Darwin Admits a Mistake

In addition to being a great example of Darwin exploring a problem and performing experiments based on those explorations, this next example has one added point of interest. Darwin admits to making an error in a previous work. The admission is based on the collection of further data – a hallmark of good science! This example comes from The power of movement in plants:

As heliotropism is so widely prevalent, and as twining plants are distributed throughout the whole vascular series, the apparent absence of any tendency in their stems to bend towards the light, seemed to us so remarkable a fact as to deserve further investigation, for it implies that heliotropism can be readily eliminated. When twining plants are exposed to a lateral light, their stems go on revolving or circumnutating about the same spot, without any evident deflection towards the light; but we thought that we might detect some trace of heliotropism by comparing the average rate at which the stems moved to and from the light during their successive revolutions.* Three young plants (about a foot in height) of Ipomoea caerulea and four of I. purpurea, growing in separate pots, were placed on a bright day before a north-east window in a room otherwise darkened, with the tips of their revolving stems fronting the window. When the tip of each plant pointed directly from the window, and when again towards it, the times were recorded. This was continued from 6.45 A.M. till a little after 2 P.M. on June 17th. After a few observations we concluded that we could safely estimate the time taken by each semicircle, within a limit of error of at most 5 minutes. Although the rate of movement in different parts of the same revolution varied greatly, yet 22 semicircles to the light were completed, each on an average in 73.95 minutes; and 22 semicircles from the light each in 73.5 minutes. It may, therefore, be said that they travelled to and from the light at exactly the same average rate; though probably the accuracy of the result was in part accidental. In the evening the stems were not in the least deflected towards the window. Nevertheless, there appears to exist a vestige of heliotropism, for with 6 out of the 7 plants, the first semicircle from the light, described in the early morning after they had been subjected to darkness during the night and thus probably rendered more sensitive, required rather more time, and the first semicircle to the light considerably less time, than the average. Thus with all 7 plants, taken together, the mean time of the first semicircle in the morning from the light, was 76.8 minutes, instead of 73.5 minutes, which is the mean of all the semicircles during the day from the light; and the mean of the first semicircle to the light was only 63.1, instead of 73.95 minutes, which was the mean of all the semicircles during the day to the light.
Similar observations were made on Wistaria Sinensis, and the mean of 9 semicircles from the light was 117 minutes, and of 7 semicircles to the light 122 minntes, and this difference does not exceed the probable limit of error. During the three days of exposure, the shoot did not become at all bent towards the window before which it stood. In this case the first semicircle from the light in the early morning of each day, required rather less time for its performance than did the first semicircle to the light; and this result, if not accidental, appears to indicate that the shoots retain a trace of an original apheliotropic tendency. With Lonicera brachypoda the semicircles from and to the light differed considerably in time; for 5 semicircles from the light required on a mean 202.4 minutes, and 4 to the light, 229.5 minutes; but the shoot moved very irregularly, and under these circumstances the observations were much too few.

Did you notice the asterisk in the first paragraph? When you scan down to the bottom of the page this is what Darwin says:

* Some erroneous statements are unfortunately given on this subject, in ‘The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants,’ 1875, pp. 28, 32, 40, and 53. Conclusions were drawn from an insufficient number of observations, for we did not then know at how unequal a rate the stems and tendrils of climbing plants sometimes travel in different parts of the same revolution.

So, Darwin realized his first experiments in The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants were in error so he repeats them here and corrects the error. He goes on to point out, concerning rates of travel:

It is remarkable that the same part on the same plant may be affected by light in a widely different manner at different ages, and as it appears at different seasons. The hypocotyledonous stems of Ipomoea caerulea and purpurea are extremely heliotropic, whilst the stems of older plants, only about a foot in height, are, as we have just seen, almost wholly insensible to light. Sachs states (and we have observed the same fact) that the hypocotyls of the Ivy (Hedera helix) are slightly heliotropic; whereas the stems of plants grown to a few inches in height become so strongly apheliotropic, that they bend at right angles away from the light. Nevertheless, some young plants which had behaved in this manner early in the summer again became distinctly heliotropic in the beginning of September; and the zigzag courses of their stems, as they slowly curved towards a north-east window, were traced during 10 days. The stems of very young plants of Tropaeolum majus are highly heliotropic, whilst those of older plants, according to Sachs, are slightly apheliotropic. In all these cases the heliotropism of the very young stems serves to expose the cotyledons, or when the cotyledons are hypogean the first true leaves, fully to the light; and the loss of this power by the older stems, or their becoming apheliotropic, is connected with their habit of climbing.
Most seedling plants are strongly heliotropic, and it is no doubt a great advantage to them in their struggle for life to expose their cotyledons to the light as quickly and as fully as possible, for the sake of obtaining carbon.

I found this experiment interesting because of the way Darwin tried to get at the problem of detecting heliotropism in twining plants. I’m not sure if his calculations support his conclusions and will leave it to the botanists to tell me if Darwin got it right…


7 Responses

  1. Afarensis:
    Sure Darwin admitted mistakes, as did Einstein (and a few others).
    This doesn’t make Darwin or Einstein (and those others) more precious, does it?
    Darwin’s foray into creation (and I believe his theory is mostly correct) will eventually be pumped up by new discoveries or imaginative theorizing, just as Einstein’s great body of work has been “modified” and will continue to be.
    It’s just that showing the fallibility of the greats has a tendency to provide an imprimatur for them which is not warranted; that is, to praise their mistakes, doesn’t necessarily make them loftier. It merely shows that everyone, no matter how noted or famous, has glitches of thought and behavior which allow us to keep them off pedestals we like to erect on their behalf.

  2. Yes and no. I recently watched a video about this, repeating Darwin’s experiments and then going further and he was only partially right.

  3. Rich Reynolds wrote

    It’s just that showing the fallibility of the greats has a tendency to provide an imprimatur for them which is not warranted; that is, to praise their mistakes, doesn’t necessarily make them loftier. It merely shows that everyone, no matter how noted or famous, has glitches of thought and behavior which allow us to keep them off pedestals we like to erect on their behalf.

    Miss the point much? It was not that the “greats” make mistakes; it’s that they tend to be open about correcting them when appropriate. It’s that characteristic that differentiates good science from dogma.

  4. Rich,
    I think you are missing the point of my post. Darwin discovered an error in a previous experiment that he had made (namely that plant movement is more complicated than he had thought) and, rather than sweeping it under the rug, redid the experiment with that new info in mind. This is a great example of how science progresses. On a sidenote, sometimes we learn more from the mistakes – Einstein’s “mistake” of the cosmological constant, for example, has turned out to be a great thing for cosmologists..

  5. My bad?
    I hope I didn’t miss the point of the posting.
    It’s just that we (most of us) like to make the point that great men and women are magnanimous when it comes to their errant experiments or thoughts, thus assuring the less astute that greatness can be fraught with error and it matters not a whit.
    But those errors, even when corrected by the orginator, often lead others astray, sometimes far astray, from which they and the matter at hand never recover.
    Einstein’s error was an example, for a while anyway.
    But I quibble maybe…

  6. That is not the point I am trying to make. The point here is that Darwin realized he had made an error and went out and redid the experiment to correct the error. This illustrates a larger point about how science should be done.

  7. A:
    I get your point, that science is advanced by persons who correct their mistakes.
    My point, which seems to be elusive, is that everyone keeps trying to humanize the greats, and thus they seek those redeeming actions that make persons like Darwin appear not so dogmatic (so one can infer that his theory of evolution was not dogmatic but an objective hypothesis, corrected by the man himself when necessary).
    I won’t belabor my feeble point further.

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