Tag Archives: Alfred Russel Wallace

Charles Darwin’s plan for Origin of Species – and his luck

It helps to have a plan. It also helps to have luck.

Charles Darwin had both.

In fact, Paul Johnson, one of Darwin’s many biographers (Darwin: Portrait of a Genius), calls Darwin the luckiest man of his age.

The luck

Darwin’s stokes of luck began when he was born into a wealthy family — the kind of wealth that would free him to pursue his scientific research without worrying about feeding and housing himself or his family. Darwin came of age when science and scientists were creating new foundations for human knowledge, and many people were participating in building these foundations with avid enthusiasm. Darwin became part of this movement and exhibited a demeanor and temperament that attracted people to him.

Charles Darwin

He took great care in developing those friendships. One of the many friendships was with Sir Charles Lyell, a geologist whose book The Principles of Geology (1832), argued that scientific evidence showed that the earth, without any doubt whatsoever, was thousands, maybe millions, of years old. Such an argument flew directly in the face of Biblical scholars and theologians who had used the Old Testament to set the time of creation as occurring only about four to six thousand years before.

Over the years, Lyell became aware of the work that Darwin was doing, and he — as had others in Darwin’s retinue — urged him to publish his work identifying natural selection as the process whereby living organisms evolved.

But Darwin hesitated. He feared the rejection of his ideas by his colleagues, and he feared the reaction of Emma Darwin, his devout and devoted wife. (See The Three Fears of Charles Darwin, an earlier post of JPROF.com.)

Then came what biographer Johnson called “the greatest stroke of good fortune” in Darwin’s “remarkably lucky life.” (p.76)

Darwin received a letter and manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace, a scientific researcher who was looking at natural life in the Pacific. Wallace was coming to the same conclusion that Darwin had reached — that the method of evolution was natural selection. Darwin shared Wallace’s correspondence with Lyell. The geologist knew that Darwin had written a paper about natural selection that pre-dated Wallace’s manuscript. Lyell and other friends of Darwin arranged to have both Darwin’s and Wallace’s manuscript read together at a scientific meeting, thus establishing that Darwin was first with the idea.

The meeting itself drew little notice, and the audience had difficulty in understanding the meaning and significance of the paper, but the record was there.

Wallace’s correspondence was what spurred Darwin to write Origin of Species. Darwin had envisioned a multivolume work that would be published over several years. Wallace’s work precluded that — another lucky stroke for Darwin. Origin of Species was a well-written, tightly argued, and thoroughly understandable book when it came out in November 1859.

The plan

Darwin’s basic marketing plan, according to Johnson, was to let others promote the book while never appearing to do so himself. He planned to be drafted into immortality. And so he was.

Darwin had studied the work on many others as he was developing his theory, and he referred to their work with generous praise in his book. It is difficult to criticize the work of a man who praises your own. Besides, Darwin had many genuine admirers, among them Charles Lyell, of course, who held a public meeting to announce the publication of the book and to explain its significance. Asa Gray at Harvard was Darwin’s chief American supporter, and he did the same thing even before the book was available in America. In addition, he wrote a long review of the book for Atlantic Monthly magazine, one of the most influential publications in the country. Darwin had the review reprinted and distributed in Great Britain.

Given the nature of the book and the controversy it stirred up — and continues to engender more than a century and a half later — Origin of Species attracted little hostility in the first months of its publication.

That would come later.

By then, Darwin was where he wanted to be. He was the world’s most eminent scientist.



The three fears of Charles Darwin and the writing of The Origin of Species

Three fears haunted Charles Darwin during the 15 years it took him to write and publish his history-changing work, The Origin of Species.

Two of them slowed his writing down. He feared that his work would be dismissed by the fellow scientists for whom it was written. That would have been a humiliation that he did not believe he could stand.

He also feared what his wife, a deeply religious woman, would think.

The final fear had the opposite effect from the first two. It drove him to finish and finish quickly.

He feared getting scooped.

Charles Darwin

All three of those fears were far worse in Darwin’s mind than they turned out in reality. Darwin had been a working scientist for more than a quarter of a century at that point. He was careful, meticulous, and thorough — far more thorough than he needed to be. Darwin spent years collecting evidence to support his theory and ended up with far more evidence than he needed.

During all of that time, Darwin carefully cultivated many friendships and relationships among scientists. He spent much time reading and responding to papers sent to him by other scientists. He gentle and gentlemanly manner often won people over even when they did not agree with his solutions.

When Origin of Species was published in November 1859, it was favorably and sometimes glowingly reviewed by many of the people who knew him and his work very well. The reception of the book, both by the public and by fellow scientists, was immensely favorable.

As to the second fear — Darwin’s wife’s reaction — he had taken some pains to alleviate what might be a problem. He had been careful not to deal with human evolution in this book. The idea of evolution had been a matter of public and scientific discussion for a while, and the idea that man had “descended” from apes was already in the public’s mind. But Darwin did not say that, and the Church of England’s response to the book was initially fairly mild.

Darwin’s wife Emma rejoiced at Charles’ good fortune in having the book so well received. According to Paul Johnson’s biography of Darwin (Darwin: Portrait of a Genius):

She was a loyal wife, and her support and evident approval of the book as a work of professional scholarship removed a huge burden from Darwin’s shoulders. (p. 95)

Darwin’s third fear arrived in the form of a letter and a manuscript in the late spring of 1858 from Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace had been researching the development of species along the same lines as Darwin and was coming to the same “natural selection” conclusion. Darwin has first outlined his idea of natural selection in 1839 and had expanded its explanations in 1844. Darwin could thus claim that he had the idea first.

But the claim would be meaningless unless he formalized the idea and published it in a book.

Darwin quickly set to work that summer. He had envisioned a multi-volume work that would include much of his research.  Now he had to summarize it in one tight volume. And he had to do it quickly. In the words of biographer Johnson:

. . . Wallace’s intervention was an astounding stroke of luck for Darwin, typical of the good fortune that attended him throughout his life. For it did stir him into action of precisely the kind required. He began to write, with all deliberate speed, a general account of evolution by natural selection, that could be understood by the public and contained to one reasonable-sized volume. (p. 79)

The book was ready by the fall of 1859 and was published on November 22. The first printing of 1,200 sold out in a day. It continued to sell and has not been out of print for more than 150 years.

Nothing about how mankind viewed its origins would ever be the same.


Note on Alfred Russel Wallace: Wallace was doing research in South Asia when Darwin’s book was published, but he never felt that Darwin had cheated him out of the proper credit for the idea of natural selection. Wallace continued his line of research, and he and Darwin remained cordial for the remainder of their lives. Watch this five-minute video about Wallace by the BBC’s Richard Attenborough.