The Originality of the Species: Reflections on Originality and Collaboration
In June 1858 a slender package from Ternate, an island off the Dutch East Indies, arrived for Charles Darwin at his country home in Down, Kent. He may well have recognised the handwriting as that of Alfred Wallace, with whom he had been in correspondence and from whom he was hoping to receive some specimens. But what Darwin found in the package along with a covering letter was a short essay. And this essay was to transform Darwin’s life.
Wallace’s 20 pages, so it seemed to their reader on that momentous morning, covered all the principle ideas of evolution by natural selection that Darwin had been working on for more than two decades and which he thought were his exclusive possession - and which he had yet to publish. Wallace, working alone, with very little in the way of encouragement or money, drew from his extensive experience of natural history, gathered while sending back specimens for collectors. He articulated concisely the elements as well as the sources familiar to Darwin: artificial selection, the struggle for survival, competition and extinction, the way species changed into different forms by an impersonal, describable process, by a logic that did not need the intervention of a deity. Wallace, like Darwin, had been influenced by the geological speculations of Charles Lyell, and the population theories ofThomas Malthus.
In a covering letter Wallace politely asked Darwin to forward the essay to Lyell. Now, Darwin could have quietly destroyed Wallace’s package and no one would have known a thing - it had taken months to arrive, and the mail between the Dutch East Indies could hardly have been reliable in the mid-19th century. But Darwin was an honourable man, and knew that he could never live with himself if he behaved scurrilously. And yet he was in anguish. In his own letter to Lyell, that accompanied Wallace’s essay, which Darwin forwarded that same day, he lamented: “So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.” He was surprised at the depth of his own feelings about priority, about being first. As Janet Browne notes in her biography of Darwin, the excitement of discovery in his work had been replaced by profound anxieties about possession and ownership. He was ambushed by low emotions - mortification, irritation, rancour. In a much-quoted phrase, he was “full of trumpery feelings”.
He had held off publishing his own work in a desire to perfect it, to amass instances, to make it as immune to disproof as he could. And, of course, he was aware of his work’s theological implications - and that had made him cautious too. But he had been “forestalled”. That day he decided he must yield priority to Wallace. He must, he wrote, “resign myself to my fate”.