Jan 08

Big Question: Who was Alfred Russel Wallace?

Everyone knows about Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution and natural selection, but not many know that another man came up with the same ideas at around the same time. His name was Alfred Russel Wallace. Sadly, whereas Darwin has gained all the attention and glory in the past one hundred and fifty years, Wallace has been largely forgotten. But today is the 191st anniversary of Wallace’s birthday, so what better time to celebrate the great man and his many achievements?


Photo: Borderland Magazine, 1896
This is Alfred Russel Wallace in his later years; he died in 1913, aged 90.

Back in 1848, Wallace went to the Amazon rainforest with a man named Henry Walter Bates, paying for his voyage by collecting natural history specimens to sell to wealthy collectors. After four solid years of collecting, Wallace returned to Britain but his ship caught fire and sank. With it went thousands of carefully prepared specimens and field notes, the result of years of arduous work and labour.

Was Wallace angry and upset? No, he was not. When he got back to Britain, he simply planned another trip, this time to a group of islands known as the Malay Archipelago (modern-day Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia). Wallace was particularly interested in the birds of paradise, which were little-studied at the time, but he also found a dizzying variety of other creatures on this side of the world as well, just as he had done in the Amazon.

port_colonies_asia_1498 (1)

Map: William Shepherd
A map of India and the Malay Archipelago. The latter can be seen towards the right of the picture, encompassing the islands of Borneo, Sumatra, the Philippines and many other smaller islands.

Revolutionary Ideas

Unfortunately, Wallace occasionally suffered from malaria while he was on these expeditions and, during another bout on the Spice Islands, lying semi-delirious in his bed, he pondered about how one animal species might give rise to another. He decided that each individual animal within a species must be slightly different, and the ones most suited to the surrounding environment would be the ones most likely to survive and hand on their winning characteristics to the next generations. When he recovered, Wallace wrote his theory out in more detail and sent word to someone he had often corresponded with on natural history questions, Charles Darwin.

Wallace’s letter troubled Darwin. He had thought of exactly the same theory some sixteen years earlier, but he had delayed publishing it because he knew it would profoundly shock religious Victorian Britain. Darwin worried that publishing his theory now would seem as though he was merely stealing Wallace’s idea, so he graciously arranged for both his own paper and Wallace’s to be read out at the same meeting of the premier natural history society in the country, the Linnean Society of London.

This statue of Alfred Russel Wallace was unveiled at the London Natural History Museum by Sir David Attenborough on November 7th 2013 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death.

Photo: George Beccaloni
This statue of Alfred Russel Wallace was unveiled at the London Natural History Museum by Sir David Attenborough on November 7th 2013 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wallace’s death.

This wasn’t run by Wallace first – there simply wasn’t time to get his permission – but Wallace conceded, when he later heard an account of the events, that it had been a fair solution. When Wallace returned to Britain in 1862, after eight long years in the Malay Archipelago, he sold two living birds of paradise to London Zoo (for £150) and then went to see Darwin. By now, Darwin had published his famous book, The Origin of Species. But was Wallace bitter that his old friend had published the theory of evolution first and gained all the fame and glory?

Wallace was not. Just like how he didn’t let the sinking of his ship and the loss of thousands of specimens get him down, he wasn’t dispirited that his ideas had already been published. In fact, he remained on very good terms with Charles Darwin for the rest of their scientific careers. He often gave lectures defending natural selection and even happily referred to it as ‘Darwinism’. Wallace was quick to admit that Darwin had amassed a much greater mountain of research and collected more evidence on the subject than Wallace himself would ever have been able to procure, and that his own version of the theory would never have been so completely thorough. Darwin, being a modest man, retorted that if Wallace had had sixteen or more years to write a book, then his would likely have been just as good – if not more so – than The Origin of Species.

And who knows? Maybe if Alfred Russel Wallace had never sent that letter to Darwin in the first place, Darwin would never had received the push that he needed to publish The Origin of Species. And that would have been a shame, because Wallace-ism just doesn’t have the same ring to it.


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