‘Every body is interested in pigeons’

The history of science and engineering is littered with figures major, minor and mythical, who got their prognostications spectacularly wrong. Lord Kelvin, a brilliant physicist, is also famous for asserting that radio had no future, and for miscalculating the age of the earth. Isambard Kingdom Brunel insisted on a superior but non-standard broad gauge for his beloved Great Western Railway, which ultimately required a costly, posthumous downgrade. We snigger at the school teacher who told Albert Einstein that he would never amount to anything. We laugh patronisingly at the President of IBM who supposedly predicted a world market for maybe five computers. We never really believed the one about Mr Gorsky and the kid next door.

Many people also got (and continue to get) it spectacularly wrong about Charles Darwin. In 1859, the President of the Linnean Society, Thomas Bell, regretted that, “The year which has passed […] has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear”. This from the man who, in July of the unremarkable year in question (1858), had presided over the reading of Darwin and Wallace's legendary (and revolutionary) joint paper, in which the theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection was finally unleashed on an unsuspecting (and largely unimpressed) world.

But perhaps my favourite minor figure from the annals of science who got it wrong was the well-meaning first reviewer of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Whitwell Elwin.

Elwin was a clergyman, and a close associate of Darwin's publisher, John Murray, whom Murray consulted regarding most of his new publications. Murray sent a manuscript of Origin to Elwin for comment prior to publication. In a long letter to Murray, Elwin praised the style and breadth of Darwin's valuable work, but claimed that Darwin's lack of evidence “would do grievous injustice to his views”. Instead of rushing into print with the full volume at this time, said Elwin, why not take up Sir Charles Lyell's earlier suggestion and write a shorter book about Darwin's observations on pigeons? He reasoned:

This appears to me to be an admirable suggestion. Even if the larger work were ready it would be the best mode of preparing the way for it. Every body is interested in pigeons. The book would be reviewed in every journal in the kingdom & would soon be on every table. The public at large can better understand a question when it is narrowed to a single case of this kind than when the whole varied kingdom of nature is brought under discussion at the outset.

To be fair to Elwin, his advice was well-intentioned and carefully thought out. But it is amusing to think that, had it been followed, Darwin might have been reduced to writing a popular book about pigeons.

But, fortunately for science, Darwin was having none of that. Three days later, having been forwarded Elwin's comments, he wrote to Murray, politely but firmly:

It is my deliberate conviction that both Lyells & Mr Elwyns suggestions, (which differ to a certain extent) are impracticable. I have done my best. Others might, I have no doubt, done the job better, if they had my materials; but that is no help.— Nothing on earth can have been kinder than both Mr Elwyn & Sir C. Lyell have been.—

The subject was not discussed again, and On the Origin of Species went to print a few months later.

See also: How about a nice little book on pigeons?

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks

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