Dubious Darwin quote

DavidB66

Active Member
I recently started watching a Netflix documentary series on genetic engineering, Unnatural Selection.

I'm not going to comment on the series, just on an alleged quotation which appeared prominently on screen at the beginning of Episode 1:

If you had an idea that would outrage society, would you keep it to yourself?

- Charles Darwin

Many quotations have been wrongly attributed to Darwin, and I found this one implausible. I have read quite a lot by or about Darwin, but I didn't recall this remark. Nor can I imagine any context in which he would have made it. It is well known that Darwin did keep his theory of evolution by natural selection to himself for about 20 years, revealing it only to a few trusted friends and colleagues, so it would be odd for him to ask 'would you keep it to yourself?' The language of the quote itself should also arouse suspicion. The use of the word 'you', addressed to the reader, and the colloquial phrase 'keep it to yourself', seems too informal for Darwin or other serious writers of his generation in England. It just isn't Victorian.

So I did a bit of online searching. The quote itself comes up in many places, but none of these, as far as I could see, gives any actual source in Darwin's work or correspondence. Fortunately, most of this is available in searchable form online. The works (published and many unpublished) are here:

http://darwin-online.org.uk/

and the correspondence is here:

https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/

Searching these sites for the distinctive keyword 'outrage' produced no source for the quote or anything similar to it. Not could I find it in the Wikiquote entry for Darwin, either as a genuine or misattributed quote. (I did put a query on the Discussion page.) I also searched the Quote Investigator site, but found nothing relevant. (I emailed Quote Investigator suggesting that they might look into it, but so far with no response.)

I did however find a likely original source for the quote, which is mentioned in several of the search results. In 2009 the Natural History Museum in London mounted an exhibition to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, under the title 'Darwin's Big Idea'. Publicity material included a photograph of Darwin holding his finger to his lips, as if to say 'Shush', and next to it the 'quote' in question. The photograph is an obvious photoshop job, using a standard portrait photo of the elderly Darwin, reversed left-to-right, with someone's finger - probably not Darwin's - superimposed. As for the 'quote', crucially it is not presented as a quote at all, from Darwin or anyone else. It is just a question posed for the reader to contemplate.

I therefore suspect that someone seeing the publicity material has assumed that it was a quote from Darwin himself, and relied on the authority of the NHM without making further checks. Then once it circulates online it becomes something 'everyone knows'. In one source the quote is prefaced by the words 'as Charles Darwin famously posed...'

I stop short of claiming a 'debunk', because it is conceivable that I have overlooked some obscure but genuine source, perhaps in Darwin's notebooks. Incidentally, while researching this quote, I came across another popular one even less credibly attributed to Darwin: 'We stopped looking for monsters under our bed when we realized that they were inside us'. This sounds like post-Freudian psychobabble, far too late for Darwin, but I haven't looked into it any further.
 

deirdre

Senior Member.
Article:
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 18, 2008
Darwin Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London
As part of the many and varied celebrations of the upcoming 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the Natural History Museum in London opened their exhibit 'Darwin: Big Idea Exhibition' this past weekend. Myself and my flatmate Liz found out about it a couple of weeks back thanks to an ad in the tube, while we just happened to have a little friend with us:



1631142756491.png
 

NoParty

Senior Member.
I recently started watching a Netflix documentary series on genetic engineering, Unnatural Selection.

I'm not going to comment on the series, just on an alleged quotation which appeared prominently on screen at the beginning of Episode 1:



Many quotations have been wrongly attributed to Darwin, and I found this one implausible. I have read quite a lot by or about Darwin, but I didn't recall this remark. Nor can I imagine any context in which he would have made it. It is well known that Darwin did keep his theory of evolution by natural selection to himself for about 20 years, revealing it only to a few trusted friends and colleagues, so it would be odd for him to ask 'would you keep it to yourself?' The language of the quote itself should also arouse suspicion. The use of the word 'you', addressed to the reader, and the colloquial phrase 'keep it to yourself', seems too informal for Darwin or other serious writers of his generation in England. It just isn't Victorian.

So I did a bit of online searching. The quote itself comes up in many places, but none of these, as far as I could see, gives any actual source in Darwin's work or correspondence. Fortunately, most of this is available in searchable form online. The works (published and many unpublished) are here:

http://darwin-online.org.uk/

and the correspondence is here:

https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/

Searching these sites for the distinctive keyword 'outrage' produced no source for the quote or anything similar to it. Not could I find it in the Wikiquote entry for Darwin, either as a genuine or misattributed quote. (I did put a query on the Discussion page.) I also searched the Quote Investigator site, but found nothing relevant. (I emailed Quote Investigator suggesting that they might look into it, but so far with no response.)

I did however find a likely original source for the quote, which is mentioned in several of the search results. In 2009 the Natural History Museum in London mounted an exhibition to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, under the title 'Darwin's Big Idea'. Publicity material included a photograph of Darwin holding his finger to his lips, as if to say 'Shush', and next to it the 'quote' in question. The photograph is an obvious photoshop job, using a standard portrait photo of the elderly Darwin, reversed left-to-right, with someone's finger - probably not Darwin's - superimposed. As for the 'quote', crucially it is not presented as a quote at all, from Darwin or anyone else. It is just a question posed for the reader to contemplate.

I therefore suspect that someone seeing the publicity material has assumed that it was a quote from Darwin himself, and relied on the authority of the NHM without making further checks. Then once it circulates online it becomes something 'everyone knows'. In one source the quote is prefaced by the words 'as Charles Darwin famously posed...'

I stop short of claiming a 'debunk', because it is conceivable that I have overlooked some obscure but genuine source, perhaps in Darwin's notebooks. Incidentally, while researching this quote, I came across another popular one even less credibly attributed to Darwin: 'We stopped looking for monsters under our bed when we realized that they were inside us'. This sounds like post-Freudian psychobabble, far too late for Darwin, but I haven't looked into it any further.
I think you were right to think: "That doesn't sound like Darwin,"
and I'm glad you put some effort into it.
Very likely that someone innocently assumed that the "quote" was CD's
words, given the presentation.
Kind of reminds me of a lot of Snopes posts in which someone sees something on a satire site, e-mails it to a friend, and the recipient accepts
it at face value, absent the context. Nice job, David.
 

FatPhil

Active Member

Great digging, @DavidB66, and thanks for the copy of the offending image including the quote.

The first place I'd be pestering now would be the NHM themselves. If they came up with it, then they have been the genesis of misinformation, and are responsible for its spread. That's not their mandate at all, quite the opposite. They might weasel some kind of "but it wasn't in quote marks" excuse, but I'm sorry, Morons in a Hurry trump that.

Whilst you're haranguing them, tell them not to mix capitals and minuscule, it makes them look as infantile as ToYsЯus!
 

DavidB66

Active Member
Embarrassingly, I seem to have misquoted the quote! As shown in the images above, it should be 'was going to outrage society', and not 'would outrage society' as I originally posted it. I haven't checked how it appeared in the Netflix episode, but I haven't found any online appearances of 'would outrage', so I think I invented that myself. I must now commit seppuku.

On the weird-looking fingertip (see #6) I read somewhere that it was the finger of someone at the Museum. It is unlikely to have been Darwin's, as there aren't a huge number of genuine Darwin photos, and none of them are likely to show him holding his finger in the air. The photographer may have wanted the 'finger-double' to be pressed up against something behind it to simulate it being pressed against the lips. Incidentally, a giveaway that the photograph is reversed left-to-right is that the little wart or wen by Darwin's nose is on the wrong side of his face.

[Added: I have now checked the Netflix episode, and it does say 'was going'. The quote is at the very beginning of the episode, apart from a preliminary 'warning to viewers' that the series is not intended to provide medical advice, etc.]
 
Last edited:

deirdre

Senior Member.
it could too be (just so readers are aware for their own health)
Article:
Clubbing often occurs in heart and lung diseases that reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood. These may include:

Heart defects that are present at birth (congenital)
Chronic lung infections that occur in people with bronchiectasis, cystic fibrosis, or lung abscess
Infection of the lining of the heart chambers and heart valves (infectious endocarditis). This can be caused by bacteria, fungi, or other infectious substances
Lung disorders in which the deep lung tissues become swollen and then scarred (interstitial lung disease)
Other causes of clubbing:

Celiac disease
Cirrhosis of the liver and other liver diseases
Dysentery
Graves disease
Overactive thyroid gland
Other types of cancer, including liver, gastrointestinal, Hodgkin lymphoma
 

NoParty

Senior Member.
Embarrassingly, I seem to have misquoted the quote! As shown in the images above, it should be 'was going to outrage society', and not 'would outrage society' as I originally posted it. I haven't checked how it appeared in the Netflix episode, but I haven't found any online appearances of 'would outrage', so I think I invented that myself. I must now commit seppuku.

On the weird-looking fingertip (see #6) I read somewhere that it was the finger of someone at the Museum. It is unlikely to have been Darwin's, as there aren't a huge number of genuine Darwin photos, and none of them are likely to show him holding his finger in the air. The photographer may have wanted the 'finger-double' to be pressed up against something behind it to simulate it being pressed against the lips. Incidentally, a giveaway that the photograph is reversed left-to-right is that the little wart or wen by Darwin's nose is on the wrong side of his face.
First, I appreciate the correction, David...even if it's a trivial thing. :p

Second, I'm a bit concerned that I spend time on a site in which people
know where CD's "little wart" is.

Third, I thought I'd take a quick tour through Google Images to confirm that,
indeed, the wart truly is on the right side of his face. Yes, most images do show that,
but, of course, I have no way of confirming that any particular pic hasn't been
flipped. I wonder if any credible, contemporary source mentions the true placement.

Fourth, and last: I figured, given the power of the interwebs, and the relatively
few pics of CD that were taken, that I'd quickly be able to locate the particular
pic that the Natural History Museum evidently flipped. I was surprised that as I scrolled through pics, no prime candidate emerged. Then, just as I was about
to give up and type something like: "Oddly, I can't find the original, unflipped, pic"
I stumbled upon the shot below. I'm on my way to work, so I won't claim to have seriously vetted it, but on first review, it does look likely, yes?
 

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JarJar

Member
Fourth, and last: I figured, given the power of the interwebs, and the relatively
few pics of CD that were taken, that I'd quickly be able to locate the particular
pic that the Natural History Museum evidently flipped. I was surprised that as I scrolled through pics, no prime candidate emerged. Then, just as I was about
to give up and type something like: "Oddly, I can't find the original, unflipped, pic"
I stumbled upon the shot below. I'm on my way to work, so I won't claim to have seriously vetted it, but on first review, it does look likely, yes?
Yes, NHM doctored a photograph taken in 1880 by Elliot & Fry.
1631200331879.png
 

DavidB66

Active Member
Yes, NHM doctored a photograph taken in 1880 by Elliot & Fry.
1631200331879.png
Yes, it is one of several taken by Elliot & Fry There is a very similar one, probably taken in the same session, which shows Darwin turned slightly more turned to his left. That one seems to be more often reproduced. And there is another one taken by the same firm in the 1870s, when Darwin had a bit more hair and less beard.

Offhand I don't know of any authoritative statement on the location of the whatsit on his face, but in this splendid oil painting, in the National Portrait Gallery, it is on his right side:

https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw01728/Charles-Darwin
 
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