Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/April 1909/The First Presentation of the Theory of Natural Selection
|THE FIRST PRESENTATION OF THE THEORY OF NATURAL SELECTION|
I Have been honored by receiving from the council of our society a request that I would take up a little of your time and attention with a brief address. No theme or subject was vouchsafed to me by the council, but, having gratefully accepted the honor, I was bound to find one for myself. It soon dawned upon me that the object sought by my selection might have been that, considering the intimate terms upon which Mr. Darwin extended to me his friendship, I could from my memory contribute to the knowledge of some important event in his career. It having been intimated to me that this was in a measure true, I have selected as such an event one germane to this celebration and also engraven on my memory, namely, the considerations which determined Mr. Darwin to assent to the course which Sir Charles Lyell and I had suggested to him, that of our presenting to the society, in one communication, his own and Mr. Wallace's theories on the effect of variation and the struggle for existence on the evolution of species.
You have all read Francis Darwin's fascinating work as Editor of his father's "Life and Letters," where you will find a letter addressed, on June 18, 1858, to Sir Charles Lyell by Mr. Darwin, who states that he had on that day received a communication from Mr. Wallace written from the Celebes Islands requesting that it might be sent to him (Sir Charles).In a covering letter Dr. Darwin pointed out that the enclosure contained a sketch of a theory of natural selection as depending on the struggle for existence so identical with one he himself entertained and fully described in manuscript in 1843, that he never saw a more striking coincidence: had Mr. Wallace seen his sketch he could not have made a better short abstract, even his terms standing "as heads of my chapters." He goes on to say that he would at once write to Mr. Wallace offering to send his manuscript to any journal; and concludes: So my originality is smashed, though my book (the forthcoming "Origin of Species"), if it will have any value will not be deteriorated, as all know the labor consists in the application of the theory.
After writing to Sir Charles Lyell, Mr. Darwin informed me of Mr. Wallace's letter and its enclosure, in a similar strain, only more explicitly announcing his resolve to abandon all claim to priority for his own sketch. I could not but protest against such a course, no doubt reminding him that I had read it, and that Sir Charles knew its contents, some years before the arrival of Mr. Wallace's letter: and that our withholding our knowledge of its priority would be unjustifiable. I further suggested the simultaneous publication of the two, and offered—should he agree to such a compromise—to write to Mr. Wallace fully informing him of the motives of the course adopted.
In answer, Mr. Darwin thanked me warmly for my offer to explain all to Mr. Wallace, and in a later letter he informed me that he was disposed to look favorably on my suggested compromise, but that before making up his mind he desired a second opinion as to whether he could honorably claim priority, and that he proposed applying to Sir Charles Lyell for this. I need not say that this was a relief to me, knowing as I did what Sir Charles's answer must be.
At Vol. II., pp. 117, 118 of the "Life and Letters," Mr. Darwin's application to Sir Charles Lyell is given, dated June 26, with a postscript dated June 27. In it he requests that the answer shall be sent to me to be forwarded to himself. I have no recollection of receiving the answer, which is not to be found either in Darwin's or my own correspondence; it was no doubt satisfactory.
Further action was now left in the hands of Sir Charles and myself, we all agreeing that, whatever action was taken, the result should be offered for publication to the Linnean Society.On June 29, Mr. Darwin wrote to me in acute distress, being himself very ill, and scarlet fever raging in his family, to which an infant son had succumbed on the previous day, and a daughter was ill with diphtheria. He acknowledged the receipt of letters from me, adding, "I can not think now of the subject, but soon will: you shall hear as soon as I can think": and on the night of the same day he writes again, telling me that he is quite prostrated and can do nothing but send certain papers for which I had asked as essential for completing the prefatory statement to the communication to the Linnean Society of his and Wallace's "Essays." This was only forty-eight hours before the reading of the paper laid before the society by Sir Charles and myself on July 1. It may be interesting to recall that the last ordinary meeting of the session of this society is held in the middle of June The occasion of the meeting on July 1 was exceptional, and was duo to the death of the eminent botanist, Robert Brown. As a mark of respect to that great past president, the ordinary meeting of June 17 was adjourned, and a special meeting called in order to elect a successor to the vacancy on the council, caused by his decease, George
Bentham being nominated in his place. The usual election of council and officers had taken place at the anniversary meeting only a month before; and, oddly enough, for the first time among the new members of that body was Charles Darwin. Other papers were also read at the special meeting on July 1, but it will not have escaped your notice that the whole correspondence relating to the two papers on the evolution of species was subsequent to June 17; indeed, the joint letter from Sir Charles Lyell and myself communicating them to the society was only written on June 30.
Thus the death of Robert Brown was the direct cause of the theory of the origin of species being given to the world at least four months earlier than would otherwise have been the case.
The communications were read, as was the custom in those days, by the secretary of ths society. Mr. Darwin himself, owing to his own illness and distress, could not be present. Sir Charles Lyell and myself said a few words to emphasize the importance of the subject; but, as recorded in the "Life and Letters," although intense interest was excited, no discussion took place: "the subject was too novel and too ominous for the old school to enter the lists before armoring."
It can not fail to be noticed that all these inter-communications between Mr. Darwin, Sir Charles Lyell and myself were conducted by correspondence, no two of us having met in the interval between June 18 and July 1, when I met Lyell at the evening meeting of the Linnean Society; and no fourth individual had any cognizance of our proceedings.
It must also be noted that for the detailed history given above there is no documentary evidence beyond what Francis Darwin has produced in the "Life and Letters." There are no letters from Lyell relating to it not even answers to Mr. Darwin's of June 18, 25 and 26; and Sir Leonard Lyell has at my request very kindly but vainly searched his uncle's correspondence for any relating to this subject beyond the two above mentioned. There are none of my letters to either Lyell or Darwin, nor other evidence of their having existed beyond the latter's acknowledgment of the receipt of some of them; and, most surprising of all, Mr. Wallace's letter and its enclosure have disappeared. Such is my recollection of the day of the fiftieth anniversary of which we are now celebrating, and of the fortnight that immediately preceded it.
It remains for me to ask your forgiveness for intruding upon your time and attention with the half-century old, real or fancied memories of a nonogenarian as contributions to the history of the most notable event in the annals of biology that had followed the appearance in 1735 of the "Systema Naturæ" of Linnæus.
- Reply on receiving the Darwin-Wallace medal of the Linnean Society of London on July 1, 1908.
- See Jour. Linn. Soc., III. (1859), pp. 45-61.
- Vol. II., p. 116.
- Vol. II., p. 126.