Letting the Secret

Thus arrived the letter, and Darwin's moment of truth. In the end, he did exactly as Wallace asked and forwarded the letter, and with it his dilemma, to Lyell. He included Hooker in the decision as soon as he could. What should he do, he wailed to his friends, "I would far rather burn my whole book, than that he or any other man should think that I had behaved in such a paltry spirit. Do you not think that his having sent me this sketch ties my hands?"

Darwin's hands maybe, but not Lyell's or Hooker's. They could act when he couldn't, a fact that Darwin realized. It was not all expediency, for Darwin was horribly preoccupied at the time; his youngest son, Charles Waring, a sickly and retarded child, was dying of scarlet fever. Other family and household members were sick as well. Darwin himself was seldom well, spending most of his time either vomiting or prostrate with nausea. If he left to his friends the task of deciding his and Wallace's fate, he had his reasons.

Lyell and Hooker decided on a Solomon-like maneuver, but instead of dividing the baby, they would present twins. Darwin had previously written an essay (he sealed it and left it for his wife to release in case of his death) and a letter to the American biologist Asa Gray in which he briefly explained his theory. They gathered these two documents with Wallace's essay and read them at a special session of the Linnean Society, a by-then somewhat obsolete group. Several other papers were read at the same meeting, and the twin theories did not excite much reaction. Hooker believed the lack of protest was because of Lyell; association with the well-respected scientist lent the theory more legitimacy, and that quelled the sort of scathing response they would have otherwise expected. Still, the silence was deafening. Famously, the president of the society stated that the meeting had not "been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, our department of science."

By presenting both men's versions at a relatively small meeting, they bought Darwin a reprieve. He now had to quickly write his ideas for publication, which meant he could not complete the many volumes he had planned. Instead, he spent the next year feverishly preparing his Origin of Species, a book he insisted be called an abstract until his publisher advised him it would frighten away too many readers.

Wallace was still traveling the islands when Darwin published. When he heard his paper had been presented in parallel with Darwin's, he was gracious; some might call him naive. He wrote his mother, "I have received letters from Mr Darwin and Dr Hooker, two of the most eminent naturalists in England, which have highly gratified me. I sent Mr Darwin an essay on a subject upon which he is now writing a great work. He showed it to Dr Hooker and Sir Charles Lyell, who thought so highly of it that they had it read before the Linnean Society. This insures me the acquaintance of these eminent men on my return home." Considering the class-bound system of England at the time, this reaction was probably appropriate. The mere collector, the "muddy boots biologist," had succeeded in entering a society that, not long before, would have crumbled rather than accept such a rabble-rouser.

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