One of the most pivotal events of the modern era that would shape the world for ever after was the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859. Prior to that time the source providing the answer to the most important question of “How did we get here?” was the Church. While science was steadily making advances in eroding the Church's power base, it could not unseat monotheism as civilization's official truth provider until Darwin answered the question with “We evolved.”
As a product of his times, Darwin built his primary conclusions on the evolutionary ideas of Jean Baptiste Lamarck and the geological implication of Charles Lyell as well as Thomas Malthus' faulty conclusion that biological success, while it comes from biological adaptation, does so in a fight over scarce resources. Perhaps it was Darwin's subtitle for his work – The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life – that led the scientific community to take a more penetrating view of Darwin's concepts. The unfortunate interpretation taken up was that in order to improve humanity's chances for survival a purification of race must occur, which meant removing unfavorable genetic influences. Taken to its extreme, Darwin's concepts became the state-sanctioned science and mission of Nazi Germany.
In later life Darwin would attempt to shift attention away from this interpretation by focusing on the evolutionary value of love, altruism, and kindness. His disciples thought his new ideas were tantamount to sedition, undermining everything that Darwinism had come to represent. In the end, the advocates of Darwinism dismissed Darwin himself and continued to perpetrate their version of the theory.
In hindsight, the theory of evolution may have taken a different track with completely opposite implications. In truth of fact, Charles Darwin was not first to advance the notion of evolutionary theory. Evolutionary thought had been ripening for nearly a century before Darwin was born. Even his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had studied and written about the subject. Darwin spent most of the thirty years after his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle thinking about evolution and rehashing his ideas, dragging his feet in publishing his expose. This was a time pregnant with ideas on the subject from various other researchers and writers. What prodded him finally to action was when he received a package from the English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858, entitled On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type. The package was Wallace's theory of evolution and he had asked Darwin to kindly review it.
The work was brief, elegant, academic, extremely well written and should have rightfully qualified Wallace as the rightful originator of evolutionary theory, a title upon which Darwin was ultimately bestowed. With urgency, Darwin pushed his work forward with the aid of the esteemed Charles Lyell in what has been termed as “one of the greatest conspiracies in the annals of science.” Lyell used his acclaimed status to orchestrate fabrications, alter documents, and plagiarize, so that Darwin would get credit over Wallace as the creator of this grand evolutionary theory, with Wallace listed as a junior contributor.
Such chicanery, on the surface, might seem trivial in relation to the impact of these ideas upon the world, but the way this incident was handled has had profound reverberations that continue to impact the world today. The difference between whether Darwin or Wallace received credit for the theory is the evolutionary epitome of the glass being half full or half empty.
Wallace recognized that evolution was driven by elimination of the weakest, while Darwin interpreted the same data to mean evolution resulted from survival of the fittest. Had Wallace's approach prevailed we might be living in a world where we would strive to improve so as not to be the weakest. In contrast, in Darwin's world we struggle to be the best. It is interesting to speculate that had Wallace been given the credit justifiably due him, we may now be living in a world less focused on competition and perhaps more focused on cooperation.