Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
Letter to Alfred Newton Concerning the Discovery of
Natural Selection (S459a: 1887/1892)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to Alfred Newton concerning the circumstances of Wallace's discovery of the principle of natural selection; dated 3 December 1887, but only published fully in 1892 in Francis Darwin, ed., Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter, And in a Selected Series of His Published Letters (John Murray, London). Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S459A.htm


[[p. 189]] Frith Hill, Godalming

     My Dear Newton--I had hardly heard of Darwin before going to the East, except as connected with the voyage of the Beagle, which I think I had read. I saw him once for a few minutes in the British Museum before I sailed. Through Stevens, my agent, I heard that he wanted curious varieties which he was studying. I think I wrote to him about some varieties of ducks I had sent, and he must have written once to me. I find on looking at his "Life" that his first letter to me is given in vol. ii. p. 95, and another at p. 109, both after the publication of my first paper. I must have heard from some notices in the Athenæum, I think (which I had sent me), that he was studying varieties and species, and as I was continually thinking of the subject, I wrote to him giving some of my notions, and making some suggestions. But at that time I had not the remotest notion that he had already arrived at a definite theory--still less that it was the same as occurred to me, suddenly, in Ternate in 1858. The most interesting coincidence in the matter, I think, is, that I, as well as Darwin, was led to the theory itself through Malthus--in my case it was his elaborate account of the action of "preventive checks" in keeping down the population of savage races to a tolerably fixed but scanty number. This had strongly impressed me, and it suddenly flashed upon me that all animals are necessarily thus kept down--"the struggle for existence"--while variations, on which I was always thinking, must necessarily often be beneficial, and would then cause those varieties to increase while the injurious variations diminished.1 You are quite at liberty to mention the circumstances, but I think you have coloured them a little highly, and introduced some slight errors. I was lying on my bed (no hammocks in the East) in the hot fit of intermittent fever, when the idea suddenly came to me. I thought it almost all out before the fit was over, and [[p. 190]] the moment I got up began to write it down, and I believe finished the first draft the next day.

     I had no idea whatever of "dying,"--as it was not a serious illness,--but I had the idea of working it out, so far as I was able, when I returned home, not at all expecting that Darwin had so long anticipated me. I can truly say now, as I said many years ago, that I am glad it was so; for I have not the love of work, experiment and detail that was so pre-eminent in Darwin, and without which anything I could have written would never have convinced the world. If you do refer to me at any length, can you send me a proof and I will return it to you at once?

Yours faithfully
Alfred R. Wallace.


Note Appearing in the Original Work

1. This passage was published as a footnote in a review of the Life and Letters of Charles Darwin which appeared in the Quarterly Review, Jan. 1888. In the new edition (1891) of Natural Selection and Tropical Nature (p. 20), Mr. Wallace has given the facts above narrated. There is a slight and quite unimportant discrepancy between the two accounts, viz. that in the narrative of 1891 Mr. Wallace speaks of the "cold fit" instead of the "hot fit" of his ague attack. [[on p. 189]]


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