Murdering Their Child: Wallace, Darwin, and Human Origins

A.R. Wallace

A.R. Wallace

Wallace and Darwin

Alfred Russel Wallace was truly a fascinating man. His story is made up of travels and shipwrecks, but also hardship and friendship. But mostly, Wallace just loved nature. As many of you know, while researching biogeography in the Malay Archipelago, Wallace came up with a very similar theory to Darwin’s natural selection. Wallace sent Darwin a paper of his theory, without knowing that Darwin was working on the same topic (and had been–quietly–for twenty years). The story has been told many times before, but essentially the two naturalists worked together from that point forth (which speaks to Wallace’s character, as Darwin got all the fame, even during their lifetimes). However, Darwin and Wallace disagreed about one key aspect of their theory: human evolution.

Human Origins: The Brain as an Exception

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Wallace and Darwin’s disagreement over the evolution of humans peaked in 1869, with a publication in the Quarterly Review. For this publication, Wallace reviewed Charles Lyell’s latest book which included his thoughts on evolution. Wallace and Darwin discussed the review long before it was published, with Wallace warning Darwin that he ventures “for the first time on some limitations to the power of natural selection.” Wallace also admitted his fears that Darwin and Huxley would find his arguments “weak & unphilosophical.” The limitation, for Wallace, was the ability for natural selection to create human intellect. In the Quarterly article, Wallace argued that the human brain, including aspects such as language and advanced reasoning could not be explained through natural selection. Rather, Wallace argued, these features emerged through “a Power which has guided the action of [natural] laws in definite directions and for special ends.”

Murdering the Child: Darwin’s Disagreement

A Chimp from Wallace's 1889 book.

A Chimp from Wallace’s 1889 book.

Darwin did not agree. Darwin felt that evolution only worked if it applied to everything. For Darwin, making an exception for the brain could crumble the whole theory. Following Wallace’s warning that he had admitted limitations, Darwin wrote to Wallace “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own & my child” (referring to the entire theory of natural selection). When the review was published, Darwin was not happy. In the margin of his copy, Darwin wrote “NO!!!” He then responded to Wallace expressing his surprise, stating “if you had not told me I should have thought that they had been added by someone else.” Darwin then confirmed Wallace’s fears: “as you expected, I differ grievously from you, and I am very sorry for it.”


Despite their divergence on human evolution, Wallace and Darwin remained good friends throughout their lives. I find Wallace’s story interesting because he was certainly not the only Victorian naturalist struggling with human evolution. Importantly, Wallace’s difficulties with the evolution of the human brain were not religious, he–along with many others–just could not fathom the idea that things as complex as the mind and the human spirit could have evolved through natural selection. For more on Wallace, check out his correspondence project website, which has a great mini biography. For the historians, the review is: Wallace, Alfred Russel. “Sir Charles Lyell on geological climates and the origin of species.” Quarterly Review 126 (1869): 359-94. And further readings include Michael Flannery’s Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life and David Quammen’s The song of the dodo.

The letter: Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6684,” accessed on 27 March 2016,

3 thoughts on “Murdering Their Child: Wallace, Darwin, and Human Origins

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #30 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #17 | Whewell's Ghost

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