Alfred Wallace

May 02, 2021

Everyone knows the name Charles Darwin- father of evolution and the first to bring up the concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest. While undoubtedly a great discovery, he doesn't deserve all the credit.

While Darwin was puzzled over the beaks of finches, another naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace was reaching the exact same conclusions in Indonesia. This name probably doesn't mean much to you but it really should. There was a time when Darwin's famous theory of evolution by natural selection was referred to as the Darwin- Wallace theory of evolution. Later, it became known as Darwin's theory. Though Wallace's contributions to the study of evolution were considerable, they are often forgotten.

Alfred Russel, Darwin's contemporary and contributor to the Theory of Evolution

Wallace was one of the most notable scientists of the 19th century - more than just a naturalist. He studied geography, anthropology ,ecology and even astrobiology. And to top it all off, he was an autodidact- he was self taught. It was more out of necessity than desire because he didn't come from money and couldn't afford good education. He was born in 1823, and was 14 years younger than Darwin. He was also less wealthy and less well connected. Nevertheless, Wallace made many other contributions to the development of evolutionary theory besides being co-discoverer of natural selection.

While Darwin was methodically shaping the theories that would make him famous, Wallace was doing some globetrotting on his own, he travelled to Brazil and various Islands of the Malay Archipelago, modern day Philippines and Indonesia where he collected thousands of specimens of insects, birds, and other animals. In 1858, he wrote a letter to Darwin outlining in detail his ideas about how species change through time. Darwin was pretty shocked to get a letter from some young nobody who’d come to the same conclusions about evolution that he had. Darwin had been working on this book for a long time and he didn't want Wallace to publish first and get all the credit, so he and his friends quickly threw a meeting of the Linnean society of London, an association of biologists. In the meeting, the secretary of the society presented the ideas of both men at the same time. Wallace wasn't even at the meeting because he couldn't exactly commute from the remote island in the Indian Ocean where he was working at the time. But neither was Darwin because his one and half year old son had died just a few days beforehand. Only around 30 people actually showed up at the Linnean society to hear the papers be presented, and no one seemed to realise the significance of what they were hearing at that time.

The co-discoverers of evolution by natural selection

So why is Darwin so famous today while Wallace is so obscure? Well, for one thing, Darwin had been working on his theory for decades. By the year after the Linnean society meeting, he was ready to publish a pretty comprehensive book he’d written on evolution, called "On the Origin of Species" - you might have heard of it. The book made a huge splash and everyone pretty much forgot about that weird young guy no one ever heard of. Darwin was already pretty famous because he’d written a wildly popular account of his travels called "The Voyage of the Beagle" over a decade before but for Wallace, it took another decade to publish his own book on natural selection, and by that time the theory was already widely known as “Darwinism”. Today, Wallace is mostly just a historical footnote for non-scientists.

But poor Wallace hasn't been totally forgotten. He is considered to be the father of Biogeography - the study of how species are distributed across the planet. During his time in the east Indies, Wallace discovered and described many new animal species and also observed that there seems to be a significant change in the wildlife when you travelled between the islands of Bali and Lombok. The short stretch of water that separates the two landmasses is now known as the "Wallace Line" and is regarded as the natural partition between the Asian and Australian wildlife. His observations of how Asian and Australian species intermingled in Indonesia and New Guinea kick-started scientific interest in how plants and animals end up living in specific places.

The Wallace Line, named in the honour of Alfred Wallace

Wallace also had some controversial beliefs that often strained his relationship with fellow scientists. He was keenly intellectual but also a devoted believer in spiritualism and had investigated it for decades- mesmerism, seances, spiritual photography, he believed in all of them to various degrees. Even some of his closest colleagues such as Henry Bates and Charles Darwin thought that Wallace is being stubbornly credulous and it did have an effect on his reputation within the scientific community. At one point, it almost cost Wallace a civil pension that he desperately needed and it was mainly due to Darwin's interference that he finally received it.

A bronze statue commissioned by the Wallace Memorial Fund and gifted to the Natural History Museum, London

Despite his follies, Wallace remained active all his life, writing almost two dozen books and over 700 scientific papers. What touched those who knew him was his compassion, his humanity  and sympathy, and his lack of pretense or acquired pride. He died on November 7, 1913, at the age of 90 in his home in Broadstone in the English countryside. There were calls to bury him at Westminster Abbey, but he was buried in the local Broadstone  cemetery, according to his wishes, while a  commemorative medallion  in his honour was unveiled at Westminster, next to Charles Darwin.

An article by Shreya Maheshwari

Disclaimer: the pictures in the article are for illustration purposes only. Neither the writer nor PHoEnix has a claim over them.

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