Plagiarism on one of the most important books ever published?

On July 1st, 50 years ago, an event occurred which, according to the journalist Arnold Brackman, was “one of the great watersheds in the history of Western civilization.” Members of the London’s august Linnean Society on Piccadilly heard two unpublished fragments about evolution written by the famous naturalist Charles Darwin, and a fully thought-out paper written by a relative unknown, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Neither Darwin nor Wallace was present. Darwin stayed at his home in England mourning the death of a son to scarlet fever; Wallace was in distant New Guinea chasing butterflies and beetles.

Wallace’s paper – formally titled “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type” and popularly dubbed the “Ternate Paper” after the eastern Indonesian town from which he sent the study to Darwin – was the first complete explanation of the process of natural selection, which introduced the concept that “the fittest would survive.”

To simplify a complex story, as a result of Wallace’s paper, Darwin was pushed to complete “Origin of Species,” which was published in 1859. No doubt we will see a media blitz in 2009 when the world will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s bestseller. Darwin, a member of the British scientific elite, became a household name. Wallace, who left school at 14 and came from a modest family, ended up as a (rather important) footnote in history.

Some researchers argue that it was scientific coincidence – that each man had his eureka moment independently. Such an occurrence is not uncommon; it’s called a “multiple”: Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Oxygen was discovered by Carl Wilhelm Scheel in 1773 and by Joseph Priestly in 1774. Color photography was invented almost simultaneously by two Frenchmen. Four independent researchers discovered sunspots, all in 1611. Six men invented the thermometer and nine invented the telescope. And so on.

Did Darwin plagiarize Wallace? The question can be addressed in both legal and anecdotal terms.

The British lawyer David Hallmark, who is a trustee of the Wallace Foundation based in Indonesia, notes that as Darwin had not previously published and as the letter from Wallace stimulated publication, it follows that Wallace was first and Darwin, whatever he wrote, was second.

Also, when Darwin did publish he failed to attribute to Wallace the impact of the younger man’s Ternate letter on his own works, yet Darwin used the Wallace theory as his own. Therein lies the prima facie case of plagiarism.

There is circumstantial evidence that Darwin knew he had wronged Wallace and felt guilty about his actions. Although we obviously don’t know everything that Darwin and his colleagues thought or said to one another, there is an illuminating paper trail of letters in which Darwin referred to the events as a “miserable affair” and his relationship with Wallace as “a delicate situation.”

For the full article, “Survival of the fittest”, by Paul Spencer Sochaczewski, please click here.