The 1858 Darwin-Wallace paper & creativity

Darwin, C. R. & Wallace, A. R. (1858). On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection. Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, Zoology, 3: 45-62.

It’s 02019, and I’m writing a book, called [er… title omitted, as it’s currently a secret].

Basically, because, I think it’s fascinating how: evolution causes creativity. Whether we like it or not.

Some Backstory/Context:

Here’s a thing. As George Beccaloni (2008) notes on his Wallace website:

`The theory of evolution by natural selection was first proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the scientific article below. It is probably the most important scientific paper in the history of biology and it was first read at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London on July 1st 1858, before being published on the 20th August of that year in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society: Zoology.

(Source: Beccaloni 2008, online, bold emphasis mine)

Okay, so, let’s say the standard definition of creativity (see: Runco & Jaeger 2012) is, a thing that’s: new and useful, or, to use some other synonyms, original, and best-adapted.

We’re talking biology, mainly, below. Because: Darwin & Wallace, 1858.

…We’ll get to (bio)culture, later.

Anyway, so – think about how evolution (i.e., the evolutionary algorithm) causes creativity to occur, whether we all like it, or not… Check this out (point #4), from Darwin’s part of the 1858 paper…

(…which is: “II. Abstract of a Letter from C. DARWIN, Esq., to Prof. ASA GRAY, Boston, U.S., dated Down, September 5th, 1857″.)

`4. Now take the case of a country undergoing some change. This will tend to cause some of its inhabitants to vary slightly— not but that I believe most beings vary at all times enough for selection to act on them. Some of its inhabitants will be exterminated; and the remainder will be exposed to the mutual action of a different set of inhabitants, which I believe to be far more important to the life of each being than mere climate. Considering the infinitely various methods which living beings follow to obtain food by struggling with other organisms, to escape danger at various times of life, to have their eggs or seeds disseminated, &c. &c., I cannot doubt that during millions of generations individuals of a species will be occasionally born with some slight variation, profitable to some part of their economy. Such individuals will have a better chance of surviving, and of propagating their new and slightly different structure; and the modification may be slowly increased by the accumulative action of natural selection to any profitable extent. The variety thus formed will either coexist with, or, more commonly, will exterminate its parent form. An organic being, like the woodpecker or misseltoe, may thus come to be adapted to a score of contingences—natural selection accumulating those slight variations in all parts of its structure, which are in any way useful to it during any part of its life.’

(Darwin 1858, pp. 51-2, bold emphasis mine, i.e. JTV)

Did you see the bold bit?

This is just like – when a “new & more useful” cultural artifact comes along, and “replaces”, out-competes, squeezes out, supercedes, the old stuff…

By cultural artifact I mean: idea, process, or product (aka: meme, aka, unit of culture).

So, a newer & more useful (i.e., more effective): word, phrase, song, movie, book, invention (e.g. a better mousetrap, electric rather than fossil-fuel car), scientific model (aka theory), painting, toy, weapon, blog-post… or, whatnot.

This is like, a newer and more effective version of: a woodpecker, or, some mistletoe.

Dang. Darwin (and Wallace) nailed creativity, just without explicitly saying so.

So, I’m saying it, now.

Watch out for this book I’m writing, it may even be: good.

What’s this got to do with the top 20 RoI movies? And the bottom 20 RoI movies? i.e., my PhD thesis? Well, everything.

During the thesis, I started extrapolating the observations about creativity (in: the top 20 RoI movies) to: all culture… Books (fiction and nonfiction), languages, science, the arts, technology, inventions, whatever. All culture. Like Darwin (& Wallace) did, with all biology.

It’s the same dang thing, going on there.

The evolutionary algorithm, causing creativity. In both biology, and in culture.

The trick is, to use it to your advantage while creating a unit of culture.

e.g.: A movie screenplay, a line in a movie screenplay, a word in a movie screenplay, an image you’re describing in words in a movie screenplay, etc.

Also, same goes for: books, inventions, science, the arts, jokes, or whatever.

I just think it’s a bit shocking, how much of it Darwin nailed (i.e., creativity, how it works, and why it happens), if you read between his lines.

But on the other hand – if you think a lot about: evolution (specifically, the evolutionary algorithm, in systems, including ecosystems), and statistics, Big Data, and probability, then it’s slightly less shocking.

Then, it’s just: surprising, and rather amazing.

I mean, we just looked at Point 4 to Asa Gray…

Check out Point 3:

`3. I think it can be shown that there is such an unerring power at work in Natural Selection (the title of my book), which selects exclusively for the good of each organic being. The elder De Candolle, W. Herbert, and Lyell have written excellently on the struggle for life; but even they have not written strongly enough. Reflect that every being (even the elephant) breeds at such a rate, that in a few years, or at most a few centuries, the surface of the earth would not hold the progeny of one pair. I have found it hard constantly to bear in mind that the increase of every single species is checked during some part of its life, or during some shortly recurrent generation. Only a few of those annually born can live to propagate their kind. What a trifling difference must often determine which shall survive, and which perish!’

(Darwin 1858, p. 51, bold emphasis mine, i.e. JTV)

Notice how Darwin tells Asa Gray the title of his book. Which ended up as On The Origin of Species, not Natural Selection. 

One of the reasons I’m also not telling the title of my book is: it may change.

But I hope not. I like the current title. Which is still a secret.

Hey – check out his point 6 to Asa Gray. On Divergence. (Or Diversity, to make it seem more up-to-date with what the kids are talking about. Then again E O Wilson also talks about letting life thrive, and how we shouldn’t keep doing the 6th mass extinction, and he’s not exactly a kid.)

`6. Another principle, which may be called the principle of divergence, plays, I believe, an important part in the origin of species. The same spot will support more life if occupied by very diverse forms. We see this in the many generic forms in a square yard of turf, and in the plants or insects on any little uniform islet, belonging almost invariably to as many genera and families as species. We can understand the meaning of this fact amongst the higher animals, whose habits we understand. We know that it has been experimentally shown that a plot of land will yield a greater weight if sown with several species and genera of grasses, than if sown with only two or three species. Now, every organic being, by propagating so rapidly, may be said to be striving its utmost to increase in numbers. So it will be with the offspring of any species after it has become diversified into varieties, or subspecies, or true species. And it follows, I think, from the foregoing facts, that the varying offspring of each species will try (only few will succeed) to seize on as many and as diverse places in the economy of nature as possible. Each new variety or species, when formed, will generally take the place of, and thus exterminate its less well-fitted parent. This I believe to be the origin of the classification and affinities of organic beings at all times; for organic beings always seem to branch and sub-branch like the limbs of a tree from a common trunk, the flourishing and diverging twigs destroying the less vigorous—the dead and lost branches rudely representing extinct genera and families.
This sketch is most imperfect; but in so short a space I cannot make it better. Your imagination must fill up very wide blanks.

C. DARWIN.’ (Darwin 1858, pp. 52-3)


Culture also diversifies downwards, and unifies upwards, but that’s another story for another time.

Probably in my book.

Hey so I guess we should hear from Wallace too.

`III. On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type. By ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE.

One of the strongest arguments which have been adduced to prove the original and permanent distinctness of species is, that varieties produced in a state of domesticity are more or less unstable, and often have a tendency, if left to themselves, to return to the normal form of the parent species; and this instability is considered to be a distinctive peculiarity of all varieties, even of those occurring among wild animals in a state of nature, and to constitute a provision for preserving unchanged the originally created distinct species.’ (Wallace 1858, p. 53)

If you ask me, Wallace (just here in his Intro bit) isn’t quite as much fun to read as Darwin. But that’s all about classic prose writing style.

Actually both these guys (Darwin and Wallace) remind me of Dr Jim Frazier. They went out in the field for years – got their hands dirty, and looked at things – and noticed some patterns, and reported back. Uber-cool.

Then again in fairness, Wallace gets fun to read in the next bit, as this bit fairly rips along:

`The life of wild animals is a struggle for existence. The full exertion of all their faculties and all their energies is required to preserve their own existence and provide for that of their infant offspring. The possibility of procuring food during the least favourable seasons, and of escaping the attacks of their most dangerous enemies, are the primary conditions which determine the existence both of individuals and of entire species. These conditions will also determine the population of a species; and by a careful consideration of all the circumstances we may be enabled to comprehend, and in some degree to explain, what at first sight appears so inexplicable—the excessive abundance of some species, while others closely allied to them are very rare.
The general proportion that must obtain between certain groups of animals is readily seen. Large animals cannot be so abundant as small ones; the carnivora must be less numerous than the herbivora; eagles and lions can never be so plentiful as pigeons and antelopes; the wild asses of the Tartarian deserts cannot equal in numbers the horses of the more luxuriant prairies and pampas of America. The greater or less fecundity of an animal is often considered to be one of the chief causes of its abundance or scarcity; but a consideration of the facts will show us that it really has little or nothing to do with the matter. Even the least prolific of animals would increase rapidly if unchecked, whereas it is evident that the animal population of the globe must be stationary, or perhaps, through the influence of man, decreasing. Fluctuations there may be; but permanent increase, except in restricted localities, is almost impossible. For example, our own observation must convince us that birds do not go on increasing every year in a geometrical ratio, as they would do, were there not some powerful check to their natural increase. Very few birds produce less than two young ones each year, while many have six, eight, or ten; four will certainly be below the average; and if we suppose that each pair produce young only four times in their life, that will also be below the average, supposing them not to die either by violence or want of food. Yet at this rate how tremendous would be the increase in a few years from a single pair! A simple calculation will show that in fifteen years each pair of birds would have increased to nearly ten millions! whereas we have no reason to believe that the number of the birds of any country increases at all in fifteen or in one hundred and fifty years. With such powers of increase the population must have reached its limits, and have become stationary, in a very few years after the origin of each species. It is evident, therefore, that each year an immense number of birds must perish—as many in fact as are born; and as on the lowest calculation the progeny are each year twice as numerous as their parents, it follows that, whatever be the average number of individuals existing in any given country, twice that number must perish annually,—a striking result, but one which seems at least highly probable, and is perhaps under rather than over the truth. It would therefore appear that, as far as the continuance of the species and the keeping up the average number of individuals are concerned, large broods are superfluous. On the average all above one become food for hawks and kites, wild cats and weasels, or perish of cold and hunger as winter comes on. This is strikingly proved by the case of particular species; for we find that their abundance in individuals bears no relation whatever to their fertility in producing offspring. Perhaps the most remarkable instance of an immense bird population is that of the passenger pigeon of the United States, which lays only one, or at most two eggs, and is said to rear generally but one young one. Why is this bird so extraordinarily abundant, while others producing two or three times as many young are much less plentiful? The explanation is not difficult.’ (Wallace 1858, pp. 54-5)

Anyway you can see why Darwin freaked out, when he read Wallace (1858) and realized he’d better hurry up and get his book done.

Howard Gruber does a fascinating study on Darwin’s creativity (including all this “competing with Wallace” stuff) in Darwin On Man (1981).

Also, in Creativity in Science, Simonton shows a list of famous “multiple simultaneous discoveries” in science. Like say Darwin & Wallace 1858, and, a whole bunch of others.

But it makes sense that – if a bunch of folks are all trying to solve the same (domain) problems, a few of them might (independently) happen on the exact same (or extremely similar) solution… See: evolution, statistics, big data, and probability.

This is why A.I. and big data (and, machine learning) in creativity 4.0 is good. It means we can solve stuff: quicker.

Which is necessary, since: the global problems are all getting outta hand… (See the great Greta Thunberg on climate change; corruption; disease; entropy; uninformed voting; and whatnot.) And, we humanimals aren’t good at thinking of so much stuff all at once. But our tools (e.g. computers) are!

Hey also 3 points:

  1. Funny how the Linnean Society attendees in 1858 didn’t realize how amazingly important these 2 papers (Darwin & Wallace) were. Moral: The Field is sometimes dozing, or ignorant. Sometimes they need a good hard slap, to wake ’em up.
  2. Wallace mentions the principle of the steam engine on p. 52: “We have also here an acting cause to account for that balance so often observed in nature,—a deficiency in one set of organs always being compensated by an increased development of some others—powerful wings accompanying weak feet, or great velocity making up for the absence of defensive weapons; for it has been shown that all varieties in which an unbalanced deficiency occurred could not long continue their existence. The action of this principle is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor of the steam engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident; and in like manner no unbalanced deficiency in the animal kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself felt at the very first step, by rendering existence difficult and extinction almost sure soon to follow.’ (Wallace 1858 p. 52). I get annoyed when some folks say metaphors and analogies always tend to the most advanced common technology (steam engines in the Novacene, Computers in the computer age, etc). It actually all comes back to Systems Theory.
  3. Both Darwin and Wallace 1858 mention: woodpeckers. …Why? (I suggest: Because they’re fun and hilarious, thus get more attention, than less silly birds.)

Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) – a female.

As an aside. I reckon both Darwin and Wallace would have made great Game Designers. Dan Dennett, too. See his great book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995).

~Thanks for reading.

~ Dr JTV 
High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie & Transmedia & Cultural Artifact Researcher
& Evolutionary Systems Theorist 
& Transmedia Writer-Director-Producer: Movies, Games, TV, Theatre (also: Theater), also Books, Comics,
& Whatever else I’m up to. 
Some of the above is (probably; knowing me) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral dissertation: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, screen-media-making and creativity researchers.
For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky 
JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter, and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild.
For more of his Transmedia Writing stuff, see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema: A comparative study of the top 20 Return-on-Investment (RoI) Movies and the Doxa of Screenwriting’. PhD Thesis, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia.

Velikovsky, J.T. (2019) “The Holon/Parton Structure of the Meme, or The Unit of Culture.” In Advanced Methodologies and Technologies in Artificial Intelligence, Computer Simulation, and Human-Computer Interaction, edited by D.B.A Mehdi Khosrow-Pour. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Velikovsky, J.T. (2018). “The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment, and the Arts.” In Technology Adoption and Social Issues: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (1st Edn), edited by IRMA, 1590-1627. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Velikovsky, J.T. (2017). “Chapter 405: The Holon/Parton Structure of the Meme, or, The Unit Of Culture.” In Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, Fourth Edition, edited by Mehdi Khosrow-Pour, 4666-4678. New York: IGI Global.

Velikovsky, J.T. (2016). “The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.” In Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications, edited by Andrew Connor and Stefan Marks, 208-246. New York: IGI Global.

PS – I’m currently trying to crush/condense my book [the one with the secret title] down into a 6k-word Encyclopedia article. So I figured, I should maybe go back and read Darwin (1858) to see how he (Charles) solved the same problem, and maybe try and steal – I mean emulate – some good ideas, on how to do it. In short, I didn’t find any good, obvious, applicable solutions – but I sure enjoyed re-reading Darwin-Wallace 1858.


2 thoughts on “StoryAlity #159 – The 1858 Darwin-Wallace paper & creativity

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