June 18th, 1858 was a rough day for Charles Darwin. On that day, he saw his worst nightmare unfold right in front of his eyes. “All my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed,” he wrote to a friend, fearing that his life’s work had collapsed. What caused this moment of panic? A letter had arrived from a remote jungle in the Malay Archipelago, written by a man Darwin hardly knew.
Let’s set the scene. Darwin is sitting at his home library in Downe, southeast of London, working away on his magnum opus–a “big book” on evolution through natural selection. He has been chipping away at this work for over 20 years, originally becoming inspired to write it after returning from his voyage around the world. It was a big idea, natural selection, and he wanted to get every detail right. This was the kind of idea that would face mass criticism, and possibly upset a good number of people –the last thing Darwin wanted to do was rush it. Only a few friends knew about this work. The first time Darwin revealed it to a friend in 1844, he had admitted it felt “like confessing a murder.” Species are not fixed. They change over time.
On June 18th, while sitting in his library, Darwin likely saw the mailman coming up the drive. He had installed a mirror on the side of the house, allowing him to see the carrier arriving. The mail was important to him, writing allowed him to collect information for his big book and he wrote an average of 18 letters a day. On this day, something incredibly shocking was to be delivered, a paper by a little-known known collector named Alfred Russel Wallace.
Wallace was a man who was very different from Darwin. He didn’t have Darwin’s Cambridge education and instead of Darwin’s wealthy lifestyle (which freed him from work and allowed him to ponder scientific questions) Wallace was a collector who had spent much of the past decade in jungles, catching birds and butterflies. After collecting specimens, Wallace would ship the exotic creatures from far away lands back to London. It was a way to make a living –if you were willing to put up with malaria and other constant dangers. Somehow, while collecting in the jungles of what is now Indonesia, Wallace landed on precisely the same idea Darwin had been working on for twenty years.
“I never saw a more striking coincidence,” Darwin wrote after reading Wallace’s paper. He was completely struck by the similarities. Darwin had once written a short sketch on natural selection, and he declared that if Wallace had read that sketch “he could not have made a better short abstract” (of course Wallace had not read it–it was safely tucked away, unpublished in Darwin’s desk drawer).
Darwin had been warned that something like this might happen, his few friends that knew his secret had begged him to publish on his big idea. In science, publishing is the only true way to stake a claim. If someone else publishes first, they receive credit for the idea forever. This was a big claim, Darwin’s friend Charles Lyell had warned him, one that Darwin shouldn’t let slip away. Not after all decades of hard work. On June 18th, Darwin realized how right Lyell had been.
Coincidently, Wallace had sent Darwin the paper asking him to send it to Lyell. If Darwin thought the paper was worthwhile, he was to pass it on, for Lyell was much too big of a scientist for Wallace to approach directly. Of course, Wallace had no idea what he had just done, he was blissfully collecting butterflies in New Guinea. He–like most of the rest of the world–had no idea that Darwin had been stewing on natural selection since the late 1830s. Thus, Darwin was able to mail Wallace’s paper to one of the great 19th century scientists, but also one of the few who knew what this meant.
So Darwin did as he was told–more or less (more on this later)–writing to Lyell, the exact man who had begged him to publish years earlier, with his tail between his legs. “Your words have come true with a vengeance,” Darwin wrote. Darwin tried to put on his best face, telling Lyell “I hope you will approve of Wallace’s sketch, that I may tell him what you say.” It was a fascinating coincidence, as science writer David Quammen put it in his wonderful book on Wallace: “two men, on opposite sides of the world, had made the same great discovery at the same time. All they had shared was a language, a sense of the question to be answered, a chance to travel, a willingness to exchange letters, a passing familiarity with Malthus, and an appreciation of the significance of island biogeography.”
So today, Wallace accidentally awoke Darwin from his procrastination slumber. More accurately, Darwin was less of a procrastinator and more of a careful man who wanted to have all the evidence collected before he published. But either way, he was awoken. What happened next? In the next installment of Darwin’s Worst Nightmare, we will see how Lyell responded to Darwin’s crisis. In the meantime, check out Darwin’s June 18th letter to Wallace on the Darwin Correspondance Project!