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Quotations in Context: Darwin

Michael Molinsky (University of Maine at Farmington)


“A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room
looking for a black cat which isn’t there.”

This quotation is commonly attributed today to Charles Darwin, and is very popular among modern authors, frequently appearing at the beginning of chapters in mathematics books. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence that Darwin ever said this. The quotation certainly does not appear in any of Charles Darwin’s published books or papers. There isn’t even as much as an apocryphal story about where and when Darwin might have made such a statement.

Photograph of Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron
Photograph of Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The oldest publication that mentions Charles Darwin as the source of a similar quotation appears to be an address at a dinner meeting of the Southeastern Section of the Mathematical Association of America on March 29, 1940. The address was given by Tomlinson Fort, and it was published in the American Mathematical Monthly in November of that year. Although Fort provided citations for every other quotation used in the speech, he included no citation for his reference to Darwin—and expressed doubt that Darwin was really the source:

I have heard it said that Charles Darwin gave the following. (He probably never did.) “A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black hat which isn’t there” [Fort 1940, p. 606].

Notice the slight difference in this quotation, with “hat” instead of “cat.”

Variations on this metaphor were apparently very popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries, making comparisons to members of the clergy, pessimists, artists, and other subjects instead of mathematicians. For example, in the book “Pie Powder”, Being Dust from the Law Courts: Collected and Recollected on the Western Circuit, by a Circuit Tramp, published in 1911, the author John Foote talked about the British judge, Charles Bowen:

Another famous example, which the present writer was fortunate enough to hear personally, was addressed to a barrister arguing a bad point in the Court of Appeal on the ground of an ‘equity’ in the case. “When I hear of an ‘equity’ in a case like this,” Bowen said with judicial gravity, “I am reminded of a blind man—in a dark room—looking for a black hat—which isn't there.” Within the last few months I have seen this misquoted in the press as a search for a ‘black cat’—a variation which I feel assured that the late Lord Justice would have strongly disapproved [Foote 1911, pp. 25–26].

Another version of the quotation, which is also commonly attributed to Charles Bowen, appears in the book Old and Odd Memories, published in 1908 by Lionel Tollemache. The author reminisced about his time in Balliol College at Oxford University, including his memories of both Charles Bowen and the Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett:

Bowen followed the example of Jowett in thoroughly distrusting metaphysics. Thus, Jowett dissuaded a pupil from reading T. H. Green’s Prolegomena; and Bowen defined a metaphysician as ‘a blind man groping in a dark room for a black cat which is not there’ [Tollemache 1908, p. 160].

The similarities (“metaphysician” and “mathematician”, “Bowen” and “Darwin”) make it at least reasonable to suggest that a misattribution to Darwin may be rooted in this quotation by Bowen. In any case, even if Darwin did actually make such a statement about mathematicians, it appears that it wouldn’t have been very original on his part, since he would have been simply following the vogue of the times in comparing practically everything to “a blind man in a dark room” searching for something that didn’t exist.


Foote, John Alderson. 1911. “Pie-Powder,” Being Dust from the Law Courts. London: John Murray.

Fort, Tomlinson. 1940. Mathematics and the Sciences. The American Mathematical Monthly 47(9): 605–612.

Tollemache, Lionel Arthur. 1908. Old and Odd Memories. London: Edward Arnold.

“Quotations in Context” is a regular column written by Michael Molinsky that has appeared in the CSHPM/SCHPM Bulletin of the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics since 2006 (this installment was first published in May 2010). In the modern world, quotations by mathematicians or about mathematics frequently appear in works written for a general audience, but often these quotations are provided without listing a primary source or providing any information about the surrounding context in which the quotation appeared. These columns provide interesting information on selected statements related to mathematics, but more importantly, the columns highlight the fact that students today can do the same legwork, using online databases of original sources to track down and examine quotations in their original context.

Michael Molinsky (University of Maine at Farmington), "Quotations in Context: Darwin," Convergence (April 2023)