Should Darwin be Given all of the Credit for the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection?

Here’s a Charles Darwin caricature/cartoon that I executed recently for the cover of the magazine Philosophy Now.
As you can see, the cartoon is about Darwin and the theory of evolution by natural selection.

It’s hard to miss Darwin’s presence this year, 2009, what with it being the bicentennary of his birth and 150 years since the publication of On The Origin Of Species.
The illustration is based on a redrawn version of the famous cartoon depicting Darwin as an ape.
Who’s the character in the branches in the background though? What’s he doing there in Darwin’s cartoon?
He’s Alfred Russel Wallace.
Wallace conceived of the theory of evolution by natural selection totally independently of Darwin. Yet he hardly ever gets any of the credit for the theory.
It’s true that Darwin came up with the idea first, but he then sat on it for many years fearing the consequences of putting it out into the world. It was only when Wallace wrote to Darwin explaining his own ideas on the subject that Darwin realised that he’d better get into print soon.
Don’t get the idea that Darwin rushed into print with On The Origin Of Species in order to claim the fame. Darwin was a very decent man by all accounts, and the first public presentation of the theory of evolution by natural selection was actually a joint effort by Darwin and Wallace together. They produced a joint paper titled ‘On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection’, which they presented to the Linnean Society in London in 1858. Strangely, despite the bombshells in the paper, its presentation to the society went almost unnoticed, even within the society. Shame on them!
Darwin published On The Origin Of Species a year later and this time its implications were noted. The rest is history.

Now it’s time for me to go a little iconoclastic.
The fact that Wallace, himself a respected scientist, came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection independently of Darwin means that even if Darwin hadn’t come up with the theory it would nevertheless still have been with us today – thanks to Wallace. I’d actually go further than that, and say that even if Wallace hadn’t come up with the idea either the theory would still be with us, as someone else would have devised it very soon.
The early to mid nineteenth century seems to have been the time when things were just right for the theory to be conceived of. It was in the air. It’s the same with many theories, inventions, discoveries and other products of human endeavour. There may be only a matter of weeks between one person coming up with an idea (and thus becoming immortalised as the idea’s originator) and someone else coming up with it (and thus being forgotten forever). Due to this tendency of ideas to be ‘in the air’ I’m not actually very keen on attributing whole theories, discoveries or inventions to individual people, geniuses though they may be.
On top of this, I’ve now lost count of the number of times that I’ve discovered that a particular idea that’s always been attributed to a particular person was thought up years (or even centuries) earlier by someone else, but that that person either couldn’t prove it or publicise it (or wasn’t such an effective self-publicist). (Note: Darwin definitely didn’t fall into the self-publicist category, being a man of great humility.)
I suppose we like to attribute ideas to specific individuals because it helps us to humanise history, but that doesn’t stop it being a slightly skewed way to look at things, and it’s definitely unfair to all of those ‘almost’ people who were a week late with their ideas.

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4 Comments

Filed under Cartoons

4 responses to “Should Darwin be Given all of the Credit for the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection?

  1. Hello Chris, We’re creating a podcast of a science talk that used your cartoon of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. May we have your permission to use the cartoon in the podcast? It will be posted on our website, possibly on other NASA sites and maybe iTunes U, etc.

    Thanks for your consideration.
    Wendy Dolci
    NASA Astrobiology Institute

  2. lydia holden

    I agree with your comments and love the cartoon. I suggest that humans seem to have a need for an alpha male to look up to, hence the lionisation of figures like Darwin, Einstein, etc. There isn’t room for more than one person to be revered. I don’t think that we are so ready to idolise females though. At the end of the day it’s all about who is the fittest male! He gets the lions share.

  3. Merri

    Totally agree that Wallace does not get the credit he deserves. But Wallace was poor and unknown without the connections Darwin had. If he had published his MUCH shorter paper, it most likely would not have gotten the publicity needed for such an amazing theory, and been forgotten for future generations to rediscover as so often happens ( think Mendel ). I think Wallace got hosed, but at the same time, the joint presentation helped him in much the way that he lit the fire under Darwin, who possibly may have kept revising “Origin” until he died. At least Wallace got a geographic line named after him.

  4. Gerrell Drawhorn

    Most people don’t realize that Darwin was already well on his way to publicizing his three volume magnum opus entitled “Natural Selection”. The “Origin” was an abridement of THAT. It was already being reviewed by his editor and most of the chapters on the theoretical aspects of Natural Selection were completed by the time that Darwin received Wallace’s letter. A dozen or more scientists knew about Darwin’s ideas (Darwin explained them in letters, and as far back as 1842 he had written a 128 page essay on the topic, in case he died before the “big book” was written).

    Wallace and Darwin wrote many letters back and forth and it’s quite possible that Darwin played a role in Wallace considering individual variation and selection as critical to evolutionary change. For example, Wallace knew that Darwin was looking at the development of domesticated varieties to explain evolution. He wrote Darwin and stated that he did not feel that they were completely analogous. So Darwin set a fire under Wallace as much as the opposite, in fact, Wallace was much more intellectually stimulated and directed to natural selection by Darwin than vice-versa. And both men used earlier writers, like Lyell, as common points to critique.

    I suspect that Wallace recognized his intellectual debt to Darwin and that’s why he considered Darwin deserving of the greater credit. In fact he entitled his own main theoretical work on the subject “Darwinism” (rather than “Natural Selection” or “Evolution”).

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