Did Darwin Get Scooped?

By Sills Brush

One day in 1858, Charles Darwin was rummaging through his mail in Kent, England, when he came across a package sent all the way from the Southeast Pacific. Alfred Russel Wallace, an admirer and infrequent pen pal, had sent a 20-page handwritten manuscript. Its title: "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type." Clunky, to be sure, but to Darwin, nothing short of shocking.

Wallace asked Darwin whether he thought much of the manuscript and, if he did, whether he might be kind enough to forward it to a friend who led one of London's scientific societies. Thought much? The manuscript didn't exactly say "natural selection," but it might as well have. Darwin wrote to his friend Charles Lyell, "I never saw a more striking coincidence... all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed."

Wallace, 14 years Darwin's junior, was an unschooled tradesman who traveled around the world earning a living as a commercial collector. Darwin, by contrast, was a wealthy amateur explorer who would become one of England's leading naturalists; he was known for his studies of barnacles and his years of research aboard the HMS Beagle. But when Darwin received Wallace's letter, his greatest work—the theory of evolution by natural selection—was still under wraps, right where it had been for nearly 20 years.

Risky delays. Since returning from his voyages in 1836, Darwin had been gathering evidence to support his radical theory, the best defense, he believed, against being branded a religious heretic. Only a few friends knew his thoughts. In 1842, he sketched out his theory in a 35-page letter, then two years later wrote a 231-page essay, telling his wife to publish it upon his death. A short letter to a Harvard botanist in 1857 contained preliminary thoughts. By the next year, he was 10 chapters into his magnum opus-and about to get scooped.

Scrambling, Lyell and a friend gathered some of Darwin's earlier thoughts and Wallace's paper and presented them to the scientific society on July 1, 1858.

The initial reaction was underwhelming, according to science journalist David Quammen. Only 30 people attended. Darwin was absent, and Wallace was still somewhere near Borneo; he didn't even know his paper was being read.

Over the next year, though, Darwin worked quickly to finish On the Origin of the Species, filling in his theories with still more evidence. This time the book was a hit, soon selling out its wholesale orders. Darwin's reputation was made.

As for Wallace, he returned from his travels to be welcomed into Darwin's inner circle. Remarkably, he expressed no regrets. "Nowhere in any kind of form published or otherwise," says Charles Smith, a Western Kentucky University professor, "does [Wallace] say something to the affect of being disgruntled about what happened."

Even Wallace himself tended to refer to the theory as Darwin's. He went on to write for nearly 200 publications before dying in 1913, his name fading into relative obscurity. "The reason why Darwin gets the credit is that he does the kind of analytic and academic work and wrote the book," says Niles Eldredge, curator of the American Museum of Natural History. "But he was also the first with all of the evidence. Wallace just had a couple of bright ideas."

More recently, a few historians have noted Wallace's contributions; nine biographies have been published since 2000. It's something, but it's a far cry from having your name be synonymous with the theory of evolution.