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.

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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.

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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.

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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  Lyell and Joseph Hooker presented Wallace’s paper along with other unpublished material of Darwin’s at the Linnean Society of London in July 1858 – the presentation was called ‘On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the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.

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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?

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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’).

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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).

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

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Footnote:

[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.

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