On this date, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker presented papers by both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace on the theory of evolution by natural selection at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London, England. The so-called Darwin-Wallace 1858 Evolution Paper was later published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, Zoology, on August 20th of the same year.
The events that lead up to this momentous occasion had actually begun many years earlier:
After a voyage around the world aboard H.M.S. Beagle (1831 until 1836), Darwin had settled in Cambridge and London to process his specimens, to arrange for the description of his newly found plants and animals, to write about his voyage, and to marry (in 1839) his first cousin Emma Wedgwood. In 1837 he began a “Notebook on Transmutation of Species”, and his 1838 reading of Thomas Malthus’ (1766-1834) Essay on the Principle of Population crystallized many of his ideas into a coherent hypothesis. The importance of the observations he made aboard the Beagle began to make an impact.
In 1842, while Wallace was studying botany, Darwin wrote a “Sketch” on natural selection which he revised and had copied in 1844 (and retitled “Essay”). In January 1847, Darwin handed his friend Joseph Hooker, a fellow naturalist, a copy of the 231 page manuscript to read and comment upon. Hooker was not immediately impressed with Darwin’s hypothesis. He essentially made no comment. Hooker was the only naturalist to whom Darwin had shown a copy of his “Essay” and without Hooker’s full support, Darwin was unwilling to move forward, especially given the reactions to the anonymously published book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, written, we now know, by Robert Chambers.
In 1848, Wallace sailed to the Amazon and in 1854, he traveled to the Malay Archipelago, where he looked specifically for evidence that related species found in both the Amazon Basin and on the Archipelago. If he could find evidence that closely related species were found in widely dispersed regions of the world, this might bring into question the idea that each species was created independently.
In 1855 Wallace published a cryptic note in guarded language entitled “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species” in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History. Here he maintained that new species arose from related, pre-existing species. Darwin did not fully comprehend what Wallace was saying and considered him to be a “creationist” but the geologist Charles Lyell, another friend of Darwin’s, had realized what Wallace had in mind. When Lyell visited Darwin shortly thereafter, Darwin discussed his “Essay” and Lyell urged him, in May of 1856, to publish immediately to establish priority.
But Darwin ignored Lyell’s advice, instead continuing to work on his “Essay”. By March of 1858, Darwin’s manuscript consisted of ten chapters and amounted to some 250,000 words.
Meanwhile, in February of 1858, while on the island of Halmahera (then called “Gilolo”) in the Moluccas, Wallace was bed-ridden and suffering from an attack of malaria. Ill and fevered, he suddenly realized the importance of Malthus’ observations on populations, and drafted his ideas on “the survival of the fittest” during a single evening. He worked over the draft the next two evenings with the idea of sending it to Darwin. On 9 March 1858 he mailed his letter by mail-boat from the island of Ternate with the request that if Darwin thought the ideas worthy that he send the letter on to Lyell.
After receiving Wallace’s letter, Darwin began composing this now-famous letter to Lyell dated 18 June:
Some year or so ago, you recommended me to read a paper by Wallace in the Annals, which had interested you & 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 & asked me to forward it to you. It seems to me well worth reading. Your words have come true with a vengeance that I shd. 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 M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my Chapters.
Please return me the M.S. which he does not say he wishes me to publish; but I shall of course at once write & 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.
In a subsequent letter to Lyell dated 25 June, Darwin noted that Hooker had seen his 1844 “Essay” and the American botanist, Asa Gray (1810-1888), had been sent a long abstract in 1857:
I am very sorry to trouble you, busy as you are, in so merely personal an affair. But if you will give me your deliberate opinion, you will do me as great a service, as ever man did, for I have entire confidence in your judgment & honour.-
I shd. not have sent off your letter without further reflexion [sic, reflection], for I am at present quite upset, but write now to get subject for time out of mind. But I confess it never did occur to me, as it ought, that Wallace could have made any use of your letter.
There is nothing in Wallace’s sketch which is not written out much fuller in my sketch copied in 1844, & read by Hooker some dozen years ago. About a year ago I sent a short sketch of which I have copy of my views (owing to correspondence on several points) to Asa Gray, so that I could most truly say and prove that I take nothing from Wallace. I should be extremely glad now to publish a sketch of my general views in about a dozen pages or so. But I cannot persuade myself that I can do so honourably. Wallace says nothing about publication, & I enclose his letter.-But as I had not intended to publish any sketch, can I do so honourably because Wallace has sent me an outline of his doctrine–I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man shd. think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit. Do you not think his having sent me this sketch ties my hands- I do not in least believe that that he originated his views from anything which I wrote to him.
If I could honourably publish I would state that I was induced now to publish a sketch (& I shd. be very glad to be permitted to say to follow your advice long ago given) from Wallace having sent me an outline of my general conclusions.-We differ only, that I was led to my views from what artificial selection has done for domestic animals. I could send Wallace a copy of my letter to Asa Gray to show him that I had not stolen his doctrine. But I cannot tell whether to publish noew would not be base & paltry: this was my first impression, & I shd. have certainly acted on it, had it not been for your letter.-
this is a trumpery affair to trouble you with; but you cannot tell how much obliged I shd. be for your advice.-
By the way would you object to send this & your answer to Hooker to be forwarded to me, for then I shall have the opinion of my two best & kindest friends.-This letter is miserably written & I write it now, that I may for time banish [the] whole subject. And I am worn out with musing.
I fear we have case of scarlet-fever in House with Baby.-Etty is weak but is recovering.-
My good dear friend forgive me.-This is a trumpery letter influenced by trumpery feelings.
The next day, Darwin added an extended postscript:
Forgive me for adding P.S. to make the case as strong as possible against myself. Wallace might say “you did not intend publishing an abstract of your views till you received my communication, is it fair to take advantage of my having freely, though unasked, communicated to you my ideas, & thus prevent me forestalling you-” The advantage which I should take being that I am induced to publish from privately knowing that Wallace is in the field. It seems hard on me that I should be thus compelled to lose my priority of many years standing, but I cannot feel at all sure that this alters the justice of the case. First impressions are generally right & I at first thought it wd. be dishonourable in me now to publish.- – I have always thought you would have made a first-rate Lord Chancellor; & I now appeal to you as a Lord Chancellor
Lyell and Hooker conferred. Lyell’s proposal was that some portion of Darwin’s past work be added to Wallace’s letter, and their contributions combined into a single publication. In view of Darwin’s own remarks about his “Essay” and letter to Gray, Hooker sent a note to Darwin asking for a copy of the Gray letter to which he proposed to add a section from Darwin’s “Essay.”
When the note from Hooker arrived the morning of the 29th, Darwin was in the midst of arranging to bury his son, Charles Waring Darwin, who had died from scarlet fever on the 28th. He wrote back immediately that he just could not “think” about the subject, but that same evening, Darwin wrote to Hooker again:
I have just read your letter, & see you want papers at once. I am quite prostrated & can do nothing but I send Wallace & my abstract of abstract of letter to Asa Gray, which gives most imperfectly only the means of change & does not touch on reasons for believing species do change. I daresay all is too late. I hardly care about it.-
But you are too generous to sacrifice so much time & kindness.-It is most generous, most kind, I send sketch of 1844 solely that you may see by your own handwriting that you did read it.-
I really cannot bear to look at it.-Do not waste much time. It is miserable in me to care at all about priority.-
The table of contents will show what it is. I would make a similar, but shorter & more accurate sketch for Linnean Journal.-I will do anything
God Bless you my dear kind friend. I can write no more. I send this by servant to Kew.
With Wallace’s and Gray’s letter and the 1844 “Essay” in hand, Lyell and Hooker wrote an introductory note on 30 June and arranged to have the paper read the following evening at a meeting of the Linnean Society. To thirty-some members of the Society, the Darwin-Wallace paper was read by under-secretary George Busk. Essentially no one was impressed even though both Lyell and Hooker were in attendance.
In fact, the then President of the Linnean Society later remarked that the meetings of 1858 had not “been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, [our] department of science.”
Years later, in 1887, Hooker provided a recollection of the meeting to Francis Darwin:
The interest excited was intense, but the subject was too novel and too ominous for the old school to enter the lists, before armouring [sic, armoring]. After the meeting it was talked over with bated breath: Lyell’s approval, and perhaps in a small way mine, as his lieutenant in the affair, rather overawed the Fellows, who would otherwise have flown out against the doctrine.
On 24 November 1859, The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin went on sale and sold out immediately. It was greeted by a variety of widely different opinions. While the year 1858 might not have “been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize” biology, the same can not be said of 1859.
- Survival of the Fittest: Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution. B. Gardiner, R. Milner & M. Morris (eds). (Special issues of The Linnean 9. 2008).