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Charles Darwin’s influence on Darwinism

Genesis, Lucretius, Maupertuis, Linnaeus, Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Thomas Malthus, Erasmus Darwin, Patrick Matthew, James Hutton, Robert Chambers, Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin are the creators of what is now known as Darwinism but of these Charles Darwin contributed only a little. Yikes! Did I say that? Heresy! Heresy!

Standing on the shoulders of a giant.

Charles Robert Darwin—Standing on the shoulders of the giant.

I love Charles Darwin and have made the pilgrimage to his grave site inside of Westminster Abbey in London. Strangely from where the camera made this photo if one were to turn the camera around and point up and to the left a bit there is a cenotaph plaque for Alfred Russel Wallace. When I had entered the Abbey I immediately asked the very friendly and very aristocratic guide where Wallace was buried. He, of course, had never heard of Wallace and had to look him up in the fine print directory. That is the story of Wallace’s life and his legacy—never heard of him, and yet without Wallace it is unlikely that anyone these days would have ever have heard of Charles Darwin. Darwin wrote quite a few important scientific papers but the only thing which would be read nowadays by the public would be his Voyage of the Beagle which is an excellent travel diary. But it is no better than Wallace’s book The Malay Archipelago which is still available and it too is a very good read. Wallace published a lot of important papers but his only mark on the world today is a line drawn through Indonesia on some maps, dividing the flora and fauna of Eurasia from “Australia’s”.

Darwin claimed to be working on the theory of evolution ever since he visited the Galapagos Islands on 15 September 1835 where he saw many different types of finches but he hadn’t published anything because it would upset his wife and the public. Uh, pause a bit. In fact he didn’t even have any decent written records of his theory of evolution. Lots of people, even Genesis, had theories of evolution but what they didn’t have was a cause for the relationship between species, or a reason for species to change and everyone including Darwin thought that species were immutable. Wallace, a self educated lower-class person collecting bugs in Indonesia and sending them back to entomologists in Europe for a living, sent Darwin two different letters which terrified Darwin. Darwin wanted recognition for solving the puzzle of species with which he had struggled for years, at least part of the time, to solve, and he didn’t want to be upstaged by a commoner.

When Wallace in 1855 sent Darwin a letter, from Sarawak, now known as, On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species, Darwin got so upset he was sick for days. To paraphrase a critical part of that letter, “new species come into existence at a time and place where a very similar species appear to have lived.” That should have given Darwin all the hints and encouragement he needed to publish his ideas for the reasons for evolution. But that didn’t happen! Why not? Probably because Darwin still didn’t understand the operative mechanism. Then three years later, in 1858, which was plenty of time for Darwin to have worked up his priority paper, if he had one, five pages would have sufficed, another even more disastrous letter arrived from Wallace, from the Moluccas, On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type. Darwin knew on reading this letter which was sent to him personally that he had been beaten to priority and it was reported that he went into a total collapse.

:( — “What to do? WHAT TO DO??? Why didn’t I see that??? How can I get priority and still appear not to be an intellectual thief? Hum. How about getting my [wealthy, aristocratic] buddies Joseph Dalton Hooker and Charles Lyell to sponsor a reading at the Royal Society of both our papers? That way I will appear to be innocent of all scummy oneupsmanship and wrongdoing. After a complicated and blurry talk I can collect a batch of my writings on all sorts of things and append a bit of this new evolutionary understanding into it and claim I knew it all along. After all I do know most of it and just missed out on a few minor details, like how it actually works. If only I can publish before Wallace can get wind of it— after I publish, he will have no recourse but to admit my priority. How much time do I have? Wallace is somewhere out in the wilds of Malay and since it is at least six months out and back by the mail boat, if I hurry and publish it, I will have a fait accompli. I can mention his name in the introduction as having a very similar idea to mine. That will make me look honest and fair minded and good, but I will have my priority.” :)

That was the original idea.