Field of Science

Evolutionary theory is too Darwin's legacy

As we prepare for the big celebration tomorrow of Darwin's 200th birthday, it is all right and proper that we lay all concerns about the originality of Darwin's theory of speciation by natural selection to rest.

Michael Shermer, author of the biography of Alfred Russel Wallace, In Darwin’s Shadow, writes last week in Forbes Magazine an article with the intent of doing just that.

An excerpt:
The extreme interpretation of a conspiratorial cover-up is not supported by the evidence. If Darwin were going to rig (or allow to be rigged) the editorial presentation of the papers to award him priority; or worse, plagiarize from Wallace certain key ideas (the principle of the divergence of species has been suggested), why announce the arrival of Wallace's paper and submit it for publication in the first place?

Why not either just take what was needed or, if Wallace's paper added nothing new to the theory, destroy it and the cover letter and blame the loss on an inefficient postal service? If one is going to accuse Darwin of such devious finagling--or worse, plagiarizing--then would not the same guileful and scheming personality think of complete elimination of Wallace's essay as a successful strategy?
Shermer concludes that Darwin does deserve full credit for his discovery of natural selection, but there does exist objections that both Patrick Matthew & William Charles Wells had the idea of natural selection before both Wallace & Darwin. Darwin recognized Wells' insight after he published his and Wallace's idea in 1858, & apparently knew about the idea of natural selection from Edward Blyth, who only considered NS as a preserving force, eliminating variation & thus not contributing to the origin of new species.

In other words, other men arrived at the idea of natural selection all independently & prior to both Wallace and Darwin, but they didn't influence Darwin's thinking, because he didn't know about them, in the case of Matthew and Wells, and in the case of Blyth there was no understanding of the importance of NS as a driver of speciation. Today, this difference is recognized by saying that natural selection decreases variation within a population, but increases variation between populations.

On the contrary, another man who Darwin professed being directly inspired by was the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, who in his famous work An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798, does not formulate the idea of natural selection, but rather explores the economic consequences of rapid/unlimited population growth - the consequence of which is that natural selection rears its ugly head, and poverty ensues. The parallel to natural populations is (& probably was to Darwin) self-evident.

Let me tell you a true story, my friend Jack. True story. In 2000 I came up with the idea of a free-access social networking website. I even made one, programming the whole thing myself, & it had several members (like 7, I think it was). I'm pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg didn't know about it, but does that matter? Who should be given credit for the idea? Me, having had the idea but left it alone to pursue other more important things? Or Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook, which is now the premier social networking site with more than 150 million active users?

Darwin's should be celebrated this year not because he was the first to think of natural selection, but because he was the first to recognize its importance as a driver of evolutionary change. It was via Darwin that the idea became every man's property, and this is what we can and should acknowledge. Oh, and it is his birthday.

Ernst Mayr said it thus.
Patrick Matthew undoubtedly had the right idea, just like Darwin did on September 28, 1838, but he did not devote the next twenty years to converting it into a cogent theory of evolution. As a result it had no impact whatsoever.
Disclaimer: While I acknowledge that Darwin was the one who founded evolutionary theory 150 years ago, I am not saying that the theory of evolution hasn't changed since then. It has changed so much that neither Darwin nor Wallace would recognize it today. The integration of evolution with genetics, developmental biology, geography, geology, physics (more?) has completely transformed the theory, which we consequently no longer designate as 'Darwinism.'


  1. I think Mayr's point is right. It's all well and good coming up with the idea over coffee one day - that's the easy bit. It's amassing the proof and logical arguments to sustain it that's the difficult but. Wallace accepted that reality:

    At the 50th-anniversary celebration of the 1858 joint communication, Wallace said Darwin deserved the glory. He noted that Darwin had spent two decades developing the theory, while Wallace had spent a week. "I was then, as often since, the 'young man in a hurry'; he, the painstaking and patient student, seeking ever the full demonstration of the truth that he had discovered, rather than to achieve immediate personal fame," Wallace said.

  2. 1. Bjorn, it's Alfred Russel Wallace, not Arthur Wallace (and not evo-devoist Wallace Arthur).

    2. Many consider Darwin to have not conceived of speciation. This was clarified by Mayr later on, who added a more geographical view. Of course very recently, there has been increased support for "ecological speciation", which is speciation driven by natural selection.

    3. Global common descent is truly Darwin's greatest original contribution, although I saw a citation to something by Wallace in 1855 that I have to track down.

  3. Thanks, Todd. Fixed #1. I did not read The origin of Species, but I was sure that it was his idea that the diversification is driven by selection. Isn't that so?

  4. Did Ernst Mayr actually write "like Darwin did" instead of the correct "as Darwin did"?

  5. sciencenotes, I cannot say whether Mayr used 'like' or 'as'.


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