Originality of the species

A frenzied desire to be first inspired Darwin and Einstein to bursts of creativity. Like writers and artists, scientists strive to have their names attached to a work of brilliance, but any breakthrough depends on the efforts of countless predecessors. Ian McEwan reflects on originality and collaboration

Ian McEwan

Wallace’s 20 pages, so it seemed to their reader on that momentous morning, covered all the principle ideas of evolution by natural selection that Darwin had been working on for more than two decades and which he thought were his exclusive possession – and which he had yet to publish. Wallace, working alone, with very little in the way of encouragement or money, drew from his extensive experience of natural history, gathered while sending back specimens for collectors. He articulated concisely the elements as well as the sources familiar to Darwin: artificial selection, the struggle for survival, competition and extinction, the way species changed into different forms by an impersonal, describable process, by a logic that did not need the intervention of a deity. Wallace, like Darwin, had been influenced by the geological speculations of Charles Lyell, and the population theories ofThomas Malthus.

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