Darwin Didn't Plagiarize Wallace

19th century shipping records defy the claim that Charles Darwin stole some of Alfred Russel Wallace's ideas to craft his theory of evolution.

Dec 13, 2011
Bob Grant

Charles Darwin in 1881WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, ELLIOTT & FRY

New evidence is casting doubt on the popular belief that Charles Darwin may have borrowed some ideas from naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace when developing his theory of evolution by natural selection. The story goes that in 1858 Wallace, studying the biogeography of the Malay Archipelago in Southeast Asia, wrote a letter to Darwin outlining his thoughts on how nature might select the most advantageous traits among living things in such a way that species could change forms and functions gradually over long periods of time. Darwin was to deliver Wallace's letter to renowned geologist Charles Lyell immediately, but instead lied about the date he received the correspondence, held onto it for two weeks, and cribbed from it to add to his own ideas on evolution.

But historians of science at the National University of Singapore traced the journey of Wallace's letter from Indonesia to England using historical shipping records and have concluded that the letter couldn't have arrived at Darwin's door any earlier then June 18, the day he delivered it to Lyell. They published their analysis in this month's issue of the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Though most historians of science don't believe that Darwin plagiarized Wallace in any way, the popular fraud theory has lived on for many years. And according to at least one such scholar, this new evidence will do little to dispel it. "For a variety of different motives, there will, I fear, always be people who see it as their mission to attack Darwin's character as a way of undermining his remarkable scientific achievements," University of Pittsburgh historian of science James Lennox told Nature.