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The Darwin Conspiracy: CHAPTER 1 Windfall

July 31st, 2013 · 9 Comments

The Darwin Conspriacy: Introduction: http://darwiniana.com/2013/07/30/the-darwin-conspiracy-introduction/

Above is the link to the Introduction.
Chapter 1 opens with an account of Darwin in the year 1856: It is stunning to realize how primitive his views still were at that point. Darwin wasn’t even close, and was stuck in views more than a decade old. Consider the following bit:

Darwin had previously made a study of barnacles, and this had given him a clue that all species to some extent give rise to new varieties.8 However, the idea of variation had not become central to his thinking. His long-held conviction (first expressed by Lyell) remained unchanged: he believed that the already-populated world was a place of balance and harmony, every organism was perfectly adapted to its envi- ronment, and species existing there could not mutate from one form into another.9

This chapter needs its follow up: the point is that the views in the blockquote above were as far as Darwin could get in 1856. He then received out of the blue a letter from Wallace. This letter has disappeared, very strange for Darwin given his careful archive of letters. And his declaration of receipt in his notes was postdated several months. But as Roy Davies and others have shown, the extreme precision of the British mails makes its receipt probably much earlier. So why did Darwin perform this deception? Roy Davies creates a bit of suspense!

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CHAPTER 1
Windfall

IN THE late summer of 1856, Charles Darwin was under tremendous pressure to solve what was commonly termed ‘the species question’: namely, how and in what circumstances did new species come into exis- tence. After nearly eighteen years of thought, he found himself stranded. He had laboured over a theory he had hoped would explain how one species might change into another, but he was tiring in the face of cogent and persuasive evidence from friends and colleagues, who insisted that a core element of his theory was wrong. To his closest confidants, he some- times admitted that he was completely baffled by the appearance of varieties and the origination of new species in the absence of a change in environmental conditions.1
Frustrated by his inability to solve the problems at the heart of evolu- tionary theory, Darwin had very few places left to go. Four months earlier, he had given Sir Charles Lyell, his friend and mentor, an assurance2 that he would think about writing an outline of his ideas for publication. Left to himself, it was not a course Darwin would have chosen,3 but in late 18554
Lyell had read an article that indicated that Darwin had a new rival in the race to be recognised as the first man to understand and explain the secret of evolution. The article (entitled ‘On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species’ and published in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History in September 1855) had so impressed Lyell that he had opened a notebook himself, and had written on its first page not the name of Charles Darwin, his protégé, but that of Alfred Russel Wallace,5 a man who made his living by catching beetles, birds and butterflies in the island jungles of the Malay Archipelago, ten thousand miles away.
Darwin had also read the article, but had dismissed it (in notes written in the privacy of his own study) as communicating nothing of great interest.6 However, when he visited Darwin at the latter’s home in Kent (in the countryside outside London) in April 1856, Lyell insisted that Wallace’s ideas were so revolutionary that they were a direct threat to

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Darwin’s long-coveted ambition. Wallace had begun to believe that new species were to be found only in environments in which closely-related species had previously existed. Lyell found this idea very convincing but it contrasted sharply with Darwin’s belief that new species could originate only in newly-formed and isolated environments like islands to which already existing organic forms had migrated. Within three weeks of Lyell’s warning, in an attempt to protect what he regarded as his scientific priority, Charles Darwin began to outline his ideas about how species evolve from one form into another.7 He gave the manuscript the title
‘Natural Selection’. Darwin had previously made a study of barnacles, and this had given him a clue that all species to some extent give rise to new varieties.8 However, the idea of variation had not become central to his thinking. His long-held conviction (first expressed by Lyell) remained unchanged: he believed that the already-populated world was a place of balance and harmony, every organism was perfectly adapted to its envi- ronment, and species existing there could not mutate from one form into another.9
Despite the fact that several of his friends, including Lyell, had expressed serious doubts about his ideas concerning species migration, Darwin was convinced he was right, and that sooner or later the sheer weight of the facts that he was collecting from all over the world would prove it. Yet he could not explain why species existing in conditions of perfect balance and harmony should produce varieties with distinct differ- ences from the parent form.10 Perhaps he was hoping that the final link in the chain would become clear, possibly from his interest in pigeon breeding. As 1856 drew to a close, he was still far from completing his manuscript, and thereby becoming the first person to reveal how new species originate.
Then, on 11 January 1857, the Post Office agent aboard a train bound for London took charge of bundles of second-class mail from the Far East. These letters and parcels had been carried to the port of Southampton by the Peninsular & Oriental steamer Colombo, which had docked earlier that day.11 Among these bundles was a letter addressed to Darwin from Wallace, who was at that time based on the island of Celebes in the Malay Archipelago, between the immense land masses of Borneo and New Guinea.
In October 1856, when he wrote his letter to Darwin,12 Wallace had begun to see that some connections between animals could be accounted for by a process of divergence and modification. This process of diver- gence could, in turn, be linked firmly to a continuing process of extinction.13 Neither of these ideas had yet appeared in any of Darwin’s

Windfall 3

writings. However, Wallace did not yet have any idea about what caused organisms to change their form and diverge from their ancestral species.
The purpose of his letter to Darwin was not to display his originality. Wallace certainly had no prior knowledge of Darwin’s longstanding attempt to solve the species question. It was simply that after more than two years in the jungle, Wallace was yearning for intellectual stimulation and an exchange of ideas. Darwin must have seemed a man likely to be interested in some of Wallace’s most recent discoveries.
The text of that letter from Wallace has never been revealed. What- ever the innocent Wallace had intended to convey to Darwin, when the letter arrived at Down House on 12 January 1857 it delivered his most radical insights straight into the hands of the man who needed them most. The contents of the letter have never been seen by anyone other than Darwin, but we do have Darwin’s reply.14 On 1 May 1857, nearly four months later, he wrote to Wallace claiming that he had received his letter only ‘a few days ago’ and he could see that he and Wallace had thought much alike. He explained to Wallace that he was writing a book about his findings and after nineteen years’ work he hoped to publish something in the near future.
Charles Lyell’s warning to Darwin one year previously, in April 1856, had been timely, but Lyell could have had no idea how quickly Wallace would develop his ideas, or how interesting they would become in the space of a year. He had known that Wallace’s ideas were a threat to Darwin’s ambition. In contrast to Darwin, the young butterfly collector was not intellectually constrained by the idea of a world designed by God so that all species existed in perfect harmony and balance, and where every species was perfectly adapted to its environment; nor did he feel that he had to make room for God in his theory. He had also had the chance to observe and compare animals and plants in the wild tropical rainforests of South America and the Malay Archipelago, ten thousand miles apart, and his ideas on species and varieties were influenced by what he had observed in both. Lyell recognised the certainty with which Wallace wrote about his ideas. However, Lyell had once led the field of geological theory himself, and he knew how difficult it was to get controversial ideas accepted.
In the early nineteenth century, when Lyell was actively researching, geology was regarded as a dangerous science. As such, it both attracted and repelled the public, who still believed that God had made the Earth, and everything on it, in less than one week. Theological authority was strong and there was the greatest pressure upon geologists to avoid direct conflict with the Church. Moreover, many of the new professional geolo- gists were theologians (as was Lyell himself), and they were at great pains

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to reconcile geology with their religious beliefS. They were also confronted with the theory of catastrophisn1, whose advocates clain1ed that rnountain ranges had not taken rnillions of years to forrn, but had been thrust up overnight. \Vhen Lyell was working out his ov\rn theory, he could have had no idea that one day he would be challenged by a man who had no need of God.

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