Brackman, Arnold C. A Delicate Arrangement: The Strange Case of Charles Darwin and Alfred

 

Brackman, Arnold C. A Delicate Arrangement: The Strange Case of Charles Darwin and Alfred
Russel Wallace. New York: Times Books, 1980.

Here is a well written revisionist history of Charles Darwin and his place in the history of
science. This book suggests that Darwin "stole" Wallace's ideas on evolution through his control
of the English scientific community. After all, Wallace was halfway round the world and Darwin
and his associates, Lyell and Hooker, were right there in the professional thick of things. They
had the opportunity, which Wallace did not, to claim priority. The "delicate arrangement" of the
title refers to the fact that at the meeting of the Linnean Society, at which the "papers" of Darwin
and Wallace were simultaneously presented, Darwin was given, but did not merit, first place.
Darwin did not have a paper for presentation.

Wallace had three things against him in ever becoming a Big Name. For one thing, he was not of
the right social class. For another thing, he was the victim of a plot hatched by Lyell, Hooker and
Darwin to deny him his due. Third, he was not aggressive, he did not think it right and proper to
make the sort of claims that a grandstander must make. In sum, here was a nice guy who was
done in by the scientific establishment.

Standard history makes Darwin magnanimous in bestowing any credit at all on Wallace. In this
history, Darwin is understood as lusting after priority. He had boldly announced to the profession
that speciation was his preserve. The young Wallace wrote his paper and sent it to a man whom
he thought he could trust. Darwin saw the paper, panicked, and hatched a plot with his
collaborators to see that his own claims would be presented. This was the reason for the Linnean
Society meeting: in order that priority could be established for Darwin. Darwin cheated Wallace
out of the glory that should have been his or, at least, should have been shared better than it was.
Wallace is seen here as a selfless hero, who just did not push himself forward. The author is
clearly pro-Wallace and anti-Darwin but this bias is almost welcome after all the adulation
written to honor Darwin.