Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Origin

One hundred fifty years ago today, a book was published called On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by a British naturalist named Charles Darwin. It sold out on its publication date, and overnight, it changed the way we view our place in the universe.

I've often wondered how much difference it would have made if Darwin hadn't written this book--or, for that matter, if he had never come up with the theory. After all, he's hardly the only one who came up with a theory of evolution by natural selection. Indeed, the theory was first presented coherently as a joint paper by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, in 1858.

The situation with Wallace is especially interesting to me, because of the extreme coincidence. There are many cases in the history of science in which two people came up with nearly identical theories or discoveries at the same time, independently. But Wallace not only came up with the idea without Darwin's help, he sent a letter to Darwin explaining the idea and asking what he thought of it--not knowing that Darwin had already worked it out. What are the odds of that?

So could Wallace have pushed forth the theory as Darwin did? Coincidentally, I ran across Wallace's own answer last night, quoted in an essay by Thomas Henry Huxley:
I have felt all my life, and still feel, the most sincere satisfaction that Mr. Darwin had been at work long before me and that it was not left for me to attempt to write the 'Origin of Species.' I have long since measured my own strength, and know well that it would be quite unequal to that task.

It's hard for me to imagine anyone better suited to this essential task than Charles Darwin was. The world is different now because he wrote.


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