The name of Charles Darwin is firmly attached to the science of evolution, but if it hadn’t been for one coincidence, maybe someone else would have been more famous.
(I’ve noticed that the religious nuts who deny the occurrence of evolution often use the term “Darwinism” instead of “evolution”, as though it’s easier to dismiss it if it’s the theory of one man. That’s wishful thinking though.)
It’s not entirely unfair that Charles Darwin gets the credit. Some of the ideas on evolution had been discussed for quite some time previously (his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had written a treatise on evolution, The Temple of Nature. In the form of a long poem.) But Charles Darwin was the first to come up with a coherent theory which included natural selection.
The Darwins were rich, and Charles never had to work for a living. He went to the same university as I did, except that I actually got a degree. His famous voyages were paid for by his father. But Charles was a meticulous observer and an intelligent and talented scientist. When he returned from his travels and wrote up a synthesis of his theories, that was pretty much the theory of evolution worked out. It was done by the early 1840s.
He didn’t publish though. Perhaps he was too timid about the possibility of a controversy, perhaps desperate to do more studies to build up the evidence. His close friend, the geologist Charles Lyell, was familiar with Darwin’s ongoing work, and in 1855 spotted a paper published by a young naturalist in Borneo, Alfred Russel Wallace, which showed thinking along the same lines.
Wallace wasn’t rich. He’d had to drop out of grammar school when his family could no longer afford it, but learned surveying and map making as an apprentice under his brother. He worked in various jobs, in surveying, civil engineering and teaching, but at the age of 25, left for Brazil to become a professional collector of natural history specimens to sell to armchair naturalists in England. The business was never very successful, and Wallace was always on the brink of bankruptcy, but he learned a great deal and became a respected scientist. (Or at least, reasonably-well respected, for he was not, of course, a gentleman.)
Wallace sent Darwin his new paper on the theory of evolution in 1858, asking for his advice on whether it was fit for publication. The content was so close to Darwin’s own unpublished theories that it put him in a dilemma. If he did the decent thing and recommended that Wallace’s paper be published (because it was top-class work), then Darwin would lose priority and could not claim to be the discoverer of evolution by natural selection.
If, on the other hand, he now rushed his own theory into print first, the scientific world would never know how much was original and how much had been inspired by Wallace.
At the suggestion of Lyell, a solution was reached where Darwin summarised his own material into a new paper, and both his and Wallace’s were published together as a joint presentation to the Linnean Society.
If Wallace had decided to consult someone other than Darwin, or had submitted his paper for publication directly to one of the scientific journals, then it might have appeared in print before Darwin knew of it. We might today talk of “Wallace’s Theory of Evolution”.
Alfred Russel Wallace, OM, FRS (8th January 1823 – 7th November 1913)