21 JANUARY 1995, Page 31

Darwin was right

Sir: Most aspiring authors have their stuff turned down from time to time, and it takes a special kind of self-importance to dignify a rejection slip as a sinister intention to `block publication'. Specialist journals send papers to expert referees who often recom- mend rejection — not suppression, just rejection — say, on grounds of poor writing or lack of importance. If I had refereed Warwick Collins's 'The fatal flaw of a great theory' (31 December) I should have rec- ommended rejection for both these rea- sons, plus the author's near total ignorance of the theory he purports to attack. Collins appears to have rediscovered the mutation. His trumpeted 'Indigenous Evolution' turns out to be bog-standard coevolution mixed with a few other aspects of ordinary main- stream Darwinism, albeit he expresses him- self so obscurely that the editor of Nature (Vol. 373, Page 90) can be forgiven for mis- takenly scenting heterodoxy. It is hard to believe that Collins has ever read The Origin of Species, let alone any modern books on neo-Darwinism. He is like an amateur astronomer who announces, amid fanfares from inside an obscuring smokescreen, the `controversial' theory that the earth orbits the sun.

Any ordinary paranoid might interpret a routine rejection as 'blocking publication', but Warwick Collins's attack upon Profes- sor Maynard Smith is worse than deluded, it is contemptible. In all my years of univer- sity life, I have never met a professor less likely to 'block publication' of a student's views than John Maynard Smith. He open- heartedly cherishes students whose ideas conflict with his own and has been known to go out of his way to get such students into Sussex University, even when they lacked the normal entrance qualifications. Collins tells us that he did not last the course at Sussex, and the quality of the arti- cle which you saw fit to publish makes this easy to believe. Collins may be a self-confessed science drop-out, but he still fancies himself as a historian. He tells us at great length what anybody knows who has read The Ori- gin of Species as far as the introductory His- torical Sketch — that Darwin had prede- cessors. Let me correct just one historical error because it is of minor interest (the rest of Collins's article is of no interest at all).

He perpetuates the urban legend that Karl Marx offered to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin. I've always had a soft spot for this story and wish it were true, but, unfor- tunately, the facts are as follows. Edward Aveling, a prominent freethinker of the time, asked if he might dedicate an anti- religious book to Darwin. Darwin gracious- ly and briefly declined, and his letter of refusal was preserved in Aveling's papers. As it happened, Aveling's mistress was Marx's daughter. On their deaths she received Aveling's and Marx's papers, and the two sets were later muddled up. Instead of 'My Dear Aveling', Darwin's letter began 'My Dear Sir', leaving it superficially possi- ble that it might have been addressed to Marx. This possibility, for some reason, appealed to Stalin. It therefore spread among the Marxist faithful and was given wider currency, until investigated by proper historical scholarship in some popular books about Darwin.

Warwick Collins's ignorance of history is trivial and perhaps excusable. His igno- rance of Darwinism is not trivial, and his ungrateful untruth about John Maynard Smith is inexcusable. I hope you will allow him enough space for a complete apology and that, in future, you will investigate the credentials of your would-be contributors more searchingly.

Richard Dawkins

Savile House, Mansfield Road, Oxford