Part 10 - Mr Blyth, Mr Wallace ...

Know Thy Place

This part of Charles Darwin - The Truth? addresses two more fundamental questions relating to the origin of The Origin of Species and Eiseley's discovery of 'the Blyth Connection':

Loren Eiseley was well aware, when he raised the issues covered in his original paper and the subsequent book, that there was something odd about the fact that Blyth had never challenged Darwin's use of his ideas in The Origin.  It is my perception that Eiseley was himself a man of generous spirit, which would explain the answer he offered to this conundrum:

"Being both generous and modest, perhaps he never saw any relation between his youthful cogitations and the great change in human thinking which ensued a quarter of a century later. ... Or perhaps he thought the old conception common."1

An interesting thought, and it is by no means impossible that Blyth might have "thought the old conception common".  Desmond and Moore, in their biography of Darwin (1991) offer the observation that:

"The tree was the key.  By the 1850's it was an accepted metaphor among naturalists ... Even from Calcutta, ... Edward Blythe [sic] ... compared life to a tree that 'branches off, & still divides & subdivides & resubdivides.'  It was Darwin's image exactly: he had long visualised nature as 'irregularly branched.'"2
(Italics added for emphasis)

And is that really so surprising that Darwin's image fitted "exactly" with Blyth's metaphor, given that it was Blyth himself who, in his two papers of 1836 had described the spread of species by 'indefinite radiation'.  It was a metaphor which Blyth had been using as far back as the 1830s, a metaphor that Blyth himself had borrowed from the famous French naturalist Lamarck.  And Lamarck had first used it some 30 years earlier still, a fact that could hardly have escaped Darwin's notice!

But there's more to it than that.

In 1871, you may remember, Blyth wrote to tell Arthur Grote:

"I am now preparing [a work] on 'The Origination of Species', a subject upon which I think I can throw some light."3

Had Blyth really failed to recognise his own work as the basis for Darwin's ideas?  Did he really intend publishing a book with an almost identical title on a mere whim?  It is surely clear beyond reasonable doubt that by 1871, if not earlier, Blyth recognised that Darwin had been feeding from him, as from so many others, like some intellectual leech.  And he chose to keep silent.

This action, while it may appear quite ludicrously self-effacing today, made perfectly good sense in the context of Victorian England.

It should be noted, for example, that the 'middle classes' which now make up such a large proportion of the population, only began to develop as a distinct social group during the Victorian era.  At the time when The Origin was published the middle classes were barely established, and were often hard to distinguish from the upper end of the lower or working classes from which they had so lately emerged.  Moreover, where notions of class may be regarded as irrelevant or even destructive today, in Victorian England social status was a paramount influence in all walks of life.
(An important part of the attraction of Darwin's explanation of natural selection, the struggle for existence, etc., was the veneer of intellectual respectability it gave to the way the British ruling classes were already wont to behave.)
A brief consideration of Blyth's situation shows that he was really in a very poor position so far as openly reclaiming his ideas was concerned.  He had no academic qualifications - a mere Trade School education could hardly be compared with a Cambridge degree, even one without honours - and no well-established social standing.  He had no influential friends to support him; and the idea that he might have initiated a show down with Darwin is franly, under the circumstances, a complete non-starter.

Where we now have access to the relevant issues of the Magazine of Natural History and can see Darwin's pencilled notes in the margins beside Blyth's paper, Blyth himself couldn't prove that Darwin had even read the papers, let alone had preserved them for future reference - unless Darwin chose to admit it.
Or again, whilst we have Frances Darwin's assurance that Blyth's letters to Darwin "give evidence of having been carefully studied"4, how was Blyth to prove the importance of the contents of those letters unless Darwin chose to acknowledge their relevance?

Blyth may have been well respected in some circles, but the "ill-paid" museum curator, the butt of "ceaseless humiliations"5, was hardly in a position to pit himself against a wealthy, upper class, well-established member of the scientific establishment.

The Nobler Path

We must also remember the simple but rather crucial fact that, when The Origin was first published, and when the great Oxford Debate of 1860 (featuring the famous exchange between Thomas Huxley - soon to become Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution - and Bishop Wilberforce, FRS) took place, Edward Blyth was more than 5,000 miles away in India.  He was already suffering from the illness which would cause his premature retirement and return to England in 1862; and he was still getting over the sudden death of his wife, who had died in 1857, only three years after their marriage.

More importantly than all of these considerations, however, there is one overwhelming reason why Blyth would almost certainly have kept Darwin's secret to himself.  It can be summed up in just one line of Allen Hume's commentary on Blyth's character:

"Neither neglect nor harshness could drive, nor wealth nor worldly advantages tempt him, from what he deemed the nobler path"6
(Italics added)

Darwin's description of Blyth as "a very clever, odd, wild fellow"7, was possibly a touch pejorative, but not far off the mark.  Blyth was, in essence, very gifted, very idealistic and very undisciplined.  He was fascinated by the study of natural history for its own sake, and seems never to have been happier than when he was either expanding his own knowledge, or sharing that knowledge with others.
As Eiseley observed, Blyth made "innumerable specialised contributions to the natural history of Southeastern Asia."8.  But he lacked the self-discipline needed to sit down and draw all his observations, knowledge and thoughts into one comprehensive, coherent whole.  Not, that is, until his forced retirement in 1862.  Only then did he start to think about authoring the book that he, of all people, was so well qualified to write.

Did Blyth really intend to complete and publish his book?  We'll never know, but I suspect the answer was "no".  Certainly not with that highly ironic title.
Edward Blyth wasn't just an idealist, he was one of those rare people - a Christian who actually managed to live according to his beliefs.

Based on comments such as those of Professor Mayr (see Darwin Myth #7 in Part 7 of this paper), and others, I believe it is this latter point, that Blyth was actually a professing Christian, which makes it so difficult for evolutionists to acknowledge his papers as the primary source of Darwin's ideas on evolution.

Blyth did start work on The Origination of Species, in a manner of speaking, but it never amounted to anything more than a loose collection of rough ideas.  For Blyth, the choice between gaining a reputation for himself at the expense of another (now a longstanding acquaintance), or keeping silent, was no choice at all.  He remained silent to the end, I believe, because for him silence was "the nobler path".

Fever Pitch

Having addressed, at considerable length, what I refer to as the Darwin Myth - the 'public relations' version, if you will, of Darwin's life and work - we must now consider a second set of alternatives: the public and not so public versions of how Alfred Russel (no second "l") Wallace came to play a part in the publishing of The Origin of Species.
Peter Brent tells the story thus:

"Wallace had long believed in the transmutation of species.  There is a myth that the entire notion seized him between fits of malarial fever in 1858, but the fact is that he was thinking about the subject as early as 1845. ... In December of that year he wrote to H.W. Bates [concerning Chambers' Vestiges of Creation, published a year earlier]: 'I do not consider it as a hasty generalization, but rather as an ingenious hypothesis strongly supported by some striking facts and analogies ... I would observe that many eminent writers give great support to the theory of the progressive development of species in animals & plants.' "9

Peter Bowler, in his own biography of Darwin, perpetuates the notion that Wallace only lighted on his own solution in 1858, and adds the further information that Wallace was actually "suffering from a bout of fever on the island of Gilolo (not, as he later claimed, on the better-known Spice Island of Ternate)."10

Alfred Russel Wallace was born in the village of Usk in Monmouthshire on January 8th, 1923.  Though his formal schooling was brief, he learnt a love of books from his father, a lawyer, and had gleaned some further education at the 'Hall of Science' - a socialist-run night school off the Tottenham Court Road.  He had attended school in London, though only until his middle teens, and had gone on to be a trainee land surveyor back in Wales and an assistant teacher in a Leicester school before he joined forces with H.W Bates to become a professional specimen hunter (initially in South America).

Over the next few years, apart from a two year sojourn in London (1852-54) he travelled a good deal, though the places he visited were mainly dictated by his ability to gain free passage on this or that Government ship.
In 1855 he had his first theoretical paper - On the law that has Regulated the Introduction of New Species - published in the Annals of Natural History.  The main thrust of the paper being to demonstrate that new species always emerged in areas already colonised by a related species.  As biographers often note, however, Wallace was good on generalities but short on details - like what mechanism led to the formation of the new species?

As Peter Bowler observes, the evolutionary implications in Wallace's paper were clear enough, but the lack of anything more substantial than this high level view apparently left Darwin unimpressed, and it certainly did nothing to motivate him to speed up his own work on 'the species question'.

Given time, of course, Wallace would become the spur that finally roused Darwin to action, with his 1858 paper: On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.  But even here there may be more than meets the eye.
It is interesting, indeed fascinating, that Darwin should say of Wallace's second paper:

"If Wallace had my MS sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract!  Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters."11

Even more interesting, and one of the major puzzles that nagged at me as I worked on my own original research, was this question: Just how did Wallace, a poorly educated (though by no means illiterate) specimen hunter, manage to recover so quickly and thoroughly from a bout of fever that he could, in just two evenings (according to Wallace) produce a paper that mirrored Darwin's work so closely that "even his terms now [stood] as the heads of [Darwin's] chapters"?

The traditional explanation is that Wallace came to the same conclusions because, amongst other things, he was inspired by the same source - Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population.  The trouble is, there is good evidence that Malthus' wasn't Darwin's original inspiration.  On the subject of the struggle for existence, for example, as Mayr observed:

"It was in the writings of Lyell that Darwin first encountered the concept of the struggle for existence, not in Malthus."12

What we now know, but Mayr apparently didn't, was that Blyth also dealt with the struggle for existence, by that name, in his 1835 paper in the Magazine of Natural History.  We also know that Darwin had access to both sources during his time aboard the Beagle - 2-3 years before he read Malthus!

But if Malthus isn't 'the missing link' what, or who, is?

  1. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X., Loren Eiseley.  op. cit. p.79.
  2. Quoted in Darwin, A. Desmond and J. Moore.  Michael Joseph:London:1991. p.419.
  3. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X., Loren Eiseley.  op. cit. p.181.
  4. Ibid. p.247.
  5. Dictionary of National Biography, op. cit. p.277.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Quoted in Darwin, A. Desmond and J. Moore.  op. cit. p.419.
  8. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X., Loren Eiseley.  op. cit. p.49.
  9. Charles Darwin, Peter Brent.  op. cit. p.406.
  10. Charles Darwin: The man and His Influence, Peter J. Bowler.  op cit. p.112.
  11. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed.). op. cit.  Vol. 2. p.116.
  12. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, evolution, and inheritance, Ernst Mayr.  op cit. p.483.

Go to other sections

Part 0 - Introduction
Part 1 - Metaphors and Myths
Part 2 - The Mystery Begins
Part 3 - All At Sea
Part 4 - He Who Hesitates ...
Part 5 - Last Days
Part 6 - Without Reference ...
Part 7 - The Missing Link
Part 8 - Going Public, Maybe
Part 9 - ... Father to the Man
Part 11 - ... and 'Mr' Lyell
Part 12 - The Final Frontier

Appendices - The full text of Blyth's papers from 1835-37
Appendix A - The Varieties of Animals - Part 1
Appendix B - The Varieties of Animals - Part 2
Appendix C - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 1
Appendix D - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 2
Appendix E -  Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 3
Appendix F -  Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 4
Appendix G -  Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 1
b> Appendix H -  
Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 2
b> Appendix  I -  
Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 3
Appendix  J -  Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 4

This paper was written and produced by Andrew J. Bradbury