Darwin and His Doppelgänger

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin; drawing by David Levine

In 1922 Sigmund Freud wrote to Arthur Schnitzler, the Austrian playwright known for his penetrating psychological dramas, to congratulate him on reaching his sixtieth birthday. In this letter Freud asked himself why, for so many years, he had avoided meeting a fellow Viennese intellectual whose ideas he so esteemed for their similarity to his own. In answering this question, Freud offered “a confession” to Schnitzler—one that he requested the playwright to keep to himself. “I think I have avoided you from a kind of reluctance to meet my double [Doppelgängerscheu]…. Whenever I get deeply interested in your beautiful creations I always seem to find behind their poetic sheen the same presuppositions, interests and conclusions as those familiar to me as my own.”1

Freud was ambivalent about meeting his Viennese doppelgänger because, like most scientists, he was intensely concerned about scientific priority, raising this concern more than 150 times in his correspondence and published works. According to the sociologist Robert K. Merton, who documented Freud’s intense preoccupation with securing his own claims to originality, ambivalence is a hallmark of the way scientists feel about having scientific priority.2 Merton even declared, as a rule of thumb, that whenever the biography or autobiography of a scientist states that he has had little interest in being the first, one is likely to find, within a few pages, one or more references to his having been embroiled in controversy over this very issue.



p align=”center”>“I Never Saw a More Striking Coincidence”

If ever a famous scientist was unexpectedly confronted by his intellectual double—a colleague whose independent discovery of the same revolutionary idea threatened to undermine his prospects for scientific immortality—that scientist was Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882). The man who threatened Darwin with losing his place as an original thinker was another British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913). Living in the jungles of the faraway Malay Archipelago, Wallace was diligently collecting tens of thousands of natural history specimens when he experienced, in February 1858, one of many recurrent attacks of malarial fever. While he was incapacitated and in a state of intermittent delirium, Wallace found himself mulling over the relentless destructive forces in nature that keep natural populations from increasing in size. Wallace suddenly recalled the argument of Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1826), in which Malthus had maintained that human populations tend to increase at a geometric rate whereas the food supply tends to increase only at an arithmetic rate. According to Mal-thus, the inevitable consequence of this mathematical discrepancy was the existence of powerful “checks” to population increase. It then flashed across Wallace’s mind, as it had Darwin’s when he read the same book by Malthus twenty years earlier, that only the fittest and most adapted individuals would tend to survive in nature, and hence that a process of natural selection would cause new and better-adapted varieties to…

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