RECORD: Wallace, Alfred Russel. 1903. The dawn of a great discovery "My relations with Darwin in reference to the theory of natural selection". Black and White 25 (17 January): 78.

REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, OCRed and corrected by John van Wyhe 8.2007. RN4


[page] 78

THE DAWN OF A GREAT DISCOVERY

"MY RELATIONS WITH DARWIN IN REFERENCE TO THE THEORY OF NATURAL SELECTION"

By ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

HAVING been asked by the editor Black and White to write a short article on the subject of my relations with Darwin in reference to the theory of Natural Selection, I gladly do so, because, although the facts are well known to naturalists and to all students of Darwin's work, there yet exists some misapprehension on the subject, and popular writers often exaggerate my share in the discovery of the theory which has not only led to the almost universal acceptance of the great principle of Evolution, but has had far-reaching effects in every department of human knowledge.

Meeting with Darwin

After my return from the Amazon in 1852, I was, in 1854, preparing for my visit to the Malay Archipelago by a study of the insects and birds; of that region, when one day, I think very early in the year, I was introduced to Darwin in the Insect-room of the British Museum, and had a few minutes' conversation with him, but I cannot recollect that anything of importance passed between us. While living in Borneo in 1854 I wrote a paper "On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species," in which I showed that all the main facts of geographical and geological distribution indicated the existence of a simple law, which I stated in the following terms: "lively species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species." This paper was printed in the Annals of Natural History, September, 1855.

Letters from Darwin

Hearing that Mr. Darwin was interested in my travels and collections, and was himself preparing some work on varieties and species, I wrote to him with special reference to this paper, and received a very long letter in reply, telling me that he agreed with almost every word of my article, and that we evidently thought very much alike on these subjects, he then added: ''This summer will make the twentieth year since I opened my first note-book on the question, How and in what way do species and varieties differ from each other?" But neither in this nor in other letters did he give any hint of his having already arrived at the theory of Natural Selection; while in December, 1857, he wrote to me: "My work will not fix or settle anything; but I hope it will aid by giving a large collection of facts, with one definite end."

Darwin's Secret

Yet he had actually written out a sketch of his theory in 1842, and in 1844 this sketch was enlarged to 230 folio pages, giving a complete presentation of the arguments afterwards set forth in the Origin of Species, and this extended account of the theory had been read by Sir Joseph Hooker in 1844, and had also been discussed with him and Sir Charles Lyell for many years. Moreover, Sir Charles had urged Mr. Darwin to publish his theory as soon as possible, because, if he delayed much longer, someone would be sure to forestall him; but he constantly refused to do so till he could publish all the vast array of evidential facts he had collected, and deal fully with every difficulty that still remained unexplained. If he had not been so scrupulous in regard to publication of a new idea supported only by a portion of the evidence he had collected, he would have appeared before the world as the sole originator of the theory of Natural Selection; while his subsequent works would have shown how vast a mass of evidence he had in reserve to enforce his argument and remove the difficulties advanced by his opponents. A few words must now be devoted to my own share in the first announcement of this celebrated theory.

"The Long-Sought Law"

Ever since I had read the Vestiges of Creation before going to the Amazon, I continued at frequent intervals to ponder on the great secret of the actual steps by which each new species had been produced, with all its special adaptations to the conditions of its existence. My paper of 1855 had merely shown that each new species was in some way dependent on the circumstance that there had been always, in the very same locality, a closely allied species, of which the new species seemed to be a modification. I myself firmly believed that it was a direct modification of the pre-existing species through the ordinary process of generation, as had been argued in the Vestiges of Creation; but as I could not yet see any mode or process by which the change could be effected, and the characters of the new species fixed and rendered permanent by natural law, I left it to be inferred till such a law should be discovered. But less than three years later the long-sought law suddenly dawned upon me, and, strange to say, was suggested to me by the very same work which had suggested the same law to Mr. Darwin sixteen years earlier. A short account of how it occurred to me may therefore be of interest.

"The Survival or the Fittest"

In February, 1858, I was living at Ternate, one of the Moluccas Islands, and was suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent fever, which obliged me to lie down every afternoon during the cold and subsequent hot fits which lasted together two or three hours. It was during one of these fits, while I was thinking over the possible mode of origin of new species, that somehow my thoughts turned to the "positive checks" to increase among savages and others described in much detail in the celebrated Essay on Population, by Malthus, a work I had read a dozen years before. These checks—disease, famine, accidents, war, &c.—are what keep down the population, and it suddenly occurred to me that in the case of wild animals these checks would act with much more severity, and as the lower animals all tended to increase more rapidly than man, while their population remained on the average, constant, there suddenly flashed upon me the idea of the survival of the fittest—that those individuals which every year were removed by these causes—termed collectively the "struggle for existence" — must on the average and in the long run be inferior in some one or more ways to those which managed to survive.

By the Next Post to Darwin

The more I thought of this the more certain it appeared to be; while the only alternative theory—that, those who succumbed to enemies, or want of food, or to disease drought, or cold, were in every way and always as well constituted as those that survived-seemed to me impossible and unthinkable. So deeply impressed was I with the importance of this theory and of its far-reaching consequences, that the very same evening I sketched its outlines, and in the two succeeding evenings wrote it out in full and sent it by the next post to Mr. Darwin, in full expectation that it would be as new and startling a revelation to him as it had been to myself. I also asked him, if he thought well of it, to show it to Sir Charles Lyell, but I said nothing about its publication.

Darwin's Amazement

On its receipt Darwin wrote to Sir C. Lyell as follows: "Your words have come true with a vengeance—that I should be forestalled. . . . I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my MSS. sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of chapters. . . . 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." In his great generosity, Darwin wished to have my paper printed at once, and thus give to me the priority of publication; but on the advice of his closest scientific friends Sir C. Lyell and Sir Joseph Hooker, he allowed an extract from his abstract of 1844 to be presented jointly with my paper to the Linnean Society, where they were read on July 1st, 1858, and published in the Society's journal in the following August.

The "Origin of Speeches"

My own paper is reprinted in my Essays on Natural Selection (1870), in the preface to which I wrote in reference to it as follows: "I have felt all my life, and I still feel, the most sincere satisfaction that Mr. Darwin had been at work long before me and that it was not left for me to attempt to write the Origin of Species. . . . Far abler men than myself may confess that they have not that untiring patience in accumulating and that wonderful skill in using large masses of facts of the most varied kind, that wide and accurate physiological knowledge, that acuteness in devising and skill in carrying out experiments, and that admirable style of composition, at once clear, persuasive and judicial—qualities which in their harmonious combination mark out Mr. Darwin as the man best fitted for the great work has undertaken and accomplished." With these feelings on both sides the friendship between Darwin and myself was sincere, and unbroken to the time of his death; though owing to his delicate health, and my residence in a different part of the country, we met less frequently than I could have wished, but the letters published in his Life are samples of the considerable amount of correspondence between us.

"The One Great Result"

In conclusion I would only wish to add, that my connection with Darwin and his great work has helped to secure for my own writings on the same questions a full recognition by the press and the public; while my share in the origination and establishment of the theory of Natural Selection has usually been exaggerated. The one great result which I claim for my paper of 1858 is that it compelled Darwin to write and publish his Origin of Species without further delay. The reception of that work, and its effect upon the whole scientific world, prove that it appeared at the right moment; and it is probable that its influence would have been less widespread had it been delayed several years, and had then appeared, as he intended, in several bulky volumes embodying the whole mass of facts he had collected in its support. Such a work would have appealed to the initiated few only, whereas the smaller volume actually written was read and understood by the educated classes throughout the civilised world.

ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE.

* It is a great pleasure to publish this article, written by Dr. Wallace two days after his eightieth birthday last week.


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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)

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