It was a memorable evening that took place on July 1st, 1858 at the Linnean Society in London. Two natural scientists presented their scientific theses that were to change the world a short time later: modern evolutionary biology. However, both protagonists shone with their absence, their studies were read out and the evening of the lecture turned out to be »a delicate arrangement«, a delicate arrangement. This is how the US journalist Arnold C. Brackman described the events in retrospect in the 1980s. Because it was about Charles Darwin (1809-1882) being the first to solve the question of the origin of species and to publish his explanation.
A few weeks earlier, Darwin had received mail from overseas. The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was in the Moluccas in present-day Indonesia. He sent a manuscript to England in which he set out in about 20 pages the principle behind the change in species. The question had occupied him for years, but now, after many expeditions, Wallace had the decisive idea just as he was suffering from a fever attack from malaria.
He sent his text, which is now known as the Ternate Manuscript, to Darwin by mail steamer because his fellow researcher had been dealing with the species question for many years. The two natural scientists had been in a loose correspondence for some time. Little did Wallace know: Darwin already had a solution ready, but it had been in the drawer for many years; Darwin was not yet ready to publish them. And his explanation was: natural selection.
Darwin feared being considered a plagiarist
Darwin thus described the most important building block of evolution. He came to the realization that there is a natural variation in the expression of traits and that the individuals best adapted to their living conditions survive and produce more offspring. After reading Wallace’s manuscript, Darwin was shocked. “Never have I seen a more startling coincidence. If Wallace had my draft from 1842 in front of him, he couldn’t have made a better short excerpt from it,” he complained, worried that his solution to the species question would only be considered a plagiarist.