Last week, I recounted the story of the time Darwin received a harrowing letter from Alfred Russel Wallace. The date was June 18th, 1858, and Darwin had potentially “lost all [his] originality.” His claim to “discovering” evolution through natural selection, an idea he had been working on for twenty years, seemingly vanished before his eyes. At the end of the post, I left readers at the moment when Darwin had forwarded Wallace’s paper to Lyell. But then what happened?
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On June 25th, Darwin wrote a series of letters that reveal just how stressed and saddened he still was. However, these letters also show that, at this moment, Darwin is trying his best to be rational and take the next steps to move forward. The first of these letters was a follow up to Lyell (it appears that between June 18-25 Lyell had responded to Darwin’s original letter of panic, though that letter—along with many others from this nightmare period—has been lost, a topic I’ll cover in the next post).
The first thing Darwin says in this letter to Lyell (and again in a follow up “P.S.” letter he sent Lyell the following day) is to defend his scientific priority. Darwin does this by discussing which few scientists did know about Darwin’s work and could vouch for him. He informs Lyell that in addition to him, an American named Asa Gray had read a sketch of natural selection Darwin penned back in 1844. This sketch—along with the few people he allowed to read it—is really all Darwin has to maintain his scientific priority.
The next thing Darwin does in this letter asks Lyell what the next steps should be. Should he try to publish now, quickly, even though he had read Wallace’s paper? Is that honorable? Darwin clearly wanted to go ahead and get something in print, but he wanted to know from Lyell whether this was unfair to Wallace or not (remember, scientific priority through print is an incredibly permanent and important thing). “If I could honourably publish,” Darwin writes “I would state that I was induced now to publish a sketch” because of Wallace’s letter. He adds “I should be very glad to be permitted to say to follow your advice long ago given.” Even in the publication, Darwin wants to mention that he did not steal these ideas from Wallace, that men like Lyell have long known he has been working on them.
If Darwin was to go this route (to publish) he could take steps to show Wallace that he was not plagiarizing his work. “I could send Wallace a copy of my letter to Asa Gray to show him that I had not stolen his doctrine” he tells Lyell.
Finally, Darwin asks Lyell to send his response not to Darwin himself, but instead to forward it on to another friend, Joseph Hooker. Hooker, a talented botanist, was a close friend of both men– as well as one of the few others who knew what Darwin had been working on. This arrangement would allow Hooker to see Lyell’s response, give Hooker a chance to write his own response with advice, and forward the entire package back to Darwin. There would be a quorum of the scientific men about how to handle this tragedy. Once Lyell and Hooker responded, “I shall have the opinion of my two best & kindest friends,” Darwin wrote.
Complications and death in the family
The problem was further complicated by Wallace’s current situation. He was still in the Malay Archipelago, collecting butterflies, battling malaria, and having no idea what chaos he had instigated in Britain. This worried Darwin, as he told Lyell: Wallace might say “you did not intend publishing an abstract of your views till you received my communication, is it fair to take advantage of my having freely, though unasked, communicated to you my ideas, & thus prevent me forestalling you?” We see here Darwin is attempting to argue both sides, but cannot decide where the lines between priority, honorability, and discovery should be drawn. His concluding sentiment to Lyell is that “first impressions are generally right & I at first thought it would be dishonourable in me now to publish.”
To make matters worse, Darwin’s youngest child, the baby named after himself–Charles Waring Darwin–was gravely ill. He ultimately died on Monday, June 28, 1858, the second child Darwin and his wife Emma had tragically lost. “I have had death & illness & misery amongst my children,” Darwin wrote.
Lyell and Hooker spring into action
Lyell and Hooker both acted quickly, revealing the urgency of the situation. It seems that by June 29th Darwin had received their responses, and they want him to publish right way. Darwin responded to Hooker on the 29th, sounding deflated and defeated. “I daresay all is too late. I hardly care about it,” Darwin wrote. He did care though, as we can see in the continued steps he took to protect his priority. Darwin forwarded Hooker the precious 1844 sketch. Hooker had made corrections on it back then, so Darwin was allowing him to see, once more, those corrections written in Hooker’s own handwriting- (in case Hooker had forgotten he had reviewed this scientific bombshell). “I really cannot bear to look at it,” Darwin told Hooker, referring to the sketch.
Ultimately though, Darwin does respond favorably to Hooker’s call to publish, saying he could “make a similar, but shorter & more accurate sketch for Linnean Journal,” adding “I will do anything.” All the while, Darwin clearly felt terrible for involving his friends in this mess, “I will never trouble you or Hooker on this subject again,” he told Lyell. But he needed help getting himself out of it. “Do not waste much time,” Darwin cautioned Hooker; “it is miserable in me to care at all about priority,” he admitted.
Lastly, a few days later in early July, Darwin reached out to Asa Gray, grasping at straws for any written proof that his idea had preceded Wallace. “If by any chance you have my little sketch of my notions of “natural Selection” & would see whether it or my letter bears any date, I should be very much obliged.” The date would provide further proof that Darwin had come up with this idea before receiving Wallace’s letter. Darwin explains to Gray that “Mr. Wallace…has sent me an abstract of the same theory, most curiously coincident even in expressions. And he could never have heard a word of my views.” Darwin then goes on to explain that the “very brief thing” he had written to Gray was one of the only copies that prove his precedent. “But do not hunt for it,” the ever-polite Darwin writes “as I am sure it was written in September, October or November of last year.”
Part II conclusion, a curiously coincidental nightmare
So here we are at the end of Darwin’s worst nightmare, part II. Nothing is yet resolved, Wallace still wonderfully oblivious, while Darwin is grief-stricken, panicked, and deflated. Darwin has sent a flurry of letters to his closest friends, begging for advice, and Lyell and Hooker are devising strategies to take action and protect Darwin’s scientific priority.
Stay tuned next week for the 3rd and final post on Darwin’s worst nightmare–when the event ultimately comes to a conclusion. This conclusion includes the exciting reveal of the idea of natural selection to a captive audience for the first time, as well as questions of morals and deceit that historians have wondered about for almost two centuries. The letters quoted in today’s post are all online, courtesy of the Darwin Correspondence Project: June 25th, June 26th, June 28th, July 4th.