The Art of "Quotemanship" and "Misquotemanship"

Quoting people accurately is really hard — and you can quote me on that.

What’s the Best Environment for the Survival of a Darwin ‘Quotation’?


How do misquotations survive?
They need a good environment in which to thrive.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Maybe a hint is buried in a statement wrongly attributed to English naturalist and evolution theorist Charles Darwin. The statement surfaced on 19 September 2014 in the Waterloo [Ontario] Region Record , in a piece by Joyce Hodge:

“There is an oft-cited quote (which is actually a misquote) attributed to Charles Darwin: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change’.”

First of all, kudos to her for writing that Darwin did not say this. However, it really is not a misquote. Although the statement, which lies in innumerable business-conference Powerpoint presentations, expresses a wonderful point about the importance of adaptability, Darwin never said this, exactly.

Prof. Leon Megginson, president Southern Management Association, 1972-1973

Prof. Leon Megginson, president Southern Management Association, 1972-1973

It was actually said by Professor Leon C. Megginson, but that really won’t get anyone’s attention, will it?
The Darwin Correspondence Project explains this in “six things he never said.” The site credits the sleuthing of a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Nick Matzke, for tracing the origins of this particular species of quotation. Matzke found an article by Leon C. Megginson in a 1963 issue of the Southwestern Social Sciences Quarterly. There, Megginson paraphrases Darwin in this manner:

According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.

You will notice there are NO QUOTATION MARKS in Megginson’s presentation. It’s a paraphrase. Megginson helpfully turned On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) into a very Tweetable summary. But it’s Megginson’s words, not Darwin’s. (Matzke’s work appears in a blog entry intriguingly titled “Survival of the Pithiest,” which I love.)
Of course, the misquotation lives on, and on, and on. It’s not surprising that the Waterloo paper presented it, and kept Darwin’s name stuck to it. After all, the words will live a LOT LONGER in the mouth of Darwin than in the mouth of Megginson, a longtime (and quite revered) professor at Lousiana State University. And people easily adapt. They use it–Joyce Hodge is not alone–even though they know that Darwin never said it.

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