Did Darwin Steal His Theory from Wallace?

This is interesting, if you like disproving creationists’ claims. In London’s Daily Mail, we read Better late than never! Charles Darwin cleared of stealing ideas for theory of evolution … 40 years after historians first accused him. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

Iconic naturalist Charles Darwin has finally been cleared of stealing ideas that helped shape his theory of evolution more than 40 years after historians first accused him.

Researchers assumed Darwin kept a letter from fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, also with theories about natural selection, for two weeks – enabling him to revise elements of his own theory of evolution, before announcing it to the world in July 1858.

That old clunker re-surfaces from time to time, and we mentioned it here: Pat Buchanan Presents Every Creationist Fallacy! Let’s see what the Daily Mail, says:

However, scientists turned detective have now vindicated Darwin from the accusations by tracing historical shipping records to prove he received the letter a month later than previously thought.


He [Wallace] wrote his ideas in an essay, sending it to Darwin in 1858 to be passed on to noted geologist Charles Lyell. Researchers accused Darwin of keeping the letter for two weeks – lying about the date of receipt to give him time to revise his own ideas.

That’s exactly the sort of thing creationists pounce on, as if discrediting the character of a scientist will somehow make his theory go away. Let’s read on:

The controversy all began in 1972 after a researcher found another letter from Wallace to a friend sent on the March 1858 steamer from the island of Ternate in modern Indonesia. The letter still had postmarks from Singapore and London that showed it arrived in London on 3 June 1858 – two weeks before Darwin said he received the essay from Wallace.

Historians could not understand how two letters on the same steamer can travel along the same mail route back to London, yet Darwin did not receive his until two weeks after the other letter arrived. The mystery led to numerous conspiracy theories – including the accusations Darwin stole ideas from the letter, which plagued Darwin’s reputation.

Okay, that’s the accusation. So how was it resolved? We continue:

National University of Singapore researchers – in a paper for Biological Journal of the Linnean Society – began the almost impossible task of tracing the 154 year old letters back to prove Darwin was innocent.

Here’s a link to their paper: A new theory to explain the receipt of Wallace’s Ternate Essay by Darwin in 1858, but you’ll need a subscription to read it. Okay, back to the Daily Mail:

“[I]t occurred to me [said Dr John van Wyhe – a historian of science and Senior Lecturer] to trace the letter from Darwin’s end, rather than Wallace’s. … If Darwin really received it on 18 June- how could it get there? It had come to his house in the countryside from London the day before, the 17th.” … Dr van Wyhe discovered a steamer had arrived in England on the 16th – the day before – with mail from India and South East Asia – Wallace’s letter must have been on that ship instead.

There’s lots of detail in the article, so if this classic “cold case” interests you, click over there and check it out. But even if this gets Darwin off the hook for plagiarism, there remains the lingering suspicion that late in life (six years after the alleged date of his death) he would sneak out of his home, prowl the streets of London, and commit the crimes attributed to Jack the Ripper.

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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11 responses to “Did Darwin Steal His Theory from Wallace?

  1. Oh good. Now I won’t have to be worried about someone calling me a Wallace-ist.

  2. I disagree with Tomato Addict.
    If we could all agree that Darwin had nothing to do with evolution, think of all of those claims that would be empty: Darwin recanting on his deathbed, “Social Darwinism”, etc.

  3. … would be replaced with Wallace recanting on his deathbed*, “Social Wallace-ism”, Wallace-ism is a religion, Wallace-ism is racist, Wallace-ism is responsible for Hitler, etc.. Same song, different verse.

    * Except Wallace went on off the rails later in life. Even so, that would not invalidate Wallace’s earlier theory any more than it invalidates Darwin’s.

  4. As always, those interested in the truth have spelled it out. This is from the very end of the article (my emphasis added):

    Therefore, contrary to the frequent assertions of conspiracy theorists, Darwin did not lie about the receipt of Wallace’s Ternate essay, and in fact sent it on to Lyell the very same day. Hence, we should restore the story of the joint announcement of the theory of evolution by natural selection from the recent version of dishonesty and conspiracy to one of those inspiring cases of cooperation in the history of science.

    The interesting thing about this is how little writing it took to debunk the theory. The article is less than 4 pages, and that includes the reference list (half a page), the title and abstract (another half a page) and a fair amount of empty space for easier reading. Many times, creationists will run off on a Gish Gallop that would take books to refute. Not this time.

  5. Darwin first wrote down his theory of evolution in essay form in 1842, and as a small unpublished book in 1844. These manuscripts were left for safe keeping with his wife Emma and only published by son Francis in 1909, more than 25 years after Darwin’s death. Over the years, Darwin became even more convinced that biological adaptation was a continually acting everyday affair, but otherwise his view of evolution changed little. Darwin’s contribution to the 1858 Darwin-Wallace paper was done hurriedly by cut-and-paste from previous unpublished writings that had been circulated among Charles Lyell, Thomas Huxley and Asa Gray, and others. Nothing new was added. In fact, there was little opportunity to add anything new that had been learned from Wallace. Also, Wallace’s paper was published ‘as is’, so that even in the extremely unlikely event that something was ‘lifted’, Darwin could not have scooped Wallace. Darwin, in any case had been working on evolution by natural selection for 20 years (since 1838), and Wallace for only a few months. To cap things off, at the Darwin-Wallace celebration of 1908, Wallace gave a talk in which he gave full merit for the discovery of evolution to Darwin, and claimed that if he, Wallace, merited any recognition, it was for his scientific contributions after 1858, which I might add, were considerable.

  6. Given Wallace’s public support for Darwin, the creationist trope is almost Python-esque. Instead of the accused witch standing before Cleese saying “I’m not a witch!” you’ve got Wallace practically standing before the creationsts saying “he’s not a thief!”

  7. However, according to the Disco Tute, Wallace was the Father of “intelligent design” creationism except when he wasn’t. In an ironic time machine adventure (Luskin at the controls, of course) Phillip Johnson became the Grandfather of “intelligent design” creationism which made Dembski the Great-great Niece who called himself Lil, but everyone knew him as Nancy.

  8. Eric:Instead of the accused witch standing before Cleese saying “I’m not a witch!” you’ve got Wallace practically standing before the creationsts saying “he’s not a thief!”

    Maybe the wrong movie?

    *** At Work Alert *** just a bit of bad language at 0:30s, but the sentiment is correct.

  9. Sorry Curmie. No more HTML for me this month, I promise. 😦

  10. Tomato Addict says: “No more HTML for me this month, I promise.”

    No problem. It’s fixed, I think.

  11. Ceteris Paribus

    All this historical revisionism makes my mind spin. Didn’t World Net Daily once publish an article that proved Wallace had stealthily stolen the evolution idea from Nikolai Tesla while the inventor was distracted working out Cold Fusion?