Tuesday, July 01, 2008
On July 1, 1858, the theory of evolution by natural selection was first announced to the world. Although it had been broached to a few friends of Charles Darwin before then, and Alfred Russel Wallace's Ternate Paper had been seen by Darwin, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, the theory first met the official light of day at a meeting of the Linnean Society.
The arrangements were made in haste by Lyell and Hooker, who intended to establish Darwin's priority in devising the theory. There were a number of reasons for choosing the Linnean, not least of which was that there was a meeting coming up soon. The meeting had been rescheduled from an earlier date to accommodate giving honors to a former president of the society who had recently died. As Janet Browne describes in the second volume of her monumental biography of Darwin, The Power of Place, there were others:
They chose the Linnean for entirely opportunistic reasons. Lyell, Hooker, and Darwin were all fellows of the society and council members (Darwin was elected to the council in May 1858). Hooker virtually ran the journal and saw the programme secretary constantly. All three were friends of the current president, Thomas Bell, and other officials and members. With these connections Lyell and Hooker could reasonably expect to have their way, much more so than if they had set their sights on the Royal Society of London, for example, hemmed in with the formal structure of timetables, referees, and the unspoken conventions appropriate to the leading natural philosophical body in the country; or the Zoological Society, where the atmosphere was edgy and the fellows prone to argue. Elsewhere in London, the Botanical Society was almost moribund, the Royal Institution in Albermarle Street preferred lecturers to present their own results, the Geological Society did not usually regard living organisms as suitable topics, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its meeting annually, in a different city every year, with the timetable prepared months in advance.Darwin was distracted at the time, as his infant son Charles had fallen ill with scarlet fever and died on June 28th. On the 29th, Darwin gathered up some materials to be presented at the meeting and forwarded them to Hooker. Darwin was despondent:
I have just read your letter & see you want papers at once. I am quite prostrated & can do nothing, but I send Wallace & my abstract of abstract [sic] of letter to Asa Gray, which gives most imperfectly only the means of change & does not touch on reasons for believing species do change. I daresay all is too late. I hardly care about it. But you are too generous to sacrifice so much time & kindness.-- It is most generous, most kind. I send sketch of 1844 solely that you may see by your own handwriting that you did read it. -- I really cannot bear to look at it. -- Do not waste much time. It is miserable in me to care at all about priority.The sketch, with Hooker's own comments in pencil from a viewing he had of it in 1844 or 1845, established that Darwin had long had the basic idea for natural selection. The letter to Gray, still showing priority, incorporated some shifts in Darwin's thinking resulting from his work since 1844. More than just their usefulness in establishing Darwin's claim to preeminence, they also represented about the only material Darwin was able to present on short notice to explain the broad sense of his theory, itself a rather surprising fact:
I always thought it very possible that I might be forestalled, but I fancied that I had a grand enough soul not to care; but I found myself mistaken and punished ...Darwin had thought himself above all that and had been unprepared. He probably believed genuinely that he was not vain, but he was not above pride in his intellectual child. He could not forswear paternity of that.
By Hooker's account, the reading of the papers met a subdued reaction during the meeting, which was long and attended by about only twenty-five members who were really there to hear Lyell praise the deceased former president of the society. Some of the members surely would have recognized the importance of the work and could have worked out at least some of the implications. Still, Bell, in his presidential address in May of the following year, some five months before the storm was to break with the first publication of the Origin of Species, could say:
The year which has passed, has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear.There may never have been a worse assessment made in the history of science.