UNCG FMS 104W — Charles Darwin and the Origin of Species

The Darwin-Wallace Letters of 1858 and the Publication of the Origin of Species

This dramatic collection of letters by Darwin, Lyell, Hooker, and Wallace, tells the story of the immediate circumstances that led to the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Following the letters are extracts from Darwin’s and Wallace’s autobiographies in which both men recount the parallel experiences that led them to discover the principle of natural selection. Explanatory comments throughout are enclosed in [brackets]. The texts of the letters are quoted from the multi-volume Correspondence of Charles Darwin published by Cambridge University Press.

[Darwin to Charles Lyell, 18 June 1858]

Down Bromley Kent

My dear Lyell

Some year or so ago, you recommended me to read a paper by Wallace in the Annals [a natural history journal], which had interested you & as I was writing to him, I knew this would please him much, so I told him. He has to day sent me the enclosed [manuscript] & asked me to forward it to you. It seems to me well worth reading. Your words have come true with a vengeance that I shd be forestalled. You said this when I explained to you here very briefly my views of “Natural Selection” depending on the Struggle for existence.—I never saw a more striking coincidence. if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters.

Please return me the M.S. which he does not say he wishes me to publish; but I shall of course at once write & offer to send to any Journal. So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed. Though my Book, if it will ever have any value, will not be deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of the theory.

I hope you will approve of Wallace’s sketch, that I may tell him what you say.

My dear Lyell
Yours most truly

C. Darwin

[Darwin to J.D. Hooker, 23 June 1858]


My dear Hooker

Poor dear Etty [CD’s fifteen-year-old daughter] has been very seriously ill with Dipterithes (or some such name) but she is better this morning I am nearly sure. It has been a most suffering illness, with dreadful inflammation of whole throat. She will, I fear, be some time in getting her strength & will require constant attention. We are both rather knocked up & I have not the spirits to see anyone, even you, at present. Fate seems determined to deny me the pleasure of seeing you. I fear that you will be wearied out with being put off.—It was very lucky you did not come here on last Saturday, for the attack began that morning, & our friends had to go. Some think the complaint infectious, which would be another reason for your not coming.—Thank God, I feel pretty sure, that all danger is over: but the Doctor has not been here yet & he damped us yesterday much.—

My dear friend
Yours affectionately

C Darwin

For Dipterithes it was a mild attack; there was no actual choking, but immense discharge & much pain & inability to speak or swallow & very weak & rapid pulse, with a fearful tongue.—

The Dr gives very good Report

[Darwin to Charles Lyell, 25 June 1858]

Down Bromley Kent

My dear Lyell

I am very sorry to trouble you, busy as you are, in so merely personal an affair. But if you will give me your deliberate opinion, you will do me as great a service, as ever man did, for I have entire confidence in your judgement & honour.—

I shd not have sent off your letter without further reflexion, for I am at present quite upset, but write now to get subject for time out of mind. But I confess it never did occur to me, as it ought, that Wallace could have made any use of your letter. [Lyell had apparently become worried that he might have inadvertently given away some of Darwin’s ideas to Wallace.]

There is nothing in Wallace’s sketch which is not written out much fuller in my sketch copied in 1844, & read by Hooker some dozen years ago. About a year ago I sent a short sketch of which I have a copy of my views (owing to correspondence on several points) to Asa Gray, so that I could most truly say & prove that I take nothing from Wallace. I shd be extremely glad now to publish a sketch of my general views in about a dozen pages or so. But I cannot persuade myself that I can do so honourably. Wallace says nothing about publication, & I enclose his letter.—But as I had not intended to publish any sketch, can I do so honourably because Wallace has sent me an outline of his doctrine?—I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man shd think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit. Do you not think his having sent me this sketch ties my hands? I do not in least believe that that he originated his views from anything which I wrote to him.

If I could honourably publish I would state that I was induced now to publish a sketch (& shd be very glad to be permitted to say to follow your advice long ago given) from Wallace having sent me an outline of my general conclusions.—We differ only, that I was led to my views from what artificial selection has done for domestic animals. I could send Wallace a copy of my letter to Asa Gray to show him that I had not stolen his doctrine. But I cannot tell whether to publish now would not be base & paltry: this was my first impression, & I shd have certainly acted on it, had it not been for your letter.—

This is a trumpery affair to trouble you with; but you cannot tell how much obliged I shd be for your advice.—

By the way would you object to send this & your answer to Hooker to be forwarded to me, for then I shall have the opinion of my two best and kindest friends.— This letter is miserably written & I write it now, that I may for time banish whole subject. And I am worn out with musing.

I fear we have case of scarlet-fever in House with Baby [CD’s two-year-old son, Charles].—Etty is weak but is recovering.—

My good dear friend forgive me.—This is a trumpery letter influenced by trumpery feelings.

Yours most truly

C. Darwin

I will never trouble you or Hooker on this subject again.—

[Darwin to Charles Lyell, 26 June 1858]


My dear Lyell

Forgive me for adding P.S. to make the case as strong as possible against myself.

Wallace might say “you did not intend publishing an abstract of your views till you received my communication, is it fair to take advantage of my having freely, though unasked, communicated to you my ideas, & thus prevent me from forestalling you?” The advantage which I should take being that I am induced to publish from privately knowing that Wallace is in the field. It seems hard on me that I should be thus compelled to lose my priority of many years standing, but I cannot feel at all sure that this alters the justice of the case. First impressions are generally right & I at first thought it wd be dishonourable in me now to publish.—

Yours most truly

C. Darwin

I have always thought you would have made a first-rate Lord Chancellor; & I now appeal to you as a Lord Chancellor

Emma [CD’s wife] desires her affectionate thanks, in which I heartily join, to Lady L. for her most kind note.—Etty is very weak but progressing well. The Baby has much fever but we hope not S. Fever.—What has frightened us so much is, that 3 children have died in village from Scarlet Fever, & others have been at death’s door, with terrible suffering.

[Darwin to J.D. Hooker, 29 June 1858]


My dearest Hooker

You will, & so will Mrs Hooker, be most sorry for us when you hear that poor Baby died yesterday evening. I hope to God he did not suffer so much as he appeared. He became quite suddenly worse. It was Scarlet-Fever. It was the most blessed relief to see his poor little innocent face resume its sweet expression in the sleep of death.—Thank God he will never suffer more in this world.

I have received your letters. I cannot think now on subject, but soon will. But I can see that you have acted with more kindness & so has Lyell even than I could have expected from you both most kind as you are.

I can easily get my letter to Asa Gray copied, but it is too short.—

Poor Emma behaved nobly & how she stood it all I cannot conceive. It was wonderful relief, when she could let her feelings break forth—

God Bless you.—You shall hear as soon as I can think

Yours affectionately

C. Darwin

[Darwin to J.D. Hooker, 29 June 1858]

Tuesday Night

My dear Hooker

I have just read your letter, & see you want papers at once. I am quite prostrated & can do nothing but I send Wallace [i.e., Wallace’s manuscript] & my abstract of abstract of letter to Asa Gray, which gives most imperfectly only the means of change & does not touch on reasons for believing species do change. I daresay all is too late. I hardly care about it.—

But you are too generous to sacrifice so much time & kindness.—It is most generous, most kind. I send sketch of 1844 solely that you may see by your own handwriting that you did read it.—

I really cannot bear to look at it.—Do not waste much time. It is miserable in me to care at all about priority.

The table of contents [attached to the sketch] will show what it is. I would make a similar, but shorter & more accurate sketch for Linnean Journal.—I will do anything

God Bless you my dear kind friend. I can write no more. I send this by servant to Kew.


C. Darwin

[Alfred Russel Wallace to J.D. Hooker, 6 October 1858]

Ternate, Moluccas,
Oct. 6. 1858.

My dear Sir

I beg leave to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of July last, sent me by Mr. Darwin, & informing me of the steps you had taken with reference to a paper I had communicated to that gentleman. Allow me in the first place sincerely to thank yourself & Sir Charles Lyell for your kind offices on this occasion, & to assure you of the gratification afforded me both by the course you have pursued, & the favourable opinions of my essay which you have so kindly expressed. I cannot but consider myself a favoured party in this matter, because it has hitherto been too much the practice in cases of this sort to impute all the merit to the first discoverer of a new fact or new theory, & little or none to any other party who may, quite independently, have arrived at the same result a few years or a few hours later.

I also look upon it as a most fortunate circumstance that I had a short time ago commenced a correspondence with Mr. Darwin on the subject of “Varieties,” since it has led to the earlier publication of a portion of his researches & has secured to him a claim of priority which an independent publication either by myself or some other party might have injuriously effected;—for it is evident that the time has now arrived when these and similar views will be promulgated & must be fairly discussed.

It would have caused me much pain & regret had Mr. Darwin’s excess of generosity led him to make public my paper unaccompanied by his own much earlier & I doubt not much more complete views on the same subject, & I must again thank you for the course you have adopted, which while strictly just to both parties, is so favourable to myself.

Being on the eve of a fresh journey I can now add no more than to thank you for your kind advice as to a speedy return to England;—but I dare say you well know & feel, that to induce a Naturalist to quit his researches at their most interesting point requires some more cogent argument than the prospective loss of health.

I remain
My dear Sir
Yours very sincerely

Alfred R. Wallace

[From Darwin’s Autobiography]

During the voyage of the Beagle I had been deeply impressed by discovering in the Pampean formation great fossil animals covered with armour like that on the existing armadillos; secondly, by the manner in which closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southwards over the Continent; and thirdly, by the South American character of most of the productions of the Galapagos archipelago, and more especially by the manner in which they differ slightly on each island of the group; none of these islands appearing to be very ancient in a geological sense.

It was evident that such facts as these, as well as many others, could be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified; and the subject haunted me. But it was equally evident that neither the action of the surrounding conditions, nor the will of the organisms (especially in the case of plants), could account for the innumerable cases in which organisms of every kind are beautifully adapted to their habits of life,—for instance, a woodpecker or tree-frog to climb trees, or a seed for dispersal by hooks or plumes. I had always been much struck by such adaptations, and until these could be explained it seemed to me almost useless to endeavour to prove by indirect evidence that species have been modified.

After my return to England it appeared to me that by following the example of Lyell in Geology, and by collecting all facts which bore in any way on the variation of animals and plants under domestication and nature, some light might be thrown on the whole subject. My first note-book was opened in July 1837.… When I see the list of books of all kinds which I read and abstracted, including whole series of Journals and Transactions, I am surprised at my industry. I soon perceived that selection was the keystone of man’s success in making useful races of animals and plants. But how selection could be applied to organisms living in a state of nature remained for some time a mystery to me.

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work. (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, edited by Nora Barlow, 1958.)

[From Wallace’s Autobiography]

At the time in question [1858, on the island of Gilolo in Indonesia] I was suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent fever, and every day during the cold and succeeding hot fits I had to lie down for several hours, during which time I had nothing to do but to think over any subjects then particularly interesting me. One day something brought to my recollection Malthus’s “Principles of Population,” which I had read about twelve years before. I thought of his clear exposition of “the positive checks to increase”—disease, accidents, war, and famine—which keep down the population of savage races to so much lower an average than that of civilized peoples. It then occurred to me that these causes or their equivalents are continually acting in the case of animals also; and as animals usually breed much more rapidly than does mankind, the destruction every year from these causes must be enormous in order to keep down the numbers of each species, since they evidently do not increase regularly from year to year, as otherwise the world would long ago have been densely crowded with those that breed most quickly. Vaguely thinking over the enormous and constant destruction which this implied, it occurred to me to ask the question, Why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live.… Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain—that is, the fittest would survive.… The more I thought over it the more I became convinced that I had at length found the long-sought-for law of nature that solved the problem of the origin of species. For the next hour I thought over the deficiencies in the theories of Lamarck and of the author of the “Vestiges” [Robert Chambers], and I saw that my new theory supplemented these views and obviated every important difficulty. I waited anxiously for the termination of my fit so that I might at once make notes for a paper on the subject. The same evening I did this pretty fully, and on the two succeeding evenings wrote it out carefully in order to send it to Darwin by the next post, which would leave in a day or two.

I wrote a letter to him in which I said that I hoped the idea would be as new to him as it was to me, and that it would supply the missing factor to explain the origin of species. I asked him if he thought it sufficiently important to show it to Sir Charles Lyell, who had thought so highly of my former paper. (Alfred Russel Wallace, My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions, 1905.)

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