Following on from Sylvia McLain’s recent post on Richard Dawkins, here is more on evolution. My piece concerns Alfred Russel Wallace, who was intimately involved in the early thinking on this topic. The timing of the two pieces is entirely coincidental.
Alfred Russel Wallace (from Wikipedia)
I first came across the name of Alfred Russel Wallace after visiting a second-hand bookshop. I bought a book entitled “Literary Dorset” and found a long piece on Wallace. I was surprised to see that he had proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection independently of Charles Darwin and that when he died, in 1913, Wallace was one of the most famous scientists in the world. More of a surprise to me personally was to find that for the last 14 years of his life he lived not far from where I grew up in Poole in Dorset. The proximity is not important, what matters is that when I lived and went to school there, I had never been told about this eminent scientist.
So earlier this month, when I happened to be back in the area, I decided to look for traces of Wallace. This took me to the leafy suburb of Broadstone, a few miles inland from Poole. I soon found the small cemetery, surrounded by heath land and mature housing. It’s a quiet spot and the only sounds that afternoon were the murmuring of the wind in the pine trees and the song of the birds. Wallace’s grave stands out, surmounted as it is by a huge fossilised tree taken from nearby Portland. The grave is well looked after and there is a plaque declaring that Wallace was “co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection”. Wallace lived in Broadstone towards the end of his life and wanted to be buried there.
2013 is Wallace’s centenary year and his achievements are being celebrated. There is a Wallace 100 web site listing all the centenary events, the comedian Bill Bailey presented a two-part TV series where he followed the route of Wallace’s expedition through Indonesia, and Wallace’s portrait has been placed next to Darwin’s statue in the Natural History Museum. But why is it that we remember Darwin and not Wallace?
The plaque on Wallace’s grave
Wallace was one of the greatest Victorian naturalists. He came up with the idea of natural selection while recovering from malarial fever on the island of Halmahera in Indonesia. He was about half way through an 8-year long expedition studying the species in the Malay Archipelago (now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia). His observations on the distribution of different species had convinced him that evolution was occurring but he was unable to pin down the mechanism. Finally, he realised that the variation he saw in different specimens of one species could lead to differences in fitness and hence survival; this gave him the idea of evolution by natural selection. Wallace wrote his ideas up as an essay while still on Halmahera. He sent the essay to Charles Darwin in England hoping he might comment. Darwin had independently conceived the principle of natural selection two decades earlier but acting like a rabbit in the headlights of his doubts and uncertainties, he had failed to publish. Wallace was entirely unaware of the potential conflict of interest he had created given that Darwin was his principal and probably his only competitor.
Receiving Wallace’s essay, Darwin was horrified that he might lose all credit for the idea and he sought advice from his influential friends, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker. They came up with the idea of presenting both men’s ideas to a meeting of the Linnean Society and so on July 1st 1858 a presentation was made entitled “On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection”. It contained two excerpts from Darwin’s writings on the topic together with Wallace’s essay. Although Darwin’s name came first, both men were clearly credited on the paper which was the first communication on the idea of natural selection. Some think that Wallace has badly treated. He was not consulted about publication of the essay alongside Darwin’s writings (he was still in the Far East) and had he sent his essay directly for publication then he would have had priority. There is some truth in this but the fact is that he didn’t send it directly for publication and instead unwittingly alerted Darwin and his friends to the priority issue. The end result was that in 1858 the theory of natural selection had the names of both men attached to it. The episode is a little dubious but Wallace was not unhappy about what happened.
The balance did, however, shift substantially in Darwin’s favour when about 15 months later he published his book “On the Origin of Species”. This was a detailed and accessible account of the idea of evolution by natural selection which caught the public imagination and was immensely popular. The book began the association of natural selection with the name of Darwin. Wallace received a copy of the book while still on his travels in Indonesia and was very impressed, writing that it “touches upon and explains in detail many points which I had scarcely thought upon”.
In his lifetime, Wallace did receive credit for his contribution to the theory which was referred to by scientists as the Darwin-Wallace theory. Indeed, he was awarded the Darwin and Copley medals of the Royal Society with citations referring explicitly to his work on natural selection. Many other honours came his way, culminating in the Order of Merit. His account of his travels, the Malay Archipelago, which he dedicated to Charles Darwin, was very popular and is considered to be one of the greatest scientific travel books of the 19th century. When he died in 1913 he was one of the best known scientists on the planet. He had come a long way given that he had little formal education and was frequently short of money. The contrast with Darwin could not have been greater but despite this Wallace became an accepted member of the scientific elite. There was a move to have him buried in Westminster Abbey beside Darwin but it was his wish to be buried near his house in Broadstone.
So why has he been forgotten? One account goes as follows. Towards the end of the 19th century, natural selection as an explanation for evolution became unfashionable; other theories were considered and the names of Darwin and Wallace fell from prominence. By the 1930s when natural selection was taken up again as part of the modern evolutionary synthesis, this was lead by scientists who were unfamiliar with the events of 1858. They knew Darwin’s book, “On the Origin of Species” and took his name as the originator of the theory. Nowadays, in the popular imagination, Darwin’s name is the only one associated with natural selection. So, there has been no conspiracy, just a series of events that have played up Darwin’s name at the expense of Wallace’s.
It’s certainly good that Wallace’s contribution is being celebrated in 2013 but what will the long term effects be? I doubt if much will change as Darwin and natural selection are now so strongly linked. Perhaps we could all try to engineer a small change: when we mention this topic, we should refer to the theory of evolution by natural selection as the Darwin-Wallace Theory, as was done in the 19th century.
Let’s finish with an unverified anecdote taken from the Wallace web site: “When Wallace was critically ill several journalists waited outside his house, Old Orchard, in Broadstone in order to report Wallace’s death. One of the journalists offered Wallace’s butler £5 if he would inform him the moment Wallace died so that he could publish the story first. The butler told this to the Doctor and added that the journalist had asked him to pull down a window blind in Wallace’s bedroom to signal Wallace’s death. Hearing this, the Doctor remarked “You mean like this!” and he promptly pulled the blind down! ….. because of this Wallace’s obituary notice was published 3 days early.”