IdleTheory Darwin and Wallace

The Linnean Society, 1 July 1858

The accompanying papers, which we have the honour of communicating to the Linnean Society, and which all relate to the same subject, viz. the Laws which affect the Production of Varieties, Races, and Species, contain the results of the investigations of two indefatigable naturalists, Mr. Charles Darwin and Mr. Alfred Wallace. These gentlemen having, independently and unknown to one another, conceived the very same very ingenious theory to account for the appearance and perpetuation of varieties and of specific forms on our planet...

On 1 July 1858, at a hurriedly arranged meeting of the Linnean Society, a joint paper by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace was read. The occasion represented the first public airing of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, later to be known as "Darwinism".

The meeting had been hurriedly arranged after Darwin had received, on 18 June 1858, a letter from Wallace outlining a theory of natural selection similar to one which Darwin had been considering for several decades, but had yet to publish except in draft manuscripts and letters to friends. Wallace's letter ended Darwin's procrastination. Darwin hurriedly collected together a couple of his own writings on the subject together with Wallace's letter, and had them read out at the Linnean Society. Neither Darwin nor Wallace attended. Within a year, Darwin had completed the book for which he is now remembered: "The Origin of Species."

Now it must naturally be supposed that a joint paper is one in which a single idea is presented by two or more authors, and represents their collective opinion. One would further expect that the various co-authors would have engaged in some sort of discussion or correspondence in order to hammer out an agreed form of words, and iron out differences of emphasis. And if two authors did not express a collective view, agreed after discussion, one should be not at all surprised if two quite different ideas were expressed within their joint paper. In fact, one might even suppose that it would be inevitable that there would be differences. And this is precisely what appears to have happened on 1 July 1858: two different ideas were published in one paper.

Darwin and Wallace did not engage in any discussion or correspondence about the paper. Wallace, on the other side of the world, knew absolutely nothing about it. And so the paper presented at the Linnean Society was in no sense an agreed form of words. It instead consisted of two papers, one by Wallace, and one by Darwin. And the two papers did not agree. In fact, they presented markedly different visions.

This said, it is quite clear that Darwin and Wallace did in fact agree about a great deal. Both of them were gradualists rather than catastrophists. Both rejected Lamarck. Both had read Malthus' Essay on Population. And both were British. But the fact that they clearly shared many opinions does not mean that they agreed about everything. Nor does it mean that their view of the process of evolution was identical.

In outline, Darwin's presentation to the Linnean Society consisted of one fragment from an unpublished book, and an abstract of a letter to Asa Gray. Both fragments of Darwin's writings meander from one subject to another. The fragment from an unpublished book begins with the War of Nature, and offers a Malthusian account of geometrical reproduction with fixed food resources, gives practical examples of population explosions, compares life to 10,000 wedges being hammered together, imagines an island where some variants of a species adapt better to changing conditions, and goes on to imagine a species of dog adapting from catching rabbits to catching hares, and ends with the contests of males for females. The fragment from Darwin's letter to Asa Gray begins with thoughts on the domestic selection of animals by breeders, moves on to an imaginary being who selects for one object, turns to condemn various authors for not emphasising the struggle for life sufficiently, comments that some variants of a species may have profitable variants which exterminate their parent form, pauses to consider difficulties on theory, and then continues with diversity in plants, new varieties exterminating their parent form.

By contrast, Wallace's letter is an elegant little essay that starts out with the question of why domestic species, left to themselves, revert to the wild form of the species, and then constructs an argument to explain why this happens. In essence, Wallace argues, since the number of individuals in any species remains constant, as many must be dying as are being born. And he argues, giving examples, that the individual numbers in any species of animal are determined by their available food supply, and the larger the available food supply, the larger their numbers. And Wallace extends this argument to species, saying that any species better adapted to obtain a supply of food will have higher numbers than less well adapted species. He then argues that variants of any species will be either better or worse adapted to their circumstances than the parent form, and will consequently have higher or lower populations. And if then some alteration of physical conditions makes existence more difficult, the least numerous will suffer most, perhaps becoming extinct. If the alteration were severe, even the parent species might become extinct, leaving only one or two variants. In this way, progressive and continued divergence from the parent form would result. Of domestic animals, Wallace then argued that poodles and short-legged sheep only survived because fed and cared for by humans, and that left to themselves, their offspring would be favoured to the degree that they return to the original wild stock from which they were variants.

Comparing Darwin and Wallace

In one respect, the papers agree that variants may be better adapted to survive than the parent form, and in time replace it. But whereas Wallace sees the numbers of any variant rising and falling with the available food supply, sometimes with extinction resulting, Darwin sees a struggle for existence, indeed a war of nature. While Wallace's variants replace their parent form, Darwin's variants exterminate the parent form.

Several points can be made in comparing the contributions of Darwin And Wallace to their joint paper.

  1. Darwin's contribution is essentially fragmentary, consisting in part of an extract from an unpublished book - Natural Selection -, and an abstract of a letter. Within the extract, Darwin even refers to another unpublished extract from the same book. By contrast, Wallace's contribution is a single and complete essay.
  2. Darwin's fragmentary contributions ramble from one subject to another. Wallace, by contrast, sticks to the point.

  3. Darwin opens with the assertion that "all nature is at war, one with another", which, if doubted, "reflection will inevitably prove it to be true". Darwin then repeatedly refers to "struggle" and "extermination". Wallace, by contrast, invokes no such war of nature, and even places quotes around one of his two references to the 'struggle for existence'. For Wallace, it was the availability of food, not internecine warfare, that determined which creatures survived and prospered, and which did not.

Wallace's essay is an elegant piece of reasoning. Darwin's meanderings, by contrast, don't seem to have any clear line of reasoning. In one or two passages, he's clearly saying something along the lines of Wallace. But, perhaps, because both of his contributions are fragments culled from some larger context (a book and a letter), they read as fragments, with loose ends left hanging. And this is a little disturbing: one would have thought that Darwin would have written a concise summary of his ideas long beforehand, if only to explain them better to correspondents and friends. Instead, if there is anything that holds Darwin's fragmentary contribution together, it is his repeated invocation of a "war of nature".

Some examples from Darwin of 'struggle' and 'extermination' in the 'war of nature' (emphases added) may assist in understanding the ubiquity of the "war of nature" in Darwin's contributions:

De Candolle, in an eloquent passage has declared that all nature is at war, one organism with another, or with external nature. Seeing the contented face of nature, this may at first be well doubted; but reflection will inevitably prove it to be true. The war, however, is not constant, but recurrent in a slight degree at short periods, and more severely at occasional more distant periods; and hence its effects are easily overlooked. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied in most cases with tenfold force.

Nature may be compared to a surface on which rest ten thousand sharp wedges touching each other and driven inwards by incessant blows.

Finally, let it be borne in mind that this average number of individuals (the external conditions remaining the same) in each country is kept up by recurrent struggles against other species or against external nature...

...there is a second agency at work..., namely, the struggle of the males for the females. These struggles are generally decided by the law of battle... The most vigorous and healthy males, implying perfect adaptation, must generally gain the victory in their contests.

The elder De Candolle, W. Herbert, and Lyell have written excellently on the struggle for life; but even they have not written strongly enough.

I cannot doubt that during millions of generations individuals of a species will be occasionally born with some slight variation, profitable to some part of their economy. Such individuals will have a better chance of surviving, and of propagating their new and slightly different structures; and the modification may be slowly increased by the accumulative action of natural selection to any profitable extent. The variety thus formed will either coexist with, or, more commonly, will exterminate its parent form.

Each new variety or species, when formed, will generally take the place of, and thus exterminate its less well-fitted parent. This I believe to be the origin of the classification and affinities of organic beings at all times; for organic beings always seem to branch and sub-branch like the limbs of a tree from a common trunk, the flourishing and diverging twigs destroying the less vigorous the dead and lost branches rudely representing extinct genera and families.

Both authors are proposing an evolutionary mechanism. But while Wallace argues that it is the success in finding food that determines whether an animal survives and multiplies, Darwin instead seems to suggest that it is success in the "war of nature", in exterminatory struggles between animals and between plants, that determines survival.

In comparing the merits of these two accounts, it may immediately be remarked that Wallace's account is far simpler than Darwin's. It is an explanation that uses ordinary everyday terminology within an ordinary everyday world.

But Darwin's account proposes a new entity: the "war of nature". We know that this is a new entity because Darwin complains that previous authors have failed to point out and sufficiently emphasise it. Darwin clearly believes that it is his task to point out this "war of nature", and emphasise it as heavily as possible, in order to correct the impression that readers may have drawn from "the contented face of nature". Darwin is telling them to look beneath the surface of that face, and behold the tremendous war that is under way beneath that placid surface.

But it remains that the "war of nature" which Darwin envisions, emphasises, and towards which he draws the attention of his readers, is an entirely new entity. It is not part of any ordinary everyday understanding of the natural world. Nor indeed is part of the specialised knowledge of the natural world which other naturalists bring to bear: after all, the naturalist Wallace was clearly quite unaware of this "war of nature", for otherwise he would himself have at least mentioned it. So, at least one of Darwin's fellow naturalists has entirely failed to spot the "war of nature", and he is the co-author of their joint paper, no less.

Now, in general, when some phenomenon requires explanation, it is the simplest explanation that generally prevails. When physicists are called upon to explain some newly observed phenomenon, they usually try to do so using their ordinary understanding of physics. They do not, as a rule, postulate entirely new and previously unknown physical principles. Rather than multiply the number of entities with which they deal, they generally try to minimize them.

Wallace proposes no new entities in his explanation of the process of evolution. But Darwin proposes an entirely new and previously unknown entity: the "war of nature". And, unless Wallace's account was in some way flawed, and failed to adequately account for the phenomena, on balance it should have been Wallace's simpler account of evolution that should have prevailed, rather than Darwin's far more complex account.

Yet it does not appear that Darwin rejected Wallace's explanation. After all, if he had rejected it, he would hardly have presented a joint paper with Wallace at the Linnean society. Nevertheless, Darwin added his own quite new and separate idea of the "war of nature".

The War of Nature

Of course, it may be that Darwin was employing the "war of nature" in a large and metaphorical sense, simply as a device to add colour and vivacity and drama, and hold the attention of an ordinary reader. But that is not how he presents it in his opening sentence, in which he reproduces De Candolle's assertion that "all nature is at war", agrees that this might be doubted given "the contented face of nature", yet goes on to assert that "reflection will inevitably prove it to be true". That is, upon reflection, a reasonable man will inevitably conclude that all nature is at war. There's nothing metaphorical about that: there's a war on.

Yet Darwin never offered a rational explanation of this "war of nature". He never argued at length and detail in support of its existence. Instead he appealed to the authority of De Candolle and Malthus, and baldly asserted that "reflection will inevitably prove it to be true". The reality of the "war of nature" had to be taken on trust, as an article of faith. If you couldn't see it now, you soon would.

But perhaps we may ourselves engage in reflection upon De Candolle's declaration, and see whether reflection inevitably proves it to be true.

Of his "war of nature", Darwin writes that "Each new variety or species, when formed, will generally take the place of, and thus exterminate its less well-fitted parent." But there is really no reason whatsoever for supposing that if some creatures survive some period of famine and distress, and others do not, that the former have "exterminated" the latter in a "war of nature". Or, if a ship sinks, and some sailors survive while others drown, that the former have "exterminated" the latter. That one creature lives, while another dies, simply does not mean that the first murdered the second.

In many ways, the vision of the "war of nature" may simply arise from imagining the natural world as a table on which food is laid out, and at which animals have seats. But there are not enough seats at the table, and so the animals jostle for places, and this struggle between animals to gain a seat at nature's table underlies the "war of nature". And indeed Darwin, in Origin of Species, was to refer to just such a table. And his image of "10,000 sharp wedges driven together by incessant blows" is also an analogy for this same table with animals wedged together around it, driven by hunger towards it. With not enough food to go round, the animals must fight over it. But this would only be true if food were concentrated in one place, such as a table. In reality, food is dispersed in the natural world across the face of the Earth. And given this dispersal, there is very little likelihood of animals fighting over food. And indeed, where contention arises, as over the carcass of a large slaughtered animal, rivals would only waste energy and risk injury if they actually fought.

Again, it is true that grazing or browsing animals may be said to "attack" vegetation, and that predators "attack" their prey. But this purely to consume them as food. It is not as if browsing animals are "at war" with trees, or predators are "at war" with their prey, and bent on exterminating them. If they were to succeed in doing that, they would pay with their own lives shortly thereafter.

Since Darwin never attempted to explain his "war of nature", any attempt to provide a rationale for it can only be guesswork, and a waste of time. If Darwin was not prepared to articulate his own reflections on the "war of nature", why should anyone else? Darwin's "war of nature" may be, and indeed ought to be, dismissed as a fiction purely on the grounds that he never provided a rational account for it. Darwin could have equally well portrayed all nature as engaged in a dance, or as an economic trading system. But without arguing the matter through, the "war of nature" remains an unproven assertion about the natural world.

Furthermore, if there is indeed a "war of nature" in progress, we should see it everywhere. Somebody would surely have noticed it, long before Darwin. Rival trees would be sawing each other down. Competing cattle or sheep would be goring each other to death. The natural world would have the appearance of a blasted heath, a bloody battlefield, with hardly anything left alive within it. That is the reality of war, but not the reality of nature.

If one person sees some entity that nobody else can see, we do not usually suppose that the entity was real: we conclude that their senses have deceived them, and they have been seeing things that were not there. A coat hanging on a stand, with a bowler hat above it, and a pair of boots beneath it, may momentarily deceive somebody into believing that there is a man in a coat, wearing boots and a bowler hat, actually standing in the room. But it is only an illusion. And if Darwin saw in the natural world a "war of nature" that no other naturalist or intelligent observer has observed, we may equally suppose that he was simply seeing things that were not there, like the Martian canals which Giovanni Schiaparelli recorded in great detail, but which simply were not there.

Darwin wrote, of the "war of nature" that "reflection will inevitably prove it to be true". But, here at least, a little reflection suggests it to be wholly false.

Wallace's account of evolution by natural selection, devoid of Darwin's war of nature, was simpler, clearer - and better.

June 1858

What happened in June of 1858, after Darwin had received Wallace's letter? Why was it, that less than two weeks after receiving it, a joint paper was presented?

Darwin had been thinking about Natural Selection (his term) for some 20 or more years, but had hesitated to write, fearing "prejudice". Yet Wallace had written to Darwin almost as soon as the idea of Natural Selection had occurred to him, apparently without fear of prejudice. Why had Darwin hesitated so long?

The answer must be that it was not the simple and straightforward theory of natural selection, so ably set out by Wallace, that Darwin feared would be met with prejudice, but instead that other idea that possessed Darwin, and which underpinned his own different theory of evolution: the "war of nature".

The "war of nature" was a highly contentious and controversial notion, and Darwin knew it. Unlike Wallace's version of the process of evolution, Darwin's was one that was never going to be readily accepted.

Why? Because Darwin's "war of nature" inverted the ordinary view of the natural world as divine creation, as peaceful and tranquil and good. It turned it upside down. In Darwin's inverted vision, the divine natural world became a satanic battlefield, an arena of unremitting mutual extermination. Worse still, if all nature was at war, and human life was part of nature, then it followed that all humans were also engaged in wars of mutual extermination, every man against every other. There could be no place for altruism or compassion. Darwin's "war of nature", particularly as it inevitably extended into human life, struck at the heart of Christianity. It struck at Christian ideas of peace, love, forgiveness, compassion, and charity. And Darwin knew it. He knew that his idea would be met with fierce resistance. He probably also knew that, for all his personal conviction of the reality of the "war of nature", he had not produced any convincing arguments for it. Darwin's theory of evolution, on its own, would have been torn to shreds, and Darwin with it.

But Wallace's letter offered Darwin a golden opportunity. Wallace's simple, robust, and uncontentious account of evolution would not be torn to pieces. And it offered Darwin a sturdy vehicle onto which he could superimpose his "war of nature", and set it loose upon the world. Wallace's simple rationality could be used as a stalking horse behind which to introduce Darwin's far murkier and contentious vision. Darwin had to either make the plunge, or see his own vision eclipsed by Wallace.

1 July 1848 was the day of the shotgun wedding of Darwin's irrational "war of nature" with Wallace's rational account of evolution by natural selection. Wallace, on the other side of the world, was in no position to object, and was not to return to England for another 4 years. He would anyway be amply rewarded, and himself one day become a grand old man of science. All Darwin needed to do was to go through his own voluminous papers to find a similar idea to that of Wallace, similar enough to be able for him to claim co-authorship. But most important of all, it was necessary to inject the bacillus of the "war of nature" into the joint paper. And, indeed, it makes its appearance in the very first sentence. In contemporary parlance, Darwin took Wallace's idea and added his own 'spin' to it. And the world was given two ideas for the price of one.

These two ideas were, firstly, Wallace's robust and rational theory of evolution by natural selection, and, secondly, Darwin's irrational "war of nature". The first was a contribution to science, and the second was a contribution to fiction. Wedded together on 1 July 1848, they combined to form a strange new hybrid: science fiction.


Rational ideas are frequently elegant, but seldom capture popular imagination. Newtonian mechanics and Euclidean geometry are both rational, but have never been wildly popular. By contrast, irrational fantasies that step beyond the borders of reason are far more likely to capture public imagination. Our public libraries and bookshops are largely filled with highly imaginative fiction rather than dry factual science. If Darwin's vision of a "war of nature" went on to capture public imagination, it was because it offered a compellingly subversive fantasy, and one with claims to scientific insight.

If Wallace is forgotten, and there is no such thing as "Wallacism", it is because most scientists are forgotten. Science is a collective effort, to the growth of which hundreds, even thousands, of largely anonymous scientists contribute. We know a few of their names: Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, Lavoisier, etc.

That there is such a thing as "Darwinism", and a "Darwinian" theory of evolution, indicates that Darwinism is the cult of a single individual, much like Marxism is the cult of Marx, and Freudianism the cult of Freud. In such cults, unlike in science, the founding father is venerated as the prime source of wisdom. His writings are studied assiduously by faithful followers. He is usually described by them as a "towering genius". In time, for lack of an underlying rationality, the followers spawn rival sects (Trotskyism, Jungianism), with different interpretations of the master.

For Darwinists, Darwin's "war of nature" remains their primary vision. All life is at war, and that includes human life. There are only winners and losers in cut-throat competition. There is no place for wet-eyed altruism or compassion in that war. Darwinian "realism" invites you to "get over it", "move on", "wake up and smell the coffee". The Darwinist world is one of Sex and Violence. It is also inherently militaristic and murderous.

If, in the popular media, in movies like Jurassic Park, and in television documentaries, evolution is routinely portrayed as war (a BBC documentary in December 2005 referred to dinosaurs as "monsters at war" and the brain as a "new weapon" ), and no scene from palaeohistory is complete without one dinosaur attacking and bloodily killing another, it is entirely thanks to Darwin that this vision of a "war of nature" is still being presented as a matter of fact, rather than the fiction that it truly is.

It may be argued that the Darwinist "war of nature" now entirely permeates Western society. The "war of nature" is now a modern social superstition. It has become a cultural phenomenon rather than a 'scientific' theory. Sex and violence on television and in motion pictures in many ways serve to instill a Darwinian vision of life. A passion for physical 'fitness' is probably in part a response to the Darwinist insistence that only the fittest survive. Perhaps the decline of Christianity in Western society is in part attributable to the rise of a ruthless and compassionless Darwinism. If the century after Darwin saw two terrible global wars, and attempts to exterminate entire peoples, this also may in part reflect the influence of Darwin's murderous vision of life.

Any protest against this Darwinist vision is, of course, dismissed as an attack on the perfectly rational Wallacian theory of evolution. Darwinists are still doing today what Darwin himself did on 1 July 1858: hiding an irrational fantasy behind the rationality of the theory of evolution. But Darwin's "war of nature" is no real part of the theory of evolution, and most serious evolutionary theorists have long since abandoned it, if they ever employed it at all.

But protests there ought to be, and from every quarter. Christians who believe that the theory of evolution undermines Christianity, and set out to attack the theory of evolution, simply have the wrong target in their sights. They should be attacking Darwin, Darwin's "war of nature", and the entire vicious system of beliefs attendant upon this corrosive fantasy.

Darwin's "war of nature" was a war that arose entirely from his own imagination, and the demolition of Darwin is long overdue. Darwin is regarded as a great scientist, an affable English country gentleman, a Victorian icon, and a great genius. That is exactly how Darwinists want him to be seen, and they work hard to sustain this image. But really Darwin was a tormented man, obsessed by a nightmare vision, which he unfortunately managed to introduce into the world under the guise of science. Seeing the placid face of Darwin, this may at first be well doubted, but reflection will inevitably prove it to be true.

The Linnean Society.
The Darwin Legend by Richard Webster.  
Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: 13 Jan 2006