November 7, 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution along with Charles Darwin.

There are some who feel that Wallace deserves more credit than he gets for this discovery and that Darwin has run off with all the honors. This is a controversy for specialists in the history of science, but there is no question that Wallace made significant contributions to the theory of evolution. His initial paper and Darwin's were published at the same time and it was Wallace's writing to Darwin that pushed the latter to publish at all.

In the aftermath Wallace and Darwin took somewhat different paths. Darwin lost his faith, but was careful not to publicize it for fear of offending his religious wife. Wallace, puzzled by the cultural advancement of the human species over all other species, decided that evolution was guided by some spirit and became fully involved in spiritualism. He outlines the deficiencies of natural selection in explaining all the facts in Chapter 10 of his book, Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection, where he wrote:

We see, then, that whether we compare the savage with the higher developments of man, or with the brutes around him, we are alike driven to the conclusion that in his large and well-developed brain he possesses an organ quite disproportionate to his actual requirements—an organ that seems prepared in advance, only to be fully utilized as he progresses in civilization. A brain slightly larger than that of the gorilla would, according to the evidence before us, fully have sufficed for the limited mental development of the savage; and we must therefore admit, that the large brain he actually possesses could never have been solely developed by any of those laws of evolution, whose essence is, that they lead to a degree of organization exactly proportionate to the wants of each species, never beyond those wants—that no preparation can be made for the future development of the race—that one part of the body can never increase in size or complexity, except in strict co-ordination to the pressing wants of the whole. The brain of pre-historic and of savage man seems to me to prove the existence of some power, distinct from that which has guided the development of the lower animals through their ever-varying forms of being.

In any case Wallace deserves to be remembered for the contributions he made to science. He was not as wonderful a writer as Darwin, but his explorations in the Malay archipelago are worthy of remembrance and inspired others to further exploration.

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It seems Wallace went off the rails a bit. Nonetheless, he deserves a footnote in history as the man who prompted Charles Darwin to publish his work. All in all, I say forget the bastard. He was probably a wanker.

Wallace made significant contributions to the study of the geographical distribution of species in his work in the Malay archipelago. He advanced the cause of evolutionary research with his writings. He deserves to be well remembered for what he contributed to science.

Wallace was not a Christian and never pretended to be religious in traditional ways. He was concerned about social justice in modern societies. His book, The Malay Archipelago, is a classic. While he was not as great a scientist as Darwin, he was, despite lifelong financial difficulties, perhaps the happier and better adjusted of the two. Being controversial did not bother Wallace; it made Darwin ill.

“History is written by the winners.”  Napoleon Bonaparte

Correction, it's the centenary of Wallace's death on November 7, 1913.

Wallace was born on January 8, 1823, so we have nine years until the 200th anniversary of his death.

Thank you Allan for this timely reminder and educational moment.   By the accounts that I have read, the intellectual achievement, independent of one another, was due to both Darwin and Wallace.


Here's an animated history, from the NY Times.


It seems to me both men had their "aha" moments, and their works represented a paradigm shift in scientific knowledge.

(I wonder - is that the best animation that NY Times can come up with?)

Alfred Russell Wallace portrait, 1900

From this Guardian article, what seems to me the key line is...

Recovering from a bout of malaria on the remote Indonesian island of Halmahera, the young British biologist came up with an idea that would transform humanity's view of itself: he worked out the theory of natural selection. Wallace wrote down his idea and sent it to Charles Darwin, who had been contemplating a similar theory of evolution for more than a decade. Both versions were read to members of the Linnean Society in 1858.


"It was a rather shabby trick," said Bailey. "Wallace had sent his paper to Darwin to help get it published. Unluckily for him, he sent it to the one person in the world who had a vested interest in not seeing in print. Lyell and Hooker intervened and a reading was arranged instead.

"Darwin's paper was read first and he is the one we now remember as the man who came up with the idea of natural selection. Wallace should have got priority, but it was Darwin, the man with the connections, who got the glory."

Having been through graduate school, writing both MS and PhD dissertations and defending them, and postdoctoral work myself, I have an inkling of the political / career ambition process that got Darwin the greater credit.  What's different is Wallace was not Darwin's student, he was a "fellow traveler" in biological discovery.

Anyway, thank you for educating us and making an important point, there are giants out there who many have rarely, if ever, heard of.

Thanks for pointing out the animation—I had not seen that.

Darwin was customarily quite generous with credit and throughout the Origin he references people who sent him information and samples. I believe he was helpful to Wallace later on—perhaps out of guilt. Darwin grew more generous with credit as time went on. In later editions of the Origin Darwin did mention Wallace and give him credit. In fact he gives much credit to others as well:

In 1831 Mr. Patrick Matthew published his work on "Naval Timber and Arboriculture", in which he gives precisely the same view on the origin of species as that (presently to be alluded to) propounded by Mr. Wallace and myself in the "Linnean Journal", and as that enlarged in the present volume. Unfortunately the view was given by Mr. Matthew very briefly in scattered passages in an appendix to a work on a different subject, so that it remained unnoticed until Mr. Matthew himself drew attention to it in the "Gardeners' Chronicle", on April 7, 1860. The differences of Mr. Matthew's views from mine are not of much importance: he seems to consider that the world was nearly depopulated at successive periods, and then restocked; and he gives as an alternative, that new forms may be generated "without the presence of any mold or germ of former aggregates." I am not sure that I understand some passages; but it seems that he attributes much influence to the direct action of the conditions of life. He clearly saw, however, the full force of the principle of natural selection. —The Origin of Species, 6th edition.

My guess is that by this time Darwin was as anxious to spread the blame as to share the credit for his ideas. However, even in the first edition, Darwin wrote:

My work is now (1859) nearly finished; but as it will take me two or three more years to complete it, and as my health is far from strong, I have been urged to publish this abstract. I have more especially been induced to do this, as Mr. Wallace, who is now studying the natural history of the Malay Archipelago, has arrived at almost exactly the same general conclusions that I have on the origin of species. In 1858 he sent me a memoir on this subject, with a request that I would forward it to Sir Charles Lyell, who sent it to the Linnean Society, and it is published in the third volume of the Journal of that Society. Sir C. Lyell and Dr. Hooker, who both knew of my work--the latter having read my sketch of 1844--honoured me by thinking it advisable to publish, with Mr. Wallace's excellent memoir, some brief extracts from my manuscripts. —First edition, Introduction

There is a noticeable difference in the two minds. Darwin was fascinated by detail and not usually given to philosophizing beyond science while Wallace's mind ranged broadly over many areas. Darwin published an important book on earthworms and Wallace published an unimportant book on the question of multiple worlds, Man's Place in the Universe.  (To the question: are there other inhabited planets in the universe?— Wallace thought not.)

It certainly is unjust for Wallace to be neglected in the history of evolution since he was among the very first, if not the absolute first, to recognize it and its importance, but it may be due to his later investigations of spiritualism that the scientific community was led to unfairly discount his earlier contributions.

At least Darwin gave Wallace some credit in his writings. That makes me feel better about both men. In the modern world one would have stolen the idea from the other, possibly sueing the other, or even pretending that he never existed.

As for Wallace ending up believing that evolution was guided by "some spirit" and ending up involved deeply in spiritualism, this isn't too far from "god." You ditch god for believing in a "spirit." What can I say? It was 200 years ago. This is almost as bad as Dutko, a modern apologist who believes that a "good proof of god's existence is Jesus Christ himself."

One major reason for the primacy of Darwin in the history of evolution is that he published a well-written book length description of the theory in 1859. Only twelve years later did Wallace publish a book on evolution and then it was a collection of essays, Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection.

Darwin's book was in its fifth edition by the time Wallace's came out and is a comprehensive and connected description of the theory—even though Darwin himself viewed it as an 'abstract' of the far more complete work he  originally contemplated. Darwin continued to make changes to his book. (I believe there are something like 150 editions since the first. The Huntington Library has them all lined up in one room and it is impressive.)

Wallace's difficulty with the huge gap between human species and other primates was not his concern alone, but a major objection to the theory by other scientists as well. At the time no one knew of Mendel's work—there was no science of genetics and the underlying mechanism of evolution—what produces the immense variations in individuals—was completely unknown.

Only in recent years has the evolution of the human brain been better understood. Brain size is enormously different between humans and other primates and the reasons are still not definitively established.




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