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 1858. First, Darwin 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 Alfred Russel Wallace having stumbled upon the idea that Darwin had been formulating for twenty years: evolution through natural selection. Despite warnings from his closest friends, Darwin had failed to publish his ideas during these twenty years, spending decades refining and accumulating evidence. When Wallace’s manuscript landed in Darwin’s hands, then, he faced the possibility of losing priority for his big idea, an idea that could instead be forever linked to Wallace. 800px-charles_darwin_01

So what to do? When we left off, Darwin had asked Lyell and Hooker their opinion–should he go ahead and publish a short sketch of his idea? 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

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. The papers would be read aloud at the meeting and then printed in the society’s journal side by side. Afterward, Darwin could go on a publish a longer version of his argument in book form. This was as “fair” a solution as they could decipher.

But which society? Who would 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. 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. With Busk’s help, the papers could be presented within a couple weeks of Darwin first receiving Wallace’s letter.


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, Busk probably read the papers aloud to the small gathering of scientific men. Darwin himself was not present. Nor was Wallace. 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 fascinating read).

So there it was, a 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.

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

Conclusion: was it honorable?

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 have questioned Darwin’s timeline of when he received Wallace’s letter. The most extreme historians have suggested that Darwin lied about how long he had Wallace’s paper–and that he even plagiarized parts of it before turning it over to Lyell. Though most historians wouldn’t go quite that far, questions of his honorability remain.

It’s hard to know what really happened, and questions of scientific priority are often troubling and complicated. It is understandable that Darwin didn’t want to see his life’s work slip away, right? 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 each other 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, On the Origin of Species was published the following year, forever cementing Darwin as a legendary figure in the history of science.

One thought on “Darwin’s Worst Nightmare Part III: Conclusion of a Colossal Coincidence

  1. I think people beat up Darwin over this because it’s fun to be revisionist. The obsession to give credit to the one first to publish is the real problem. Darwin appropriately gets primary credit for natural and sexual selection as he did far more work than Wallace. Publishing simultaneously was a fair way to handle the issue.

    Interesting thought experiment: what if Wallace mailed someone besides Darwin who didn’t know Darwin’s theory and got published separately and first, and then Darwin came out a year later with Origins? Probably a lot of acrimonious counterclaims would’ve happened. This all was a lucky coincidence that avoided that fate.


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