Charles Darwin's natural selection letter


Charles Darwin (1809 - 82) was a naturalist who developed the theory of evolution by natural selection which was published in Origin of Species.

In this letter Darwin writes to Alfred Russel Wallace, a fellow naturalist and professional specimen collector. It was Wallace who independently developed a theory of evolution by natural selection, thus prompting Darwin to first publish an outline of his theory.

Here Darwin refers to his own ‘long-winded book’ and compliments Wallace on recent publications. The letter shows Darwin’s awareness that plants often appear to inherit discrete rather than blended characteristics, a view he apparently supported through practical research with sweet peas – the very same plant used by Mendel in his pioneering work that founded modern genetics.

The parallel development of theories of evolution by natural selection by Wallace and Darwin provides an interesting glimpse of the diverse backgrounds and experiences of those practising natural history in the middle of the 19th century. Darwin did not need to seek paid employment to sustain his scientific activities. Following his voyages on the Beagle, he carried out most of his experiments at Down House in Kent. Wallace, however, earned his living by collecting specimens for clients and travelled throughout the Malay Archipelago in the 1850s.

Wallace first wrote to Darwin in 1858 from Indonesia. In the letter he summarises Darwin’s own views, first outlined in 1842. This prompted Darwin to seek publication of the manuscript he had been working on for some time. Wallace continued to work on evolution, developing his theories and publishing a defence of natural selection in 1889.

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Charles Darwin's natural selection letter to Alfred Russel Wallace
Charles Darwin
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Add MS 46434, f. 61-2

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