Did Darwin plagiarize Wallace?

December 20, 2011 • 7:12 am

I once had dinner with Janet Browne, author of what I think is the best biography of Darwin (it’s in two volumes; do read it!), and took the opportunity to ask her a question.  “If you had Darwin here at the table,” I said, “and could ask him one question, what would it be?”  Janet didn’t hesitate in her answer: “I’d like to know about the missing letter from Wallace.”

She was referring to a well known incident involving a famous letter. While Darwin was slowly preparing On the Origin of Species for publication, he received, supposedly on June 18, 1858, a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace.  And that letter contained an essay (written in Frebruary of that year) outlining Wallace’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which of course was something Darwin had been ruminating about for years.  Wallace’s piece, “On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type,” has become known as the “Ternate” essay from the Indonesian island where it was supposedly penned, and you can find it here.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in Singapore, 1862

Darwin was, of course, upset.  He’d been mulling over his ideas, and collecting evidence to support them, for two decades, and all of a sudden some upstart naturalist had stolen his thunder.  Moreover, Wallace asked Darwin to pass the essay on to the geologist Charles Lyell if he found it interesting.

What could Darwin do to preserve both his integrity and his ideas? He sent Wallace’s essay to his friends Charles Lyell and botanist Joseph Hooker, who brokered a solution: Darwin would write a short precis of his own ideas, which, along with Wallace’s essay, would be presented at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London.  A letter from Darwin to Hooker on June 19, 1858, shows how distraught Darwin was about the possibility that he’d lost the priority of his great ideas. He was sending Hooker his own contribution for the joint Linnean Society publication as part of the brokered solution:

My dear Hooker

I have just read your letter, & see you want papers at once. I am quite prostrated & can do nothing but I send Wallace [i.e., Wallace’s manuscript] & my abstract of abstract of letter to Asa Gray, which gives most imperfectly only the means of change & does not touch on reasons for believing species do change. I daresay all is too late. I hardly care about it.—

But you are too generous to sacrifice so much time & kindness.—It is most generous, most kind. I send sketch of 1844 solely that you may see by your own handwriting that you did read it.—

I really cannot bear to look at it.—Do not waste much time. It is miserable in me to care at all about priority. . .

Darwin’s cobbled-together contribution, and Wallace’s essay, were read at the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, and the essays were published.  That was the gentlemanly solution to a thorny problem.  Darwin, of course, is now the name associated with evolution and natural selection, for Wallace did not capitalize on his ideas, while Darwin rushed The Origin into print, securing his place in history. (See Steve Jones’s essay from the 2008 Guardian, “How Darwin won the evolution race.“)

Historians, mulling over this episode, found two problems.  First, the letter from Wallace to Darwin is missing among Darwin’s correspondence. Darwin slavishly saved all his correspondence, so why was this crucial document not in his collection?

Second, some historians have questioned whether Darwin really did receive the letter on June 18. Wallace had mailed some letters from Ternate on March 9, 1858, and these arrived in London on June 3.  If Wallace’s letter to Darwin was in that same packet of mail, then why did it take until June 18 to reach Darwin?

Based on this, several historians have suggested that Darwin did indeed receive the letter in early June, and held onto it, not only delaying its conveyance to Lyell, but actually stealing Wallace’s ideas in the interim.  While most historians pooh-pooh this idea (after all, Darwin’s correspondence and notebooks show he had had the idea of natural selection well before this), this conspiracy theory has been persistent.  Indeed, Roy Davies wrote a book on it: The Darwin Conspiracy: origins of a scientific crime, and called the supposedly delayed letter “a deliberate and iniquitous case of intelletual theft, deceit, and lies perpetuated by Charles Darwin.”  And several other historians have agreed, though not in such damning ways.

And that is why Janet wanted the issue of the letter cleared up.

Well, we still don’t know why it’s missing, but a new paper in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society by John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaker, two historians of science at the National University of Singapore, make a strong case that Darwin did not hold onto Wallace’s letter, much less steal its ideas.

van Wyhe and Rookmaaker painstakingly traced the routes of steamers from Indonesia to London, and have created a plausible and unbroken chain of transmission that indeed puts the letter in Darwin’s hands on 18 June, 1858.  A few excerpts from their paper:

The route taken by Wallace’s letter and essay sent to Darwin from Ternate can be reconstructed confidently, assuming that it was deposited at the Ternate post office before 25 March, when Wallace left the island for a collecting trip to New Guinea. The mail service from Ternate (April) to Down House (June) in 75 days can be described in ten stages.

I’ll spare you these, but the letter went via Surabaya, Jakarta, Singapore, Suez, Egypt, and Southampton.  The postal service was far more efficient than I thought back then, and it’s always been efficient in the UK.  The letter arrived in Southampton on 16 June and was at Down two days later.  The authors conclude:

The transit of Wallace’s letter from Ternate to Down House took the normal period of 75 days. If Darwin told the truth, then the arrival of Wallace’s letter on 18 June should actually have a fully connecting service route all the way back to Ternate in the Dutch East Indies – something that Darwin could not have known. We have now shown this to be the case.

Therefore, contrary to the frequent assertions of conspiracy theorists, Darwin did not lie about the receipt of Wallace’s Ternate essay, and in fact sent it on to Lyell the very same day. Hence, we should restore the story of the joint announcement of the theory of evolution by natural selection from the recent version of dishonesty and conspiracy to one of those inspiring cases of cooperation in the history of science.

This, of course, doesn’t solve the problem of why Wallace’s letter is missing, but it shows (as I fully expected) that Darwin was not a plagiarist.  He was subject to the normal concerns of priority that affect every scientist, but his behavior in this matter was—as in all his scientific dealings—scrupulous.

h/t: Karel


Van Wyhe, J. and K. Rookmaaker. 2012. A new theory to explain the receipt of Wallace’s Ternate essay by Darwin in 1858.  Biol. J. Linn. Soc, 105:249-252.  (See also a commentary on this paper by Philip Ball in Nature.)

68 thoughts on “Did Darwin plagiarize Wallace?

  1. A fascinating piece. I wish only to make a minor point, namely, that if the mail service had once been efficient in the UK, alas and alack, it is hardly unfair to say that it cannot really be said to be so today.

  2. Perhaps he passed both the essay and the letter to Lyell, for clarification? Lyell then could have discarded it, or saved it somewhere for all we know.

  3. Wallace has been badly treated by posterity, but surely not by Darwin.

    Wakkace deserves to be equally abused by creationists. But “Wallace-Darwinism” isn’t quite as snappy as plain old “Darwinism”.

  4. This subject comes up every so often and must be answered again and again. Thanks for the explanation. Usually, but not always, those who ask the question are attempting to embarrass the great man.

  5. Three things. First, I assume that the original letter was not found amongst Lyell’s things. That, cf course, doesn’t mean that Darwin didn’t simply send it on, as requested. He needn’t have kept it, especially if he was in the habit of reducing the amount of paper around Down House. Second, though Wallace has got scant attention, Darwin was always generous in attributing the discovery to him as well as claiming (justly, based on existing notes and texts) that he also had been working on the same theory, and collecting evidence to support it. Third, Wallace didn’t exactly shine in later life, and did not himself do a great deal to develop his theory, based on his own discoveries. He also, as I understand, went off in strange directions, and had an interest in paranormal phenomena, bringing his scientific credentials into disrepute.

    1. He … went off in strange directions, and had an interest in paranormal phenomena, bringing his scientific credentials into disrepute.

      What, like Newton?


        1. Some people are still dabbling. How many scientists alive today still hold to beliefs that are in reality no more crazy than any wacky occult belief that Wallace had? Did he hold any belief that is crazier than the Catholic cult? I still have immense respect for the likes of Ken Miller, despite his Catholicism.

    1. “Isn’t it a rule of thumb that if any science-related article is entitled with a question, the answer is always, “no”?”

      That would be a great title for a science-related article!

  6. This question reminds me of the did Shakespeare write Shakespeare discussion that goes on ad nauseam. However, it makes good copy and can be incorporated into novels. One example is Nino Ricci’s novel _The Origin of Species_. I can’t remember exactly what Ricci or the character, Alex Fratarcangeli, says (I read the novel a couple of years ago), but the novel suggests that Darwin bested Wallace. This implication is consistent with Fratarcangeli’s “unfinished dissertation . . .which . . . attempts to link narrative theory to evolutionary theory.” http://tinyurl.com/bsx6cpm

  7. ​In light of Hitchens death we can take a reminder from him as to what happens when accusations are made without any real proof. As Hitchens would probably be saying, “This accusation made without proof can be dismissed without proof.” This accusation doesn’t even merit a rebuttal.

  8. I’m surprised no mention of Quammen’s notes on this. In Song of the Dodo, Quammen (if I remember right), says that Darwin tossed Wallace’s letter into the fireplace.

    That book is all I know of the story, Quammen strongly takes the position that Wallace was downright cheated of credit. Although I’m sure other contributers to the theory were as well – could we cite ignorance of the general public for overall celebrity obsession, even when it comes to science?

    1. Well, some folks are just more active and built more on their ideas, or better self-publicists, or got more attention from journalists… 

      Not just Darwin v. Wallace, but Edison v. Swan, Higgs v. Englert, Brout, Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble, … 


      1. Dang, I meant that to be part of my point!! 😉 Shrewd business folk and such. Although who knows what it meant back then.

        Or maybe humility on Wallace’s part should be admired, and the lack of attention should open our eyes to media’s myopathy.

    2. Dear Amelie,
      You don’t remember right (though whose memory IS perfect?, not mine either). I certainly didn’t say, in “Dodo,” that Darwin tossed Wallace’s letter into the fireplace. Cf my pages 111-112. I described the “conventional” view of the Darwin-receives-letter event, and the “revisionist” view of John Langdon Brooks. I carefully stated that (as of 1996, when “Dodo” was published) the choice between those two versions was probably undecidable. The new Van Wyhe and Rookmaaker paper, to their credit, may have made it decidable–to Darwin’s exoneration. I’m not surprised. DQ

      1. David Quammen – I find it a nice surprise indeed to be corrected by the author himself!
        I read Song of the Dodo back in 2003. It is a treasured book on my shelf, I especially appreciated your description of Wallace’s trials during his field work in the Amazon.

  9. It seems quite clear in your blog, in two separate places, that Darwin must have forwarded the letter, rather than keeping it. He sounds distraught, too much so to hand copy it and send the copy on. Of ocurse, there was no other way to make a copy in one’s home or home office, back then. Also, his outreach for advice and follow through of that advice (again, based on reading your blog, here) suggest a man of integrity.

  10. My fiancée’s mother was curator of Down House for several years and I remember she was particularly annoyed with Roy Davies’ book. Were she alive today, I’m sure she would have been very pleased to hear of Darwin’s vindication.

    We still live in Downe and this has reminded me that it’s been far too long since I’ve been around the Sandwalk!

  11. Just remember what Wallace says of Darwin and that he gave Darwin the credit, showning what a gentleman he was considering his difficulties and his less privileged background. Recall how he lost everything when the vessel on which he was returning to England burnt with all his collections.

    I think it a little unfair to judge him for his spiritualism. He was really important for the science of ecology wasn’t he?

    “The first eight letters from Darwin to Wallace were found amongst the latter’s papers, carefully preserved in an envelope on the outside of which he had written the words reproduced on the next page. Neither Wallace’s part of this correspondence, nor the original MS. of his essay “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type,” which he sent to Darwin from Ternate, has been discovered. But these eight letters from Darwin explain themselves and reveal the inner story of the independent discovery of the theory of Natural Selection.”


  12. There is a misconception that Wallace was neglected or little-known in his lifetime. In fact, the prominent mention of Wallace’s theory in Darwin’s Origin (on page 1) helped make his reputation and later career. His major books – Island Life, The Geographical Distribution of Animals, Darwinism (Wallace’s choice of title), and the Malay Archipelago (the latter written at Darwin’s urging) – were all highly regarded. Unfortunately, unlike Darwin, Wallace relished controversy, and his support for spiritualism, his opposition to vaccination, and other controversial views, clouded his reputation in later years. But he was still sufficiently respected to receive the Order of Merit, Britain’s highest civilian distinction.

    1. Quite honestly, Darwin appears to be the only 19th Century naturalist who’s remained a widely known figure in the 21st Century. I rather doubt that too many members of the general American public could tell you who Richard Owen, Thomas Huxley, O.C. Marsh, Edward Cope, or Alexander von Humbolt* were.

      *Technically von Humbolt was a little too early to be considered a 19th Century naturalist, but I included him because of how famous he was during the 19th Century.

  13. I know of a few cases of dishonesty in science. It was the late 20th century and still some scientists would sit on a paper so that it would not be published and all the while taking the ideas from the paper and writing their own for submission. If Darwin were that sort he’d simply not acknowledge that he had received Wallace’s letter at all – after all the only reason for doubting that the letter had not been received would have been the coincidence of the ideas, and even then it is clear that Darwin had been working on it for a very long time. Unfortunately in the cases I know about, the original authors never received credit and the journals involved simply stonewalled rather than publishing anyway and making it clear that the publication of what now appears to be not original work was due to a certain referee sitting on the paper while penning his own copy for publication.

  14. That Darwin “stole” anything from Wallace has been repeatedly refuted (see especially David Kohn, 1981. Science 213:1105-1108). I once essayed to do so myself in a brief note in BioQuest Notes. In it, I remarked that the claim that Darwin lied about when he received the letter from Wallace was “based on unlikely suppositions concerning the uniformity and regularity of postal service from the Dutch East Indies to England in the 1850s.” I’m glad to see this paper by John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker, in which they investigate, rather than speculate on, the postal service, confirming the truth of Darwin’s statement. The conclusion I reached about the whole incident of the joint publication by Darwin and Wallace in 1858 still stands:

    Simultaneous publication in fact was a “win-win” situation for Darwin and Wallace. Darwin established that he in fact had thought of natural selection first, and also received a strong stimulus to complete a fuller presentation of his views. Wallace established that his discovery of natural selection was, though later, entirely independent of Darwin’s. The circumstances allowed Wallace to later rightly insist that he not be classed with those forerunners, such as W.C. Wells and Patrick Matthew, who stated the principle of natural selection, but “failed to see its wide and immensely important applications” (1870:iv): Wallace did see its wide and immensely important applications. Simultaneous publication gave Wallace the nihil obstat of Darwin, Lyell and Hooker, and thus a guarantee that his paper would be read and taken seriously, and not be overlooked, as he thought his Sarawak paper had been. Indeed, Wallace wrote home that their action “insures me the acquaintance of these eminent men on my return home” (Wallace, 1905, I:365). Later, in My Life, Wallace wrote, “I not only approved, but felt that they had given me more honour and credit than I deserved.”

    Mayer, G.C. 2002. Darwin and Wallace at Burlington House. BioQuest Notes 11(2): 1, 10-14. pdf

  15. Why am I not surprised? Everything we know about Darwin indicates that he was the most scrupulous, honest, unassuming man you could ever hope to meet. (Though in true scientific spirit I would welcome any evidence to the contrary.)

    He must also have had the patience of a saint to spend nearly five years cooped up on a small ship in enforced intimacy with Fitzroy.

    1. A fair bit of the time of the voyage was spent on land while Fitzroy was doing coastal surveys so he didn’t spend every day with Fitzroy.

  16. What does this mean for me?


    The story, when told by Darwin, Wallace or anyone else whose shoulder’s these two stood upon, is beautiful.

    For me, it explains everything that I see in the world.

    I love that I am able to understand a tiny bit of this, and no longer trapped in a religious morass.

    Thank you Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

  17. van Wyhe and Rookmaaker painstakingly traced the routes of steamers from Indonesia to London

    Wow. To be able to trace the routes and timetables of steamers from over 150 years ago… now THOSE are some good records!

  18. I guess this is nitpicking, but pertaining to Janet Browne, in a 2007 interview on Talk of the Nation she stated that Darwin “probably would have called himself a Christian, but he was never an atheist.” She went on to say when people suggested that he was an atheist “the remaining family came out very strongly and said ‘oh no, Darwin was never an atheist. Let’s call him agnostic.'” Remember these are the people (more specifically his wife and son) who edited out this quote from his autobiography: “Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress.” Why can’t we take him at his word? For the Talk of the Nation interview go here. The part I quote starts around the 13 minute mark.

    1. Listened to the broadcast. Thanks for the link. I have an interest in Wallace (he spent some time in a small town close to my place of birth)

      But broadly, from your quote about Darwins “disbelief” – what was the “disbelief” in? Disbelief in the standard Xian god or disbelief in gods in general?

      1. For a 19th Century European, the two were probably synonymous.

        Nothing I’ve read about Darwin suggested that he was terribly spiritual to begin with, and following the death of one of his daughters from fever he suffered a crisis of faith that he never “recovered” from (scare quotes because we wouldn’t consider it a recovery). Most biographies I’ve seen have said that at that point he followed in the path of Thomas Huxley and became an agnostic.

        1. I find it interesting that creationists (Xian and Muslim) seem more interested in “branding” Darwin an atheist than the scientific community. I personally don’t give a toss (other than in an academic sense). You can be dead right about one thing but dead wrong about another.

          1. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s because they want to brand him an atheist so that they can say that he came up with the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection as part of Teh Ebil Atheist Conspiracy To Destroy Religion.

            1. True. I had a very disturbing (to me) ongoing conversation about evo, and Darwin with a young Muslim woman at work. Her understanding of Darwin was that he was EVIL and I found this shocking, because from a rational viewpoint, he could be right or wrong, but why evil? And then she directed me to the websites from where she got her info – Harun Yayha etc. I was so angry listening to him spew his ignorant, poisonous lies. It was an eye-opener for me.

        2. “For a 19th Century European, the two were probably synonymous” –
          but we hear so much about certain 18th Century Americans being ‘deists’. Was that not an option for Mr D? Apparently it held no attraction for him, and nor did Huxley’s invented term ‘agnostic’. If he says so, then there’s no reason not to believe that he ‘felt no distress’ on the matter (either during the process or at its destination); and quite f’ing rightly. He disbelieved because he’d found a better explanation for all the interesting stuff.

          1. Darwin was, originally, a believer. Remember, his signing on to the crew of the Beagle was supposed to be the big thing he did before he became a country priest, having discovered that he lacked the stomach to be a surgeon.

            According to his own diary and letters he wrote, he found himself increasingly unable to reconcile the bible with his observations of nature, much to the distress of his deeply religious wife. Following the death of his daughter, he openly announced that he, like Thomas Huxley, was an agnostic.

            I don’t know what his exact beliefs were on any given part of god and the bible at any point of his life, he didn’t write those down. But from the sounds of what he did write, he was pretty close to Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as a deist to begin with, which is unsurprising for someone who held a lifelong fascination for science and nature

Leave a Reply