Did Darwin abandon natural selection?
The claim that Darwin abandoned natural selection as the mechanism for evolution is made by Randall Hedtke in his book Secrets of the Sixth Edition.1 His ‘secrets’ are alleged subtle wordings in the Sixth Edition of the Origin which he asserts indicate that Darwin repudiated natural selection with the writing of this edition. Note: Hedtke does not claim that Darwin abandoned evolution, but only his mechanism for it. In this article we shall evaluate this claim.
It is true that Darwin made many changes to the original text of his major work, On the Origin of Species. From 1859 to 1872 he tinkered with the content of each of the subsequent five editions, polishing his wording, answering criticisms that the work engendered, updating and expanding what he had written. For example, he did not use the term ‘evolution’ in the first five editions (preferring ‘mutability’ or ‘modification’ or ‘descent with slow modification’, etc.), but he used ‘evolution’ several times in the Sixth Edition.
Prof. Morse Peckham produced a variorum text (i.e. one showing variations of text side by side), and counted the changes in the Origin as follows:
Of the 3,878 sentences in the first edition, nearly 3000, about 75 per cent, were rewritten from one to five times each. Over 1,500 sentences were added, and of the original sentences plus these, nearly 325 were dropped. Of the original and added sentences there are nearly 7,500 variants of all kinds. In terms of added sentences, the sixth edition is nearly a third as long again as the first.2
Another researcher, Barbara Bordalejo, counted “more than 15,000 changes in words and phrases” in these altered sentences. So, did any of these changes, particularly in the Sixth Edition, amount to Darwin abandoning his views about natural selection as the mechanism for evolution? Let’s start with the title.
Does the title of the Sixth Edition support or deny Hedtke’s claim?
Here is the title of the Sixth Edition, as it appeared on page iii of the 1872 printing:3 There’s one word missing from this title, namely the word “on”, which occurs in the first five editions, but not in the Sixth. This suggests a couple of things:
- Darwin gave enough thought to the wording of the title of this edition to eliminate one of the words.
- Darwin deliberately retained the words “by means of natural selection”, thereby proclaiming quite unambiguously in the title his mechanism for evolution, and his purpose of demonstrating this in publishing the Sixth Edition.
Did Darwin say natural selection was the exclusive mechanism for evolution?
In Secrets p. 38, Hedtke wrote: “Remember, until the sixth edition, natural selection was the exclusive mechanism for evolution.” So Hedtke’s thesis is based on this assumption, i.e. that prior to the Sixth Edition, Darwin claimed that natural selection was the exclusive mechanism, and in the Sixth Edition he no longer did.
However, the last sentence in Darwin’s Introduction to the First Edition of the Origin reads: “I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.”4 He then repeated this sentence:
- in his Introduction to the Second Edition (p. 6), and
- in his Introduction to the Third Edition (p. 6), and
- in his Introduction to the Fourth Edition (p. 6), and
- in his Introduction to the Fifth Edition (p. 6),5 and
- in his Introduction to the Sixth Edition (p. 4).6
Darwin then put it in a seventh time in Chapter 15, Recapitulation and Conclusion, of the Sixth Edition, in the following form:
“But as my conclusions have lately been much misrepresented, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection, I may be permitted to remark that in the first edition of this work, and subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous position—namely, at the close of the Introduction—the following words: “I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification.” This has been of no avail. Great is the power of steady misrepresentation; but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure.It can hardly be supposed that a false theory would explain, in so satisfactory a manner as does the theory of natural selection, the several large classes of facts above specified.”7
This means a couple of things:
- Darwin never claimed in any edition of the Origin that natural selection was the exclusive mechanism for evolution.
- Hedtke is incorrect in asserting the opposite.
Did Darwin capitulate to Mivart’s criticisms?
One of Hedtke’s major arguments in support of his claim is his treatment of Darwin’s response to St George Mivart, an English biologist who criticized Darwin’s theory of natural selection in his own 1871 book On the Genesis of Species. Hedtke says: “These criticisms forced concessions from Darwin that were tantamount to abandoning his natural selection mechanism, the warp and woof of evolutionary views.” (Secrets, p. 15)
Then Hedtke writes (Secrets p. 37):
Mr Mivart’s objection is that natural selection would be ineffective in preserving incipient organs [i.e. those just beginning to be formed—Ed.] since they would not be of any advantage until fully developed. Darwin considered several of these cases and concluded as follows:
I have now considered enough, perhaps more than enough, of the cases, selected with care by a skilful naturalist, to prove that natural selection is incompetent to account for the incipient stages of useful structures; and I have shown, as I hope, that there is no great difficulty on this head.8 [Italics added by Hedtke.]
The belief that any given structure, which we think, often erroneously, would have been beneficial to a species, would have been gained under all circumstances through natural selection, is opposed to what we can understand of its manner of action.9
Hedtke then comments:
“Incredibly, Darwin sided with Mivart against natural selection to prove its incompetence.” (Secrets, p. 37)
So what are the facts? The facts are that Darwin incorporated a new chapter in the Sixth Edition, titled “Miscellaneous Objections to the Theory of Natural Selection”, principally to give his answers to Mivart’s criticisms. This new Chapter 7 comprised pages 168 to 204 in the original 1872 printing. Of these 37 pages, Darwin spent 29 (pp. 176–204), or about three-quarters of the whole chapter, giving his answers to all of the major criticisms of Mivart.
So when Darwin wrote: “I have now considered enough, perhaps more than enough, of the cases, selected with care by a skilful naturalist …”, he was referring to his 29 pages answering this one man’s criticisms. And this surely could indeed be said to be “more than enough”!
The words italicized by Hedtke in the above quote (“to prove that natural selection is incompetent to account for the incipient stages of useful structures”) do not show that Darwin “sided with Mivart against natural selection to prove its incompetence”. They are Darwin’s polite acknowledgment of Mivart’s opposing purpose. In fact, on p. 177, Darwin specifically highlights Mivart’s point “that natural selection is incompetent to account for the incipient stages of useful structures”, and then says: “I will here consider in some detail several of the cases advanced by Mr. Mivart, selecting those which are the most illustrative … .”
Then, having dealt with this specific objection (pp. 177–181), plus “Mr. Mivart’s other objections” (pp. 181–98), Darwin concluded: “and I have shown, as I hope, that there is no great difficulty on this head” (p. 198). The very obvious meaning of this is that, as far as Darwin was concerned, all Mivart’s attempts to show that natural selection was incompetent had failed, and so (according to Darwin) none of Mivart’s criticisms in any way detracted from the efficacy of natural selection as the main mechanism of evolution.
What then of the next Darwin quotation by Hedtke, above? Namely:
The belief that any given structure, which we think, often erroneously, would have been beneficial to a species, would have been gained under all circumstances through natural selection, is opposed to what we can understand of its manner of action.
This has been taken completely out of context by Hedtke. It occurs in a long paragraph in which Darwin is answering a hypothetical question that Darwin himself poses: “It has often been asked, if natural selection is so potent, why has not this or that structure been gained by certain species, to which it would apparently have been advantageous?” In the sentence before the quote by Hedtke, Darwin says: “… the requisite conditions may seldom have occurred.” Then in the very same paragraph Darwin refers to Mivart with the words:
His chief arguments have now been considered, and the others will hereafter be considered. They seem to me to partake little of the character of demonstration, and to have little weight in comparison with those in favour of the power of natural selection, aided by the other agencies often specified.
Hedtke brings up another Darwin quote (re Mivart), again completely out of context, about which he says (Secrets pp. 49–50): “Darwin elaborated on his abandonment of natural selection with this statement:
Even if the fitting variations (mutations) did arise, it does not follow that natural selection would be able to act on them, and produce a structure, which apparently would be beneficial to the species.10
Contrary to Hedtke, Darwin is here answering Mivart’s question about the neck of the giraffe: “if natural selection is so potent, and if high browsing be so great an advantage, why has not any other hoofed quadruped acquired a long neck and lofty stature, besides the giraffe … ?”11 In answering this question (in the sentences before and after Hedtke’s quote above), Darwin lists some of the limitations of natural selection, but this does not equate to his abandoning natural selection.12
Readers of this article should note that Mivart was right and Darwin was wrong. Creationists, of course, believe that natural selection neither explains incipient organs nor proves evolution, but here we are showing what Darwin believed and claimed (albeit erroneously). For a comprehensive selection of articles to this effect, see: Natural Selection Questions and Answers.
Darwin’s response to Sir Wyville Thomson
On p. 38 of Secrets, Hedtke says he has found another source (i.e. other than the Sixth Edition) “that Darwin had abandoned natural selection as a creative mechanism”. This, Hedtke claims, was Darwin’s response to the criticism of Sir Wyville Thomson, in a letter that Darwin sent to Nature magazine in 1880. Hedtke gives the following quote (without reference to its origin or context) by Sir Wyville Thomson:
The character of the abyssal fauna [animal life deep in the ocean depths] refuses to give the least support to the theory which refers the evolution of species to extreme variation guided only by natural selection.
Hedtke then comments (Secrets, p. 38):
Rather than defending natural selection, the idea to which he owed his fame and that had become synonymous with evolution in the public mind, he [Darwin] demoted it. “Can Sir Wyville Thomson name any one who has said that the evolution of species depends only on natural selection?” Remember, until the sixth edition, natural selection was the exclusive mechanism for evolution.
We have already discussed the inaccuracy of the last sentence above, but let’s see whether Darwin failed to defend natural selection in his letter to Nature, as claimed by Hedtke. The full version of what Darwin wrote, above his signature, and under the heading of “Sir Wyville Thomson and Natural Selection” is as follows. Note that Darwin supplies the origin of Thomson’s remarks, and that all emphases and capitals are in the original:13
I AM sorry to find that Sir Wyville Thomson does not understand the principle of natural selection, as explained by Mr. Wallace and myself. If he had done so, he could not have written the following sentence in the Introduction to the Voyage of the Challenger:—“The character of the abyssal fauna refuses to give the least support to the theory which refers the evolution of species to extreme variation guided only by natural selection.” This is a standard of criticism not uncommonly reached by theologians and metaphysicians, when they write on scientific subjects, but is something new as coming from a naturalist. Prof. Huxley demurs to it in the last number of NATURE, but he does not touch on the expression of extreme variation, nor on that of evolution being guided only by natural selection. Can Sir Wyville Thomson name any one who has said that the evolution of species depends only on natural selection? As far as concerns myself, I believe that no one has brought forward so many observations on the effects of the use and disuse of parts, as I have done in my ‘Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication’; and these observations were made for this special object. I have likewise there adduced a considerable body of facts, showing the direct action of external conditions on organisms; though no doubt since my books were published much has been learnt on this head. If Sir Wyville Thomson were to visit the yard of a breeder, and saw all his cattle or sheep almost absolutely true, that is closely similar, he would exclaim: “Sir, I see here no extreme variation; nor can I find any support to the belief that you have followed the principle of selection in the breeding of your animals.” From what I formerly saw of breeders, I have no doubt that the man thus rebuked would have smiled and said not a word. If he had afterwards told the story to other breeders, I greatly fear that they would have used emphatic but irreverent language about naturalists.
Down, Beckenham, Kent, November 5 [1880—Ed.]
Charles Darwin’s son, Francis, referred to this letter as “the only instance in which Darwin wrote publicly with anything like severity.”14 And Darwin’s biographers, Adrian Desmond & James Moore, comment:
Darwin was wounded, and let it show, “Can Sir Wyville Thomson name any one who has said that the evolution of species depends only on natural selection?” he seethed. … Darwin was tempted to use ‘irreverent language,’ and only Huxley stopped him swearing.15
The six editions of the Origin constitute Darwin’s expansion of his one main topic: the role of natural selection in the modification of species. Thus, as we should expect, there is much repetition from edition to edition, albeit with Darwin’s own edits and polish, as mentioned at the beginning of this article. One such repeated section is in the final chapter of each edition, titled “Recapitulation and Conclusion”.16 Hedtke brings this section to his readers, with half of a sentence from an early edition and the rest of the sentence from the Sixth Edition. He writes (Secrets p. 39):
The following sentence originated in the first edition of the Origin.I have now recapitulated the facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have been modified during a long course of descent by the preservation or the natural selection of many successive slight favourable variations.
[Hedtke:] The sentence was continued as follows in the sixth edition.… aided in an important manner by the inherited effects of the use and disuse of parts; and in an unimportant manner, that is in relation to adaptive structure, whether past or present, by the direct action of external conditions, and by variations which seem to us in our ignorance to arise spontaneously.
So let’s check this. In the First Edition of the Origin, the above sentence reads as follows:
I have now recapitulated the chief facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have changed, and are still slowly changing by the preservation and accumulation of successive slight favourable variations.17
This is nothing like Hedtke’s version, and in particular it does not use the words ‘natural selection’, so let’s try another edition. Here is the same portion from the Second Edition:
I have now recapitulated the chief facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have been modified, during a long course of descent, by the preservation or the natural selection of many successive slight favourable variations.18
This is almost identical to Hedtke’s version, so Hedtke appears to be quoting from the Second Edition, while giving his readers the impression that it is from the First Edition! So why not just quote the lot from the Sixth Edition? Let’s see how the Sixth Edition reads:
I have now recapitulated the facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have been modified, during a long course of descent. This has been effected chiefly through the natural selection of numerous successive, slight, favourable variations; [emphasis added]
Did you spot the difference? The difference is in Darwin’s addition of the words emphasized. It seems that if Hedtke had quoted this part from the Sixth Edition it would have revealed to his readers that Darwin was still claiming therein that natural selection was the chief mechanism for evolution, and so he had not abandoned it.
Hedtke moves on to give his readers his analysis of the second part of the quote [“… aided in an important manner by the inherited effects of the use and disuse of parts … . ”]. His analysis is that Darwin gives three causes for the modification of species other than by natural selection, namely:
“Lamarck’s defunct hypothesis of use and disuse of parts … considered important”.
“The direct action of external conditions … considered unimportant”.
Hedtke then says (Secrets, p. 40):
He [Darwin] concluded with the following statement:
It appears that I formerly underrated the frequency and value of these latter forms of variation, as leading to permanent modifications of structure independently of natural selection.[ 19]
Concerning all this, Hedtke then says (Secrets, p. 40):
In other words, Darwin abandoned his own natural selection mechanism, in favor of what was then and now considered an obsolete theory [i.e. Lamarckianism—the use and disuse of parts—Ed.].
However, as we have already pointed out, Darwin never claimed in any edition of the Origin that natural selection was the exclusive mechanism for evolution. He should therefore be allowed to add any mechanisms he pleases to natural selection (if he thinks that such mechanisms can answer any criticisms that natural selection cannot explain), without anyone claiming that this shows he abandoned natural selection. Whether any of these mechanisms are scientifically invalid, as with Lamarckianism, is not the point, here. For Darwin, any such extra mechanisms were additions to natural selection, not a negation of it. In fact, Darwin considered that Lamarckianism was one of the sources of the variations on which he believed natural selection acted.
Concerning the Darwin quote above, given by Hedtke as Darwin’s conclusion, it is no such thing. Unfortunately, Hedtke stops there. In the same paragraph of the Sixth Edition, Darwin wrote (as we have already mentioned earlier in this article as being the seventh time he proclaimed it): “I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification.”
Darwin’s encounter with Lady Hope
Next Hedtke floats the possibility that “privately he [Darwin] may have rejected the whole idea of organic evolution as opposed to special creation” (Secrets p. 40–41). This is in reference to what has become known as The Lady Hope Story. We do not believe that the data in The Lady Hope Story supports this conclusion, and have written an in-depth analysis of all the details involved. Darwin did have some religious beliefs in his youth, but these evaporated with the death of his beloved daughter Annie in 1851, and never returned.
At the time of writing the Origin, i.e. 1859, as well as thereafter, Darwin totally rejected all ideas of divine creation, as well as of theistic evolution. Writing to his friend, Charles Lyell, he said:
If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. … I would give absolutely nothing for theory of nat. selection, if it require miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.20
The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make natural selection entirely superfluous, & indeed takes the whole case of appearance of new species out of the range of science. 21
Darwin maintained this anti-theistic worldview for the rest of his life. In 1876, in his Autobiography, he discussed the belief of others in the existence of God, and concluded: “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”22 Although this was written before his meeting with Lady Hope, his son Francis says in the Preface to this Autobiography: “During the last six years of his life he enlarged on what he had already written as fresh memories occurred to him, inserting the sixty-seven further pages of Addenda into their respective places.” Nowhere in any of these additions did Darwin change his claim to being an agnostic.
The cessation of Darwin’s mystery illness
Darwin suffered extreme ill health for most of his working life, involving (inter alia) gastric upsets, vomiting, headaches, eczema, heart-pain, breathlessness, palpitations, and giddiness. Hedtke says (Secrets p. 32): “Darwin’s chronic illness began in 1837, when he began taking notes for the Origin, and ceased approximately the last decade of his life.” Hedtke claims the cessation of Darwin’s illness was due to his abandonment of natural selection (but not of evolution).
One of Hedtke’s medical authorities gives as a cause Darwin’s “anxiety over the difficulties of proving his theory and over some of its ideological consequences”. We agree that these symptoms point to a psychoneurosis, but would go on to suggest that this was caused by guilt. He knew that his theory would destroy the faith of millions, and he was the one who was about to unleash it on the world.
Furthermore, as Darwin did not abandon natural selection, this cannot have been the cure. Rather, after 1872, he just stopped editing the Origin and moved on to other projects. See Darwin’s mystery illness.
- Darwin never abandoned natural selection as his mechanism for evolution, and no amount of selective quoting out of context of what he wrote can substantiate a view to the contrary. No matter how much we might oppose the anti-biblical ideas promoted by Darwin, it is never justified nor appropriate to misrepresent an opponent’s position.
- We shall be adding this idea about Darwin to our List of Arguments Creationists Should Not Use.
See Arguments we think creationists should NOT use.
- In our opinion, Hedtke would be well advised to publish Chapters 2 to 6 of his book separately,23 i.e. without the impediment of his allegation about Darwin’s abandoning natural selection. This latter gives evolutionists ammunition to claim that creationists misrepresent Darwin.
Our contact with Randall HedtkeIn 1996, Hedtke sent us an article claiming that Darwin had abandoned natural selection, for inclusion in Creation ex nihilo magazine (as it was then called). We declined to publish it and in our response24 we pointed out that in the Sixth Edition:
Darwin said natural selection had been his main but not his exclusive mechanism,
Darwin could add other evidence without it meaning he had abandoned his theory,
Darwin had answered Mivart’s criticisms in great detail and did not once capitulate,
Darwin could not possibly have meant a particular quote the way Hedtke claimed.
Although this was not in as much detail as in this web article, nevertheless it was quite unequivocal.
- Hedtke, R., Secrets of the Sixth Edition, 2010, Master Books, USA. (It was originally published by Vantage Press with the ‘singular’ title Secret of the Sixth Edition in 1983.) Return to text.
- Darwin Online, Origin of Species, Variorum, Peckham. Return to text.
- Darwin Online, Origin of Species, Sixth Edition, 1872. Return to text.
- Darwin Online, Origin of Species, First Edition, 1859, p. 6. Return to text.
- With the word “main” being changed by Darwin to “most important”, so that the sentence reads “ I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the most important but not the exclusive means of modification.” Return to text.
- As for Ref. 5, but with the addition by Darwin of a couple of commas! Return to text.
- Ref. 3, p. 421. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, p. 198. Return to text.
- In Secrets, Hedtke gives a reference for this quote as “Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1872, pp. 178–180.” However, he does not say which publisher he is quoting. In the original, published by John Murray, London, in 1872, it is on p. 200, available in our Ref. 3, (i.e. Darwin Online, Origin of Species, Sixth Edition, 1872, p. 200). Return to text.
- Hedtke’s reference is “On the Origin of Species, 1872, p. 222.” However, if the reader wants to find it, see our Ref. 3 (i.e. Darwin Online, Origin of Species, Sixth Edition, 1872), p. 180. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, p. 178. Return to text.
- Readers can confirm this for themselves by checking our Ref. 3, pp. 178–80. Return to text.
- Accessible at Darwin Online, Sir Wyville Thomson. Return to text.
- Darwin Online, Life and Letters, 1887, Vol. 3, p. 242. Return to text.
- Desmond, A., and Moore, J., Darwin, Penguin Books, London, 1992, p. 646. Return to text.
- Chapter 14 in editions One through Five, but Chapter 15 in the Sixth Edition because of the extra chapter added by Darwin to the Sixth Edition to counter Mivart’s criticisms. Return to text.
- Darwin Online, Origin of Species, First Edition, 1859, p. 480. Return to text.
- Darwin Online, Origin of Species, Second Edition, 1860, p. 480. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, p. 421. Return to text.
- Darwin to Lyell, Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter 2503 dated 11 October 1859. Return to text.
- Darwin to Lyell, Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter 3223 dated 1 August 1861. Return to text.
- The Autobiography of Charles Darwin With original omissions restored, Edited with Appendix and Notes by his Granddaughter Nora Barlow, Collins, London, 1958, pp. 92–94. Return to text.
- In which he admirably shows that natural selection and artificial (i.e. sexual) selection are not analogous, and he critiques evolution theory and the evolution curriculum, etc. However, without the reappearance of his claim that Darwin abandoned natural selection as incompetent, in Secrets, Chapter 3, p. 106. Return to text.
- Letter of R.M. Grigg, written on behalf of the Creation magazine Editorial Team, to Randall Hedtke, dated September 4, 1996. Return to text.