What Darwin Said

It was 1858, twenty years after Darwin first started a notebook on evolution, and he was only just beginning to think of announcing his ideas. The times were finally right; younger ideas were starting to dominate biology and younger minds were frustrated with old, inadequate models. But the surest sign came from an old source, his mentor, Charles Lyell. Darwin had finally, in a private meeting, told him of the theory, and now Lyell was advising him to announce it quickly or be beaten to the punch. Though the honored scientist would never completely accept evolution, he was enough of a scientist to know when to step aside. He could see that biology was in the hands of new minds, and they were already toying with the idea.

One such mind in particular impressed Lyell. He read a paper in an obscure agricultural journal written by an equally obscure collector, someone Lyell called a "muddy boots biologist." This paper by Alfred Russel Wallace made a provocative kind of sense, and, he realized, sounded an awful lot like what Darwin had finally admitted he'd been thinking. For Lyell, it meant the ground was quaking under his feet, but he knew better than to try to stop it. Publish now, Lyell told Darwin, or you might be forestalled.

Darwin was ready, but pictured a huge work—at least ten volumes, filled with examples to make undeniable his new laws of biology. He was still cautious, still remembering the castigation of the previous authors of such heresies, and he wouldn't risk his own position without strong, unassailable evidence. Already the ground was prepared, partly by him, partly by the times, with the new guard eager and willing to take on new challenges. Ybung biologists like his friends Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley were looking for a cause célèbre to throw in the faces of the old, elite fogies. Darwin was preparing just such a treatise.

Wallace was to be a tentative member of Darwin's alliance. Darwin had not been impressed by the collector's first paper, the one that had impressed Lyell, finding it "nothing new" and too "creationist." (Wallace mentioned the "creation" of species, but had not meant it in the biblical sense.) He reread the paper after Lyell's warning, and saw that it was indeed foretelling a risk to himself. He wrote Wallace, recruiting him into the cadre of young biologists with new ideas. He kept him as a correspondent and paid him for contributions to his own collections, this time for specimens of domestic chickens, ducks, and pigeons from the Far East. Shipping costs, he told Wallace, were killing him, but the specimens were invaluable.

He praised Wallace for his thoughts on species; they thought alike, he told him. Still, he made sure to claim the idea for himself, making it politely clear it was his territory, and probably too complex for anyone else. He wrote:

I can plainly see that we have thought much alike and to a certain extent have come to similar conclusions. This summer will make the 20 th 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 . . . I do not suppose I shall go to press for two years. . . . It is really impossible to explain my view in the compass of a letter.

Wallace, struggling with fevers, rainy seasons, and finding decent transport between islands of what is now Indonesia, welcomed the correspondence. Here, after all, was a man whose works he'd read and admired, a man admired by all English science, taking time to write to him. To top it off, they had the same ideas, which had to make Wallace more assured of his own conclusions, not that Wallace wasn't already a bit cocky. He wrote to his friend Henry Walter Bates to tell him Darwin approved of his theories, and "agreed on almost every word." He added that the great man might save him from writing the second part of his hypothesis "by proving that there is no difference in nature between the origin of species and varieties, or he may give me trouble by arriving at another conclusion, but at all events his facts will be given for me to work upon."

Then Wallace wrote another paper, and sent it to Darwin first for his opinion. For Darwin, this paper meant disaster, for it appeared Wallace had hit upon the same theory. It turned out their ideas did not agree completely; the differences would be made clear later. But they did both describe the same central theme for evolution—one describing the central force driving evolution—and they did this where equally brilliant, better-trained biological minds had failed. To see why it took these two particular minds to make the same breakthrough at the same time, we should look at who Wallace was, as well.

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