08/20/2013
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Theory of evolution published: Aug. 20, 1858

SLICE OF HISTORY

The theory of evolution gets published for the first time when the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London prints two papers that had been read at the Society’s meeting the previous month.   

One is an abstract written by Charles Darwin, who had been developing his theory of natural selection since his now-famous five-year voyage on the H.M.S Beagle25 years earlier.  Another is an essay by a naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace.  Independently of each other, they had outlined the process of how living things evolve.

Earlier that summer, Darwin had received the essay from Wallace who was doing research in the jungles of Southeast Asia.  Darwin’s own ideas about natural selection were hardly a secret—he had discussed it in letters to friends and colleagues.  But he hadn’t yet published a scientific paper on the subject.  

When Wallace’s letter had arrived, however, Darwin was dealing with the serious illness of his son, who would soon die of scarlet fever.  So he had turned Wallace’s essay over to Charles Lyell, a scientist friend, with a note saying that he thought it should be published.  Lyell had decided that the fair thing to do was to present Wallace’s paper on natural selection jointly with a private essay and letter Darwin had written on the subject. 

Neither had much impact at first.  In fact, the head of the Linnean Society, the most prestigious natural history organization in the world at the time, would later note that the group had not had any major discoveries that year. 

But the following year, Darwin published his landmark book, On the Origin of Species. It had an immediate impact. All 1,250 copies of the first printing were sold on the very first day, and evolution quickly became accepted in scientific circles as a valid explanation for how species develop.

Wallace benefitted from the connection to Darwin, who was of a considerably higher social and scientific status, and he was happy to let Darwin get more of the spotlight. Wallace even titled a book that he later wrote, Darwinism. 

But the two scientists were not in total agreement on evolution.  Darwin, for instance, believed that natural selection was a process that allowed an individual within a species to adapt and survive, while Wallace thought it acted on whole groups or species of living things. And Wallace never liked the term “natural selection.”  In fact, in his copy of  On the Origin of Species, he crossed out the words wherever he saw them and replaced them with the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

They remained friends, however, until Darwin’s death in 1882, after which Wallace became one of more famous scientists in Great Britain, even being awarded the Order of Merit, the highest honor that a British citizen can be given by the king or queen.

But in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the theory of natural selection fell out of favor.  By the time it started to regain acceptance again in the 1930s, Wallace’s role in its development had faded. Darwin, as the scientist who had written the acclaimed book on the subject, became synonymous with evolution.

Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey and has hundreds of statues honoring him around the world. This November, Wallace will finally get his own statue in London’s Museum of Natural History.  It will be dedicated 100 years, to the day, after his death.

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