Darwin's Other Books: “Red” and “Transmutation” Notebooks, “Sketch,” “Essay,” and Natural Selection
Reviewed by Niles Eldredge
A handwritten manuscript note by Charles Darwin from Natural Selection portfolio (Cambridge University Library)
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Depending on how you count them up, Charles Darwin published just over twenty books in his lifetime. His first—the Journal of Researches , also known as The Voyage of the Beagle was his most famous—until Darwin, pressured by the arrival in 1858 of A. R. Wallace's manuscript on evolution through natural selection, stopped working on his “Big Species Book,”  and wrote instead his epochal On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life . In between, and thereafter, Darwin published monographs and specialized narratives on topics as disparate as barnacle taxonomy, coral reef development, and insectivorous plants. Yet it is, of course, the Origin of Species that changed the world, establishing Darwin as one of the great thinkers in Western cultural history.
So much is well-known. Far less appreciated is the fact that Darwin wrote several other books, all on evolution, none of which were published in his lifetime. Together, they form a series that preserves the “evolutionary” history of Darwin's ideas from their very inception to their most mature form—while also revealing the more prosaic development of Darwin's written rhetoric of the Origin of Species. All have been subsequently published, and are now freely available online, constituting the initial components of the Darwin manuscript project page of the American Museum of Natural History Digital Library of Evolution. The Darwin manuscript project complements the museum's exhibition, Darwin, opening 19 November 2005; further analysis of these works can be found in my companion volume to the exhibition .
The first of these books is actually a series of notebooks. I include them because they are the foundational writings for all Darwin's later, more discursive, discussions of evolution. Many of the themes—and, indeed, some of the original language—of the familiar passages of the Origin of Species are found in the pages of these notebooks—maddeningly interspersed in near-chaotic fashion with all manner of geological and biological observations and notations gleaned from the literature, and Darwin's already burgeoning correspondence and conversations. Indeed, only the “principle of divergence” came along later to add to Darwin's themes and arguments.
“Red” and “Transmutation” Notebooks
The “Red Notebook”  is the first of the series of notebooks in which Darwin established the essential elements of his evolutionary theory. Although apparently started while still on the Beagle in 1836—recording various latitude, longitude, and depth soundings—the last third of the notebook seems to have been filled out after Darwin returned to England in late 1836, early 1837. Historians still disagree whether or not—or the degree to which—Darwin had tumbled to the idea of evolution while still on the Beagle. I fully agree with Kohn et al.  that the famous passage in his Ornithological Notes, discussing the differentiation of “varieties” of mockingbirds and tortoises on various islands in the Galapagos and concluding that “if there is the slightest foundation for these remarks to zoology of Archipelagoes—will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of Species”  in fact does establish that Darwin was thinking about evolution in the final months before the Beagle arrived home. But nothing else unambiguously written while still aboard ship has as yet turned up to support this view.
Darwin was a fully committed evolutionist by the time the evolutionary passages of the “Red Notebook” were written. As he would subsequently write in the topic sentence of the Origin of Species, Darwin had been greatly struck by “certain facts of the distribution of the inhabitants of South America” that “throw some light on the origin of species.” . Elsewhere, Darwin makes clear that there were three distinct patterns of replacement of “allied” forms. First, the replacement of extinct species by modern ones—belonging to groups unique to that part of the world. For example, armadillos now live, while the obviously closely similar giant glyptodonts (which Darwin collected in Argentina) are now extinct. Both are edentate mammals—found only in the Americas. Second, in the living world, closely similar species tend to replace each other over broad expanses of mainland South America. The original example of this is the replacement of the common rhea (ostrich-like bird) by the lesser (Darwin's) rhea in more southerly stretches of South America. And third, the replacement by similar varieties or species of animals and plants on different islands (in the Galapagos especially—but he also mentions the two different forms of fox found on each of the two Falkland Islands). The mockingbirds and tortoises are early examples; as is well-known, Darwin did not himself see similar replacement patterns in finches, which later became known as “Darwin's finches,” and the equally riveting plant examples had to await expert analysis, forthcoming only after Darwin had been home for some time.
Darwin, famous for his views of gradual evolution through natural selection in the Origin of Species, is unexpectedly a saltationist in the “Red Notebook.” He thinks, given the lack of intergradations between fossil forms, or his rheas, that new species must arise suddenly from ancestral species. He maintains this view to some degree in Notebook B, first of the four famous “Transmutation Notebooks” , begun in the summer of 1837 and finished in early 1838. But with Notebook B, his attention turns to defining the first of three additional patterns, seeing these as expected observations if evolution is true. Darwin's initial three replacement patterns were inductive generations that took some while to dawn on his conscious mind. Now, with Notebook B he turns the tables and establishes the idea of evolution in a hypothetico-deductive framework.
There is grandeur in this view of life.
First of these new expected patterns is the nested set of taxa already recognized and embodied in Linnaeus's Systema Naturae . We now know why, in other words, there seems to be a natural classification of species—an explanation that differs from creationism precisely because it does make predictions about what we should expect to observe if evolution is true. In what is Darwin's closest equivalent to Einstein's handwritten E = MC2, he writes (Notebook B, page 36) “I think,”  and sketches an abstract evolutionary tree. He goes on to add embryological resemblance and “the unity of type” (homology), all close correlates of the “natural system”—all seen as predicted observations under the theory of transmutation (descent with modification eventually equals evolution).
But Darwin wanted more: he was constantly searching for a mechanism. Finally, in Notebook D, after having read Thomas Malthus and learned for the first time that more organisms are born to each species each generation than can possibly survive and reproduce (otherwise, “the world would be standing room only in elephants after but a few thousand years,”  he wrote later in the Origin of Species), he formulated “natural selection.” As David Kohn  first pointed out, Darwin parses natural selection pithily on page 58 of Notebook E (1839): “Three principles will account for all: (1) Grandchildren like grandfathers (2) Tendency to small change «especially with physical change≫ (3) Great fertility in proportion to support of parents” . In other words, (1) heredity, (2) variation (Darwin thought variation was induced in large measure spontaneously in the reproductive process and by the environment—views he held throughout his writings), and (3) the Malthusian principle of overproduction.
Therefore, natural selection—though not called such until the next “book” in our series (the 1842 “Sketch”). Darwin had been using the expression “my theory” to mean “evolution.” But now, the expression “my theory” more specifically means “evolution by natural selection.” It is in 1839, toward the end of the series of “Transmutation Notebooks,” that Darwin takes his next logical, if not fateful, step: in page 118 of Notebook E, he exhorts himself to rederive his original patterns in terms of his ideas on how natural selection works to produce evolutionary change. He is by now far beyond his initial attraction to saltational evolution: rather natural selection must produce finely gradational change. This puts him at odds with his very first evolutionary pattern, as Darwin is aware that paleontologists see little evidence of such change in their collections of fossilized plants and animals. He writes (Notebook E, page 6): “My very theory requires each form to have lasted for its time: but we ought in same bed if very thick to find some change in upper & lower layers.—good objection to my theory: a modern bed at present might be very thick & yet have same fossils”  Darwin, an intellectually very honest man, was troubled by this “good objection” throughout his evolutionary writings—devoting a chapter to the problem and essentially inventing the science of taphonomy (study of the formation of the fossil record) in Origin of Species.
After discovering natural selection in Notebooks D and E, Darwin turns renewed attention to both variation and the process of artificial selection in embryonic form— the analogy to what he would soon call “natural selection” by this time clear. The theme that varieties are incipient species—perhaps the most pervasive of Darwinian argumentative themes—is found in these notebooks , as are some other, more rhetorical, devices that show up in the later works, including the Origin of Species.
Particularly striking is Darwin's invocation of the travails of astronomers who labored so hard (occasionally relinquishing their lives!) to establish the laws of gravitation governing the behavior of celestial bodies. Darwin was not only fearful of attack on religious grounds, he also knew all too well that the only competing theory to explain the origin and diversity of life was in fact Judeo–Christian creationism. In Notebook B (page 101) , Darwin writes: “Astronomers might formerly have said that God ordered each planet to move in its particular destiny—in same manner God orders each animal created with certain form in certain country, but how much more simple and sublime power let attraction act according to certain laws such are as inevitable consequence let animal be created, then by the fixed laws of generation, such will be their successors—let the powers of transportal be such & so will be the form of one country to another—let geological changes go at such a rate, so will be the numbers & distribution of the species!!” Later in the notebooks, he mentions persecution of the astronomers—and also writes (Notebook D, page 36): “What a magnificent view one can take of the world Astronomical <& unknown> causes, modified by unknown ones. cause changes in geography & changes of climate superadded to change of climate from physical causes.—these superinduce changes of form in the organic world, as adaptation. & these changing affect each other, & their bodies, by certain laws of harmony keep perfect in these themselves.—instincts alter, reason is formed, & the world peopled with Myriads of distinct forms from a period short of eternity to the present time, to the future—How far grander than idea from cramped imagination that God created (warring against those very laws he established in all organic nature) the Rhinoceros of Java & Sumatra, that since the time of the Silurian, he has made a long succession of vile Molluscous animals—How beneath the dignity of him, who is supposed to have said let there be light and there was light…” .
This passage is “ancestral” to Darwin's most famous passage—concluding the Origin of Species some 21 years later. Here we have not only the analogy with scientific law replacing creationist belief in astronomy, but also the origin of the famous phrase “there is grandeur in this view of life” [3,11,12]. We even see here reference (albeit only in passing) to Javan and Sumatran rhinos—expanded and integral to the conclusions of each of Darwin's successive books on evolution.
The 1842 “Sketch” and 1844 “Essay”
In 1909, Francis Darwin (Charles and Emma's seventh child), on the 100th anniversary of his father's birth, published Foundations of the Origin of Species . The book contained Francis's transcription of two of his father's unpublished, handwritten manuscripts, the “Sketch” of 1842  and the much longer, discursive, and on the whole better-written “Essay” of 1844 .
The “Sketch” is Darwin's earliest known (and almost undoubtedly his very first) attempt to write out his evolutionary theory in essay form. The fact that it was never intended for publication, but rather served as a first-shot “dry-run” in setting out his views, is amply demonstrated by the sometimes elliptical, almost notebook-like passages with incomplete sentences and occasional reminders to himself on how to develop his arguments further. (Indeed, the last two paragraphs of Francis's 53-page edition are just these sorts of notes to himself).
The 1842 “Sketch” is an exciting read. Darwin is effectively organizing his thoughts and putting them in more coherent form for the first time. He adopts a two-part structure (retained in his 1844 “Essay,” with part 1 (three chapters) a succinct statement of his theory of the mechanisms of evolution, and a longer part 2 (seven chapters) the application of his ideas of evolution through natural selection to the, by now, familiar patterns of the biological world (geographic replacement, classification, embryology, unity of type (homology)—and the persistent problems with the fossil record).
It is in the second chapter of part 1 that we see the fateful two words “natural selection” as a subhead of a section that lays out by far his most coherent description of the process to date: “DeCandolle's war of nature—seeing contented face of nature—may be well at first doubted; we see it on borders of perpetual cold. But considering the enormous geometrical increase in every organism and as every country, in ordinary cases, must be stocked to full extent, reflection will show that this is the case. Malthus on man—in animals no moral restraint—they breed in time of year when provision most abundant, or season most favourable….The unavoidable effect of this is that many of every species are destroyed either in egg or young or mature….In the course of a thousand generations infinitesimally small differences must inevitably tell….Nature's variation far less, but such selection far more rigid and scrutinizing” .
The bulk of Darwin's 1842 text integrates all he has read in books, monographs, and correspondence about variation, artificial selection, patterns of geographic distribution of animals and plants, and gradation between varieties and distinct species—the main topics of his notebooks. He continues the hypothetico-deductive theme begun in Notebook B—showing that such patterns should be expected as the natural outcome of the evolutionary process.
His “Recapitulation and Conclusion” in the 1842 “Sketch” is a brilliant, impassioned summary of his ideas. It ends with the passage, already adumbrated in Notebook D, that remains virtually identical, not only in 1844 but in the Origin of Species itself: “There is a simple grandeur in the view of life with its powers of growth, assimilation, and reproduction, being originally breathed into matter under one or a few forms, and that whilst this our planet has gone circling on according to fixed laws, and land and water, in a cycle of change, have gone on replacing each other, that from so simple an origin, through the process of gradual selection of infinitesimal changes, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been evolved” .
For the most part, Darwin's fervent intellectual search is over with the conclusion of the 1842 “Sketch.” The 1844 “Essay,” at 198 pages, is a much longer manuscript; with exactly the same structure and sequence of topics, it is essentially a smoothed out version of its predecessor—written completely in essay form now, all sentences complete, with no personal notes and queries to interrupt the flow of ideas. The bulk of it, for the most part, consists of vastly more examples bolstering Darwin's points throughout.
That said, the 1844 version of his ideas is far less exciting to read than the 1842 manuscript. It is very much as if the excitement is muted by the sheer bulk of the material reviewed—and probably as much by the fact that the ideas are no longer so novel to Darwin himself. Freshness is lost to familiarity and the sheer weightiness of his verbiage.
Natural Selection and On the Origin of Species
Much the same can be said of Darwin's so-called abstract of his views—The Origin of Species. This, his most famous book, was fresh and new to its readers in 1859, so successful had Darwin been in keeping his views private. But to anyone who has had the privilege of reading the 1830s notebooks, and the early manuscripts (especially 1842), the Origin of Species reads like a mature work in both the best and worst sense of the term. He has honed his arguments beautifully, but the ideas, no longer fresh in his own mind, are just not as enthrallingly expressed as when he was younger and much closer to their inception.
Darwin's Principle of Divergence—poorly understood by modern scholars—melds nascent ecological theory with various models of the origination of new species. Darwin was developing those ideas around the time he started writing his “Big Species Book,” eventually published (second part only) as Natural Selection . And though one shudders at the sheer voluminous nature of this gigantic, yet partial, book, and is tempted to be glad that Darwin pared it down to the more manageably sized Origin of Species, it is true that, at least as far as the discussion of the Principle of Divergence is concerned, the discussion in this last of Darwin's unpublished-in-his-lifetime books is more cogent and complete than the Origin of Species itself. The Origin of Species, one is tempted to conclude, written as it was in such haste, relied heavily on the earlier manuscripts. (Darwin dispensed with the two-part structure, but maintained the same basic sequence of chapters and topics.) In many ways, the unpublished versions hold more rewards than what the Origin of Species—the book that shook the world—offers the modern reader.
There is much more that can be said. Darwin's thoughts about the relative importance of isolation, for example, changed over the years. It is possible with this treasure trove of Darwin's other books to pick themes and trace their development over time. Seldom has the history of ideas, so important as Darwin's evolution by natural selection, been so faithfully preserved as it has in this virtual “fossil record” preserved in this magnificent series of Darwin's other books.
The "Red" and "Transmutation" notebooks (1836-1839), the "Sketch" (1842), the "Essay" (1844), and Natural Selection (1856-1858) are freely available online at http://darwinlibrary.amnh.org
Citation: Eldredge N (2005) Darwin's other books: “Red” and “Transmutation” notebooks, “Sketch,” “Essay,” and Natural Selection. PLoS Biol 3(11): e382.
Niles Eldredge is at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York, United States of America. E-mail: ten.knilhtrae@tepmulf
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Articles from PLoS Biology are provided here courtesy of Public Library of Science
Charles Darwin's possible misappropriation of content from Alfred Russel Wallace's ‘Ternate essay’ of 1858 remains a topic of discussion, despite a lack of solid evidence proving misadventure. In this note new observations help clarify one critical element of the story: whether Wallace's materials represented in part a reply to the Darwin letter dated 22 December 1857. The conclusion is that they very likely did not, and in turn probably were sent in March, not April, 1858.
Despite an absence of any new decisive kinds of evidence, whether Charles Darwin might have misappropriated some of Alfred Russel Wallace's thoughts for inclusion in On the Origin of Species remains under active discussion. This short analysis focuses on an important element of that discussion, whether Wallace's so-called ‘Ternate essay’ on natural selection was sent to Darwin in response to a letter the latter had dated 22 December 1857, and which ostensibly was received by Wallace in the mail that arrived in Ternate on 9 March 1858.
There are, unfortunately, ‘sides’ in this discussion: those who appear eager to undermine Darwin's reputation, and those who wish to protect it. Accordingly, many of the treatments that have appeared in print feature ‘lawyerly’ forms of argument: that is, selective use of the evidence available. My interest in this is a practical one. Personally, I do not much care whether Darwin is guilty of theft; seemingly, the overall impact of his work is not changed any by either eventuality. I do care, however, that the whole affair has had the effect of generally increasing ‘poor Wallace’ thinking – his essential portrayal as a ‘victim’ – which inherently deflects attention away from more useful ways of assessing this brilliant man's career and influence.
Allegations concerning the intellectual property matter were initially raised in earnest by Brackman (1980) and Brooks (1984), both of whom investigated the mail routes and schedules between Ternate and Down with a mind toward determining whether Wallace's letter and essay could have reached Darwin sufficiently early to permit misappropriation. Two critical pieces of evidence exist in this regard. First, a letter sent out by Wallace to H. W. Bates's brother Frederick on the 9 March mail steamer actually did reach him in early June. Second, a letter from Darwin to Charles Lyell seeking his advice on Darwin's reception of Wallace's materials appears to be dated ‘18’ (June, it is assumed). Conspiracy advocates argue that Darwin could thus have had more than 2 weeks to make use of Wallace's input to commit intellectual theft. This interpretation is bolstered by Darwin's actually having added material to the draft of his proposed ‘big book’ on natural selection around that time (Costa, 2014).
This is how things stood until Peter Raby noted in his biography of Wallace (Raby, 2001: 133–134) that certain remarks made by Wallace in his autobiography My Life in 1905 appear to indicate he was aware of the contents of Darwin's letter of 22 December 1857 before he sent the natural selection essay off to England. Van Wyhe & Rookmaaker (2012) jumped on this connection, producing an analysis that they thought showed Wallace must have sent the essay out in a later mail, in early April. It featured a close look at the likely mail routes of the time, and the conclusion that an April posting could indeed have reached Darwin just before the time of the letter to Lyell dated ‘18’. As further evidence supporting their argument, they pointed to Wallace's remark that he never sent replies to incoming mail back out on the same day.
Those parties still suspicious of Darwin, most especially Roy Davies (2008, 2012, 2013), have stuck with their own version of events, which had Wallace receiving the Darwin missive and sending out the essay on the same day, 9 March 1858. Davies, meanwhile, does not accept van Wyhe's interpretation of the postal route schedules involved. Furthermore, it should be remembered that there is no actual evidence of a packet mailed in April 1858 and received in June, whereas there is an item, the Bates letter, mailed on 9 March and received in England in early June.
Davies and van Wyhe apparently agree, however, that Wallace's packet was in some sense a response to Darwin's letter of 22 December 1857. This turns out to be an unsound assumption. Mainly, among the principal parties there are apparently no later referrals to Wallace's letter and essay as having involved a ‘reply’ to the Darwin letter. (Admittedly, this might have been hard for Darwin and others to determine had Wallace's cover letter been a brief one.) This leaves Raby's observation as the sole reason to believe that it had been. However, Raby's interpretation of Wallace's meaning does not stand up.
I have discussed this matter elsewhere in some detail (Smith, 2013a, 2014), but we should go through it again here, briefly, because it is central. As pointed out long ago by the celebrated American philosopher Charles Peirce in a review of My Life (Peirce, 1906; Smith, 2009, 2014), Wallace was in the habit of writing convoluted sentences, awkwardly connecting disparate events and/or subjects. Peirce gives a good example of this tendency in a footnote, and I have noticed such structures myself many times (even in one of his remembrances of the writing of the Ternate essay; Smith, 2013a). On page 363 of volume 1 of My Life, Wallace writes ‘I asked [Darwin] if he thought it sufficiently important to show it to Sir Charles Lyell, who had thought so highly of my former paper’. He is speaking of the letter he sent to Darwin in 1858, accompanying the manuscript. On page 355 of volume 1, however, he had already written ‘I had in a letter to Darwin expressed surprise that no notice appeared to have been taken of my  paper, to which he replied [in the letter of 27 December 1857] that both Sir Charles Lyell and Mr. Edward Blyth, two very good men, specially called his attention to it’. Lyell is not mentioned again in the autobiography until the page 363 referral; I conclude that, on that page, Wallace's words on Lyell are there simply to remind his 1905 readers of Lyell's overall role in the story, and thus provide no evidence of knowledge of content as of the date of mailing.
I did not notice originally that this sequence is further contextualized by the letter of 6 October 1858 (WCP369.5914 NHM Wallace Collection) to Wallace's mother mentioned on page 365 of volume 1, from which is quoted: ‘He showed it to Dr. Hooker and Sir Charles Lyell, who thought so highly of it that they had it read before the Linnean Society’. In writing his autobiography, Wallace spent a lot of time going through old letters to help shore up his memory of events, and the similarity of wording here surely is not coincidental (note that he apparently uses the phrase ‘thought so highly’ nowhere else in his writings). Recycling previously-written materials was also a habit of Wallace's; this can be seen in many of his works extending back at least as far as The Malay Archipelago, which borrows heavily from an assortment of earlier writings. The likelihood that the remark comes from his letter to his mother is further strengthened by the fact that it is not included in any of his four previously published remembrances of the event, as pointed out in Smith (2014).
Some Further Issues
This is not the only relevant consideration here, however. For another, we have the accusation, frequently made by van Wyhe (Van Wyhe & Rookmaaker, 2012; Van Wyhe, 2013a,b, 2014) that, years after the fact, Wallace's recall of the events of his early years was not to be trusted. Although Wallace was indeed sometimes guilty of related mistakes, we can perhaps forgive him that, on occasion, he got a year or place wrong, or named the wrong ship. In Smith (2013a) I list five times, over a period of 36 years, how Wallace described in print the mailing of the essay; these all contain the phrases sent ‘by next post’ and/or ‘in a day or two’. Because it is almost certain Wallace actually wrote the paper in late February or earliest March 1858, this can only mean the mail on 9 March. Furthermore, I realized recently that there is a sixth mention of the event, in which he describes the entire act of composing and sending as having taken place ‘all within one week’ (Smith, 2015a).
In general, it must be urged that the ‘doddering old Wallace’ complaint has been overplayed. In Alfred Russel Wallace Letters and Reminiscences (Marchant, 1916: 363), his son reported that ‘he had a wonderful memory’; reviews of My Life featured comments such as: ‘the reader cannot but be amazed at the marvelous memory which has enabled the veteran to place on paper details which the great mass of mankind would lose in the affairs of after life’ (Anonymous, 1906). Numerous callers to his home, even in his latest years, reported him mentally acute, right to the end. Reviews of his last three books, written as he neared and passed 90 years old, almost uniformly congratulate him on his coherence of presentation and argument (although not always on his conclusions!). This leads to an important point, largely ignored by historians: there is a big difference between memory of the characteristics and duration of an event per se, and an ability to recall its exact place and date of occurrence (Bradburn, Rips & Shevell, 1987; Thompson et al., 1997). Here, we are considering the single most important event of Wallace's life, have every reason to think that his recall of early events in his life was actually quite good (and indeed, some claims of mistakes in content-related autobiographical memory on his part have actually later been debunked: see examples given in Smith, 2013a), and also have independent verification of the timeframe involved. Yes, he was not so good at recalling specific dates, but why would anyone assume that later on he might have ‘mis-remembered’ that the time-to-mailing was a whopping 5 weeks later than was actually the case?
Another important point is why Wallace might have written to Darwin just when he did, whether the letter and essay did or did not represent a reply/response. James Costa and I (Costa, 2013, 2014; Smith, 2013a,b, 2014; see also Porter, 2012) have both explored this issue and concluded that the timing was a result of: (1) Wallace's overall interest in Charles Lyell's (flawed) views on biogeography; (2) Wallace's collections in the Aru Islands, ending in July 1857, which yielded a contra-Lyellian biogeography model formulated in an important paper published on 1 January 1858 (Wallace, 1857); and (3) his new theory, natural selection, which, as a process model, could be related to such biogeographical patterns. These impressions are fortified by an overlooked remark made by Darwin in the letter of 22 December 1857: ‘I have not seen your paper on distribution of animals in the Aru Islands: I shall read it with the utmost interest’. Darwin's letter was a reply to one Wallace had sent him dated 27 September 1857; by then, Wallace must have known (or at least fully expected) that one or more of his papers on the subject would be reaching print right around the time Darwin received his communication, and was apparently eager to obtain his impressions even at that point. The move to involve Lyell was likely just the next step.
The same letter by Darwin of 22 December 1857 contains another remark whose significance has not been fully considered. Its second sentence reads: ‘I am extremely glad to hear that you are attending to distribution in accordance with theoretical ideas’. Another of Professor van Wyhe's notions (Van Wyhe, 2014) is that Wallace's purpose in coming to the Far East might have been strictly specimen collecting-related. He accepts that Wallace had been an early convert to transmutationism but not that Wallace was out searching for a process model to explain evolutionary change. Instead, as he believes, Wallace's recognition of the adaptive significance of varying coloration patterns in tiger beetles in early 1858 provided the ‘ah-ha’ moment, leading to the Ternate essay. There have been many replies to this highly suspect theory (e.g. Costa, 2014; Costa & Beccaloni, 2014; Smith, 2015b) and the Darwin letter is further indication that Wallace's efforts at understanding related processes had begun earlier (Wallace's initiating letter having been sent well before the tiger beetles episode), and resulted in a cumulative (not spur-of-the-moment) argument.
My point in drawing these threads together here is to plead that sensationalist or revisionist claims, although not altogether deplorable, are not the way to make lasting progress in this kind of work. What we have in the present instance is a very limited set of concrete facts that have been dubiously manipulated for rank scenario-spinning. I do not claim that my counter-points necessarily represent the last word either, although I do believe they help in presenting a more attractive basis for future, more complete, understandings of Wallace's intellectual evolution. A quick summary of what I feel at this point to be the best guesses concerning this particular story follows.
I believe there is satisfactory evidence to show that Alfred Russel Wallace very likely did travel to the East (and probably to the Amazon as well) with a desire to use his collecting work to aid him in uncovering the mechanism behind biological evolution. Furthermore, I think it is highly likely that his attempt to contact Lyell was pre-ordained and not dependent on Darwin's words in his letter of 22 December 1857. Wallace very probably came up with the theory of natural selection in late February or earliest March 1858, wrote out his essay, and deposited it and the cover letter in the mail sometime early in March, before the 9th. It was thus likely out of his hands before he received and read Darwin's incoming letter. All told, it seems extremely unlikely that the essay was mailed on 5 April, although this possibility cannot be ruled out absolutely.
What happened next remains shrouded in numerous possible alternatives (and I do not presume necessarily to have identified all of these). The main sides on the question cannot agree on the probable mail routes and, in the last analysis, these do not matter much anyway. Even if Wallace's materials were sent out on 9 March 1858, they might have been delayed by storms or mechanical failures or, more likely, temporary mail sorting errors along the way. Roy Davies is insistent that the British postal system was largely infallible, under lock and guard, but the mail had to be hand-sorted in transit at least three times (in Ternate, Surabaya, and London), and a minor misrouting might have taken place, delaying the delivery. At Darwin's end, meanwhile, various scenarios can be imagined.
Assuming he actually did receive the letter on 18 June, the conventional view very probably holds. But if it came into his hands sometime between 2 June and 18 June, he might have: (1) sat on the bad news for some days or weeks before writing to Lyell, out of embarrassment telling a fib about the actual date of reception; (2) written the Lyell letter immediately (‘that day’) but, second-guessing himself, not dated it or sent it until the 18th; (3) deliberately practiced deception, including faking the date; or (4) taken some other, yet unidentified, action. It would be nice if we had any independent evidence of intellectual theft – for example, as gained through content analysis of Darwin's texts – but it is my understanding that nothing in that direction worth reporting has so far emerged (Beddall, 1968, 1988; Costa, 2014). Until something more definite does emerge, it seems prudent to restrain ourselves from jumping to conclusions that cannot fully be justified.
My thanks are extended to Andrew Berry, Bryan Carson, Jim Costa, Martin Fichman, Ahren Lester, and four anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
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