The Origin of Species – 150 Years Young

MY DEAR SIR,—The accompanying papers, which we have the honour of communicating to the Linnean Society, and which all relate to the same subject, viz. the Laws which affect the Production of Varieties, Races, and Species, contain the results of the investigations of two indefatigable naturalists, Mr. Charles Darwin and Mr. Alfred Wallace.

These gentlemen having, independently and unknown to one another, conceived the same very ingenious theory to account for the appearance and perpetuation of varieties and of specific forms on our planet, may both fairly claim the merit of being original thinkers in this important line of inquiry; but neither of them having published his views, though Mr. Darwin has for many years past been repeatedly urged by us to do so, and both authors having now unreservedly placed their papers in our hands, we think it would best promote the interests of science that a selection from them should be laid before the Linnean Society. (from Darwin, C. R. and A. R. Wallace. 1858. On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection. [Read 1 July] Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. Zoology 3 (20 August): 46-50.)

On July 1st, 1858, papers by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace that introduced the theory of evolution by natural selection were read before the Linnean Society of London. The reading of these joint papers was the first public introduction of the theory that was to revolutionize biology, but it was hardly an auspicious occasion. The papers were buried within the reading of several other papers following a long session devoted to general business matters of the Society.

The reading of these papers was hurriedly arranged by Darwin’s friends, Sir Charles Lyell and Dr. J. D. Hooker, in response to Darwin’s shock at having received a letter from Wallace describing the same theory that Darwin had been working on in private for almost 20 years. Upon receiving the letter from Wallace, Darwin rushed to complete his summary so that the two papers could be read together and both scientists would receive credit for the discovery.

Darwin and Wallace did not give eloquent lectures to a cheering mass of Linnean Society members; neither scientist was even present. Wallace was still in Malaysia while Darwin was at home grieving with his wife, Emma, over the death of their 19-month-old son, Charles. Members of the Society were read sections of Darwin and Wallace’s notebooks, papers, and letters. According to Society records, at the end, members walked out not so much stunned by new ideas as overwhelmed by the amount of information loaded upon them.

The importance of the theory of evolution by natural selection was not fully appreciated by the world at large until the release the following year of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, which carefully laid out the argument, backed up by the evidence that elegantly supported the theory.

Over the next 18 months, events such as exhibitions and seminars at London’s Natural History Museum as well as student exchanges and scientific meetings across the world, will culminate in a three day conference in Egypt in November 2009. Let the celebration begin!

References

The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online

Copies of the original papers presented by Darwin and Wallace at the Linnean Society of London in 1858

The Origin of Species – downloadable version

Darwin Still Causing Waves After 150 Years

How Darwin Won the Evolution Race

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