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The Darwin-Wallace mystery solved

For the past four decades, Charles Darwin had been accused of keeping the essay of fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace for a fortnight, thereby enabling him to revise elements of his theory of evolution, before jointly announcing the theory of evolution by natural selection in July 1858. Just recently, two researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS), supported by a private donation, reconstructed the route taken by Wallace's letter to Darwin from Ternate and provided evidence that Wallace sent the letter a month later than historians had always assumed, thus clearing Darwin of the accusations against him.

Dr John van Wyhe, a historian of science and Senior Lecturer in the Departments of Biological Sciences & History at NUS and his collaborator Dr Kees Rookmaaker, published their study, titled "A new theory to explain the receipt of Wallace's Ternate Essay by Darwin in 1848", in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society in December 2011. This study was supported by a generous private donation to the Darwin Online-Wallace Online projects.

The controversy

Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist who spent eight years in Singapore and South East Asia between 1854 and 1862, discovered evolution by natural selection independently of Charles Darwin. Wallace had a dramatic eureka moment while living on the island of Ternate in the Moluccas (now Indonesia). He wrote up his ideas in an essay which he sent in 1858, to Charles Darwin, for him to pass on to noted geologist Charles Lyell. Darwin’s accusers claim that he waited two weeks to do so, lying about the date of receipt to give himself time to revise his own ideas in the light of Wallace’s.

Wallace’s essay was published together with an essay by Darwin in 1858 and marks the first publication of the theory of evolution which then resulted in one of the greatest revolutions in the history of science.

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