Today is the 159th Anniversary of the reading of Darwin and Wallace's papers on natural selection!

Today is the 159th anniversary of the reading of the Darwin-Wallace paper on evolution by natural selection at the Linnean Society of London - an event which was to change biology, and the way Homo sapiens views itself, forever!

A common misconception is that the Darwin-Wallace paper of 1858 generated very little interest, but this is untrue! This myth probably originated from one, or both, of two sources. The first was the famous disingenuous statement made by anti-evolutionist Thomas Bell, the President of the Linnean Society, in his presidential report published in 1859 i.e. that “The year which has passed [1858] has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear.” It seems likely that his comment was intended to be a slight aimed at the Darwin-Wallace paper, but many have taken it at face value. It is frequently quoted by writers who wish to downplay the significance of the 1858 paper. The second is a well known remark made by Darwin in his autobiography:- "...our joint productions excited very little attention, and the only published notice of them which I can remember was by Professor Haughton of Dublin, whose verdict was that all that was new in them was false, and what was true was old. This shows how necessary it is that any new view should be explained at considerable length in order to arouse public attention." Well, he would say that given that he was the author of a large book on the subject! Darwin's memory must have been failing him, since it is known that he discussed many of the comments published about his and Wallace's paper in letters to his friends and colleagues in 1858 and 1859 (see his published correspondence).

This is what Darwin expert Janet Browne has to say regarding the impact of the paper: "The double paper appeared in the Linnean Society Journal (in the zoological section) in August 1858. During the next two or three months it was reprinted either in full or in part in several popular natural history magazines of the day. A number of people made their views known in letters, reviews, and journals. There were more notices than usually assumed.

Richard Owen, for example, referred to the paper in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Leeds in September 1858, praising Wallace's explanation of the way varieties replace one another, although hastily adding that there was no reason to think that this accounted for the origin of species. Owen's published address had a wide circulation.....Another acquaintance of Darwin's, the botanist Hewett Cottrell Watson, added an excitable word or two about the new theory to the next volume of his series on British plants, Cybele Britannica. And when extracts from Darwin's and Wallace's papers were reprinted in the popular magazine Zoologist, only a few correspondents raised their eyebrows....A young naturalist called Alfred Newton, a junior fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge, sat up late into the night clutching his copy of the Journal. "I shall never forget the impression it made on me," he wrote afterwards. "Herein was contained a perfectly simple solution of all the difficulties which had been troubling me for months." Within a week he persuaded his college friend, a trainee ordinand, Henry Tristram, to agree, and Tristram prepared a short paper on the birds of North Africa for the influential ornithological journal Ibis....Hooker published comments on Darwin's and Wallace's evolutionary views in the substantial essay on Tasmanian plants that he was compiling....There, he announced his support for "the ingenious and original reasonings and theories by Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace." (Browne, J. 2002. The Power of Place. Vol. 2 of Charles Darwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

And here is Joseph Hooker's recollection of the July 1st 1858 meeting (in a letter to Francis Darwin): "The interest excited was intense, but the subject was too novel and too ominous for the old school to enter the lists, before armouring. After the meeting it was talked over with bated breath: Lyell's approval, and perhaps in a small way mine, as his lieutenant in the affair, rather overawed the Fellows, who would otherwise have flown out against the doctrine. We had, too, the vantage ground of being familiar with the authors and their theme."

Given the considerable interest that the Darwin-Wallace paper generated, there is no reason to suppose that it would not have lead to the development of the modern science of evolutionary biology, if Darwin's book Origin of Species had never been published. It just might have taken a bit longer.

Francis Galton summed up the paper's significance: "..I may say that this occasion [the 50th anniversary of the reading of the Darwin-Wallace paper] has called forth vividly my recollection of the feelings of gratitude that I had towards the originators of the then new doctrine which burst the enthraldom of the intellect which the advocates of the argument from design had woven around us. It gave a sense of freedom to all the people who were thinking of these matters, and that sense of freedom was very real and very vivid at the time. If a future Auguste Comte arises who makes a calendar in which the days are devoted to the memory of those who have been the beneficent intellects of mankind, I feel sure that this day, the 1st of July, will not be the least brilliant."

Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith