You’ll be hearing more about Alfred Russel Wallace in coming days. A new documentary short by John West, Darwin’s Heretic, debuts online this Saturday, January 21. And next week here at ENV, Wallace biographer (In Darwin’s Shadow) and Skeptic magazine founding publisher Michael Shermer and I will debate the question of whether Wallace, evolutionary theory’s co-founder, would be an intelligent-design advocate if here were alive today.
In an article recently published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, Roy Davies (author of The Darwin Conspiracy) offers a reprise of his argument that Darwin plagiarized from Wallace’s now-famous letter sent from the Island of Ternate in early 1858, “On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type,” forever casting its author as the co-discoverer of natural selection. Davies makes much of the post date of the paper being March 9 and not April 5 as claimed by John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker in their paper, “A new theory to explain the receipt of Wallace’s Ternate essay by Darwin in 1858.”
According to Davies, Darwin likely received the letter on June 3 and not June 18 as he claimed. During the interval Davies suggests that “Darwin added 66 new pages on the subject of divergence.” Even assuming all this is true, calling it plagiarism is debatable. After all, the first edition of Origin was 490 typeset pages long. Besides, it is possible to accept the March 9 post date and still take Darwin’s word for it that the letter didn’t arrive until June 18, as Ross A. Slotten has done in The Heretic in Darwin’s Court (2004) and Iain McCalman more recently in Darwin’s Armada (2009).
The irony is that Davies is as fretful about all this as was Darwin himself when he received Wallace’s letter (whenever that was). Least concerned of all was Wallace himself. For all of Darwin’s panicked worry over being scooped, “he [Darwin] happened to have” in Wallace, as C. F. A. Pantin noted during the Origin centennial, “a man of that rare natural magnanimity for whom priority meant little.” Of the joint reading of his paper at the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, Wallace recalled, “I not only approved, but felt that they had given me more honor and credit than I deserved, by putting my sudden intuition — hastily written and immediately sent off for the opinion of Darwin and Lyell — on the same level with the prolonged labors of Darwin, who had reached the same point twenty years before me.”
Perhaps more importantly, the plagiarism charge misses the crucial fact that Wallace’s theory of natural selection as contained in that letter was actually far more distinct from Darwin’s than Darwin first perceived, something that has not gone unnoticed by numerous scholars since then (e.g., Slotten, Martin Fichman, Jean Gayon).
Finally, and most significantly of all, Wallace would break from Darwin in 1869 and develop a theory of intelligent evolution that in many ways presaged modern intelligent design theory. Rather than see the relationship of the Darwin/Wallace theories of natural selection merely in terms of priority, it is critical to appreciate the very different trajectories taken by the two naturalists.