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Darwin's Theory Of Evolution — Or Wallace's?

Welsh naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 - 1913). (Getty Images)

When the theory of evolution was first publicly presented — exactly 150 years ago today — it wasn't immediately recognized as a revolutionary scientific breakthrough. Rather, the course of its impact was more, well, evolutionary.

And even though we generally think the idea of natural selection was devised by Charles Darwin, it turns out that he wasn't the concept's sole originator. Another Victorian naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, came up with the idea after years of living in the Far East, studying and collecting animal and plant specimens.

Wallace actually came up with the idea twenty years earlier, says David Quammen, author of the book The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. Wallace delayed publishing anything about his theory because in addition to wanting to amass all the evidence he could in defense of it, Quammen says, "he was a little bit wary of how this drastic radical idea would be received."

Wallace was also an outsider, with none of Darwin's wealth or social standing, says Quammen, who is currently writing an article about Wallace for National Geographic. Wallace left school at age 14, and had to support himself by selling insect specimens to museums and collectors. Wallace knew Darwin from a distance, says Quammen, as an eminent and conventional naturalist, who wrote what was, in essence, a best selling travel book, The Voyage of the Beagle.

But what Wallace did not know, says Quammen, was that Darwin was working on his theory of natural selection. Darwin told only a very few of his closest friends. When the young Wallace sent Darwin a copy of a paper outlining the theory, Darwin at first went into despair, thinking that Wallace would be the first to claim credit for the idea.

Instead, friends of Darwin's organized a presentation of papers by both men at London's Linnean Society. "It was about 30 people in a hot room," says Quammen. "The people who attended the meeting don't seem to have realized what had just been read to them. It just slipped by how important these papers were."

Darwin then rushed to publish On the Origin of the Species, which, unlike the Linnean Society evening, did make an impression, one that has been reverberating ever since.

It never seemed to bother Wallace that Darwin received all the credit. The two men, says Quammen, became friendly as scientists, though not particularly close personally. He says that Wallace admired Darwin and never felt any bitterness towards him, as far as anyone can tell. He even wrote a book called Darwinism. "That's the extent to which he ceded primary credit to Darwin," says Quammen. "He felt glad to be accepted as a partner, albeit a junior partner, in this great discovery. It seems to be more than he would have hoped for and he was very glad to settle for it."

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Transcript

MIKE PESCA, host:

This is the point in the program where we often share the most compelling news of the moment. Quickly then, to 1858, but you know what? The urgency is still there, because we're talking about Darwin's theory of evolution, still pretty important, still pretty groundbreaking. The story behind the introduction of the idea of evolution takes us back to 150 years ago today, the day that Charles Darwin's papers on natural selection were presented.

But maybe this anniversary most belongs not to Darwin but to a lesser known, Alfred Russell Wallace, the contemporary of Darwin who also came up with the idea of natural selection. His work kind of lit a fire under Darwin. David Quammen wrote about Wallace in the book, "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin." He recently traveled to England to research Wallace's writings and specimens for an upcoming article in National Geographic. Hello, David.

Mr. DAVID QUAMMEN (Author, "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin"): Hi, Mike. Good to be with you.

PESCA: Well, thank you for coming on. The theory of evolution, it turns out, if you know this story, had quite an evolution of its own. Why was Darwin - he had, you know, gone on the Beagle and been all traveling around years before. Why was he taking so long to come up with the theory of evolution, or as he called it, natural selection? He didn't really talk about evolution, right?

Mr. QUAMMEN: Right. He called it the theory of transmutation by natural selection.

PESCA: Transmutation.

Mr. QUAMMEN: He came up with it 20 years earlier. He did have the idea for the theory, and the real question is, why didn't he publish it? And people are still wondering about that. He delayed for 20 years because he wanted to gather more evidence, amass a mountain of supporting data, polish his argument, and because he was a little bit wary of how this drastic radical idea would be received.

PESCA: He was a cautious man of society, a university man, in contrast to Alfred Wallace, who was - well, if Darwin was establishment, he was like the indie rocker of scientists, right?

Mr. QUAMMEN: That's right. Wallace was an outsider. Wallace left school at the age of 14. He didn't have high social standing. He didn't have family money. He didn't have a chance to go around the world aboard one of Her Majesty's ships, like the Beagle, as Darwin did. He went out there on his own, supported his travels and his researches as a commercial collector, selling pretty butterflies and beetles back to museums and private collectors in England. And in the meantime, searching for an answer to this question, do species evolve? And if so, what is the mechanism?

PESCA: And did he know Darwin? Did he respect Darwin?

Mr. QUAMMEN: He knew Darwin from a distance as a very eminent and very conventional naturalist, an expert on barnacles, a fellow who had gone around the world on the Beagle and published what was essentially a bestselling travel book, "The Voyage of the Beagle." But he did not know, nor did almost anyone, that Darwin, for 20 years, had been working on this theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin was sitting on it, had shared it only with a couple of his closest friends.

PESCA: So, when Wallace wrote up his thoughts and sent them to Darwin, how closely did they match Darwin's thoughts? I guess this gets to the issue of, did Darwin steal some of Wallace's thoughts?

Mr. QUAMMEN: Well, that's a question that has been asked and examined very closely by scholars. The answer I would give is that no, Darwin didn't steal anything from Wallace. Their theories resembled each other very closely, but they weren't quite identical. Darwin thought they were close enough, so that when he received this paper from this young fellow named Wallace, he just went into despair. He said - he wrote letters to some of his friends saying, oh, no, all of my originality, whatever it may amount to, has been smashed. I've been scooped, essentially.

PESCA: But the theory was ripe for the taking. It inspired Darwin, and they sent letters, or at least something called the Linnean Society published the work in a somewhat under whelming context. Can you tell me about what actually happened 150 years ago today?

Mr. QUAMMEN: Right. The first thing that append was two of Darwin's friends, the eminent geologist Charles Lyell, and Joseph Hooker, botanist, arranged a joint presentation of the ideas of Darwin, which they knew about but hadn't been published, and the paper that had just come in from Wallace. A joint presentation at a meeting of the Linnean Society, July 1st, 1858, in London, that's the event that occurred 150 years ago today.

So, these excerpts from Darwin's unpublished work on the subject and Wallace's paper were read aloud to this meeting, and it was just about maybe 30 people sitting in a hot room in London listening to these presentations. There were five other papers that were read to them that night. It just must have been stupefyingly (ph), intellectually dense and yet, not necessarily exciting. The people who attended the meeting don't seem to have realized what had just been read to them. The word "evolution" was never mentioned, and it just seems to have slipped by how important these papers were.

PESCA: But that was the moment that marked Darwin as the guy who would forever be credited with the theory and Wallace as the fellow who maybe just helped him along.

Mr. QUAMMEN: Well, at that point, they were sort of co-discoverers. But what happened next, Mike, is that Darwin sat down, he had been working for years on a long book about this that he was going to call "Natural Selection." He sat down after the Wallace scare. He pushed that book aside. He started writing a quick and dirty version, what he called simply an abstract of the theory and dashed that off over the next 10 months.

And then that was published in November the following year under the title "On the Origin of Species." And that's what changed the world. That book, rather than the announcement through the two papers, but Darwin's book is what put across the idea and persuaded people all over the world that evolution was real, and this was the mechanism.

PESCA: What did Wallace wind up thinking of Darwin? He lived until, you know, 1913, I think.

Mr. QUAMMEN: Right, yeah.

PESCA: So, what did he wind up thinking about Darwin, the guy, who, you know, stole his thunder, usurped him? A guy who - did he credit Darwin for - at least maybe he thought, Wallace thought, he alone wouldn't be able to popularize the theory?

Mr. QUAMMEN: Right, Wallace and Darwin become very good scientific friends, not close friends, but scientific friends. Wallace hugely admired Darwin. He never felt bitter, as far as we can tell, toward Darwin. Actually, he felt glad to be accepted as a partner, albeit a junior partner, in this great discovery. It seems to have been more than he would have hoped for, and he was very glad to settle for it. Later on, he even wrote a book himself on evolution. He called it "Darwinism." That's the extent to which he ceded primary credit to Darwin and was perfectly willing to be essentially a lieutenant to Darwin the captain in the Darwinian revolution.

PESCA: Do you think today, under the sort of rules of scholarship, we'd credit the theory to both of them, because they would have gotten their names on the first paper?

Mr. QUAMMEN: Well, we would, except it's even more complicated than that, Mike. There was a fellow, 30 years earlier, had published a very similar statement in a very obscure book called "On Naval Timber and Arboriculture," essentially a treatise on the sorts of wood that you would use to build ships. And he articulated this idea, but he didn't - his name was Patrick Matthew.

PESCA: Well, we have to leave it at Matthew, because Wallace was complicated enough, but it's a great story and a great anniversary. And thank you, David Quammen.

Mr. QUAMMEN: You're welcome, Mike. Good to talk with you.

PESCA: Thank you. We'll be back on the BPP on NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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