three papers were read by the society’s undersecretary, George Busk, in the order of their date of composition: Darwin’s abbreviated abstract of his 230-page essay from 1844; an “abstract of abstract” that Darwin had written to the American botanist Asa Gray on September 5, 1857; and Wallace’s essay, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from Original Type; Instability of Varieties Supposed to Prove the Permanent Distinctness of Species” (Wallace, 1858).
The meeting was attended by some 30 people, who did not include Darwin or Wallace. The papers generated little response and virtually no discussion, their significance apparently lost to those in attendance. Nor was it noticed by the president of the Linnean Society, Thomas Bell, who, in his annual address the following May, blandly stated that the past year had not been enlivened by “any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize” a branch of science.
Wallace’s independent discovery of natural selection is remarkable. But the lesser credit given to Wallace than to Darwin for this discovery may not be misplaced. Wallace was not interested in explaining design but rather in accounting for the evolution of species, as indicated in his paper’s title: “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.” Wallace thought that evolution proceeds indefinitely and is progressive. Wallace (1858) writes: “We believe that there is a tendency in nature to the continued progression of certain classes of varieties further and further from the original type—a progression to which there appears no reason to assign any definite limits. This progression, by minute steps, in various directions ….”
Darwin, on the contrary, did not accept that evolution would necessarily represent progress or advancement, nor did he believe that evolution would always result in morphological change over time; rather, he knew of the existence of “living fossils,” organisms that had remained unchanged for millions of years. For example, “some of the most ancient Silurian animals, as the Nautilus, Lingula, etc., do not differ much from living species” (Darwin, 1859b, p. 306). In 1858, Darwin was at work on a multivolume treatise, intended to be titled “On Natural Selection.” Wallace’s paper stimulated Darwin to write The Origin, which would be published the following year. Darwin saw The Origin as an abbreviated version of the much longer book he had planned to write.
Darwin’s focus in The Origin was the explanation of design, with evolution playing the subsidiary role of supporting evidence. The Introduction and chapters I–VIII of The Origin explain how natural selection accounts for the adaptations and behaviors of organisms, their “design.”