June 18th, 1858 was a rough day for Charles Darwin. On that day, he watched his worst nightmare seemingly unfold right in front of his eyes. “All my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed,” he wrote to a friend, fearing that his life’s work had collapsed entirely. What happened—what caused this moment of panic? A letter had arrived from a remote jungle in the Malay Archipelago, written by a man Darwin hardly knew.
Let’s take a look at what Darwin was up to that day. He was sitting at his home library in Down, southeast of London, working on his magnum opus—a “big book” on evolution through natural selection. He has been chipping away at this work for over 20 years, originally inspired to write it after returning from his voyage around the world. It was a big idea, natural selection, and he wanted to get every detail right. This was the kind of idea that would face mass criticism, and possibly upset a good number of people—the last thing Darwin wanted to do was rush it. Only a few friends of his friends knew about this work. The first time Darwin revealed it to a friend, in 1844, he had admitted it felt “like confessing a murder.” Species are not fixed. They change over time.
It is likely that on June 18th, while sitting in his library, Darwin saw the postman coming up the drive. The mail was important to him, it was one of the ways he collected information for his big book. One estimate suggests that he wrote an average of 18 letters a day. In order to see the all-important mail arriving, then, Darwin had installed a mirror on the side of the house, allowing him to have a view of the driveway. On this day, something incredibly shocking was delivered: a paper by a little-known known natural history collector named Alfred Russel Wallace.
Wallace was different from Darwin in many ways. He didn’t have Darwin’s Cambridge education, he was from a much more humble background. Instead of Darwin’s wealthy lifestyle—which freed him from work, allowing him to ponder scientific questions in his spare time—Wallace was simply a collector who sold specimens to dealers. He had spent much of the past decade in jungles, catching butterflies and skinning birds. After he collected specimens, Wallace would ship the exotic creatures from far away lands back to London. It was a way to make a living—despite malaria and the other constant dangers he faced. Somehow, while collecting in the jungles of what is now Indonesia, Wallace landed on precisely the same idea Darwin had been working on for 20 years.
After reading Wallace’s paper (which apparently arrived on June 18) Darwin wrote: “I never saw a more striking coincidence.” Years earlier, Darwin had written a short sketch on natural selection and if Wallace had read that sketch, Darwin stated, “he could not have made a better short abstract” (of course Wallace had not seen it, it was safely tucked away in Darwin’s desk drawer).
Darwin had been warned that this might happen, his friends had begged him to publish on his big idea. In science, publishing is the only true way to stake a claim. If someone else publishes first, they receive credit for the idea forever. This was a big claim, Darwin’s friend Charles Lyell had cautioned him, one that Darwin shouldn’t let slip away. Not after all decades of hard work. On June 18th, Darwin realized how correct Lyell had been.
Coincidently, Wallace had sent Darwin the paper asking him to forward it on to Lyell if he thought it was any good. Darwin was sort of a first stop, for Lyell was much too big of a scientist for Wallace to approach directly. Of course, Wallace had no idea what he had just inadvertently done, he was off collecting butterflies in New Guinea. He—like most of the rest of the world—had no idea that Darwin had been stewing on natural selection since the late 1830s. In a sense, this arrangement worked out, considering Lyell already knew about Darwin’s theory. Thus, Darwin was able to mail Wallace’s paper to one of the great 19th century scientists—but also one of the few who knew what this meant for Darwin.
So Darwin did as he was told, more or less (more on this later), writing to Lyell with his tail between his legs. “Your words have come true with a vengeance,” Darwin wrote to the man who had begged him to publish years earlier. In his letter, Darwin tried to put on his best face, telling Lyell “I hope you will approve of Wallace’s sketch, that I may tell him what you say.” It was a fascinating coincidence, as science writer David Quammen put it in his book on Wallace: “two men, on opposite sides of the world, had made the same great discovery at the same time. All they had shared was a language, a sense of the question to be answered, a chance to travel, a willingness to exchange letters, a passing familiarity with Malthus, and an appreciation of the significance of island biogeography.”
So today was the day that Wallace accidentally awoke Darwin from his procrastination slumber. Ok, so procrastination is a bit of an exaggeration. Darwin was less of a procrastinator and more of a careful man who wanted to have all the evidence before he published. But either way, he was awoken.
So what happened next? How could Darwin possibly navigate this situation without all his originality “smashed”? How would Lyell respond to his best friend’s predicament? We’ll follow up next week with the next installment of Darwin’s Worst Nightmare. I’ll be sharing the updates as they unfolded in real time, so in the next chapter, we’ll see how Lyell responded to Darwin’s crisis. In the meantime, check out Darwin’s (somewhat dramatic) June 18th letter to Wallace on the Darwin Correspondence Project. And stay tuned…