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What prompted Charles Darwin to publish his theory of evolution?

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Charles Darwin spent five years on scientific survey ship HMS Beagle, returning to England in 1836 and by 1838 he was beginning to formulate his natural selection theory. Yet it was not until 1859, after two decades of gestation and hesitation, that his transformative theory of evolution was published. Why?

After his return to the UK, Darwin had the framework of his theory of natural selection by which to work. His research included extensive experimental selective breeding of plants and animals, finding evidence that species were not fixed and investigating many detailed ideas to refine and substantiate his theory. However, for fifteen years this work remained in the background to his main occupation of writing on geology and publishing expert reports on the Beagle collections. By 1854 Darwin had finished work on a project about barnacles and was ready to publish on the subject of evolution. Botanist Joseph Hooker, a frequent guest at Darwin's Down House and a stalwart of his correspondence, was completely convinced. Even Darwin’s geological hero, Charles Lyell, could see the strength of Darwin’s theory and, in 1856, he warned that there were other scientists thinking about the origin of the species, and they might claim the glory. It was time to publish; time to release his theory to the world.

Two years later, in 1858, Darwin, now aged 49, was still faltering. No short article had appeared; instead, stubbornly, he was bent on compiling an enormous work – a multi-volume project that looked set to occupy him for years. Then, in June 1858, a crisis intervened which caused an acceleration of his plans and put him into the hands of John Murray, one of the nation’s most accomplished and efficient publishers.

The drama began with crushing force. One morning Darwin opened a letter postmarked as coming from the Malay Archipelago. Inside he found an essay about the origin of species. It was entitled, ‘On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type’. The author was a collector he knew slightly: Alfred Russel Wallace. The title alone was alarming enough to a man who thought he had a monopoly on the proper study of evolution. The text, however, was stunning. Word for word, it seemed, Wallace had laid out the principles of Darwin’s ideas. The implications were clear and they were horrifying. Wallace had written an article on natural selection, ready for publication, while Darwin, lost in his book, was still silent.

Among the many ideas contained in the article – and expressed with notable lucidity – Darwin read the following: ‘If … any species should produce a variety having slightly increased powers of preserving existence, that variety must inevitably in time acquire a superiority in numbers … and occupy the place of the extinct species and variety.’ As Darwin put it, writing at once to Lyell for advice, ‘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! Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters.’ ‘So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed,’ he wailed to Lyell.

Darwin was caught in a vice. An idea he thought was his, and his alone, now turned out to be shared with another and much younger man. Moreover, this younger man had entrusted the manuscript into Darwin’s hands as a safe conduit for publication. For Wallace had written to Darwin with the express hope that he would look over the essay and, if he thought it had merit, send it to Lyell. Darwin saw with horrible clarity that he was to be the midwife of an idea, rather than its parent.

There was worse to follow. On the very day Wallace’s letter arrived, one of the daughters, Etty, was taken seriously ill with diphtheria. Then, suddenly, the baby of the family, Charles Waring, aged 18 months, grew hot and feverish with an intensity that terrified Charles and Emma. Very likely it was scarlet fever, which Darwin knew had just killed three children in the village, while others were ‘at death’s door, with terrible suffering’.

Darwin hardly knew which way to look. In front of him two of his children were mortally ill. Meanwhile he was obsessed by the cataclysm of Wallace’s letter. He was desperately aware of his own anguish at losing priority, but he was equally clear that, in terms of discovery, he had got there first. He could point to those years on HMS Beagle, the transmutation notebooks, the 1844 essay and all his conversations with Hooker. Most of this had been accomplished while Wallace was still in his teens. Why then should he relinquish priority?

He wrote again to Lyell: ‘There is nothing in Wallace’s sketch which is not written out much fuller in my sketch copied in 1844 and read by Hooker some dozen years ago.’ Get in touch with Hooker, Darwin urged, and ask his opinion. Might there be a solution that restored his priority, but without prejudice to Wallace or to the precepts of good behaviour? Darwin already knew of Wallace and had corresponded with him, once asking him for some wild fowl specimens. He had even acknowledged that they had similar interests, telling Wallace that he could ‘plainly see that we have thought much alike and to a certain extent have come to similar conclusions’. Wallace, in short, was a colleague, even if he was on the other side of the world and not part of the inner circle of Darwin’s friends.

Wallace was as far from Darwin in terms of family background as he was geographically. He had always had to earn his living. His father, an unsuccessful solicitor, had died in 1834, when Wallace was only 11. He found work as a land surveyor, taking advantage of the growth of the railways. It was a tough, itinerant existence, and Wallace was struck by the inequalities of an industrialising world. He grew up a socialist and a reformer, and saw in science a force for good. He quickly lost his religion, became entranced by entomology and, together with a companion, Henry Bates, decided to sail for the Amazon and a life as a collector. It was during his second major expedition, to the Malay Archipelago, that he began to develop his ideas about the distribution of species, and by extension, their evolution. The climax of his work came during a bout of malarial fever when Wallace, delirious and confined to bed, suddenly saw how a variety might become a new species, were it better placed to survive the incessant destruction of the natural world. This was when he decided to write to Darwin, as someone who knew him slightly and who could be trusted. Isolated in the Far East, Wallace knew he was in no position to navigate his ideas through London’s scientific network. He would rely on Darwin.

Darwin was unable to make a decision. The conundrum was too difficult, and his children were too ill. Lyell and Hooker, however, were in decisive mood, and had no intention of letting the problem fester. They were in no doubts about their friend’s priority and they swiftly conjured a solution that would settle the matter. What was needed was not a publication but a session at a learned society, where Darwin and Wallace could both be heard. If extracts from Darwin’s 1844 paper were read alongside Wallace’s remarkable 1858 essay, no reasonable person could doubt the older man’s claim or how the history should be written: Darwin got there first and Wallace was a newcomer.

To make the point even clearer, Lyell and Hooker decided to show too that Darwin had not stopped work on his transmutation theories in 1844, but had been pushing ahead steadily, if quietly, ever since. When they read the material at a meeting of the Linnean Society, on 1 July 1858, they duly included an 1857 letter Darwin had sent to the Harvard scientist Asa Gray, outlining newer aspects of his theory. At the meeting, Lyell and Hooker  supervised, reading out the rather lengthy extracts to the assembled fellows. There was no fuss or excitement, and in his annual summary of events at the Linnean, the president of the society noted: ‘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 they bear.’

Darwin was absent from the meeting, mourning baby Robert, who died from scarlet fever on 28 June. As he told Hooker, ‘It was the most blessed relief to see his poor little innocent face resume its sweet expression in the sleep of death. Thank God he will never suffer more in this world.’ Eight thousand miles away, and unaware of the turmoil he’d provoked, Wallace had no idea of what was happening. Darwin, now, at last saw what he must do: produce a book, and at double speed.

The first formal exposition of the theory of evolution by natural selection appeared on 20 August 1858 when Darwin and Russel Wallace’s ’On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural selection’, which had been read at the meeting on 1 July, were published in the Journal of Proceedings of the Linnean Society.

Extracted from Charles Darwin: pocket GIANTS by Stephen Webster

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