In honor of Wallace Year, Greg Mayer is doing a series of posts on The Man Who Came Second. This essay gives Greg’s take on the rivalry between Darwin and Wallace about the discovery of natural selection, and how it was resolved.
Darwin and Wallace at Burlington House
by Greg Mayer
The theory of evolution by natural selection, co-discovered by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, was announced to the world at a meeting of the Linnean Society held at Burlington House in Piccadilly on July 1,1858. Neither Darwin, who was at Down House in Kent, nor Wallace, who was collecting in the Malay Archipelago, were present.
Seven weeks later, and 155 years ago today, the theory was published in the Society’s Journal—on 20 August 1858 (Darwin and Wallace, 1858). Darwin provided a much fuller account of the theory the following year in On the Origin of Species (Darwin, 1859), and went on to write several more books, each of which may be considered an elaboration or application of the theory. Wallace remained in the East Indies until 1862. After returning to England, he too wrote several books, the best known being his account of his East Indian expedition (Wallace, 1869), his applications of evolutionary reasoning to zoogeography (Wallace, 1876, 1880), and a general exposition of evolution (Wallace, 1889).
Although the theory at its announcement was attributed to both men, it has come to be associated primarily with Darwin. Indeed, even Wallace entitled one of his most important books Darwinism (1889), and always considered Darwin to be at least primus inter pares. Some, however, have thought that Darwin’s lion’s share of the credit is undeserved, and that Wallace has been wronged, both by Darwin and by history (Brackman, 1980; Brooks,1983; Quammen, 1996; Davies, 2008).
The accusations against Darwin are that he ‘stole’ one or more ideas from Wallace, and that the circumstances of the reading and publication of the Linnean Society papers were somehow unethical. Although ostensibly arguing on Wallace’s behalf, these authors must dismiss Wallace’s own accounts (e.g. 1870, 1889, 1905, 1908) of the contributions made by Darwin and himself, and paint Wallace as a victim. But, as his biographer Raby (2001:291) says, “Wallace was not a victim, and he did not see himself as a victim”; to do so “diminishes both Darwin and Wallace.”
I argue here, in agreement with Raby and others, that these accusations are baseless, and that a fair reading of the historical evidence shows that the high and friendly regard (Kottler, 1985; Raby, 2001; Shermer, 2002) in which the two men held each other throughout their lives was well deserved on both their parts.
It is helpful to begin by recounting some of the history of both Darwin and Wallace, for it sets the context for later events. The following account draws on standard historical works, especially Kottler (1985), Browne (1995), Ruse (1999), Raby (2001), Shermer (2002), Bowler (2003) and Young (2007).
When Darwin returned from the Beagle voyage in late 1836, he was not yet an evolutionist, but by mid-1837, when he began his first notebook on transmutation, he was. By late 1838, after considering a number of possibilities, he hit upon natural selection as the mechanism of transmutation, and for the rest of his life he was to consider this the chief (though not exclusive) mechanism of evolutionary change. In 1842 he wrote a 35-page outline of his views which has come to be known as the Sketch. Darwin elaborated this into a 230-page Essay in 1844 (both were eventually published in 1909). At this time he first revealed his theory of natural selection, showing the Essay to the botanist J.D. Hooker. The theory in the Sketch and the Essay is the same as that given in the Origin. As Wallace had not yet published on—or even thought very much about—the subject, Wallace had no influence on Darwin’s formulation of natural selection.
Wallace’s evolutionary history begins a few years after Darwin’s return to England. He became a transmutationist in 1845 after reading Chambers’ (1844) Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. From 1848 to 1852, Wallace conducted fieldwork in the Amazon basin with Henry Bates, making investigations and collections in all departments of natural history. Setting out for the East Indies in 1854, he once again benefited from having already accepted transmutation, so that he was ready to interpret the phenomena he observed in that context. Wallace, like Darwin, needed a mechanism of transmutation, but unlike Darwin he did not delay in publishing his incomplete views. In 1855 he wrote and published in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History what is known as his Sarawak paper. In it he stated that new species come into being near in time and space to allied species, but without supplying a mechanism for their origin.
The paper received little public attention. Darwin thought it just another vaguely transmutationist work. The geologist Charles Lyell, however, thought it very important, and said so to Darwin. In 1856, Darwin explained his theory to Lyell, and Lyell pressed him to begin his “big book on species”. And so, Darwin did.
It was while working on this “big book” (eventually published in 1975 as Natural Selection) in June of 1858 that Darwin received from Wallace his famous “Ternate paper”, in which Wallace formulated his theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin could not, of course, have stolen the idea of natural selection itself from Wallace, for, as we have seen, it had been demonstrably laid out by Darwin almost two decades earlier. The idea Darwin’s detractors most suspect of having been stolen from Wallace is the “principle of divergence”, the chief import of which is that ecological specialization can drive divergence, and thus lead to a multiplication of species in the same locality. Kohn (1981, 1985) and Kottler (1985) have analyzed this concept in some detail. As Kohn notes, Darwin included in this principle several ideas (the branching nature of phylogeny, sympatric speciation, interspecific interactions, ecological specialization) which, while familiar enough individually, do not to us today seem to form an ineluctable whole.
Both Kohn and Kottler consider Darwin’s and Wallace’s concepts of divergence significantly different, so that Darwin could not have gotten his ideas from Wallace. Kottler argues that in his Ternate paper, Wallace considered only linear or phyletic divergence (i.e., anagenesis), while Darwin’s principle embraced not only this, but branching divergence as well (i.e., cladogenesis, the divergence of two or more species descended from a single common ancestor). Kohn concludes that Darwin had formulated his principle of divergence by January 1855; Darwin (1958), in his autobiography, implies he had done so by early 1856; according to Kottler, Darwin had formulated his principle by 1857 at the very latest. By any of these datings, Darwin could not have been influenced by the Ternate paper of 1858.
If we look at readily available archival materials, we can see that most of the parts of Darwin’s concept were already present in his writings well before Wallace published anything. In his ‘B’ notebook, written in the late 1830s, Darwin includes his first sketches of the branching tree (or coral) of life (Darwin, 1987:177, 180). In the ‘D’ notebook, in September 1838, he uses the metaphor of the “wedge”, with every species trying to fill gaps in the economy of nature (Darwin, 1987:375-6). And, in a note dated January 1855, he writes of “diversity of structures supporting more life” (i.e. ecological specialization leading to greater diversity) (Kohn, 1985:256). I thus do not see that Wallace, in either the Sarawak or Ternate papers, supplied anything wanting in Darwin’s conceptual armamentarium. It takes nothing from the perspicacity of Wallace, or the import of his views for the world at large, to conclude, as do both Kohn and Kottler, that for Darwin, Wallace’s Ternate paper was an “intellectual non-event”.
When Wallace sent his paper, he asked Darwin to pass the paper on to Lyell. Darwin was much distressed by the paper, as it contained, he thought, his own views in miniature, even though more sober reflection revealed a number of differences in their formulations of the concept (Kottler, 1985; Shermer, 2003). Darwin passed the paper on to Lyell, not wanting to do anything unfair to Wallace, but at the same time not wanting his own 20 years’ work to go unrecognized.
Darwin was much distracted at this time by an outbreak of disease in his household, in which several fell ill, and his son Charles Waring died (his funeral was on July 1, the day the papers were read at Burlington House). Lyell and Hooker arranged for a reading of Wallace’s paper, along with an excerpt from Darwin’s Essay and a letter from Darwin to Asa Gray written in 1857, at the next meeting of the Linnean Society, which was on July 1. In presenting them, Lyell and Hooker arranged them, delicately perhaps, in chronological order (Burkhardt and Smith, 1991:107-128).
Darwin’s detractors argue that Darwin stole the principle of divergence when he received Wallace’s Ternate paper, that he lied about exactly when the manuscript and other of Wallace’s correspondence arrived, and that he destroyed letters to cover up his actions.
The first of these claims is, as we have already seen, belied by the fact that Darwin had by this time already formulated his principle of divergence. The second is based on the unproven assumption that Wallace’s letter was posted on March 9 (which would get it to London on about June 3). But as Shermer (2003:133) suggested, and van Wyhe and Rookmaaker (2012) have demonstrated, had it been posted on the April mail steamer, it would have arrived at Down House on June 18, precisely when Darwin said it did (Burkhardt and Smith, 1991:107-108). And, given that Wallace’s letter referred to a matter which he did not learn of till the arrival of the March 9 mail steamer, it is more likely that his manuscript and letter were posted on the April mail steamer ( van Wyhe and Rookmaaker, 2012). The third is based on unfamiliarity with the circumstances under which Darwin’s correspondence was saved and stored: Darwin used to routinely cut up his correspondence, saving relevant portions in topical folders, while discarding the rest, especially before 1862, and significant parts of what he did save were later lost to water damage (Kohn, 1981).
Finally, even if Darwin did not steal anything from Wallace, or lie about it, was it not unsavory to have Darwin’s excerpts published along with Wallace’s paper? Again, I think not. At the time of the arrival of Wallace’s paper, Darwin was well along writing Natural Selection (he suspended work on it, writing over the next year the ‘abstract’ that became the Origin.) Wallace did not ask that Darwin publish his paper, but that he should show it to Lyell. Darwin, had he wanted to be unfair to Wallace, could easily have read it, sent it on to Lyell, gotten it back, and then returned it to Wallace, with the advice that it was indeed worth publishing, and that if Wallace would revise and return it, he (Darwin) would submit it forthwith for publication. Given the delays involved in correspondence with the East Indies, it might have taken six months for such an exchange to occur (Raby, 2001), giving Darwin ample time to publish his views before Wallace. And if Darwin were so malicious, he could simply have not showed the letter and manuscript to anyone (Shermer, 2002: 132).
Lyell and Hooker’s actions in fact advanced the publication of Wallace’s views further than Wallace could have hoped. On the other hand, not to publish Darwin’s views at the same time would have been a grave injustice to Darwin, since Lyell and Hooker knew that Darwin had been working on the species problem for many years, and had a much more substantial, though incomplete, manuscript in hand. Had Wallace been published alone, and received sole credit for natural selection, it would be regarded today as a much more curious and unjust turn of events than what did transpire.
Simultaneous publication was a “win-win” situation for Darwin and Wallace (1). 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, over and over again, Wallace expresses his satisfaction and, indeed happiness, over the arrangements made by Hooker and Lyell (Shermer, 2003; van Wyhe, 2013). Wallace wrote home that their action “insures me the acquaintance of these eminent men on my return home” (Wallace, 1905, I:365). Later, Wallace (1908:193) wrote, “I not only approved, but felt that they had given me more honour and credit than I deserved.” After learning what had been done, Wallace wrote to Hooker (6 October 1858: Burkhardt and Smith, 1991:166):
Allow me in the first place sincerely to thank yourself & Sir Charles Lyell for your kind offices on this occasion, & to assure you of the gratification afforded me both by the course you have pursued, & the favourable opinions of my essay which you have so kindly expressed. I cannot but consider myself a favoured party in this matter, because it has hitherto been too much the practice in cases of this sort to impute all the merit to the first discoverer of a new fact or a new theory, & little or none to any other party who may, quite independently, have arrived at the same result a few years or a few hours later.
Note that Wallace expresses satisfaction at being recognized at all, since the convention of the day was that credit went to the first discoverer rather than the first publisher of the discovery.
Van Wyhe (2013) summarizes:
In fact, none of Wallace’s statements indicate any dissatisfaction or disappointment. They contain only disarming qualifications that the work before the public had not been checked by him in proof. We could not expect a clearer or more unguarded indication of how Wallace received the news of the arrangement than the letter to his mother after learning the news. He told her that “Dr. Hooker and Sir C. Lyell… thought so highly of it that they immediately read it before the Linnean Society”. They thought so highly of it they had it immediately read! And that’s that. No matter how many times Wallace said how happy he was with the Linnean arrangement (and we have many instances), and how much he thought he benefited more than he deserved, this does not deter some Wallace fans from feeling aggrieved. Indeed, given how overwhelmingly advantageous the joint publication was for Wallace, it is hard to see how he could have regarded it as anything but positive and fortunate — which is how he described it in all of his later recollections. Wallace remarked in 1903, “My connection with Darwin and his great work has helped to secure for my own writings on the same questions a full recognition by the press and the public; while my share in the origination and establishment of the theory of Natural Selection has usually been exaggerated.” “It was really a singular piece of good luck that gave to me any share whatever in the discovery.” He felt he had received “ample recognition by Darwin himself of my independent discovery of ‘natural selection’”. And in his autobiography, Wallace stated that he “obtained full credit for its independent discovery”.
In the event, there was little reaction to the Linnean Society papers. The Linnean Society president, the herpetologist Thomas Bell, (in)famously remarked about the Society’s activities for 1858-1859 that, “The year which has passed has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear”. It was Darwin’s glowing mention of Wallace on page one of the Origin, in which Darwin stated that Wallace had arrived at “the same general conclusions” in his “excellent memoir”, that firmly established Wallace as the co-discoverer of natural selection and a leading figure in the new evolutionary biology.
Although the circumstances of independent discovery could have led to an ugly dispute about priority, they did not. Both Darwin and Wallace realized the value and nature of each other’s contributions, and both were content to share credit with the other. Although they later differed on a number of issues (Kohn, 1985; Kottler 1985; Shermer 2002), they remained friends and colleagues for life, standing figuratively side by side, fighting together the intellectual battle for their theory of evolution by natural selection against its many and powerful foes.
(1) In a striking coincidence, entirely independently of my usage of “win-win” in my 2002 essay, Shermer (2002), used the exact same words to describe his own view of the circumstances of publication, and elaborated on the notion of science as a “plus-sum game”. He writes (p. 148) of Darwin and Wallace of “the special win-win nature of their relationship”; although I demurred at the suggestion, the editor of my essay proposed I entitle it “Darwin and Wallace: A “win-win” relationship”!
The preceding is adapted from a published paper (Mayer, 2002) which, in turn, was based on an earlier paper that was presented before the Malay Archipelago Reading Group of the Department of Zoology, University of Wisconsin, Madison. I am grateful to the members of that group, and especially Sher Hendrickson, for the opportunity to have done so, and for stimulating me to write the original essay. John Van Wyhe has kindly shared with me excerpts from his recent book and read and commented on this revision. Props to anyone who gets the Star Trek allusion in the title.
[Links are to Wallace Online (WO) and Darwin Online (DO).]
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