Confessing the Murder

Despite the smoothed (or at least smoother) road for Darwin's theories, to Darwin, the publication of his book The Origin of Species was "like confessing a murder." Though overlooked somewhat by posterity, Alfred Russell Wallace deserves a considerable amount of credit, not only for his own formulation of the theory, but also for the spur he gave Darwin to publish. Indeed the first declaration of the theory of evolution by natural selection was in a joint paper issued by the two men in 1858. There is a persuasive line of thought that holds that scientific theories tend to emerge at a certain point in the general development of ideas - if not Darwin then Wallace, if not Wallace then someone else. Indeed, when Huxley first read Origin he remarked "How stupid not to have thought of it before." However, were it not for Wallace, it is conceivable that Darwin may never had published in his own lifetime, and many have speculated as to why he sat on his theory for a full sixteen years. Some have pointed to Darwin's religious beliefs, but there is little to suggest that these were sufficiently orthodox or strong enough to limit Darwin the scientist. It is more likely that as far as religion was concern, Darwin had a greater concern for his devout wife Emma, and other Christian friends. Indeed it was the social embarrassment that the - for some - blasphemous and atheistic tract might cause that held a greater fear for Darwin. But of course religious and societal concerns were so closely woven as to be often indistinguishable. To propose an evolutionary system was one thing, but to propose a mechanism that undermined ideas about the nature of humanity and society was quite another. Darwin had seen the bitter controversy caused by Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation as well as the hostile reception to other non- conformist scientific theories, and cannot have been in any great hurry to court the potential of persecution.

But more important to Darwin the scientist was his doubt about the scientific credibility of his theory, and the interim years between the formulation of the theory and publication were spent marshalling the considerable evidence that he was to present. In fact, though Origin is almost four hundred pages in length and packed with details and examples, Darwin presented it merely as "This Abstract" in which "I can here give only the general conclusions at which I have arrived, with a few facts in illustration... For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived." For Darwin there remained many questions unanswered, and throughout the book Darwin feels no fear in highlighting the current ignorance of science on particular matters (not least the mechanism of inheritance, that was to dog early Darwinism.)

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