Sometimes a really big idea challenges and ultimately transforms deeply held beliefs about the fundamental nature of human life. Centuries ago, the idea that the Earth does indeed move around the Sun was such an idea. Oh shit, we may not be at the center of the universe! Astronomical humble pie from Copernicus has been pretty well digested; some people still cannot swallow humble pie that was pulled from the oven in 1858.
Already know what happened in 1858? Please don’t leave. I will keep it brief, keep it light, and put my own eccentric spin on the story. (Honestly now, when was the last time U saw the phrase “big, screaming orgasm” in the 2nd sentence of a note on the history of science?) Sources are thanked at the end of this post.
Back in 1858, there were no search boxes. No Google. No Wikipedia. No e-mail! Anything called a “manuscript” really was a collection of sheets of paper on which letters and symbols had been written by hand. Want to show it to somebody U cannot visit? Put it in the mail and hope it eventually arrives intact. Want to have a backup copy in case it gets lost or damaged? Write it out all over again before mailing. No scanners. No soft copy. Yuck.
I am old enough to have lived and worked in a hard copy world, albeit with gadgets like electric typewriters that made it less painful than in 1858. Collaborating with somebody several time zones away was agony in my early days and impossible in 1858. In some important ways, doing science in my early days was more like it was in 1858 than it is now. So I can imagine how Charles Darwin felt when he read the mail on 1858-06-18.
Correctly anticipating that his concept of evolution by natural selection would ignite a firestorm of controversy when published, Darwin had spent some of his time over the previous 20 years thinking about possible objections or misunderstandings, devising ways to answer or avoid them, and organizing a mountain of evidence. Already an A-list biologist, Darwin was in no hurry and wanted to dot more i-s and cross more t-s before the firestorm. Naturally, he wanted to wait a while before publishing his big idea.
The letter and manuscript that Darwin received on 1858-06-18 came from Alfred Wallace, a younger colleague then roughing it somewhere in one of the places that would now be called Indonesia or Malaysia or New Guinea. Wallace sought advice about how to publish a new idea: evolution by natural selection. Tho Wallace did not have a mountain of evidence, his pile was plenty high enough to justify publication.
Wallace earned his living by collecting natural history specimens for sale and was being hassled for the amount of time he devoted to nerdy “theorizing” when he should be killing things. Naturally, he wanted to publish his big idea soon. Naturally, he sought the opinion of a senior colleague with whom he had already exchanged a few letters on smaller matters. He did not know (and could not know for months) that he had independently come up with the same big idea that Darwin had been quietly refining and supporting for years.
How could the differing priorities of Darwin and Wallace be reconciled? How could Darwin respond to Wallace in a way that was fair to both of them and feasible in 1858? No e-mail. No conference calls. Darwin consulted a few friends. More than a century before the exhortation to
Let it all hang out!
enjoyed a vogue, they decided to do exactly that. Those who attended the meeting of the Linnean Society of London on 1858-07-01 were treated to an explanation of the unusual situation, a reading of a summary of Darwin’s work, and a reading of Wallace’s paper. Wallace was still in the boondocks and did not even know that his work (presented for him in his absence by one of Darwin’s friends) was sharing the spotlight on equal terms with Darwin’s.
Wallace did eventually return to England, make further contributions to biology, and enjoy a long friendship with Darwin. Yes, they disagreed on some points. Yes, creationists took such disagreements at the frontiers as an excuse to claim that the whole enterprise was “just a theory” with no greater plausibility than an extremely literal reading of Genesis as translated from a translation of the original ancient Hebrew. But the Earth had begun to move again. Oh shit, we may not be descendants of a pair of idle nudists who took advice from a snake!
Archimedes in 1858
Darwin and Wallace
found a lever long enough
and a place to stand.
|Greater Bird of Paradise|
- The brief biography of Wallace by Andrew Berry in the September 2015 issue of Natural History is very readable and provides some details I had not known. No access to that issue of the magazine? Pasting a few phrases into search boxes will compensate nowadays. I have zoomed in on June/July of 1858 to elaborate on collaboration technologies (then and now), Darwin’s fairness predicament, and why I applaud the way he resolved it.
- Tim Laman’s many bird of paradise photos are featured in the September 2015 issue of Natural History. The photos that appear here have been cropped to fit well on this page. The originals (and many other splendid photos) can be seen on Tim Laman’s website. Prints can be bought.
- The concluding zinger about Adam and Eve is believed to be original; it is inspired by the edgy absurdist humor in Eric Wong’s blog.