Darwin’s Worst Nightmare Part III: Conclusion of a Colossal Coincidence

If you’ve been following along, you know I’ve been detailing the event of “Darwin’s Worst Nightmare” as it unfolded in real time in 1858. First, he received a letter that rocked his world (not in a good way), then he asked his friends to spring into action and help him preserve his scientific priority. Today, July 1st, marks the final step of Darwin’s nightmare saga (sort of).

Recap: scientific priority and desperation

You will recall that Darwin reached out to his two closest friends, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, to advise him on what to do about the fact that Alfred Russel Wallace had stumbled upon the precise idea that Darwin had been formulating for twenty years: evolution through natural selection. Despite warnings from these friends, Darwin had failed to publish his ideas, instead spending decades refining and accumulating evidence. This meant that when Wallace’s manuscript landed in Darwin’s hands, he could lose his priority, and the idea would forever end up linked to Wallace–despite all Darwin’s hard work. 800px-charles_darwin_01

So what to do? When we left off, Darwin asked Lyell and Hooker their opinion–should Darwin go ahead and publish a short sketch of his idea very quickly? This was ethically questionable because it took advantage of the fact that Wallace was far away, in the remote jungles of the Malay Archipelago, collecting butterflies with no chance to throw in his two cents or defend himself. Darwin himself could not decide if going ahead and publishing quickly–before Wallace came back–would be “honorable” or not. On June 26th, Darwin had told Hooker he would “do anything” Hooker and Lyell suggested to save his priority.

Friends in the right places

Indeed, Darwin had asked for help from the right people. Hooker and Lyell sprung into action, quickly deciding that the best thing to do would be to present both Darwin and Wallace’s short papers at a scientific society meeting as quickly as possible. This way, the papers would be read aloud at the meeting, and then printed in the society’s journal side by side. Then, Darwin could go on a publish a longer version of his argument in book form (quickly). This was as “fair” a solution as they could decipher.

But which society? The Royal Society was one option, but would it be able to accommodate their request quickly? Speed was of the essence so that Darwin could get a little peace, claim at least partial priority rights, and start in on his book. The Royal Society probably didn’t have the turn around time they needed. Instead, they reached out to a society where they had a friend on the inside. The Linnean Society had a meeting planned for July 1st, and fortunately, Lyell’s next door neighbor was the undersecretary of the society. His name was George Busk, and he was partially responsible for selecting papers that would be read at the meeting. Though we don’t know for sure (any letters exchanged have been lost) my guess is that Lyell called on Busk for a personal favor to slip the Darwin and Wallace papers in last minute.


George Busk

The presentation of a very ingenious theory

So, thanks to Lyell, Hooker, and Busk, two very important papers were read aloud at the July 1, 1858 meeting of the Linnean Society. It was a small affair, with Busk probably the man who read the papers aloud, communicating them to a small gathering of scientific men. Darwin himself was not present. The papers had been formally submitted–or “communicated”–to the society through Hooker and Lyell. They had led the submission with this honest note:

The accompanying papers, which we have the honour of communicating to the Linnean Society, and which all relate to the same subject, viz. the Laws which affect the Production of Varieties, Races, and Species, contain the results of the investigations of two indefatigable naturalists, Mr. Charles Darwin and Mr. Alfred Wallace.

These gentlemen having, independently and unknown to one another, conceived the same very ingenious theory to account for the appearance and perpetuation of varieties and of specific forms on our planet, may both fairly claim the merit of being original thinkers in this important line of inquiry; but neither of them having published his views, though Mr. Darwin has for many years past been repeatedly urged by us to do so, and both authors having now unreservedly placed their papers in our hands, we think it would best promote the interests of science that a selection from them should be laid before the Linnean Society.

At the meeting, Darwin’s paper was read first, “On the Variation of Organic Beings in a state of Nature; on the Natural Means of Selection; on the Comparison of Domestic Races and true Species.” Wallace’s was read next, “On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type.” Multiple hints were dropped that Darwin had come across the idea first, including a reference to his 1844 paper and his letter to Asa Gray about it. The papers as they were presented in the meeting can be read in their entirety here (a truly fascinating read).

So there it was, a sly solution. The two men’s papers were presented together, along with the hint that Darwin had come to it first. The presentation would be cemented in print by August, allowing Darwin and Wallace to both claim partial priority for the idea of evolution through natural selection (though Darwin perhaps a little more priority).

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In hindsight, this was the first drop of a giant bomb that would rock the scientific world, but at the time, that was less clear. The tone was of the papers was understated, the reader of the papers was probably dull (indeed, Busk was famous for being quite dull), and the president of the society later remarked 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 wouldn’t be until the following year that Darwin would publish his landmark Origin of Species (November 1859). All the while, Wallace was still completely oblivious, working in the remote jungles, trying to avoid malaria and collect butterflies.

Conclusion + remaining questions

If you’ve been following along, you’ll notice that this entire episode unfolded rather quickly, beginning on June 18th, and resolving on July 1st. This may not sound rapid in the era of instant communication and interwebs, but in 1858–with snail mail and the complexities of scientific societies–this was quite speedy.  This rapid pace shows how important this issue was to Darwin and his friends. It was something they wanted to resolve as quickly as possible.

But what of Wallace? He had no say in any of this, he was completely oblivious. Only when he returned from the archipelago years later did he learn what had happened. Was he upset? Did he feel robbed? Or was he grateful that scientific men valued his theory? We don’t know, honestly, Wallace never really said much on the issue. He did become, however, a lifelong correspondent and friend or Darwin’s, and was incredibly loyal to him throughout his life–even publishing a book titled Darwinism.


Alfred Russel Wallace

Lastly, the question that lingers in many minds is: was this honorable? Did Darwin act in an honorable, ethical way? This is a tough question to answer and historians have scrutinized this issue over the years. Some questioned Darwin’s timeline of when he received Wallace’s letter, even suggesting Darwin lied about how long he had Wallace’s paper–and plagiarized parts of it before turning it over to Lyell. Though most historians wouldn’t go quite that far to say Darwin plagiarized, questions of his honorability remain.

It’s hard to know what really happened, and questions of scientific priority are troubling and complicated. It is understandable that Darwin didn’t want to see his life’s work slip away, right? As historians, it is not our job to pass judgment on our historical subjects, as they were just imperfect humans living in a given place and time trying to make the best with what they had. That said, I do find it interesting to wonder what really went down. Science writer David Quammen wrapped this issue up well in his book on Wallace, stating “Darwin himself had behaved weakly and selfishly at best; how we may have behaved at worst, we don’t know.”

As I see it, the important thing to take away here is not a judgment of Darwin or a pity of Wallace necessarily. Instead, as Quammen argues, the important message is that “amid all the uncertainty and the dark suppositions, at least this part of the conventional version is correct: It was the aftermath of a whopping coincidence.” These two men stumbled upon the same idea despite living somewhat different lives and only knowing eachother in passing. That is truly amazing.

This brings us to the conclusion of Darwin’s Worst Nightmare. He came out relatively unscathed if a little shaken. The rest is history, as they say. On the Origin of Species was published the following year, forever cementing Darwin as a legendary figure in the history of science. Thanks for following along this three part blog series, and please let me know in the comments what you think. Was Darwin wrong? Was Wallace abused? Is there anything we can do today to reconstruct a more balanced historical narrative?

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