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Origin of Species controversy on Darwin's bicentennial

Monday, December 29th 2008 - 20:00 UTC
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As the scientific world prepares to mark Charles Darwin's bicentenary, the author of On the Origin of Species is facing accusations of plagiarism and unjustly claiming credit as the father of evolutionary theory.

One group of critics has commissioned computer experts with specialized anti-plagiarism software to scour Darwin's book, published in 1859, for similarities to a paper released the year before by Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist who worked for eight years in what he termed the Malay Archipelago - primarily Indonesia and Malaysia. Initial indications are that the analysis will show some of the most important ideas in On the Origin of Species were taken from Wallace -- in particular the idea that species with variations helping them to survive would thrive and pass on these features to their offspring. Darwin's defenders claim it was quite plausible for two scientists to have come up with similar ideas independently at the same time and that Darwin did far more than Wallace to set down, develop and promote the ideas. The fight over Darwin's legacy comes in advance of numerous events to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth. Since November, Britain's Natural History Museum has been staging the largest exhibition ever seen about Darwin's work. A film about his early life is due for release next year. The adulation has appalled Darwin's critics, including human rights lawyer David Hallmark, a trustee of the Wallace Foundation of Indonesia. "The descent of Wallace from equality to relative invisibility is the direct result of the unlawful conduct of Charles Darwin by suppressing the true worth of Wallace as author of the theory," Mr Hallmark said. Mr Hallmark has spent years retracing the travels of Wallace in Southeast Asia, where the naturalist's discoveries included the brightly colored Wallace's flying frog. The software used by Mr Hallmark's copyright experts can detect where phrasing is identical and also see signs of an author's style. Where a word is repeated frequently or a consistent sentence structure is used by two writers, this may suggest that one has copied from the other. Mr Hallmark plans to submit his findings to the conference of the International Association of Forensic Linguists in Amsterdam in July. "It is not proven yet but early suggestions are that there are strong grounds to suspect a direct link," Mr Hallmark said. The crux of the Darwin-Wallace dispute is in two events in 1858. First, Darwin, who had been laboring to develop his theory since his voyage on board HMS Beagle in the 1830s, received a letter from Wallace setting out the basis of his evolutionary ideas. At the time Wallace was recovering from malaria. Soon afterwards, the work of both men was presented to the Linnean Society of London. Darwin's contribution was two short extracts; Wallace's was a complete essay. Darwin hurried to finish his book On the Origin of Species the following year. His critics claim he did so to avoid being "scooped". Later, Darwin wrote: "I never did pick anyone's pocket." Most mainstream scientists have taken Darwin's side, with Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist, calling the accusations "misplaced". This is the view also taken in Creation, a film due out next year, starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as Darwin and his wife, Emma. It shows a young Darwin agonizing over the implications of his theory, which challenged the conventional religious view of God's creation, and shows him receiving Wallace's letter. "He is very, very distressed but also relieved in a way that someone else has done it," said the film's producer, Jeremy Thomas. The film rejects the plagiarism charge. "It's a nasty word in our trade," Thomas said.

Categories: Politics, International.

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