The originality of the species: Any breakthrough depends on the efforts of countless predecessors- reflections on originality and collaboration

March 30, 2012


In June 1858 a slender package from Ternate, an island off the Dutch East Indies, arrived for Charles Darwin at his country home in Down, Kent. He may well have recognised the handwriting as that of Alfred Wallace, with whom he had been in correspondence and from whom he was hoping to receive some specimens. But what Darwin found in the package along with a covering letter was a short essay. And this essay was to transform Darwin’s life.

Wallace’s 20 pages, so it seemed to their reader on that momentous morning, covered all the principle ideas of evolution by natural selection that Darwin had been working on for more than two decades and which he thought were his exclusive possession – and which he had yet to publish. Wallace, working alone, with very little in the way of encouragement or money, drew from his extensive experience of natural history, gathered while sending back specimens for collectors. He articulated concisely the elements as well as the sources familiar to Darwin: artificial selection, the struggle for survival, competition and extinction, the way species changed into different forms by an impersonal, describable process, by a logic that did not need the intervention of a deity. Wallace, like Darwin, had been influenced by the geological speculations of Charles Lyell, and the population theories ofThomas Malthus.

In a covering letter Wallace politely asked Darwin to forward the essay to Lyell. Now, Darwin could have quietly destroyed Wallace’s package and no one would have known a thing – it had taken months to arrive, and the mail between the Dutch East Indies could hardly have been reliable in the mid-19th century. But Darwin was an honourable man, and knew that he could never live with himself if he behaved scurrilously. And yet he was in anguish. In his own letter to Lyell, that accompanied Wallace’s essay, which Darwin forwarded that same day, he lamented: “So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.” He was surprised at the depth of his own feelings about priority, about being first. As Janet Browne notes in her biography of Darwin, the excitement of discovery in his work had been replaced by profound anxieties about possession and ownership. He was ambushed by low emotions – mortification, irritation, rancour. In a much-quoted phrase, he was “full of trumpery feelings”.

He had held off publishing his own work in a desire to perfect it, to amass instances, to make it as immune to disproof as he could. And, of course, he was aware of his work’s theological implications – and that had made him cautious too. But he had been “forestalled”. That day he decided he must yield priority to Wallace. He must, he wrote, “resign myself to my fate”.

Within a day, he had even more pressing concerns. His 15-year-old daughter, Henrietta, fell ill and there was fear that she had diphtheria. The next day the baby, Charles, his and Emma’s 10th and last child, developed a fever. Meanwhile, Lyell was urging Darwin to concede nothing and to publish a “sketch”, which would conclusively prove Darwin’s priority over Wallace.

Taking his turn to nurse the sick baby, Darwin could decide nothing, and left the matter to his close friend Joseph Hooker, and to Lyell. They discussed the matter and proposed that Darwin’s “sketch” should be read along with Wallace’s essay at a meeting of the Linnean Society, and the two pieces would be published in the society’s journal. Speed was important. Wallace might have sent his essay to a magazine, in which case, Darwin’s priority would be sunk, or at least compromised. There was no time to ask Wallace’s permission to have his essay read.

But before Darwin could consider the proposal, the baby died. In his grief, Darwin hastily made a compilation for Hooker to edit. An 1844 set of notes, though out of date, seemed to make a conclusive case for priority, for they bore Hooker’s pencilled marks. A more recent 1857 letter to Asa Grey, the professor of botany at Harvard, set out concisely Darwin’s thoughts on evolution by natural selection.

Lyell, Hooker and Darwin were eminent insiders in the closed world of Victorian metropolitan science. Wallace was the outsider. He came from a far humbler background, and if he was known at all, it was as a provider of material for gentlemen experts. It was customary at the Linnean Society for double contributions to be read in alphabetical order. And so, in Darwin’s absence – he and Emma buried their baby that day – his 1844 notes were followed by his detailed 1857 letter, and then, almost as a footnote, came Wallace’s 1858 essay.

Darwin had delved far deeper over many years and certainly deserved priority. Wallace found it difficult to think through the implications of natural selection, and was reluctant in later years to allow that humans too were subject to evolutionary change. The point, however, is Darwin’s mortification about losing possession. As he wrote later to Hooker, “I always thought it very possible that I might be forestalled, but I fancied that I had a grand enough soul not to care.”

Hooker began to press his friend to write a proper scientific paper on natural selection. Darwin protested. He needed to set out all the facts, and they could not be accommodated within a single paper. Hooker persisted, and so Darwin began his essay, which in time grew to becomeOn the Origin of Species. In Browne’s description, what was suddenly released were “years of pent-up caution”. Back at Down House, Darwin did not use a desk, but sat in an armchair with a board across his knees and wrote like a fiend. “All the years of thought,” writes Browne, “climaxed in these months of final insight … the fire within came from Wallace.”

The Origin, written in 13 months, represents an extraordinary intellectual feat: mature insight, deep knowledge and observational powers, the marshalling of facts, the elucidation of near-irrefutable arguments in the service of a profound insight into natural processes. The reluctance to upset his wife Emma’s religious devotion, or to contradict the theological certainties of his scientific colleagues, or to find himself in the unlikely role of iconoclast, a radical dissenter in Victorian society, all were swept aside for fear of another man taking possession of and getting credit for the ideas he believed to be his…

Read it all.

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