On 18th June 1858, if his own account of events is to be believed (which has been uncharitably questioned by some), Charles Darwin received the biggest bombshell of his scientific career.
Having spent 20 years working on his unpublished theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection, Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, who was collecting specimens on the Malay Archipelago. During intermittent bouts of fever (most likely malaria), Wallace had independently come up with a theory uncannily similar to Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. To his mortification, after all those years of research, Darwin realised he was in danger of being scooped!
Wallace’s letter no longer survives (which is gold dust for conspiracy theorists), but we do still have the distraught letter Darwin immediately dispatched to his friend and scientific confidante Charles Lyell:
My dear Lyell
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.
My dear Lyell
Yours most truly
In a way, Darwin had brought this bombshell upon himself. In an earlier letter to Darwin, Wallace had expressed ‘disappointment’ that his biogeographical paper in the September 1855 issue of the Annals and Magazine of Natural History ‘had neither excited discussion nor even elicited opposition’. Darwin had originally been tipped off about Wallace’s paper by Lyell and a contact in Calcutta, both of whom had noticed similarities with Darwin’s own thinking. Darwin noted these similarities, but seems to have mistaken Wallace’s paper as the work of a creationist! In his reply to Wallace (referred to in the letter quoted above), Darwin, in a kind gesture, attempted to ease Wallace’s disappointment at the apparent lack of interest in his paper by remarking:
you must not suppose that your paper has not been attended to: two very good men, Sir C. Lyell & Mr E. Blyth at Calcutta specially called my attention to it. Though agreeing with you on your conclusion<s> in that paper, I believe I go much further than you; but it is too long a subject to enter on my speculative notions.—
Poor Darwin! No good deed ever goes unpunished. Having independently arrived at his own version of natural selection during a bout of sickness, Wallace had quickly committed it to paper. Opinions differ, but it seems likely Wallace did this for future reference purposes only, not intending to send it to anyone until he’d had the opportunity to develop his ideas further upon his returned to England. In which case, Darwin might well have published his theory before ever learning about its independent discovery by Wallace. But Darwin’s letter praising his earlier paper, with a commendation from none other than Wallace’s hero Sir Charles Lyell, must have seemed the perfect opening for Wallace to develop a professional relationship with Darwin and Lyell. Nowadays, we would call it a fantastic networking opportunity. So, Wallace posted his bombshell to Darwin, for the attention of Lyell, via the next available steamship.
Darwin was understandably devastated by Wallace’s letter. He felt honour-bound to see it published as soon as possible. But he realised this would destroy his own claim to priority for his theory—even though he had been working on it for two decades!
In the end, Darwin’s friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, aided and abetted by Lyell, devised a compromise solution, whereby Wallace’s paper and some earlier unpublished papers of Darwin’s were presented together at the Linnean Society of London.
But that is another story.
Acknowledgement: This article was informed by the excellent book Dispelling the Darkness: Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin by John van Wyhe. [ISBN 978–981–4458–80–1]