An anniversary for evolution

August 20, 2012 • 10:25 am

It was 154 years ago today—August, 20, 1858—that Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace published their joint papers on natural selection in Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. Zoology (3: 46-50).  The history of these papers, reflecting Darwin’s and Wallace’s simultaneous writing about the discovery of natural selection, is well known and recounted at the Wikipedia link in the first sentence.  The letters between Darwin, Wallace, Lyell and Hooker that dealt with the publication of these papers can be found here.

In short, Wallace, in the throes of malarial fever, wrote his paper on natural selection on the Indonesian island of Ternate in February, 1858, and sent it to Darwin with a letter asking him to forward it to the geologist Lyell. (That letter was lost, and has led to dark speculations that Darwin got the letter well before he said he did [June 18] and destroyed it so he could delay matters; but historians have shown that is almost certainly wrong). Darwin, of course, had been pondering and working on the idea of natural selection for a long time before 1858, and was understandably disturbed that his priority had been threatened by an upstart naturalist.  But he was still a gentleman, and had to weigh how to maintain his priority while still behaving ethically. He sought the advice of his friends and mentors Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, who came up with the idea of a jointly publishing Wallace’s letter along with a quickly-written abstract by Darwin. Lyell and Hooker then wrote a letter introducing the two papers.  As Wikipedia notes:

Wallace wrote his paper On The Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type at Ternate in February 1858 and sent it to Darwin with a request to send it on to Lyell. Darwin received it on 18 June 1858 and wrote to Lyell that “your words have come true with a vengeance,… forestalled” and “If Wallace had my MS. sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract!” While Wallace had not asked for publication, Darwin would, “of course, at once write and offer to send [it] to any journal” that Wallace chose. He sadly added that “all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed”.  Lyell’s immediate response urged Darwin to publish his own ideas, and in his reply of 25 June Darwin agreed that he could point to his own Essay of 1844 which Hooker had read in 1847, and a letter to Asa Gray of 1857 showing that he was still developing the ideas, “so that I could most truly say and prove that I take nothing from Wallace. I should be extremely glad now to publish a sketch of my general views in about a dozen pages or so. But I cannot persuade myself that I can do so honourably… I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit”, also requesting that Hooker be invited to give a second opinion.Darwin was overwrought by a deepening crisis of illness of his baby son Charles Waring Darwin, who died of scarlet fever on 28 June. On the morning of the 29th he acknowledged Hooker’s letters, writing “I cannot think now”, then that night he read the letters, and though “quite prostrated”, got his servant to take to Hooker Wallace’s essay, the letter to Asa Gray and the Essay of 1844, leaving matters in the hands of Lyell and Hooker.

Lyell and Hooker had decided on a joint publication at the Linnean Society of London of Wallace’s paper together with an extract from Darwin’s essay and his letter to Asa Gray, The last meeting of the society before the summer recess had been postponed following the death of former president the botanist Robert Brown on 10 June 1858, and was to be held on 1 July. On the afternoon of 30 June Mrs. Hooker copied out extracts from the handwritten documents they had just received from Darwin, then that evening Lyell and Hooker handed them in to the secretary with a covering letter.

The papers were read to the Linnean Society of London on 1 July 1858, by the Secretary John Joseph Bennett. Neither author was present. Darwin was attending the funeral of his son, and Wallace was still in Borneo. The meeting was chaired by the President of the society, Thomas Bell, who had written up the description of Darwin’s reptile specimens from the Beagle expedition.

The cover letter and two papers were then published on this date in 1858. Darwin began writing On the Origin of Species ten days later, obviously eager to get his expanded ideas into print as soon as possible.

You can find the text of both Darwin’s and Wallace’s 1858 papers here.  Here’s the introduction to the joint Darwin/Wallace papers by Lyell and Hooker:

10 thoughts on “An anniversary for evolution

  1. I’ll recommend David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin for an eminently readable treatment of that fraught incident.

  2. Recall that Darwin habitually destroyed old correspondence by getting someone to burn it in the garden. I am dubious that Darwin can be accused of plagiarism as some have claimed – he had written about it a good deal before. Just not published. Had he published Wallace’s article & not done so himself, we might still call it Darwinism.

  3. In 2008 there was a celebration at the Linnean Society in London of the reading of the Darwin and Wallace papers, on the 150th anniversary, July 1. I was in Italy and was due to come to London that day (to give a talk in the same lecture hall the next day, sponsored by a different society). I wish I could say I had attended that 150th anniversary celebration. I reserved two tickets (for me and my son) but alas … the cheap airline that we flew on was too cheap, and there was a big delay. Jerry’s co-author Allen Orr and Gareth Nelson were to speak but I missed the event, so I don’t know what their take on the anniversary was. Congratulations to Chuck and Al for their 154th anyway.

  4. The whole event was nondescript, few people who where here at the time didn’t remember much about the presentation. I was only when the book was release did the shit hit the fan.:-)

    1. Apparently the meeting was basically called to elect a new Secretary of the Linnean Society, and there was much other business. At then end, with everyone eager to go hit the bars, came some reading of a couple of papers by Wallace and Darwin about species. Enough already, we’re all tired.

      The papers were read just to make it possible to print them in the Society’s journal. Nevertheless it was the formal announcement of the new era. So let’s celebrate.

  5. To be fair to Wallace, his 1855 paper, “On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species” gives a good biogeographic argument for common descent, several years prior to this joint publication with Darwin. Of course Darwin had already come to this same conclusion long before 1855, but Wallace, like Darwin, had been working on “the species problem” and making important advances many years before their joint publication.

  6. I read somewhere that the secretary of the Linnean Society, recapping the years events commented that no new ideas of any importance were introduced.

  7. My response to this reading is quite short. 1858 seems ancient. The human spies live, die, and record hoping to record the truth and simply the truth.
    Quote on Veronica Abbass, “I hesitate to mention the Darwin portion of John Murray Archive which features copies of Darwin’s handwriten letters to Murray and an interactive feature.” Such quotes is essentially informative. I wonder where she found that information.

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