Planet Earth

Darwin's Great Blunder—and Why It Was Good for the World

The best thing we can do for the theory of evolution may be to bring its creator back down to earth.

By Bruno MaddoxOct 27, 2009 5:00 AM
Portrait of Charles Darwin painted by George Richmond in the late 1830s. | Image from Origins, Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Scotland—It’s a long way from anywhere to this particular spot on the steep flank of the Hill of Bohuntine, gazing east across the great green heathery abyss of Glen Roy to where it admits the mouth of the more gently scooped-out Glen Glaster. Certainly if you’re coming from the States—from Petersburg, Kentucky, say, or Dayton, Tennessee, or any other of the thousand places where you would be safer lighting a Marlboro off a burning American flag than being caught with a copy of On the Origin of Species—you’re going to find it quite a hike.

But you’ll be glad you came, I promise, and a grateful Lord will one day wash your tired feet in Paradise. For it is from here, looking east, that you get to see the truth—long known in the scientific community, and as a consequence long kept quiet—that Mr. So-Called Charles Darwin, with his dumb beard and his dumb theories, born 200 years ago this very year, was wrong. Not just a little bit wrong. A lot wrong. Wronger than a bluetick hound on moonshine. Wronger than a Dixie Chick wearing a blindfold. And he could, additionally, be a real pain in the you-know-where about it.

Happy birthday, smart guy.

The year was 1836. A 27-year-old Charles Darwin, not yet bearded, fresh from chundering his way around the planet in the poop cabin of the HMS Beagle, disembarked in Falmouth, England, on a mission to cement his growing reputation as a Grand Fromage of Science. His first destination, however, after a two-year pit stop to shower and change his top hat, was not, as you might imagine, the London Zoo, nor the Natural History Museum (which had not yet even been built), but rather the modest town of Spean Bridge, high and deep in the rainy and remote Scottish Highlands.

For Darwin was convinced at the time that geology was the way to go. He had studied the finches and had the thoughts that would culminate two decades later in On the Origin of Species, but geology was the hot new field, and Darwin, what was more, had a hot new theory on which he hoped to pole-vault into the big time. Spean Bridge was and is the nearest cluster of dwellings to an eye-catching and mysterious wonder of the natural world known as the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy. At the time, this spot was to people interested in geology rather what Dallas’s Dealey Plaza is today to people interested in conspiracies. If you wanted to run with the big dogs of this exciting new field—your Charles Lyells, your Adam Sedgwicks, your Henry De la Beches—the first thing you did was make a beeline for Spean Bridge, spend a few days tramping up and down enormous hills making sketches in the rain, then return to civilization with a novel theory of why there were three flattish shelves running for miles along the steep sides of Glen Roy (a glen, in Scottish, being a valley) and along the flanks of various nearby hills. One theory, popular among the locals, was that the roads had been the private hunting tracks of Fionn MacCumhail, a.k.a. Fingal, the mythical Celtic giant. This was silly—giants aside, what the hell is a hunting track?—and by the time Darwin got there, it was generally agreed that the shelves were actually ancient beaches, each formed over hundreds of years when the glen had contained a lake—a lake that for some reason had stood at three different levels on three different multicentury occasions.

The problem with the lake theory, the conundrum that made it worthy of great men’s attentions, was that Glen Roy is not properly shaped to contain a lake, let alone three of them. At its northeastern end, the glen’s steep sides do converge, like the sides of a ship at its prow, but to the southwest the valley widens and opens up, allowing all rainfall and streamwater to drain instantly away and further dampen the rest of Scotland. For Glen Roy to function as a lake would require the construction of a huge barrier, several miles long and nearly half a mile high, to block off the valley’s mouth and retain the waters within. Upon he who could explain where said barrier had come from, let alone where it had vanished to—presumably in three stages, accounting for the three different beach heights—it was generally agreed that no small quantity of scientific glory would be heaped.

Enter Darwin, who reckoned he knew a thing or two about mysterious parallel roads, having visited those at Coquimbo on the coast of Chile. While walking the Coquimbo roads, Darwin had filled his pockets with seashells and, having lived through an earthquake just a few weeks earlier, concluded reasonably that the Coquimbo roads were ancient beaches of the Pacific Ocean, which was right there, and that they stood at their present level not because the ocean had sunk or somehow drained away but because the earth itself had risen, as it practically had just then, right beneath his feet. If he could show that the roads in Glen Roy had been formed by the same process as those in Coquimbo on the other side of the world, then he could propose a theory of global “crustal uplift” as the prime mover in the creation of the continents, which would be an impressive, career-making thing to do.

And so indeed it proved. Returning from Scotland, Darwin wrote up his findings and presented a paper to the Royal Society, bypassing the less glamorous Geological Society, arguing that Glen Roy had never been a lake at all but an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean when that part of Scotland had been largely under water. Darwin’s theory, which did away with the need for a barrier at the end of the glen, seemed like a decent down payment toward a geological Theory of Everything. Darwin was duly made a Fellow of the Royal Society and generally whispered about as a man to watch.

Which of course he was. Twenty years later his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life would have monocles plopping into soup all across the Victorian world and would forever answer the deepest question of all, Why Are We Here? But the incident at Glen Roy is still instructive as we ponder Darwin’s place in the grand scheme of things on this, the occasion of his 200th birthday.

It is not just that Darwin turned out to be wrong about the roads, although quickly he did. In 1840, the wily Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz swung by Glen Roy and offered the elegant theory that the valley had been dammed not by earthen barriers but by icy glaciers, a view that subsequent discoveries bore out. “A nice mess I made of Glen Roy,” Darwin would later write to Lyell, his friend and mentor, after one Thomas Jamieson had pimped out Agassiz’s theory with a few tidbits from the world of glacial dynamics. “My paper was one long gigantic blunder from beginning to end.”

It is more about how he was wrong. Darwin’s admission of gigantic blundering came only in 1861, two decades after Agassiz proposed his glacier model, decades that Darwin spent clinging to his increasingly unlikely theory of sea beaches with a very un-Darwinian stubbornness. As holes were steadily poked in his theory, he doubled down on his rhetoric, insisting to Lyell in 1841 that “I think I have thought over the whole case without prejudice, and remain firmly convinced they are marine beaches.” At one point, in a letter to his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin half-seriously blamed a bout of ill health on “an audacious son of dog (Mr. [David] Milne) having attacked my theory.” And while he would, occasionally, declare himself intrigued or even “staggered” by some fresh piece of evidence against him, he would always conclude that, all things considered, he was still right and everyone else was wrong.

All of which is only to say that the real Charles Darwin may perhaps have been closer to the standard model of the ordinary scientist than we have been led to believe in the 127 years since his death. This is a sense one gets particularly strongly on the Hill of Bohuntine, gazing east, as I am instructed to do by professor Martin Rudwick of the University of Cambridge, whose field trip I am on, and from whose field notes and general career I have pretty much stolen this entire article. Gazing east from the Hill of Bohuntine, one has an excellent view of a huge but gentle mountain pass known in Rudwick’s unsentimental nomenclature as Col R2, on the same level as the second of the Parallel Roads, the one in the middle. In ancient times, when the second road was being formed, it was over Col R2 that the putative glacial lake would have overflowed. Darwin’s marine theory of the roads—which required no lakes, and by extension no lake overflow points—was substantially premised, he acknowledged from the outset, on Col R2’s not existing. Indeed, at the top of his agenda for that original field trip to Glen Roy was to ascertain whether or not there was a “lip of escape” for the second lake. We also know he climbed the Hill of Bohuntine and most certainly looked east. Whether Darwin missed the col entirely or simply convinced himself—absent modern measuring techniques—that it wasn’t close enough to the level of the second road, we do not know.

But it does make you wonder, as you dig inside your hiking boot trying to find the annoying heather burr that’s gotten wedged in your sock, whether it mightn’t be time for those of us in the business of defending Charles Darwin to quietly retire the proposition that he was a towering genius with superhuman powers of observation and objectivity. That we’ve been pushing that line for the past century plus is understandable. There are people out there convinced that “Darwinism” is a doctrine, a program, a view of the world underpinned by and underpinning an ideology. And so, like Darwin himself, who knew he had to freight On the Origin of Species with enough dry fact and evidence as to obliterate any possible resemblance to a work of polemic or creativity, those entrusted with his legacy have played up his cautiousness, his egoless diligence, and his unique gift, bordering on a curse, for seeing the world as it really is. Darwin may not have had the raw mental processing power of an Einstein or a Newton, Cyril Aydon concedes in the conclusion of his biography of the man, but he had “an almost superhuman ability to see things that other people did not notice.”

The trouble is that in venerating Darwin the man, we have detracted from the sheer, forehead-slapping obviousness of Darwinism the idea—at least in the minds of that section of the public that does not, you know, know anything about his science. The very fact that we are still calling it “Darwinism” plays directly into the hands of its enemies. Do you hear policemen at crime scenes yelling out to one another, “Hey Sarge, I think there may be some Crick-and-Watsonian DNA on this shell casing”? You do not. Because once the structure of DNA had been discovered, it stayed discovered, and its discoverers, after being thanked and properly remunerated for their efforts, were severed from their discovery and allowed to proceed about their business.

That luxury has never been afforded Charles Darwin. With the best intentions in the world, we have kept his memory alive, editing and embellishing his reputation into a human analog of his own theory. Darwin, like natural selection, was entirely free of any purpose or agenda, we insist, but simply flowed along whatever grooves and channels reality left open to him. Darwin, like natural selection, worked with infinite patience, enduring decades of slow progress and tedium that would have driven ordinary men mad. And Darwin, we insist, like the creator God he usurped, wore a long white beard as proof of his wisdom.

But Darwin had no beard, is the fact of the matter. Yes, he had one at the end, when his health betrayed him and it hurt too much to shave. But the Darwin who published On the Origin of Species, in a competitive panic that he was about to be scooped by Alfred Wallace, was clean-shaven, just like the cocky young man who, decades earlier, had gotten himself tangled in the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy. And I would argue that if we don’t want to find ourselves 200 years from now still defending the obviousness of natural selection from those poor souls who would rather not grasp it, that unbearded, more braggadocious, more human Darwin is the one we should try to remember.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.