Darwin's Shadow: Context and Reception in the Western World

By Iqbal, Muzaffar | Islam & Science, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Darwin's Shadow: Context and Reception in the Western World


Iqbal, Muzaffar, Islam & Science


Introduction

On the afternoon of July 1, 1858, Charles Lyell (1797-1875) and Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), two friends of a forty-nine-old man who had lost faith in the Bible, (1) presented two papers at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London. (2) Both papers related to "the Laws which affect the Production of Varieties, Races, and Species" (3) and contained "the results of the investigations of two indefatigable naturalists, Mr. Charles Darwin and Mr. Alfred Wallace." (4)

In their introductory note to the papers, Lyell and Hooker said:

   These two gentlemen having, independently and unknown to one
   another, conceived the same very ingenious theory to account for
   the appearance and perpetuation of varieties and of specific forms
   on our planet, may both fairly claim the merit of being original
   thinkers in this important line of inquiry; but neither of them
   having published his views, though Mr. Darwin has for many years
   past been repeatedly urged by us to do so, and both authors having
   now unreservedly placed their papers in our hands, we think it
   would best promote the interests of science that a selection from
   them should be laid before the Linnean Society. (5)

While it is true that, despite an attempt to prove otherwise, (6) Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) had, in fact, conceived the idea of natural selection independently and as early as 1839. (7) nevertheless, "Hooker and Lyell--Darwin's friends, both of whom were powerful and wellborn members of the Royal Society--took action to protect Darwin's 'priority.'" (8) Thus popular view would associate only Darwin's name with the idea of natural selection and Wallace would fade out of picture, but at the time Darwin received Wallace's paper, (9) he was horrified to see that another person had taken precedent over him and had expressed what he thought was his "big idea" and "original contribution to science". (10)

Lyell and Hooker had arranged the reading of the two papers at the July 1, 1858 meeting of the Linnean Society in such a way that Wallace's paper acted as

   a sort of coda to Darwin's. Wallace, still in the Tropics, did not
   even know about the meeting--nobody told him until it was all
   over. When he found out, he expressed the humble satisfaction
   of a servant invited to eat at the master's table, writing to his
   mother, "I sent Mr. Darwin an essay on a subject on which he is
   now writing a great work. He showed it to Dr. Hooker and Sir
   C. Lyell, who thought so highly of it that they immediately read
   it before the Linnean Society. This assures me the acquaintance
   and assistance of these eminent men on my return home." One
   wonders what he might have written had he known the reason
   for such speedy publication. But later, when he had divined
   more of the circumstances, he retained his generosity, adding
   only that he wished he had been given a chance to proof his
   article. (11)

This meeting of the Linnean Society (12) would subsequently be called the beginning of the "Darwinian Revolution", "the beginning of modern biology", "the beginning of a new era in scientific thinking", and by many other similar phrases, but the actual event was "second only to the presentation of Mendel's discovery of the laws of genetics as an historical non-event". (13)

Darwin's own later recollection of the meeting was more realistic:

   The circumstances under which I consented at the request of Lyell
   and Hooker to allow of an extract from my MS., together with a
   letter to Asa Gray, dated September 5, 1857, to be published at the
   same time with Wallace's Essay, are given in the Journal of the
   Proceedings of the Linnean Society, 1858, p. 45. I was at first
   very unwilling to consent, as I thought Mr Wallace might consider
   my doing so unjustifiable, for I did not then know how generous and
   noble was his disposition. 

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