Today marks the final day of the month in which, 150 years ago, a naturalist in what is now Indonesia wrote a letter to Charles Darwin in which he gave a theoretical account of how types can evolve by natural selection so that new species will arise. Give it up, folks, for Alfred Russel Wallace.
Darwin’s receipt of this letter dismayed him. He wrote to Charles Lyell, 18 June 1858:
Down Bromley Kent
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
Lyell, solicitous of his friend’s reputation, came up with a compromise and Darwin’s 1844 Sketch was read to the Royal Society of London along with Wallace’s manuscript, in Darwin’s absence, and so Wallace came to be known as the co-discoverer of natural selection.
The correspondence can be found here.