Ooops — Missed Anniversary: Darwin/Wallace edition
I goofed. I meant to take notice of the anniversary of the birth of the modern theory of evolution. Yesterday, July 2, 2008, came 150 years to the day after Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace presented their independent, but congruent work on the question of evolution by means of natural selection to the Linnean Society.
Click the link. Within its rather austere presentation you can catch just a whiff of the human drama. Here it is, in the very oblique terms that Darwin’s interlocutors (some would say, his defenders) used to describe the three documents reaching the Linnean. The three men, Lyell, Hooker, and Bennett, organized the package with Darwin’s two pieces — a draft excerpt of a planned longer exposition and a summarized letter to Harvard’s Asa Gray — coming first, with Wallace’s finished essay bringing up the rear. They defended this rather odd presentation with this argument:
So highly did Mr. Darwin appreciate the value of the views therein set forth, that he proposed in a letter to Sir Charles Lyell, to obtain Mr. Wallace’s consent to allow the Essay to be published as soon as possible. Of this step we highly approved, provided Mr. Darwin did not withhold from the public, as he was strongly inclined to do (in favour of Mr. Wallace), the memoir which he had himself written on the same subject, and which as before stated, one of us had perused in 1844, and the contents of which we had both of us been privy to for many years. On representing this to Mr. Darwin, he gave us permission to make what use thought proper of his memoir, &c.: and in adopting our present course, of presenting to the Linnean Society, we have explained to him that we are not solely considering the relative claims to priority of himself and his friend, but the interests of science generally; for we feel it to be desirable that views founded on a wide deduction from the facts, and matured by years of reflection, should constitute at once a goal from which others may start, and that, while the scientific world is waiting for the appearance of Mr. Darwin’s complete work, some of the leading results of his labours, as well as those of his able correspondent, should together be laid before the public.
History has mostly judged this arrangement to be fair; certainly, Darwin was the center of both the intellectual creation and the human infrastructure that propelled development of the theory in whose origin Wallace shared.
(To get a sense of just how much Darwin did to foster a world-wide evolutionary endeavor, troll through his correspondence here. Scientific knowledge has always flowed through both formal and informal networks — I’m still waiting for Simon Shaffer to publish his wonderful essay “Newton on the Beach” to have a compact demonstration of just how extensive this was at the birth of modern science — but I’d like to know of any more formidable web-spinner, as able to draw together both facts and people as our man Darwin. I can think of none.) (Maybe Erdős — but, cowering as I am at the prospective onslaught of outraged mathematicians, Darwin’s doings were more important.)
But even so, a day late, I’d like to tip my hat once again to Alfred Russel Wallace, a truly great naturalist, able, with Darwin, to interpret what he had seen into the foundations of the most important scientific idea since Newton’s, and a generous man.
Also, on all of this, read this post by Carl Zimmer in his new blog home at Discover Magazine. He takes the time to propagate the debunking one of the most persistent Darwin myths, that “the Devil’s Chaplain” so feared the religious implications of his theory that he refused to publish for decades. Not so — and Zimmer tells you why. (This is by way of a long h/t to Zimmer for the reminder of the anniversary, and to hope he enjoys his new blog-digs.)
Image: Ernst Haeckel, plate from his 1905 collection Wanderbilder, from an 1882 painting. Source: Wikimedia Commons.