On July 1, 1858, Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s papers on natural selection as a key to the evolution of species of life was read before the Linnaean Society.
Modern biology was born, and science, philosophy, and culture were transformed. We live in the age where the old notion (it goes back to Epicurus, at least) that “descent with modification” and “organization to complexity” occur over the generations of living things now dominates many of our ideas. In their separate papers, Darwin and Wallace argued that the process of “natural selection” could account for the seemingly anti-entropic principle of evolution, where things can get more complex rather than decay, decline. Over time.
It was a revolutionary thought, though one not unheard of in social theory. Indeed, one writer at the event had pushed the idea in a discussion of human population in 1852, and advised Darwin, after the event, that his “natural selection” would better be referred to as “survival of the fittest.” Later on, Wallace concurred, and in the great Fifth Edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species Darwin used that phrase by Herbert Spencer along with the term “natural selection.”
Darwin had been preparing his book for many, many years, carefully gathering evidence and refining his presentation. Married to a deeply religious woman, he knew that what he was working on served as a philosophical powder keg. Only after receiving a similar paper by Wallace did Darwin rush to publish, fearing that his research would be eclipsed by an apparent prior discovery by the wandering Englishman. But Wallace agreed to the joint presentation of papers, and the two men are generally credited as co-discoverers of natural selection.
Artwork courtesy James Gill.