naturalist, Alfred Russel
Wallace; Wallace had come up with
his own version of natural selection.
Wallace forwarded a letter giving his
ideas to Darwin, who was obviously
shocked to find that another naturalist
was elaborating the theory of natural
selection. Darwin (1858a) wrote to Lyell
and said:
I never saw a more striking
coincidence. If Wallace had my MS
sketch written out in 1842 he could not
have made a better short abstract.
This letter placed Darwin in a
predicament. He had been working on
transmutation for some twenty years
and had always intended writing his big
synthesis of his findings on the subject.
Now he would have to pass Wallace’s
letter on to a publisher and lose what he
had always believed was his priority on
natural selection.
In another letter to Lyell, Darwin
pointed out that Wallace did not get
his ideas from anything he (Darwin)
had written to him, and is clear that
any attempt to deny Wallace his, 1858,
priority of the idea would be paltry, i.e.,
less than gentlemanly (Darwin, 1858b):
I would far rather burn my whole book
than that he or any man should think I
had behaved in a paltry spirit. Do not
believe Wallace originated his views from
anything I wrote to him.
In order to circumvent this obvious
dilemma, Darwin appealed to two of his
influential contacts, Sir Charles Lyell
and Joseph Hooker. In fact, the problem
should have been simply solved by
Darwin forwarding Wallace’s letter for
publication without any reference to his
own work. Lyell and Hooker however,
decided to pursue a different course of
action and solve the problem, which
they and Darwin had in fact created, by
not doing this simple act. Instead they
arranged for a joint presentation (not a
joint paper) of Darwin’s and Wallace’s
work to the Linnaean Society of London.
The presentations included a sketch of
Darwin’s transmutation synthesis and a
letter, detailing his ideas, which he had
sent the American naturalist, Asa Gray
and of course, Wallace’s famous letter.
This arrangement has almost universally
been regarded as “a gentlemanly
agreement,” although Wallace (at the
time residing in Ternate, now Indonesia)
was not party to it.
It is clear however, that, at least
initially, Darwin (1858c) recognized
that the course of action he, Lyell and
Hooker were following was, underhand,
and far from gentlemanly:
Wallace might say “you did not intend
publishing an abstract of your own views
till you received my communication, is
it fair to take advantage of my having
freely, though unasked communicated
my ideas, and this prevents me
forestalling you”……..It seems hard on
me that I should be compelled to lose my
priority of many years study but I cannot
feel at all sure that this alters the justice
of the case.
Although Darwin frequently refers to
his priority, in reality he had no priority
whatsoever on any of his transmutation
ideas, simply because he had not placed
them in the public domain. In Victorian
times, as is still the case, priority on a
scientific idea was gained only when
an idea was published, either in the
form of a book or a scientific paper;
Darwin had offered his work to neither
of theses allocators of priority, and so
relinquished any priority he thought he
might have had; his notebook sketches
and the private letter to Asa Gray
simply did not, in the academic sense
of the word, constitute any form of
priority. The correct, and gentlemanly,
thing for Darwin to have done was to
forward Wallace’s paper to an editor of a
scientific journal and thereby relinquish
the priority he had forfeited by not
publishing his ideas. In the end however,
the “ungentlemanly arrangement”
was made and the theory of evolution
by natural selection became, because
of simple alphabetical order of the
two names, Darwin’s theory and not
Wallace’s. (As we have seen, however,
neither had priority on the idea.) For
a while, the Victorians referred to the
Darwin-Wallace theory of natural
selection, but this was soon simplified
to give Darwin sole billing. (There has
been a recent trend to reinstate the dual
recognition, again ignoring Matthew’s
and Well’s undoubted priority on the
Darwin (1858d) accepted the above
mentioned arrangement and thanked his
two influential colleagues for arranging
this coup d’état as follows:
I had however, quite resigned myself
and had written half a letter to Wallace
to give up all priority to him and should
certainly not have changed my mind had
it not been for Lyell’s and yours quite
extraordinary kindness.
In the event, Wallace gained greatly
from this arrangement which he had
not been party to, far more in fact than
he lost by unknowingly relinquishing,
what should have been, his priority over
Darwin (perhaps this is what he hoped
would happen and why he sent the letter
to Darwin in the first place).Wallace
became part of the English scientific
scene (although because of his beliefs
in land reform, phrenology, paranormal
phenomena and the afterlife, he never
became part of the establishment).
Until his death, Wallace remained a
true admirer and disciple of Darwin
(Wallace, 1908b).
Myth: Darwin was the first to
suggest that Man was a single species
and originated from the same line as
This myth can again be easily
refuted. A number of philosophers and
naturalists before Darwin suggested that
the races of Man were a single species;
examples from the 1700s include De
Maillet, Erasmus Darwin and Lord
Monboddo. Robert Chambers came to
the same conclusion in his Vestiges of the
Natural History of Creation, as did the
naturalist and explorer, Alexander von
Humboldt at around the same time. Von
Humboldt (1845) concluded that:
All the races of men are forms of
a singe species, which are capable of
fruitful union and propagation, they are
not different species of one genus.
While similarly, in 1773, James
Burnett (Lord Monboddo) claimed
that Man arose from the same stock
as the Orang outan and that “learned
by accident to bend their thumbs in
opposition to their fingers” (Burnet,
1773), and also that:
If nothing else were to convince me that
the Orang Outang belongs to our species,
his use of sticks as weapons would alone
be sufficient.
Miscellaneous myths
Other Darwin myths which have been
refuted include the view that he was first
to suggest the “tree of life metaphor,”
the way that evolving species branch;
recent research has shown that Lamarck
sketched a similar tree as early as 1809
(Wheelis, 2007). Darwin admitted
that he did not originate this idea in
the following comment given in the
first edition of On the Origin of Species
The affinities of all beings of the same
class have sometimes been represented
by a great tree. I believe this simile
largely speaks the truth.
Darwin was also by no means the first
to recognise the conflict between living
things, which Spencer later styled, “the
survival of the fittest.” Here for example
is an anonymous expression of the idea
given in 1838 (Anon, 1838b):
A continued war seems to be going
on among the inferior creatures of the
animal kingdom, the strongest praying
upon the weak, the sluggish submitting
to the power of the swift, and those with
obtuse instincts to others possessed of
more cunning.
In conclusion, we have seen that both
Darwin and Wallace admitted that they
did not originate the idea of natural
selection; this fact was also endorsed
by John Tyndall as well as “Darwin’s
bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley, who
stated that natural selection “had
been foreshadowed by Wells, 1813,
and more fully stated by Matthew,
the speculations of the latter writer
remained unknown to naturalists
until after the publication of On the
Origin of Species” (Huxley,1893b). This
obviously diminishes Darwin’s novelty,
and suggestions that he was a genius
and the greatest thinker of all time.
The view that Darwin was essentially a
synthesizer of ideas which were already
in the public domain was also expressed
by Alfred Russel Wallace (1908b) as
Mr Darwin has created a new science
and a new philosophy; and I believe that
never has such a complete illustration
of a new branch of human knowledge
been due to the labours of a single man.
Never have such vast masses of widely
scattered and hitherto quite unconnected
facts been combined into a system and
brought to bear upon the establishment
of such a grand and new and simple
The impact of Darwin’s two
remarkably influential books,
On the Origin of Species and The
Descent of Man cannot however, be
underestimated. As a first rate Victorian
naturalist, it is not surprising that in the
course of his work Darwin occasionally
came across examples of the importance
of fungi. We mycologists can therefore
proudly claim him as one of our own.
Allen, G.G.B.1891. Falling in Love.
London, Smith.
Anonymous. 1831a. Literary criticism.
Edinburgh literary Journal 2: 1-3.
Anonymous. 1831b. On naval timbers.
United Service Journal, part 2: 458.
Anonymous. 1832. Matthew’s naval
timbers. Gardeners’ Magazine, p.703.
Anonymous. 1838a. London and
Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine 2:
Anonymous. 1838b. The Saturday
Magazine p.104.
Berkeley, M.J. and C.E. Broome. 1850.
On British fungi. Annals and Magazine
of Natural History 5: 458.
Burnett, J. (Lord Monboddo). 1773.
Origin and Progress of Language, Vol.1.
Edinburgh, Bell.
Caton, H. 2007. Getting our history
right: Six errors about Darwin and his
influence. Evolutionary Psychology 5:
Chambers, R. 1844. The Vestiges of the
Natural History of Creation, London,
Cook, S.E. 1839. The arboriculture of
the voyages of Captains King and Fitzroy.
Gardener’s Magazine and Register of
Rural and Domestic Improvements,
Darwin, C.R. 1858a. Letter to Lyell, C.,
18, June, 1858, Darwin Correspondence
Project, 2285.
Darwin, C.R. 1858b. Letter to Lyell, C.,
25, June, 1858, Darwin Correspondence
Project, 2294.
Darwin, C.R. 1858c. Letter to Lyell, C.,
26, June 1858, Darwin Correspondence
Project, 2295.
Darwin, C.R. 1858d. Letter to
Hooker, J.D., 13, July 1858. Darwin
Correspondence Project, 2306.
Darwin, C.R. 1860a. A Naturalist’s
Voyage Around the World, London
Murray, 1860 (1913 edition, p.377).
Darwin, C.R. 1860b. Letter to Lyell, C.,
April, 10, 1860, Darwin Correspondence
Project, 754.
Darwin, C.R. 1860c. Letter to
Hooker, J.D. 13, April, 1860, Darwin
Correspondence Project, 2758.
Darwin, C.R. 1860d. Letter to Gray, A.,
25, April, 1860, Darwin Correspondence
Project, 2767.
Darwin,C.R.1861.Letter to Quatrefages
de Breau, 25, April,1861, Darwin
Continued on page 20.
FUNGI Volume 4:1 Winter 2011
Correspondence Project, 3127.
Darwin, C.R. 1862. Letter to
Matthew, P., 12, June, 1862, Darwin
Correspondence Project, 3600.
Darwin, C.R. 1863. Letter to
Hooker, J.D., 25, Aug., 1863, Darwin
Correspondence Project, 4274.
Darwin, C.R. 1864. Journal of
Researches, New York, Harper 2: 166167.
Darwin, C.R. 1865. Letter to Hooker,
22, Oct.1865, Darwin Correspondence
Project, 4921.
Darwin, C.R. 1866a. Letter to
Carus, J.V., 21, Nov., 1866, Darwin
Correspondence Project, 5282.
Darwin, C.R, 1866b. On the Origin of
Species, London, Murray.
Darwin, C.R. 1868. The Variation
of Animals and Plants Under
Domestication Vol.2 London, Murray,
Darwin, C.R. 1871. Letter to
Hooker, J.D., 1, Feb., 1871, Darwin
Correspondence Project, 7471.
Darwin, C.R. 1875. Letter to
Tyndall, J., 20, Oct., 1875, Darwin
Correspondence Project,10207.
Darwin, E. 1863. Letter from Emma
Darwin to Matthew, 21, Nov., 1863.
Darwin Correspondence Project, 4344.
Dearce, M. 2008. Correspondence
of Charles Darwin on James Torbitt’s
project to breed blight-resistant
potatoes. Archives of Natural History 35:
Duyckink, E.A. 1855. William
Charles Wells. Cyclopaedia of American
Literature, New York, Scribner, Vol.1,
Goodsir, J. 1863. Letter to Darwin, 21,
Aug.1863, Darwin Correspondence, 4272.
Huxley, T.H. 1893a. Darwiniana.
London, Macmillan, Vol.2, p.275.
Huxley, T.H. 1893b. ibid, Vol.2, pp.27980.
Masters. 1860. On the relation
between the abnormal and normal
formations in plants. Proceedings Royal
Institute Great Britain 3(1855-62): 22327.
Mathew, P. 1831. On Naval Timbers
and Arboriculture, London, Longmans.
Secord, J.A. 2001. A Victorian
Sensation, Chicago, Chicago University
Tyndall, J. 1874. The Belfast address
to the British Association. Nature 10:
Von Humboldt, A. 1845. Kosmos 1845,
Vol. 1, p.387. London, Balliere.
Wainwright, M. 1985. Re-examination
of John Tyndall’s studies on microbial
antagonism Transactions of the British
Mycological Society 85: 562-69.
Wainwright, M. 2003. An alternative
history of microbiology. Advances in
Applied Microbiology 52: 333-56.
Wallace, A.R. 1879. Review of Butler’s
Evolution Old and New. Nature 20:142.
Wallace, A.R. 1900. Human Progress
Past and Future. In: Studies Scientific
and Social, Macmillan, London,Vol.2,
Wallace, A.R. 1908a. My Life, London,
Chapman Hall, p.237.
Wallace, A.R.1908b. ibid, p.197.
Wells, K.D. 1973. The historical
context of natural selection: the case of
Patrick Matthew. Journal of the History of
Biology.6: 225-58.
Wheelis. M. 2007. Darwin not first to
sketch tree of life. Science 315: 597.
[Further information on Professor
Wainwright’s work on Darwin can
be found by searching Google for
Spring issue
will feature:
Summer Issue
will be our special annual issue
on Psilocybe and will feature:
Bioluminescent Mushrooms
Telluride Mushroom
Festival Preview
Science and taxonomy of the
genus in North America
Latest research - Much more!
20 FUNGI Volume 4:1 Winter 2011

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