Charles Darwin’s original edition of “On the Origin of Species” didn’t include citations, a preface, or other acknowledgement that others’ thoughts may have laid the groundwork for his famed 1859 revolutionary book on his evolutionary ideas.
Then the letters started, as William “Ned” Friedman, Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, described recently.
Within a month, a stream of correspondence began, pointing out that others had had thoughts on the topic well before 1859. They came from famed scientists and thinkers of the time such as Joseph Hooker, Charles Naudin, Baden Powell, Robert Chambers, and Herbert Spencer. He even got a letter a year before publication, from Alfred Russel Wallace, containing a manuscript that so mirrored Darwin’s ideas that it spurred his friends into action to establish the primacy of Darwin’s theories and jolted Darwin himself into a writing frenzy from which the landmark book emerged.
For the second edition of “On the Origin of Species,” Friedman said, Darwin added a preface recognizing the many authors — 37 from the U.S. and Europe — whose writings on evolution preceded his own, but even that didn’t prove enough. As Darwin’s fame grew, so did the number of those who claimed to have thought of evolution — or at least about it — years before.
Indeed, said Friedman, who has studied the history of evolutionary thought, Darwin’s ideas formed amid a rich stew of thinking in the decades before publication of “On the Origin of Species” about the source of nature’s breathtaking variety. Common among many authors, Friedman said, was an understanding of plant and animal breeding through which humans improved production, enhanced beauty, or locked in some desirable trait. It was a short intellectual jump to how a similar process might occur in nature, driven not by humans, but by shifting natural conditions.