Men of Letters

In an earlier blog I highlighted the key figures who aided Darwin on his journey from a keen amateur to a respected natural historian able to ‘take a place amongst the leading scientific men’*. Charlie’s Angels reflected on the old adage ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ and it’s clear that Darwin’s ability to gain entry to the right circles gave him a momentum that carried him forward at a greater pace than one less well connected. As part of my research for the book, I was given access to Shrewsbury School’s Darwin Archive which includes a copy of the proceedings of the Linnean Society on July 1st 1858. It was at this meeting that the papers by Darwin and Wallace, with similar propositions, were jointly presented in absentia with introductory letters from Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker. Wallace approached Darwin in the hope of a positive response to his ‘essay on the Tendency of Varieties, &c. to depart indefinitely from the Original Type‘. At this point in time Darwin was best known as the author of The Voyage of the Beagle. Wallace would need the thoughts of someone who had shared adventures in exotic lands as he himself had done as his theory required an original kind of perspective. When the essay arrived on Darwin’s desk his big idea was gathering dust on a shelf as he’d convinced himself he had all the time in the world to complete it. After the papers were presented Darwin rushed into print to regain whatever advantage he believed himself to have. Despite the fact that the Wallace and Darwin papers had equal billing at the Linnean Society on that July day it was Darwin who received the greatest acclaim and Wallace was left in the shadows. The fact that Wallace was in modern parlance, photoshopped out of the picture is a cruel injustice but the entry in the Linnean Journal provides a stark contrast between the well-connected Darwin and the outsider, Wallace. The papers were communicated by Sir Charles Lyell, F.R.S., F.L.S., and J.D. Hooker Esq., M.D., V.P.R.S., F.L.S., and authored by Charles Darwin, Esq., F.R.S., F.L.S. & F.G.S. and Alfred R. Wallace, Esq.,.Perhaps it all came down to letters?

The entry in the Linnean Society Journal of Proceedings for the Darwin and Wallace papers on the origin of species

*Adam Sedgwick’s direction to Robert Darwin on a visit to the family home whilst his son was still on the Voyage of the Beagle.

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