The origin of specious quotes

14 August 2006

Justin gives John Reid’s recent anti-terror speech a good going-over. I have very little to add, except to question one part of the speech:

Charles Darwin wrote ?it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change?. That is why we need to see national security in a new context and all of us ? politicians, businesses, lawyers and citizens need to evolve our thinking for the 21st century.

To me, there’s something ever so slightly dodgy-looking about that claim; the language and tone used just don’t seem to fit in with Darwin’s style of writing, it doesn’t fit with my (limited) knowledge of Darwin’s own beliefs, and it’s a little too similar to the whole “blessed are the changemakers” spiel that managerialists in corporate and political culture love to preach. Moreover, there is a logical fallacy contained within – species don’t survive by changing, as by changing they become new species. So did Darwin actually say it?

While a quick Googling seems to agree with Reid, when it comes down to it, no-one can find where the quote came from. WikiQuote lists it as “attributed” but with no citation; the contributors to this discussion thread can’t find it either. So, to Project Gutenberg and a delve in the section labelled “Authors – D“. And I can’t find any trace of it there, not in Origin of Species, nor The Descent of Man or The Voyage of the Beagle. Instead, what Darwin has to say on strength seems to be the opposite of how Reid quotes him. From Origin of Species:

Finally, it may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brothers, ants making slaves, the larvae of ichneumonidae feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars, not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law leading to the advancement of all organic beings–namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.

While in The Descent of Man:

Just as man can improve the breeds of his game-cocks by the selection of those birds which are victorious in the cockpit, so it appears that the strongest and most vigorous males, or those provided with the best weapons, have prevailed under nature, and have led to the improvement of the natural breed or species.

I’m fairly sure that Darwin made no such remarks on responsiveness to change (if he has and you can prove it by providing a primary source, then a shiny new ten pound note is yours – that’s how sure I am). It’s quite nicely ironic really; Reid recites a fake Darwin quote in an attempt to make his blueprint for society buzzword-friendly, and much more palatable and 21st century. But in reality, Darwin’s reflections on brute force winning supreme every time are much closer to Reid’s idea of success, and his vision of the future; one where state power is allowed to run with as few checks as possible, while privacy, freedoms and fairness are willingly and continually traded in exchange for a false sense of security.


3 Responses

The quote certainly sounds more “Who Moved My Cheese” than “The Voyage Of The Beagle”.

It’s more Machiavelli than Darwin.

“[Men] are successful if their methods match the circumstances and unsuccessful if they do not.”

But I guess that wouldn’t go down so well for a home secretary, however similar to the chaps Niccolo was talking about he may be.

After a long search I’m perpared to agree, and I’d also be inclined to say that a lot of what is attributed to Darwin actually comes from his contemporaries (Lamarck, Spencer, et al).

The cloest I managed to mind (via an old metafilter thread) was a quote by Kropotkin in 1902:

Those who survive a famine, or a severe epidemic of cholera, or small-pox, or diphtheria, such as we see them in uncivilized countries, are neither the strongest, nor the healthiest, nor the most intelligent … All that natural selection can do in times of calamities is to spare the individuals endowed with the greatest endurance for privations of all kinds.