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Before the Origin, part 1 in a series

Sixteen months before the publication of Origin of Species, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace issued a joint communication to the Journal of the Linnean Society on the process of natural selection. (The Journal, like the Society, still exists today, though with a rather different style and organization than obtained in the original.)

Some readers may already be aware of the history behind the Darwin-Wallace joint publication: After some twenty years of (unpublished) observation, analysis, and hypothesis, focused in no small part by his reading of Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population, Darwin received a letter from Wallace. This letter went far beyond Wallace's previous publications and revealed that he had been working very much in parallel with Darwin, right down to the catalyst of Malthus' work. It was clear to Darwin that Wallace's work should be published, but what about his own work? After some frenetic correspondence with friends, Darwin wrote up some notes of his own, which were appended to Wallace's letter. The two were then read to the Linnean Society as a joint submission.

This communication received some response from the scientific community, but astonishingly little by comparison to the commentary that would come in response to the Origin. This is perhaps because while the Darwin-Wallace papers describe the same basic process that Darwin addresses in the Origin, they do so with very different emphasis. The process of natural selection is treated primarily as a means of describing the relationship between varieties and species, rather than as the mechanism behind a radical evolutionary account of life.

Most naturalists treated the evolutionary aspect of the theory as mere imaginative speculation; they were far more concerned with problems of speciation and variation, then the central subject of debate in naturalism. In the early 19th century, most gentleman naturalists were completely dismissive of the doctrine of transmutation - evolutionary theories were associated with radicalism and unorthodox theology.

It was not until Thomas Wollaston published his On the Variation of Species that the idea emerged into the theater of respectable debate at all, and even then the argument was not over the issues that the author himself had intended. What were these issues, and why were they ignored? For the answers to these questions, dear reader, you must wait until the next installment.

Next: Natural theology and Thomas Wollaston, respectable gentleman naturalist.
Next after that: The case of Henry Baker Tristram, "the only naturalist who truly understood natural selection before the Origin."

Source material: Richard England. "Natural Selection Before the Origin: Public Reactions of Some Naturalists to the Darwin-Wallace Papers (Thomas Boyd, Arthur Hussey, and Henry Baker Tristram)." Journal of the History of Biology 30 (1997): 267-290.

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