Did Darwin steal the idea of evolution from a young rival? James Williams explores the truth behind the conspiracy theory.
Charles Darwin (1809-82) will forever be linked with the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, which explains how life on Earth has developed and diversified over three billion years from the simplest single-celled organisms to the vast richness of flora and fauna we can see today.
What is less well known is that this elegant theory was also conceived by another, more obscure scientist: Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). Wallace's role is often played down or ignored altogether. Yet a hardcore group is convinced that herein lies a scientific conspiracy to cover up the fact that Darwin stole his groundbreaking theory from Wallace.
Evolution was not a new idea when Darwin outlined his theory. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had written about changes in species, and others - including Edward Blyth, a museum curator, and Patrick Matthew, a wealthy Scottish landowner - had recorded variation in plants and animals, a form of natural selection. But there is no evidence that Darwin knew about Blyth's and Matthew's work before he developed his own ideas.
The case of Wallace is much more interesting. Born in the village of Llanbadoc, near Usk in Wales, he was not from the same elevated social class as Darwin. His father was a bankrupt failed solicitor and, although Wallace attended grammar school, he never went to university, instead training as a surveyor. But in 1848 he travelled to the Amazon with the intention of discovering the origin of species, inspired partly by reading Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle.
A self-taught naturalist, Wallace earned his living by sending specimens back to private collectors and museums in England. His first journey ended in disaster when, on the return voyage, his ship caught fire and sank, taking his vast collection with it. Using the insurance money he arranged a second trip to the Malay Archipelago, and it was here that he conceived his idea of evolution.
Early in 1858, suffering from malaria and confined to his bed, he recalled an essay on populations by Thomas Malthus (coincidentally, the same essay that inspired Darwin), describing how natural disaster and starvation kept populations in check. It hit him in a flash - only the fittest would survive. He wrote down his ideas and sent them to a client who had complimented him on an earlier article he had written about species: Charles Darwin. When Darwin received Wallace's letter, he was devastated.
Darwin had not sailed on the Beagle intending to find the origin of species; his passage was secured as a companion to the captain, Robert FitzRoy, and he spent most of his time looking at the economic and geologic importance of the various countries the ship visited. His notebooks contain three times as many notes on geology as biology. The only time Darwin ever described himself as a scientist, he wrote "I, a geologist", and his first scientific theory (how island arcs form) was geological and still holds today.
But what of any conspiracy? Darwin claimed to have received Wallace's bombshell letter on 18 June 1858. At the time, he was writing a major work on evolution. His famous book, On the Origin of Species, is actually just a short abstract from this unpublished book.
Precisely when Darwin received the letter is important. Conspiracy theorists suggest that he received it up to a month earlier than claimed because, in the original manuscript of his book on evolution, there is a section of inserted material outlining his ideas on natural selection. …