Whose theory was it, anyway?

By Mark Brazil | Jun 7, 2001

In 1835, Charles Darwin became the first of a long line of scientists to make a study of the Galapagos Islands. Now, on entering the research station there that bears his name, visitors come face to face with a bronze of the Englishman as a very much older and far more famous man than he was when he visited the islands.

Returning home after his voyaging, Darwin settled down, married his cousin Emma Wedgwood and settled into a life of relative ease, devoting his time to elucidating many different fields of science. Within a decade of his return, he had published works on the geological and zoological discoveries of the voyage of the Beagle, and his place in the front rank of scientists of his day was assured. It was he who devised the theory of coral reef formation, for example.

From 1842 onward, Darwin and his family lived in Kent, and there in southeast England he addressed himself to that knotty conundrum — how to explain the origin of species. After several years of collecting evidence and speculating on the topic, he began to draw together notes that later formed the germ of what is now know as the Darwinian Theory, but for years he consolidated the work, and it remained unpublished.

Time presents a thick and blurring lens through which we view history, and as a result, 120 years after his death, Darwin has been elevated as the definer and describer of evolutionary theory. Yet not only was his work influenced by the work of other scientists before him, but by rights the accolade should be shared. History, like fate, is not fair.

In 1858, a younger Englishman, a naturalist by the name of Alfred Russell Wallace, who was then in Indonesia, sent Darwin a manuscript on the Malay Archipelago. Wallace came from a poor family; he was a self-made naturalist who survived by collecting and selling specimens — a kind of “biologist-of-fortune.”

Because of his intensive collecting for the market, Wallace was exposed to the intricate differences between individuals in an intensely personal way that Darwin was not. It must have come as some shock to Darwin to find that Wallace’s paper already contained the essence of “his” theory of natural selection. Wallace was publishing already on the topic of natural selection, and in science it is who gets published first that is crucial.

Yet today, if Wallace is known at all, it is only as “the fellow who stumbled on Darwin’s famous idea just before Darwin himself got around to publishing it.”

Darwin was a generation older and had returned to Britain 20 years earlier from his voyages on the Beagle. He had conceived of his theory in the early years after his return, but in the Victorian Christian social context prevailing at the time it would have been regarded as heretical.

His theory was simple — that species had evolved one from another, along continuous but continuously changing lineages, by a process of competitive struggle and differential survival.

This was what Darwin defined as natural selection. Lamarck, Buffon and even his grandfather Erasmus Darwin had held evolutionary views, but, crucially, none of them had found a mechanism to explain how the changes take place.

Wallace, meanwhile, had independently found his way to the same theory, and he had done so without the benefits of a society upbringing and education, without patrons and without support except from his own abilities. Wallace’s early works were papers sent from the field; these were published, and we know that they were brought to Darwin’s notice by scientists such as Lyell who realized Wallace was on the threshold of a great discovery.

Wallace’s punch line, which challenged the then common theory of special creation by God, was that “Every species has come into existence coincident in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.” In other words, he was aware of the process of divergence and evolution.

Whereas Wallace had set off on his travels in search of an explanation for the origin of species, this was a concept that came to Darwin retrospectively on examining the specimens he had collected. Wallace even used Darwin’s own observations to point out the fundamentals of the theory: Isolation + Time yields New Species by a natural process of Evolution. Wallace entered into a correspondence with Darwin, yet strangely, though Darwin was a meticulous hoarder of letters, he kept none of Wallace’s. Would they have been too revealing of where some of his ideas came from?

Writing to Darwin, whom he admired, Wallace was asking for advice. Instead, with the collusion of mentor Joseph Hooker, it was agreed that both theories would be announced together in London at a meeting of the prestigious Linnaean Society in 1858. Of course Darwin was there to present his — while Wallace, far away in Indonesia, was unaware of the fuss he had caused.

Darwin then set to work to condense his vast mass of notes. “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” published in 1859, was intended only as an abstract to a larger work, which remained unpublished until the 1980s.

Nevertheless, the abstract was an epoch-making work, received throughout Europe with the deepest interest, and violently attacked because it did not agree with the account of creation given in the Book of Genesis.

Eventually it succeeded in obtaining recognition from almost all biologists. Social circumstance and the vagaries of history, however, have contrived to make Darwin famous and leave Wallace in obscurity.

There is no doubt that Darwin does deserve credit for the extent and depth of his science. Apart from the scientific classic, “The Origin,” he published a series of important works: “The Fertilisation of Orchids” in 1862, “The Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication” in 1867, and “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” in 1871, an even more controversial book (at the time), for in it he postulated the descent of the human race from a nonhuman ancestor.

His life of writing continued with several more books during the 1870s and 1880s, and clearly he lived to his credo: “A man who dares to waste an hour of life has not discovered the value of life.”

Time not only blurs history, it distorts it. Modern legend has it, for example, that Darwin observed the finches of the Galapagos Islands, and through them saw signs of adaptive radiation and so was led toward his great theory of evolution. This legend appears even in textbooks of science and biology.

Yet reality was very different. Darwin in fact made the mistake of not labeling which island he had taken his bird specimens from; he saw little of interest in them and certainly derived no inspiration from them. In fact, in the first edition of his Journal in 1839, he makes little mention of the finches of the Galapagos, only revising his notes in the second edition of 1845.

Back in England he turned his specimens over to John Gould to examine and describe, and it was Gould who provided the insight into the fact that the majority of the birds were unique to the islands, while nevertheless being related to finches of South America. Both were points that had been missed by Darwin! Thus the finches were far from being crucial to Darwin’s theory, and in fact they were not even known as “Darwin’s finches” until about 100 years later.

So while Darwin’s scientific work was significant, particularly in bringing the Galapagos Islands to the attention of the international community, time has distorted the details.