The conventional view of the origin of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, as told by Darwin’s writings, is that, having formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection, as contained in that book, in the late 1830s, Darwin spent 20 years accumulating evidence, with no intention of publication in his lifetime, until he was prompted into action by the arrival on June 18th 1858 of a letter from Alfred Wallace in Indonesia containing an article outlining exactly the same theory. Evolution scholars have always known that Wallace’s article was not out of the blue, since Darwin was well aware that Wallace had been writing articles about evolution since 1855. Both Edward Blyth and Charles Lyell had alerted Darwin to this, and Darwin and Wallace had been corresponding since 1857. Before June 1858, Darwin wasn’t worried because he knew Wallace hadn’t got one piece of the puzzle – natural selection. The following letter extracts give an indication of Darwin’s concern between June 18th and the joint submission to the Linnean Society on July 1st, made by Lyell and Joseph Hooker on Darwin and Wallace’s behalf:
To Lyell June 18th 1858
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.
To Lyell June 25th 1858
I am very very sorry to trouble you, busy as you are, in so merely personal an affair. But if you will give me your deliberate opinion, you will do me as great a service, as ever man did, for I have entire confidence in your judgment & honour.—
There is nothing in Wallace’s sketch which is not written out much fuller in my sketch copied in 1844, & read by Hooker some dozen years ago. About a year ago I sent a short sketch of which I have copy of my views (owing to correspondence on several points) to Asa Gray, so that I could most truly say & prove that I take nothing from Wallace. I shd. be extremely glad now to publish a sketch of my general views in about a dozen pages or so. But I cannot persuade myself that I can do so honourably. Wallace says nothing about publication, & I enclose his letter.— But as I had not intended to publish any sketch, can I do so honourably because Wallace has sent me an outline of his doctrine?— I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man shd. think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit. Do you not think his having sent me this sketch ties my hands? I do not in least believe that that he originated his views from anything which I wrote to him.
If I could honourably publish I would state that I was induced now to publish a sketch (& I shd be very glad to be permitted to say to follow your advice long ago given) from Wallace having sent me an outline of my general conclusions.— We differ only, that I was led to my views from what artificial selection has done for domestic animals. I could send Wallace a copy of my letter to Asa Gray to show him that I had not stolen his doctrine. But I cannot tell whether to publish now would not be base & paltry: this was my first impression, & I shd. have certainly acted on it, had it not been for your letter.—
This is a trumpery affair to trouble you with; but you cannot tell how much obliged I shd. be for your advice.—
By the way would you object to send this & your answer to Hooker to be forwarded to me, for then I shall have the opinion of my two best & kindest friends.— This letter is miserably written & I write it now, that I may for time banish whole subject. And I am worn out with musing.
To Lyell 26th June 1858
Wallace might say “you did not intend publishing an abstract of your views till you received my communication, is it fair to take advantage of my having freely, though unasked, communicated to you my ideas, & thus prevent me forestalling you?” The advantage which I should take being that I am induced to publish from privately knowing that Wallace is in the field. It seems hard on me that I should be thus compelled to lose my priority of many years standing, but I cannot feel at all sure that this alters the justice of the case. First impressions are generally right & I at first thought it wd. be dishonourable in me now to publish.—
To Hooker 29th June 1858
I have just read your letter, & see you want papers at once. I am quite prostrated & can do nothing but I send Wallace & my abstract of abstract of letter to Asa Gray, which gives most imperfectly only the means of change & does not touch on reasons for believing species do change. I daresay all is too late. I hardly care about it.—
But you are too generous to sacrifice so much time & kindness.— It is most generous, most kind. I send sketch of 1844 solely that you may see by your own handwriting that you did read it.—
I really cannot bear to look at it.— Do not waste much time. It is miserable in me to care at all about priority.—
The table of contents will show what it is. I would make a similar, but shorter & more accurate sketch for Linnean Journal.— I will do anything
The letters to Darwin from Lyell and Hooker during that period have never been found, for the simple reason that, according to his son, Darwin routinely destroyed his incoming letters until 1862 (unless they contained useful information). It can easily be seen that Darwin was anxious to stake his priority, but concerned that Wallace might think he had acted dishonourably if he did. Luckily for him, Lyell and Hooker took the view that he deserved at least equal credit, and they took action. Also, his concerns were needless, since Wallace was not at all bothered about establishing priority, and was only too happy to defer to Darwin. The rest is history, but, in the light of all the above correspondence, it is worth noting the following snippet in respect of the famous Linnean submission.
To Wallace 25th January 1859
Though I had absolutely nothing whatever to do in leading Lyell & Hooker to what they thought a fair course of action, yet I naturally could not but feel anxious to hear what your impression would be.
Roy Davies’ 2008 book, “The Darwin Conspiracy”, collects together the accumulated evidence of several American scholars who researched into the ‘delicate arrangement’ between Wallace and Darwin, and paints a very different picture, with much admiration for Wallace and disparagement for Darwin along the way. The book essentially contains two separate, controversial claims. The first is that Darwin plagiarised some aspects of Wallace’s theory between 1855 and 1858, and the second is that he misrepresented dates to Hooker, Lyell, and Wallace (and subsequently to posterity), in order to cover up his plagiarism. Davies’ consequent, tenuous claim that Wallace, rather than Darwin, should be regarded as the originator of evolution by natural selection relies both upon that alleged plagiarism and on the notion that Darwin wasn’t worthy.
The charge of plagiarism is over the issue of divergence, which Davies claims Darwin had not considered important before Wallace started to champion it in 1855. Divergence is the process by which a species splits into two or more descendent species, and it is a logical necessity for any evolution theory (except, hypothetically, one that relies entirely on different pathways following spontaneous generation, which no-one has ever advocated). Both men would have known that, and, in fact, the divergence in Wallace’s 1855 article is no more than a statement of evolution – that every species had evolved from a previous, allied species rather than having been separately created. The real difference between Darwin’s pre-1855 position and Wallace’s exaggerated position is that Darwin believed divergence only occurred when a group of a species experienced a change in its conditions of existence in geographical isolation (following the collected views of Lamarck, Lyell, Leopold von Buch and Edward Blyth), whereas Wallace gave the impression that all species had an innate tendency to diverge most of the time, even in the same environment. That, one may legitimately think, is a point of technicality, which depends to some degree on what constitutes isolation, and there is no evidence that either man made a big deal over their polarised positions. However, Darwin did broaden his view on the circumstances under which divergence occurred during the 1850s.
The evidence that Davies provides for Darwin’s alleged plagiarism is both flimsy and hotly contested by Darwin scholars. However, the evidence he provides that Darwin engaged in duplicity with regard to Wallace – and posterity – is more impressive, largely uncontested by scholars, and consistent with the duplicity Darwin also engaged in with regard to numerous other characters, including Lamarck, Robert Grant, von Buch, Blyth, Patrick Matthew and Samuel Butler. The most damning piece of evidence Davies presents is that the letter from Wallace which allegedly arrived on June 18th 1858 actually arrived on June 3rd. This has been established because, according to Wallace’s journal, he had also sent a letter to his friend, Frederick Bates, at the same time (2nd March), and the envelope of that letter (which had been kept by Wallace’s descendants) had been date-stamped in London on June 3rd. What was Darwin doing between June 3rd and June 18th? He was writing a new chapter about divergence for his big species book, “Natural Selection”, and writing the following letter to Joseph Hooker on June 8th:
I had firmest conviction that you would say all my M.S was bosh, & thank God you are one of the few men who dare speak truth. Though I shd. not have much cared about throwing away what you have seen, yet I have been forced to confess to myself that all was much alike, & if you condemned that you wd. condemn all—my life’s work—& that I confess made me a little low—but I cd. have borne it, for I have the conviction that I have honestly done my best.— The discussion comes in at end of long chapter on variation in a state of nature, so that I have discussed, as far as able, what to call varieties.— I will try to leave out all allusion to genera coming in & out in this part, till when I discuss the “principle of Divergence”, which with “Natural Selection” is the key-stone of my Book & I have very great confidence it is sound. I wd. have this discussion copied out, if I could really think it would not bore you to read—for believe me I value to the full every word of criticism from you, & the advantage, which I have derived from you, cannot be told.—
There is no evidence that Hooker asked to see the new chapter, so Darwin’s time-buying tactic was needless. At first glance, Davies’ case looks impressive, but it overlooks one ugly fact: Wallace’s 1858 article said almost nothing about divergence, so Darwin’s time-buying deception could not have been in order to plagiarise that article. But it does illustrate one thing: just as he was more concerned that Wallace might think he was being dishonourable than with actually being dishonourable, Darwin was much more concerned with what people – and most notably Hooker and Lyell – might think was the case than with what was actually the case. If Darwin had told Hooker and Lyell about Wallace’s letter on June 3rd, and then written a chapter about divergence, it might have aroused some suspicion in their minds. He probably just wanted to get the chapter written before he found out what Lyell’s recommended course of action would be. His duplicity was not to cover up actual plagiarism, but more in order to forestall any perception of plagiarism. Besides, Darwin had first written about his principle of divergence in a letter to Asa Gray in America in September 1857. As some scholars have noted, that letter (which was used in the Linnean submission) was written as an insurance policy, to be claimed upon in just the sort of eventuality as happened in June 1858. Here is the pertinent extract:
Another principle, which may be called the principle of divergence, plays, I believe, an important part in the origin of species. The same spot will support more life if occupied by very diverse forms. We see this in the many generic forms in a square yard of turf, and in the plants or insects on any little uniform islet, belonging almost invariably to as many genera and families as species. We can understand the meaning of this fact amongst the higher animals, whose habits we understand. We know that it has been experimentally shown that a plot of land will yield a greater weight if sown with several species and genera of grasses, than if sown with only two or three species. Now, every organic being, by propagating so rapidly, may be said to be striving its utmost to increase in numbers. So it will be with the offspring of any species after it has become diversified into varieties, or subspecies, or true species. And it follows, I think, from the foregoing facts, that the varying offspring of each species will try (only few will succeed) to seize on as many and as diverse places in the economy of nature as possible. Each new variety or species, when formed, will generally take the place of, and thus exterminate its less well-fitted parent. This I believe to be the origin of the classification and affinities of organic beings at all times; for organic beings always seem to branch and sub-branch like the limbs of a tree from a common trunk, the flourishing and diverging twigs destroying the less vigorous—the dead and lost branches rudely representing extinct genera and families.
Already, Darwin’s divergence went far beyond anything in Wallace’s articles, both in scope and in depth, and it was developed even further in June 1858. Even if one were to accept that Darwin did attach more weight to ongoing divergence as a consequence of Wallace’s writings, that does not represent reprehensible plagiarism. Darwin was influenced by a great many people, and that in itself is no cause for shame. As Wilson Mizner famously said (which was repeated by Tom Stoppard in his play, Professional Foul), “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” It is perfectly legitimate to use the content of published articles, and even private letters, in the development of one’s own views. That, after all, is why people write academic articles – in order to persuade other people of their points of view. Darwin’s main shame lay in his reluctance to acknowledge influences. In connection with the Wallace affair, Darwin’s only lie was in saying to Lyell in his letter of the 18th June that Wallace ‘has to day sent me the enclosed’, which is fairly minor by comparison with at least one other lie that Darwin told in his denial of influences.