The Wallace Letter Section
Darwin’s work eventually led him into a corresponding relationship with the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who was working in the islands of the South Pacific and Indonesia. At the time, Wallace had become one of Darwin’s providers of natural history specimens.
On the morning of June 18, 1858, the arrival of one letter launched Darwin into the realm of no return. The work was progressing, but this letter caused an explosion in Darwin’s life. Darwin records in his autobiography: “But my plans were overthrown, for in the early summer of 1858 Mr. Wallace, who was then in the Malay archipelago, sent me an essay On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type; and this essay contained exactly the same theory as mine. Mr. Wallace expressed the wish that if I thought well of the essay, I should send it to Lyell for perusal.”27
Wallace had essentially composed the very same theory as Darwin. To the best of his knowledge, Darwin had never disclosed to Wallace any aspects of the theory he was developing. Darwin was shaken to the core. In his Tendency of Varieties, Wallace arrived at the same conclusion as Darwin “that there is a general principle in nature which will cause many varieties to survive the parent species, and to give rise to successive variations departing further and further from the original type.”28
Darwin was stunned. Wallace had actually sent the letter to Darwin for passing on the paper to Lyell for presentation at the next Linnean Society meeting. Wallace, acting in good faith, was hoping that Darwin would personally lend support by introducing the letter to Lyell. Darwin could not let his friend down, but now Darwin’s theory was in serious jeopardy of being superseded.
On the very same day, June 18, 1858, Darwin quickly sent a letter to Lyell realizing that even though his own originality would be lost, Darwin recommended that Wallace’s paper should be accepted. Darwin wrote:
My dear Lyell, Some year or so ago you recommended me to read a paper by Wallace in the Annals, which had interested you, and, as I was writing to him, I knew this would please him much, so I told him. He has to-day sent me the enclosed and asked me to forward it to you. It seems to me well worth reading. Your words have come through with a vengeance – that I should be forestalled. You said this, when I explained to you here very briefly my views of Natural Selection depending on the struggle for existence. I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my MS, sketch written in 1842, he could have made a better short abstract. Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters. Please return me the MS [manuscript], which he does not say he wishes me to publish, but I shall of course, at once write and offer to send 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 the theory. I hope you will approve of Wallace’s sketch, that I may tell him what you say. My dear Lyell, yours most truly, C. Darwin.29
Now Darwin even doubted whether he should make his views public at all, for fear of being accused of copying Wallace. In a demonstration of his character, Darwin confides, “I would far rather burn my whole book, than that he or any other man should think that I have behaved in a paltry spirit.”30
Concepts of evolution were “in the air.” The intellectual avant-garde was in full swing. Speculative theories were enjoying wide currency and extending the enlightenment of intellectuals of Europe, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.
Through a series of fateful events, Lyell and Hooker intervened. They sent to the Linnean Society not only Wallace’s manuscript but also abstracts from Darwin’s 1844 Essay and an excerpt from a September 5, 1857, letter Darwin had recently written to Asa Gray, which were published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society in 1858.
Wallace and Darwin’s papers were jointly read by Lyell and Hooker to the Linnean Society, in London, on August 20, 1858. Neither Darwin nor Wallace was present for the reading. Darwin was at home with his son, who was dying of scarlet fever, and was too distraught to attend. Wallace was in the Far East. The paper was entitled On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.
The reading brought only a brief mention in a small review. Darwin recalls only one review written by Professor Haughton of Dublin: “Our joint productions excited very little attention, and the only published notice of them which I can remember was by Professor Haughton of Dublin, whose verdict was that all that was new in them was false, and what was true was old.”31
Even though evolution was “in the air,” neither evolution nor the theory of natural selection was popular even among Darwin’s closest colleagues at the time. Darwin recalls that even “Lyell and Hooker, though they would listen with interest to me, never seemed to agree. I tried once or twice to explain to able men what I meant by Natural Selection, but signally failed.”32
Over time, the collegial comrade between Darwin and Wallace has come to stand as one of the finest examples of collaboration in the history of science. In a letter to Wallace in 1870, Darwin confided, “I hope it is a satisfaction to you to reflect—and very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me—that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in one sense rivals. I believe that I can say of myself with truth, and I am absolutely sure that it is true of you.”33 Eventually, Wallace was one of Darwin’s pallbearers.
Years later in 1903, the editor of Black and White asked Wallace to write an essay on his relationship with Darwin. Wallace gave Darwin credit for the theory of natural selection. Wallace considers his major contribution was to compel Darwin to publish. Wallace explains, “In conclusion, I would only wish to add, that my connection with Darwin and his great work has helped to secure for my own writings on the same questions a full recognition by the press and the public; while my share in the origination and establishment of the theory of Natural Selection has usually been exaggerated. The one great result which I claim for my paper of 1858 is that it compelled Darwin to write and publish his Origin of Species without further delay.”34
For the next thirteen months, Darwin worked more intensely than ever to publish what was originally intended to be an abstract of his “big book on species.” Never had Darwin worked with such intensity, and the work began to take a toll on Darwin’s health, again. Just less than two weeks before publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin described his condition to his cousin Fox in a letter, stating “I have had a series of calamities; first a sprained ankle, and then badly swollen whole leg and face; much rash and a frightful succession of Boils—4 or 5 at once. I have felt quite ill—and have little faith in this “unique crisis” as the Doctor calls it, doing me much good. I cannot now walk a step from bad boil on knee.”35
Emma was concerned about the effect of the stress on Darwin. Emma wrote to Darwin, “I am sure you know I love you well enough to believe that I mind your sufferings, nearly as much as I should my own, and I find the only relief to my own mind is to take it as from God’s hand, and to try to believe that all suffering and illness is meant to help us to exalt our minds and to look forward with hope to a future state. When I see your patience, deep compassion for others, and above all for the smallest thing done to help you, I cannot help longing that these precious feelings should be offered to Heaven for the sake of your daily happiness.”36