Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Day One of the Evolution Revolution

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

SOURCE: Original essay

COMMENTARY: That's up to you...

I have mentioned several times in other posts that 2008 is the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin and the sesquicentennial of the publication of the Origin of Species. Hundreds of scientific and cultural organizations are gearing up to celebrate Darwin's birthday on February 12th, proclaiming it the kickoff for the "Darwin bicentennial year".

However, in a very real sense, today is the first day of that centennial celebration. On the first of July 1858 two papers and two letters were read to the members of the Linnean Society in London. One of the papers, entitled "On the Tendency for Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type", was written by Alfred Russell Wallace. The other paper and the two letters were written by Charles Darwin, and outlined his theory of evolution by natural selection.

The paper by Wallace had been sent to Darwin, with a request by Wallace that if it were of sufficient merit, would he please forward to the society for publication? Darwin was stunned; he had been working on the very same idea for almost twenty years. Here is what he wrote on 18 June 1858 to his friend, the geologist Charles Lyell, following his receipt of Wallace's paper:

My dear Lyell

Some year or so ago, you recommended me to read a paper by Wallace in the Annals [a natural history journal], 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 [manuscript] & 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.

My dear Lyell
Yours most truly

C. Darwin

Knowing how long Darwin had labored on his theory, Lyell and botanist Joseph Hooker prevailed on Darwin to allow them to read his unpublished essay on natural selection (written in 1844) and two letters on the same subject from Darwin to Hooker and to the American botanist, Asa Gray, along with Wallace's paper at the July meeting of the Linnean Society. Neither Darwin nor Wallace attended the meeting (Darwin was at his home at Down, in Kent, mourning the death of his son, Charles, who had died three days earlier; Wallace was still in the Maylay archipelago), and the joint reading raised hardly a ripple of comment.

Despite their lack of notoriety at first, these papers and letters were the first public presentation of the theory that would fundamentally and radically change the way we view ourselves and the natural world around us.

Here are some links to websites with much more information about this sesquicentennial event:

Happy 150th Birthday Natural Selection!

On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties

How Darwin won the evolution race

Darwin, Wallace and The Linnean Society of London

150th Anniversary of the Darwin-Wallace Papers

The Darwin-Wallace Letters of 1858

Fire the starting gun! The Darwin year begins…NOW!

Previous anniversary celebrations

July 1, 1858: Darwin and Wallace Shift the Paradigm

As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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