Darwin and Wallace
Much has been written about the ‘co-discovery’ of natural selection by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, and some have argued that Wallace received insufficient credit. Letters exchanged between Darwin and his close friends, Joseph Dalton Hooker and Charles Lyell, show that Darwin, who had worked on the theory for twenty years, was very upset at the prospect of losing priority to Wallace, while at the same time wanting to acknowledge Wallace’s contribution fully. The initial presentation of the theory through joint papers at the Linnean Society of London, and presided over by Lyell and Hooker, reveals much about the social structure of Victorian science. Wallace would become one of Darwin’s most valued correspondents and their relationship was one of strong mutual respect and support despite important theoretical, political, and religious differences.
Letter 2285 — Darwin, C. R. to Lyell, Charles, 18 [June 1858]
Darwin writes to Lyell and encloses a manuscript by naturalist A. R. Wallace. Darwin has been forestalled. “ . . . if Wallace had my MS sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract!” Wallace does not say if he wishes Darwin to publish the MS, but Darwin will offer to send it to journal.
Letter 2294 — Darwin, C. R. to Lyell, Charles, [25 June 1858]
Darwin writes to Lyell saying that everything in Wallace’s sketch also appears in his sketch of 1844. A year ago Darwin sent a short sketch of his views to Asa Gray. Can Darwin honourably publish his sketch now that Wallace has sent an outline of his views? He concludes: “I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man shd. think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit.” He does not believe Wallace originated his views from anything Darwin wrote to him.
Letter 2295 — Darwin, C. R. to Lyell, Charles, 26 [June 1858]
Darwin writes to Lyell and wonders: is it fair to take advantage of knowing that Wallace is in the field? It seems hard on Darwin to lose priority after so many years, but he does not feel this alters the justice of case.
Letter 2306 — Darwin, C. R. to Hooker, J. D., 13 [July 1858]
Darwin writes to Hooker, saying his letter to Wallace is perfect. Darwin explains his feelings about priority. He says without Lyell’s and Hooker’s intervention, he would have given up all claims to Wallace. He is now planning a 30-page abstract for a journal.
Letter 2337 — Wallace, A. R. to Hooker, J. D., 6 Oct 1858
Darwin thanks Hooker and Lyell for the actions they have taken with respect to Wallace’s and his papers. He considers himself fortunate to have been given any merit for his work. Darwin is pleased that his correspondence has led to the earlier publication of his work. It would have caused him “much pain & regret” if his work had made Wallace’s paper public unaccompanied by his own views.
Letter 6024 — Wallace, A. R. to Darwin, C. R., 19 Mar 1868
Wallace writes to Darwin with a number of requests: for a photograph, a carte, for Darwin’s son to answer a query, and an invitation to discuss sterility of natural species and natural selection. He claims that closely allied forms from adjacent islands offer best chance of finding good species fertile inter se. He also discusses the problem of minute variations and sexual selection.
Letter 6033 — Darwin, C. R. to Wallace, A. R., [21 Mar 1868]
Darwin lets Wallace know he has sent the query to his son, will send a photo, and a carte. On problem of sterility, Darwin cannot persuade himself that it has been gained by natural selection. On sexual selection and minute variations, he tends to agree with Wallace. He sends George Darwin’s notes on Wallace’s argument.
Letter 6045 — Wallace, A. R. to Darwin, C. R., 24 Mar 
Wallace returns George Darwin’s criticisms of his notes on sterility and sends further notes in reply. He writes that since there are degrees of sterility between varieties, “is it not probable that natural selection can accumulate these variations?” He believes that varieties that are adapted to new conditions could then survive and form new species without being isolated.
Letter 6058 — Darwin, C. R. to Wallace, A. R., 27 Mar 
Darwin writes to Wallace saying his son “has failed in your problem & says that it is ‘excessively difficult’.” He claims that there are so many doubtful points on the problems relating to sterility that they will never agree.
Letter 6095 — Darwin, C. R. to Wallace, A. R., 6 Apr 
Darwin writes to Wallace on the “terrible problem” of natural selection and sterility. Darwin analyses and answers Wallace in detail in defence of his conclusion that sterility cannot be increased through natural selection.
Letter 6104 — Wallace, A. R. to Darwin, C. R., 8 [Apr] 1868
Wallace says if Darwin is not convinced by his notes on sterility, Wallace has little doubt that he is wrong. In fact, he was only half-convinced by his own arguments. Wallace modifies his first proposition [a species varies occasionally in two directions, but owing to free inter-crossing the variations never increase] and further discusses the subject. Wallace encloses Berthold Seemann’s notes on flora of the Hawaiian Islands. He says the presence of European alpine species in Hawaiian volcanoes is a “hard nut” for geographical distribution [but see Wallace’s Island life (1880), p. 323].