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In the summer of 1858, Charles Darwin received an extraordinary manuscript from the young scientist Alfred Russell Wallace.
By this time, Darwin had long ago worked out his theory of evolution by natural selection, but he delayed publishing it, opting instead to spend nearly 20 years collecting more data that would confirm what he knew was a controversial theory.
Shockingly, Wallace's manuscript contained in it almost exactly the same theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace had independently hit upon Darwin's theory, potentially undermining the last two decades of Darwin's work. What should Darwin do with Wallace's manuscript?
Before we examine Darwin's response to his ethical dilemma, some context is in order. You see, the history of science is replete with examples of scientists behaving unethically. In 1953, molecular biologist James Watson visited King's College London because scientists there were working on the structure of DNA, the same molecule Watson and his collaborator Francis Crick were trying to decipher at Cambridge.
At King's, the excellent X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin was producing remarkable images of DNA. Without Franklin's permission or even knowledge, a senior scientist at King's showed Watson "photo 51." Franklin's image was precisely the final bit of data that Watson and Crick needed (but could not obtain themselves) to build their model of DNA.
Watson and Crick quickly published their structure of DNA without inviting Franklin to be a co-author. Nine years later, they, along with the senior scientist who showed Watson photo 51, won the Nobel Prize. Franklin, meanwhile, died of cancer in 1958.
Here is a more local example: Between 1908 and 1911, Harvey Fletcher, a son of Mormon pioneers and a Brigham Young University graduate, worked with Robert Millikan at the University of Chicago to determine the charge of an electron. This was groundbreaking research at the time, and Fletcher was instrumental in designing the experiments, running the experiments, and writing up the results.
When it came time to publish, however, Millikan surprised Fletcher one evening by appearing on his doorstep and bullying Fletcher out of authorship on the crucial first paper which would announce their finding. Millikan went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1923. Fletcher, meanwhile, returned to a professorship at BYU and invented the hearing aid.
In part because of examples such as these, in 2009 the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation began requiring education in the responsible conduct of research for all students supported by their grants. Graduate students in universities across the United States now must be trained in the criteria for including or excluding someone from authorship, as well as other matters of data management, conflicts of interest and research on humans and non-human animals.
So back to Darwin. He had a number of options for dealing with Wallace's manuscript. He could have simply ignored it. He could have looked for a place where Wallace had the final bit of data Darwin needed but could not obtain on his own. He could have bullied Wallace, telling him not to waste his time on the project, since Darwin was so far ahead.
Darwin chose none of the above. Though the occasional dissident still exists, the received view among historians is that Darwin realized he had a conflict of interest in the matter. As a result, he turned Wallace's manuscript over to Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, two eminent scientists from the day. Lyell and Hooker then arranged for a joint presentation of Wallace and Darwin's independent discoveries to the Linnean Society. Darwin realized that conflicts of interest require independent review and management, and Lyell and Hooker realized that independent discoveries deserve independent recognition. Those principles remain the standard of responsibly conducted research to this day.
Sunday, Feb. 12, marks Darwin Day, the 202nd anniversary of Darwin's birth. Throughout the world, reflectors will ask, "What is Darwin's scientific legacy?" But the way Darwin handled Wallace's manuscript suggests that Darwin represents a model of both scientific and ethical action.
We can also ask, "What would Darwin do?"
James Tabery is an assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of Utah.