There has been some attention recently devoted to the “neglected” Alfred Russel Wallace. He was, of course, “neglected” to the point of being appointed to the Order of Merit, Britain’s highest honour, and getting credit in every good book about evolution. But I thought it worth spelling out here just how he prompted (or provoked) Charles Darwin into writing his masterpiece.
Alfred Russel Wallace was born in 1823. His background was very different from that of Charles Darwin, with no inherited wealth to rely on, and no illustrious scientific ancestors. He was the eighth out of nine children, the son of an unsuccessful solicitor, and had to leave school at thirteen to earn a living. After a year working for a joiner, he became an apprentice to his elder brother William, a land surveyor, and spent the years up to the age of twenty helping to survey‹d‹
railways, canals, and the land enclosures that were a hot political issue at the time. This took him out in the countryside and encouraged him to become a keen naturalist, who made his own observations and read avidly about the natural world.
In 1843, Wallace lost his job as the country was gripped by an economic recession, and he worked for a time as a schoolmaster, continuing to study natural history, and becoming friendly with a colleague, another eager amateur naturalist, Henry Bates. Among the books they read and discussed together were Malthus’ “Essay” and the infamous “Vestiges”, which set them thinking about evolution. They also read Lyell’s “Principles of Geology” and the new edition of Darwin’s “Journal”.
In 1847, Wallace decided to try his luck as a freelance naturalist in the New
World. There was a great demand for new specimens of all kinds both by private collectors and museums, and good prices would be paid for rare examples. Together with Bates, Wallace planned an expedition to the Amazon, first boning up on natural history at the British Museum, and seeking help from Sir William Hooker at Kew. They set sail in 1848, when Wallace was
25, three years older than Darwin had been when he departed on the“Beagle.”
More than four years spent exploring and collecting under difficult conditions gave Wallace the same sort of “hands on” knowledge of natural history that Darwin had gained some twenty years earlier; but disaster struck on his return voyage. The ship in which he was traveling was lost by fire, taking virtually all of his collection with it, and the crew and passengers were only rescued after ten days at sea in open boats. Wallace returned to England as penniless as when he had left, with no collection to sell, but armed with a much greater understanding of the natural world. Bates, who had stayed in South America, returned three years later, without any significant damage to his specimens.
Wallace stayed in England only long enough to regroup and plan another expedition, this time to southeast Asia. Darwin read some of Wallace’s published work, and was immediately impressed by what the thirty-year-old self-taught naturalist had to say about the extreme variability of species of butterflies in the Amazon valley. This led to an exchange of letters between Darwin and Wallace that continued intermittently over the next few years, while Wallace was naturalising in and around Borneo. It also led to Darwin becoming one of Wallace’s
customers, purchasing specimens from him, and sometimes complaining mildly in his private notes about the cost of having them shipped back to Britain.
He was eager for more specimens because hiss thoughts were concentrating once again on the species question. “From September 1854 onwards,” he wrote in his “Autobiography”, “I devoted all my time to arranging my huge pile of notes, to observing, and experimenting, in relation to the transmutation of species”.
Darwin’s solution to the problem of why speciation occurs was that “the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly developed places in the economy of nature”.
This was very much an idea of its time, in the first industrialised economy in the world. Division of labour and specialisation in the industrial world were familiar concepts to Darwin, both in the abstract and as a member, by blood and by marriage, of the Wedgwood clan whose fortunes were founded on the successful application of production-line factory techniques to their business. Any individual that could exploit a vacant niche in‹d‹ nature would be successful, Darwin realised, like an entrepreneur who identified a gap in the economic market place and moved in to it.
He was still reluctant to publish, but in April 1856 he at last confided in his mentor, Charles Lyell, when he visited Down House for a few days. This was no impulsive decision, but part of a careful broadening of the circle of colleagues with whom he could discuss evolution. In the same month, Darwin also sent invitations to Hooker, Huxley and Vernon Wollaston, a beetle expert from the British Museum, to attend a weekend gathering at Down House to thrash out ideas. Also invited, but unable to attend, was Hewett Watson, a botanist who had expressed evolutionary views, and who Darwin had already partially confided in. Lyell was informed of their discussions, and of the extent of Darwin’s theory.
Astonished, and far from being entirely convinced, Lyell wrote to his wife’s brother-in-law, the botanist Charles Bunbury, “I cannot easily see how they can go so far, and not embrace the whole Lamarckian doctrine”.
But of one thing he was certain — these ideas were too important to be restricted to discussions among a narrow circle of scientists meeting for the odd weekend at a country house in Kent. On 1 May, Lyell wrote to Darwin, urging him, in no uncertain terms, to publish. Like most modern scientists, Lyell was worried about establishing priority, proposing the idea of publishing just a brief paper so that Darwin could prove, if the theory did turn out to be correct, that he had come up with the idea before anyone else had. That was far from Darwin’s mind, partly because he genuinely was not greatly bothered about establishing his priority to the idea, and partly because he seems to have had a blind spot concerning the possibility of someone else coming up with the idea. He had sat on it now for nearly twenty years, and it seems never to have occurred to him that in all that time someone else might follow the same path that he had to the same conclusions. Nevertheless, the outcome of the April 1856 meetings in which he had at least slightly expanded the audience for those ideas was that, prompted by Lyell and encouraged by Hooker, he at last decided that he would publish. Not brief paper that could hardly do justice to the theory, but a proper book, a weighty scientific volume that might take him two years to complete. And he also spread his ideas still further afield, writing about them in a letter to Asa Gray, an American botanist with whom he corresponded, which provided just the kind of outline of the entire theory that Lyell had urged him to publish.
Perhaps because of his isolation in Down House and his reluctance to attend scientific meetings, Darwin seems to have been blind to the possibility that Wallace was on the same trail that he had followed, although he did take the
trouble to send Wallace a coded “hands off” message in a letter in May 1857, hoping to make his own position clear without giving his hand away, as well as commenting that “we have thought much alike and to a certain extent have come to similar conclusions”, he wrote:
This summer will make the 20th year (!) since I opened my first
note-book, on the question how and in what way do species and
varieties differ from each other. I am now preparing my work
for publication, but I find the subject so very large, that
though I have written many chapters, I do not suppose I shall go
to press for two years.
If the letter of May 1857 was intended as a “hands off” warning to Wallace, it did not succeed. Indeed, it had exactly the opposite effect. Cut off in the East Indies, Wallace was unaware that anyone had noticed his paper, and wrote back to Darwin indicating his intention of pressing on with his ideas. Responding in December 1857, Darwin stressed both his enthusiasm for Wallace’s work and the
high opinion his colleagues had of it. “I am extremely glad to hear that you are attending to distribution in accordance with theoretical ideas,” he said.
All of this rekindled Wallace’s enthusiasm, encouraging him to press on with his theorising.
Wallace’s letter to Darwin that arrived on 18 June 1858, containing the manuscript of a paper headed “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type”, asking Darwin to show it to Lyell and requesting their views on its contents, is often presented in the Darwin story as a bolt from the blue, a fully-fledged theory of evolution coming from an obscure and unfamiliar naturalist. In fact, Wallace was known to the scientific community in general, and very well known (at least as a correspondent) to Darwin, who had actively encouraged him to develop his theory! The pedigree for Wallace’s version of the theory was, indeed, at least as good as the pedigree Darwin’s theory would have had if he had published in 1844, when he would have been the same age (35) that Wallace was in 1858.
But it was too late to think about what might have been in 1844. After twenty years thinking about evolution, Darwin had been pre-empted. Wallace might have sent the paper direct to one of the learned journals, with consequences we can only guess at; what actually happened is that Darwin duly sent the paper on to Lyell, with an anguished covering letter.
Your words have come true with a vengeance — that I should be
forestalled . . . I never saw a more striking coincidence; if
Wallace had my MS sketch written out in 1842, he could not have
made a better short abstract! . . . He does not say he
wishes me to publish [his paper], but I shall, of course, at
once write and offer to send it to any journal. So all my
originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed, though
my book, if it will ever have any value, will not be
deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of
Lyell, in consultation with Hooker, came up with a happy compromise. A meeting of the Linnean Society was due to be held on 1 July. Brushing aside Darwin’s doubts that it might not be quite the gentlemanly thing to do, they arranged for a joint presentation at that meeting of Wallace’s paper, Darwin’s 1844 outline of his theory, and the letter to Asa Gray from 1857, which helped to establish Darwin’s prior claim. Darwin himself could not attend the meeting. It is unlikely that he would have done so anyway, but the death of his baby son on 28 June, followed by his burial and the evacuation of the other children to stay with Emma’s sister Elizabeth on 2 July, made any trips to London out of the question.
The presentation of the evolution theory at the meeting on 1 July caused only a minor stir. The cat was out of the bag at last, but nobody seemed unduly bothered. It was the last meeting before the summer break, six papers in all were presented to the meeting, and there was important Society business to attend to. Even so, it comes as something of a surprise to a modern reader to find that
almost a year later, on 24 May 1859 (the anniversary of the birth of Linnaeus), the President of the Linnean Society summed up the events of the past twelve months with the comment:
The year which has passed . . . has not, indeed, been marked
by any of those striking discoveries which at once
revolutionise, so to speak, the department of science on which
Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, Zoologyï,
volume IV, page viii, 1860.
Before the year was out, he must have wished he had never made that
Even when the “joint paper” by Wallace and Darwin was published in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, it received only a muted, and largely negative, response. The reaction of Samuel Houghton, addressing the Geological Society of Dublin in February 1859 is not untypical. He suggested that the only reason anybody had taken any notice of the joint paper was because of: the weight of authority of the names [Lyell and Hooker] under whose auspices it has been brought forward. If it means what it says, it is a truism; if it means anything more, it is contrary to fact.
But by the time those words were spoken Darwin’s masterwork was
almost ready for publication.
Prompted by the fear of being further pre-empted by a book from Wallace (in fact, Wallace gave up any plans to write such a book after the publication of the Origin), in the summer of 1858 Darwin began serious work on what he intended to be an “abstract” of his great book on Natural Selection. At first, he intended this to be a substantial scientific paper; by the autumn, he had realised that he would need a small book to contain everything he had to say. In the end, it turned out to be quite a large book, running to more than 150,000 words.
Even when Darwin began discussing the book with its eventual publisher, John Murray, his working title was still An Abstract of an Essay on the Origin of Species and Varieties through Natural Selection; at Murray’s prompting, by the time it was published in November 1859 the title had been slimmed down to On the Origin of
Species, with the words by Means of Natural Selection in smaller type, followed by a typical Darwin afterthought or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. No matter how Darwin might have wished to explain everything in the title alone, though, it has always been known simply as the Origin.
Nobody involved expected the book to be a commercial success. Murray initially planned to print 500 copies, but increased this to 1250 once he saw the finished work. In the event, the booksellers subscribed for 1500 copies (so although it was not sold out on the day of publication, as folklore claims, every copy was in the shops) and an immediate reprint (actually a second edition, since Darwin was still tinkering with the text) was immediately set in motion.