Wednesday, June 18, 2008


150 Years Ago

On June 18, 1858, Charles Darwin received a manuscript from an obscure naturalist on an extended stay in the Indonesian Archipelago as a freelance collector of specimens for shipment back to England.

The paper by Alfred Russel Wallace, "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type," later to become generally known as the "Ternate Paper" for the island it was written on, was intended for transmittal to Darwin's friend and mentor, Charles Lyell. Having corresponded with Darwin on a few occasions and having been encouraged by the older man, Wallace made so bold as to ask Darwin to send along the paper to the great man.

The story from there is familiar enough. One interesting fact, less well known, is that there was significant differences between Wallace's version of natural selection and Darwin's. Wallace saw selection acting mostly at the species level, improving the reproductive success of species as a whole, while Darwin saw selection working at the level of individual organisms. While Darwin won the day on that point and it is still the predominant view, the notion of "species selection" has not gone away and many believe it is a significant evolutionary mechanism.

There is no question that Darwin was the greater scientist of the two, but no matter. Between them they had a great effect on human understanding. That's enough reason to remember nice round numbers like today.

Via The Dispersal of Darwin.

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