Alfred Wallace on evolution: credit where due

I HAD NOT heard of Alfred Russel Wallace until I saw a fascinating two-part documentary about him by the comedian, Bill Bailey, in 2013. Wallace was a rival to Charles Darwin with regard to the theory of evolution. Wallace first put pen to paper on the topic but Darwin got all the credit.


Bill Bailey by a portrait of Wallace and many of his (Wallace’s) specimens

In 1845 Wallace read a book, ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ (published anonymously in 1844 but was by Robert Chambers) which convinced him that life on Earth had evolved from earlier forms.  As did Darwin, Wallace travelled afar (particularly to the Amazon) to collect various specimens to try and understand how evolution worked.  During his travels, in February 1855, he wrote a paper entitled ‘On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species’ which was published in September of that year. It described how species have evolved over time with some becoming extinct and new ones evolving from earlier forms. It was written at a time when the general belief was that species were unchanging creations of God – so likely to cause some concern within the religious world. Wallace had been inspired by the work of Charles Lyell on geological change. It was Lyell who brought Wallace’s paper to Darwin’s attention.


Alfred Wallace (1823-1913)

Darwin later mentioned to Wallace that Lyell (who Wallace hadn’t met) had found his (Wallace’s) 1855 paper noteworthy.  In February 1858, whilst in  Southeast Asia, Wallace realised how new species were formed and wrote an essay on it called ‘On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type’.  In June 1858 he sent the essay to Darwin asking him to forward it onto Lyell thinking that Lyell would be interested to learn about his new theory of evolution following his proposals in his 1855 paper.


Charles Darwin (1809-82)

When Darwin received Wallace’s essay he was deeply concerned. It described the same theory he himself had had 20 years before (although there were some differences) but had never published  and he aired his concerns to his friend Lyell.  Lyell and Joseph Hooker presented Wallace’s paper along with other unpublished material of Darwin’s at the Linnean Society of London in July 1858 – the presentation was called ‘On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties Species by Natural Means of Selection’ but it caused little interest (other than with some noted scientists) (click here to read that paper).  The presentation and documents were published a few weeks later with Darwin and Wallace as co-authors.


Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875)

Darwin had begun writing on evolution in 1844 and this 1858 essay of Wallace’s spurred him on to publish. The result was Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection’ published by John Murray in November 1859 [1]. This publication became the focal point of discussion and Wallace’s 1858 essay was forgotten. This left Darwin receiving the kudos for the discovery of the idea of natural selection. Unfair or what?


You can buy a 1st edition of Darwin’s book on Abe books for around  £150,000 ($230,000)

Admittedly, Darwin had been thinking about the theory longer than Wallace. It had been on his mind since 1838 after he had read an essay by Thomas Malthus on human population growth (‘Principle of Population’ published in 1826), whereas Wallace, as mentioned above, had only been thinking about it since 1845 (but let’s not ‘nitpick’).


The Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)

Sometimes life just ain’t fair. However, Wallace did receive his dues for his work in establishing modern biogeography (the study of geographical distribution of living things – but you knew that).


Statute of Wallace in front of the Wildlife Garden at the Natural History Museum, London (unveiled by Sir David Attenborough in November 2013)



[1] Darwin’s only reference to human evolution in this book was the understatement in his introduction that “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”. He did not address this theory fully until his book ‘The Descent of Man and the Selection in Relation to Sex’ in 1871.


The famous caricature of Darwin following the purification of his ‘Descent of Man’

4 thoughts on “Alfred Wallace on evolution: credit where due

  1. “Prompted by Wallace’s 1855 paper, Darwin had begun writing a book on evolution, and this 1858 essay of Wallace’s spurred him on. Needless to say he was worried that Wallace would publish the theory first and get the credit.”

    Darwin had begun writing his book before he had seen Wallace’s paper. Even earlier he had drafted a 1844 draft essay that was to be published if he had died (it ran ten times the length of Wallace’s essay). The longer magnum opus was a three volume work called “Natural History”. Darwin had been discussing this in letters with many zoologists, botanists, and geologists prior to his receiving Wallace’s essay. He had an editor (Hooker) that had already read the first eight chapters. It was finished, some 1000 pages, except for the final chapters on Geology, Classification and Embryology (points that Wallace didn’t touch upon in his essay), when he received Wallace’s paper. Darwin had told Wallace in 1857 that he would be publishing his book on evolution “in about 2 years”. Wallace wrote back that he wouldn’t be able to finish his work “until I have returned to Europe”.

    Darwin’s colleagues (including Lyell, who knew Darwin was close to publishing) arranged for excerpts of Darwin’s letters to fellow scientists to be published alongside Wallace’s essay (which, BTW, Wallace never said to publish…it would have been about a year to get his permission as he had just gone to New Guinea). Thus Darwin and Wallace both get credit, for the theory of evolution by Natural Selection.
    Darwin was more concerned that someone other than Wallace would see their essays and publish a “Vestiges” like misinterpretation of their ideas. He thus decided to abbreviate his three volumes,…finishing up the chapters still incomplete…without the extensive references and footnotes. That summary 400 pages long…”The Origin of Species” (1859).

    Wallace returned to the UK in 1862, so by his own words would have been unlikely to have published anything extensive on the topic until then. In fact most of the following years were taken up with publications and sales of his specimens. His own journals of the expedition “The Malay Archipelago” were not edited and published until 1868. I’m doubtful that Darwin stole anything or was unfair…indeed if he had withheld his summary of his great work it’s likely that some third party. like Herbert Spencer, would have presented “evolution” and “natural selection” to the public in a crass popularized and racist manner.

    • Thank you for your correction of my statement re when Darwin began writing on evolution, Jerry. I’ll put it right on the post.

      And thanks for your detailed information regarding publication, etc. Needless to say my posts are just tasters for readers and I cannot go into such detail on one particular factor.

      I had read that Darwin had drafted a 230 page essay in July 1844 in case he died but that was not published then. I do mention Lyell’s and Hooker’s presentation (at the Linnean) and subsequent publication of Darwin’s and Wallace’s in their joint names (receiving initial credit – but I understand that no one took much interest in the publication).

      I think it was Wyhe and Rookmaaker (2012) who suggested that Darwin was shocked that he had been ‘forestalled’ when he saw Wallace’s 1858 paper, and so that spurred him on to publish ‘Origin of the Species’.

      I was certainly not suggesting that Darwin ‘stole’ anything from Wallace, just that Wallace may have received a little more credit for his work on the evolution theory (it’s a little like Alice Kober with Linear B, and Thomas Young with the Rosetta Stone). My question ‘unfair or what’ was for the reader.

      However, thanks again for your comments, they were most interesting.

    • Funnily enough, William, having ‘done’ the Magna Carta [anniversary], I was looking at Agincourt – and Waterloo – the other day. Watch this space (albeit a little late as I realise that today is the actual anniversary of the battle of Agincourt!).

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