History of Evolution

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace

Known around the world is the name of Charles Darwin and his history changing book "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" subtitled "the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life" published in 1859. As a young man Charles Darwin was always interested in nature, but since his father saw no future in being a naturalist, he was sent to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. At 16 he left Edinburgh without a degree and enrolled in Christ College at Cambridge University to become a clergyman, since most naturalists of the day were clergyman. He Received his B.A. degree in 1831 in theology and was recommended by the Reverend John Henslow, professor of botany, to Captain Robert Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle to participate in a surveying voyage around the world.

Darwin was 22 years old when they sailed from England in December 1831 with the primary mission of charting sections of the South American coastline. While the crew charted the coastline, Darwin observed the distinctive nature of South America and was puzzled by the geographic distribution of species. At the Galapagos Islands Darwin came across several types of finches that although were very similar had apparent adaptations to their particular environments. By the time they had sailed from the Galapagos Darwin had read Lyell's Principles of Geology, and began to doubt the Church's position that the earth was only a few thousand years old. Later Darwin would theorize that these new forms were the result of the accumulation of adaptations to a different environment (Campbell 1990, 428-429).

By the 1840's Darwin had worked out the major features of the theory of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution but did not publish it immediately. Incidentally, Darwin spent most of his adult life in a semi-invalid condition whose cause, either organic or psychological, to this day remains unclear but he did nevertheless write extensively and pursue his research.

The idea of natural selection as a source of new species was later to be co-discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). Wallace, unlike Lyell and Darwin was raised in poverty and had no formal higher education at all, learning his knowledge of biology by extensive field experience in the Amazon and East Indies. He also held native people of the tropics in high regard in contrast to the frequently held views of racial superiority of Caucasians held at that time. At 21 Wallace was introduced to spiritualism and would later become a leader in the spiritism movement and write on the subject. Wallace wrote a two part article on the subject and later the definitive textbook, "Miracles and Modern Spiritualism" in 1876. (Morris 1989, 171).

In 1855 Wallace published a paper on the origin of species which made Lyell and Darwin realize how close Wallace was to Darwin's research. While Darwin was procrastinating on the publication of Origin, Wallace made a very curious contribution to science while in the Malayan Jungles.

"I was then (February 1858) living at Ternate in the Muluccas, and was suffering from a rather severe attack of intermittent fever, which prostrated me every day during the cold and succeeding hot fits. During one of these fits, while again considering the problem of the origin of species, something lead me to think of Malthus' Essay on Population..." (Morris 1989, 172 quoting Wallace - The Wonderful Century...)

"Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain - that is, the fittest would survive. Then at once I seemed to see the whole effect of this..." (Morris 1989, 173 quoting Wallace - My Life)

Further,

"... the whole method of species modification became clear to me, and in the two hours of my fit I had thought out the main points of the theory. That same evening I sketched out the draft of a paper; and in the two succeeding evenings I wrote it out, and sent it by the next post to Mr. Darwin." (Morris 1989, 173 quoting Wallace - The Wonderful Century)

At that point Darwin was persuaded by his friends Lyell and Hooker to stop work on the "big book" and quickly publish an abstract, a shorter version instead. Lyell and Hooker then presented Darwin's 1844 sketch and Wallace's 1858 paper to the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858. Darwin's "abstract" of 490 pages was published in 1859 as On the Origin... and the rest is history. (Taylor 1991, 130-131).

Had it not been for Wallace to act as a stimulus, Darwin may not have written Origins and the course of history could have remained unchanged. Morris summarizes this best ...

"Herein was a marvelous thing! A theory that Darwin had been developing for twenty years, in the midst of a world center of science and with the help and encouragement of many scientific friends, was suddenly revealed in full to a self-educated spiritist, halfway around the world, alone on a tropical island in the throes of a two hour malarial fit. This is not the usual route to scientific discovery." (Morris 1989, 173)

References:
Campbell 1987, 428-430
Morris 1989, 168-175
Taylor 1991, 117-134
Continue with: Prominent People in the History of Evolution

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