On the Origin of Species — An Early Commentary by Wallace

An early reaction to the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species which was published 150 years ago today. Below is a selection from a letter by Alfred Wallace to his brother-in-law, Thomas Sims. The letter was written while Wallace was still in Indonesia. He had received a copy of the book in February, 1860 — a copy which had been sent by Charles Darwin – “…the Newton of Natural History“.

Delli, Timor. March 15, 1861

Now for Mr. Darwin’s book. You quite misunderstand Mr. D.’s statement in the preface and his sentiments. I have, of course, been in correspondence with him since I first sent him my little essay. His conduct has been most liberal and disinterested. I think anyone who reads the Linnean Society papers and his book will see it. I do back him up in his whole round of conclusions and look upon him as the Newton of Natural History.

You begin by criticising the title. Now, though I consider the title admirable, I believe it is not Mr. Darwin’s but the Publisher’s, as you are no doubt aware that publishers will have a taking title, and authors must and do give way to them. Mr. D. gave me a different title before the book came out. Again, you misquote and misunderstand Huxley, who is a complete convert. Prof. Asa Gray and Dr. Hooker, the two first botanists of Europe and America, are converts. And Lyell, the first geologist living, who has all his life written against such conclusions as Darwin arrives at, is a convert and is about to declare or already has declared his conversion—a noble and almost unique example of a man yielding to conviction on a subject which he has taught as a master all his life, and confessing that he has all his life been wrong.
It is clear that you have not yet sufficiently read the book to enable you to criticise it. It is a book in which every page and almost every line has a bearing on the main argument, and it is very difficult to bear in mind such a variety of facts, arguments and indications as are brought forward. It was only on the fifth perusal that I fully appreciated the whole strength of the work, and as I had been long before familiar with the same subjects I cannot but think that persons less familiar with them cannot have any clear idea of the accumulated argument by a single perusal.

Your objections, so far as I can see anything definite in them, are so fully and clearly anticipated and answered in the book itself that it is perfectly useless my saying anything about them. It seems to me, however, as clear as daylight that the principle of Natural Selection must act in nature. It is almost as necessary a truth as any of mathematics. Next, the effects produced by this action cannot be limited. It cannot be shown that there is any limit to them in nature. Again, the millions of facts in the numerical relations of organic beings, their geographical distribution, their relations of affinity, the modification of their parts and organs, the phenomena of intercrossing, embryology and morphology—all are in accordance with his theory, and almost all are necessary results from it; while on the other theory they are all isolated facts having no connection with each other and as utterly inexplicable and confusing as fossils are on the theory that they are special creations and are not the remains of animals that have once lived. It is the vast chaos of facts, which are explicable and fall into beautiful order on the one theory, which are inexplicable and remain a chaos on the other, which I think must ultimately force Darwin’s views on any and every reflecting mind. Isolated difficulties and objections are nothing against this vast cumulative argument. The human mind cannot go on for ever accumulating facts which remain unconnected and without any mutual bearing and bound together by no law. The evidence for the production of the organic world by the simple laws of inheritance is exactly of the same nature as that for the production of the present surface of the earth—hills and valleys, plains, rocks, strata, volcanoes, and all their fossil remains—by the slow and natural action of natural causes now in operation. The mind that will ultimately reject Darwin must (to be consistent) reject Lyell also. The same arguments of apparent stability which are thought to disprove that organic species can change will also disprove any change in the inorganic world, and you must believe with your forefathers that each hill and each river, each inland lake and continent, were created as they stand, with their various strata and their various fossils—all appearances and arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. I can only recommend you to read again Darwin’s account of the horse family and its comparison with pigeons; and if that does not convince and stagger you, then you are unconvertible. I do not expect Mr. Darwin’s larger work will add anything to the general strength of his argument. It will consist chiefly of the details (often numerical) and experiments and calculations of which he has already given the summaries and results. It will therefore be more confusing and less interesting to the general reader. It will prove to scientific men the accuracy of his details, and point out the sources of his information, but as not one in a thousand readers will ever test these details and references the smaller work will remain for general purposes the best….

Extracted from the Project Gutenberg E-Book of Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences, Vol. 1 (of 2), by James Marchant

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One Comment to “On the Origin of Species — An Early Commentary by Wallace”

  1. Apparently this is the first recorded response from Wallace after reading Origin, written in his copy of the publication resulting from the joint papers in 1858:http://www.flickr.com/photos/7230309@N05/4077275490/sizes/o/in/set-72157622615069269/

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