Olivia Judson: Darwinmania!

[Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist, is the author of “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex,” which was made into a three-part television program. Ms. Judson has been a reporter for The Economist and has written for a number of other publications, including Nature, The Financial Times, The Atlantic and Natural History. She is a research fellow in biology at Imperial College London.]

The party is about to begin.

In a week or so, the trumpets will sound, heralding the start of 18 months of non-stop festivities in honor of Charles Darwin. July 1, 2008, is the 150th anniversary of the first announcement of his discovery of natural selection, the main driving force of evolution. Since 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (Feb. 12), as well as being the 150th anniversary of the publication of his masterpiece, “On the Origin of Species” (Nov. 24), the extravaganza is set to continue until the end of next year. Get ready for Darwin hats, t-shirts, action figures, naturally selected fireworks and evolving chocolates. Oh, and lots of books and speeches.

But hold on. Does he deserve all this? He wasn’t, after all, the first person to suggest that evolution happens. For example, his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, speculated about it towards the end of the 18th century; at the beginning of the 19th, the great French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck made a strong case for it. Lamarck, however, failed to be generally persuasive because he didn’t have a plausible mechanism — he could see that evolution takes place, but he didn’t know how. That had to wait until the discovery of natural selection.

Natural selection is what we normally think of as Darwin’s big idea. Yet he wasn’t the first to discover that, either. At least two others — a doctor called William Wells, and a writer called Patrick Matthew — discovered it years before Darwin did. Wells described it (admittedly briefly) in 1818, when Darwin was just 9; Matthew did so in 1831, the year that Darwin set off on board HMS Beagle for what became a five-year voyage around the world.

It was a few months after returning from this voyage that Darwin first began to consider seriously the possibility of evolution, or the “transmutation of species.” At this time he knew nothing of Wells’s and Matthew’s accounts of natural selection; indeed, both accounts languished in obscurity until after the “Origin” was published. (After the “Origin” appeared, Matthew wrote to a magazine to draw attention to his statements on the subject; he then proceeded to put “Discoverer of the Principle of Natural Selection” on the title pages of his books. This annoyed Darwin.)

By 1858, Darwin had spent more than 20 years studying plants and animals and thinking about evolution. He had filled notebook after notebook with his thoughts on how evolution works; he had, in 1844, written a short manuscript on the subject that was to be published in the event of his untimely death; and he had discussed evolution with a few close friends. But he had published nothing. (He had, however, published books on several other subjects, including an exhaustive study of barnacles, both living and extinct.) Then, in June of that year, Darwin received a package from a young man named Alfred Russel Wallace; in the package, Wallace enclosed a brief manuscript in which he outlined the principle of evolution by natural selection.

What happened next is famous in the history of biology. On July 1, 1858, Wallace’s manuscript, as well as a couple of short statements on natural selection by Darwin (a segment of the 1844 manuscript, and part of a letter he’d written in 1857), were read at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London. The meeting had been organized by some of Darwin’s scientific friends to establish his priority in the discovery.

Of the material presented that night, the manuscript by Wallace is, in some respects, the more impressive: it is clearer and more accessible. Yet it is Darwin we celebrate; it is Darwin who, like a god in a temple, sits in white marble and presides over the main hall at the Natural History Museum in London. Why?..

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