The Alfred Russel Wallace revival club
A modern effort to pull a scientific pioneer out of Darwin’s shadow
LONDON — Hundreds of people huddled around a covered statue at the Natural History Museum earlier this month, tip-toed, necks craned, cameras at the ready.
Cheers and whistles filled the air as the tarp was whisked away: A figure of a man, cast in bronze, stood beside the soaring windows. In his hand, a butterfly net; over his shoulder, a specimen box. His eyes gazed up, caught in a moment of discovery.
It is a monument, long overdue, to a man not named Darwin who also came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection.
In 1858, Welsh naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace formulated an explanation for species change nearly identical to that of Charles Darwin. Their ideas were presented to the world at the same time, but one of the men became globally famous; one nearly ignored. Now, 100 years after his death, scholars and scientists are mounting a small but determined campaign to pull Wallace out from under Darwin’s shadow.
Next year, Penguin Classics will add to its catalog “The Malay Archipelago,” Wallace’s lyrical account of his eight-year exploration of the islands where he came to his evolutionary discovery. Harvard University Press has just published an annotated edition of the species notebook, never previously published, that Wallace kept from 1855 to 1859. Since June, Harvard, Cardiff, and Bournemouth universities have all hosted academic events dedicated to Wallace’s legacy, and the Natural History Museum here has digitized thousands of his letters and is in the midst of a vast project to transcribe and interpret them for scholarly use. A one-man theatrical Wallace show in Wales will travel as far as Singapore to spread the word.
It might seem strange that Wallace’s reputation would need rescuing. If it hadn’t been for Darwin, Wallace could be one of the great names of science. His life reads like a Hollywood script: Self-taught kid from the wrong side of the tracks hatches a plan to crack the mystery of evolution, nearly gets himself killed in the attempt, and succeeds.
“He’s a classic underdog figure,” said Jim Costa, author of the forthcoming “Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species.” “For anyone who loves the story of a person persevering and triumphing in the end, Wallace is your man.”
But Wallace’s story also offers its own lesson about how simultaneous discoveries can be lost to time, as if history’s headlines have space for only one name. Indeed, the tale of how evolution came to be considered Darwin’s idea tells us as much about how we remember the origin of ideas as it does about how we came to understand the origin of species.
W allace, born in 1823 in South Wales, developed a passion for plants while working as a land surveyor. He’d been forced to leave school at age 14 after the small inheritance that sustained his family was lost in bad investments. But Wallace continued to read assiduously, tackling some of the most important new ideas in the natural sciences.
He read Charles Lyell’s groundbreaking “Principles of Geology,” which theorized that the Earth’s crust formed slowly over time; Thomas Malthus’s “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” which argued that unchecked population growth would cause famine; and Robert Chambers’s anonymously published “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,” which controversially argued that everything from the solar system to reptiles and humans had existed as an earlier form.
Wallace latched onto Chambers’s idea of “transmutation”—what would be later known as evolution. Inspired to travel scientifically by Darwin’s popular book about his voyage on The Beagle, Wallace determined to sail to the Amazon to see if he could find evidence in the natural world that Chambers’s broad idea was correct. The resourceful 25-year-old financed the trip by working as a collector for wealthy clients back in England, and after four years in the jungle, Wallace sailed for home with thousands of plants and exotic animal specimens and notebooks filled with observations he planned to publish. But 26 days in, the ship caught fire. Aside from one small trunk, Wallace lost everything. He escaped to a small lifeboat, watched his future burn, and drifted at sea for 10 days before being rescued.
Wallace rebounded from the loss, and within a couple years was voyaging again, this time to the Malay Archipelago. In 1858, in the throes of a fever, an inspiration came to him: The mechanism for evolution must be the biological traits passed down among species to ensure their survival.
Wallace wrote to Darwin, an already well-known scientist with whom he occasionally corresponded and to whom he sent bird skins. He enclosed his manuscript, which he titled “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.” Though Wallace couldn’t know it, Darwin had worked for 20 years on the idea of evolution and come to the same conclusion. Darwin had delayed publishing his own work to amass more evidence, and now saw the possibility of decades of work overshadowed. He consulted two friends—prominent geologist Lyell and Joseph Hooker, one of the most famous botanists of the time—for advice.
The men arranged a “compromise.” Extracts from Darwin’s work and Wallace’s manuscript were publicly read together on July 1, 1858, at a meeting of the Linnean Society, a leading venue for discussions about the science of natural history. The papers were later published in the society’s journal, and Wallace and Darwin were jointly credited with the discovery.
Yet only one man’s name stuck. Why? The hastily arranged reading was not quite balanced in Wallace’s favor, presenting the papers chronologically and emphasizing Darwin’s long work on the subject. Neither was Wallace consulted on the presentation; in fact, he only learned his manuscript had been shared after the fact. In the end, while the scientific community took note, neither the reading nor the published article penetrated into the public sphere—not in the way that Darwin’s next book would.
It was the 1859 publication of “On the Origin of Species” that launched the idea of natural selection into the public eye. Wallace was still an obscure collector, while Darwin was already a celebrated scientist and author, famous for his time on The Beagle. Whether natural selection had been a jointly credited discovery or not, the ensuing debate centered on Darwin’s book, Darwin’s theory.
But it was not only the book that pushed Wallace out of the story. Wallace himself played a part, says Costa, describing Wallace’s own sensibility as “scrupulous fair-mindedness, almost to a fault.”
After the Linnean Society presentation, Darwin sent Wallace the table of contents for his book-in-progress, later found in Wallace’s species notebook. Costa speculates this was done to prove that Darwin had in fact been at work for years on a project of broad scope about the subject.
Despite his own discovery thousands of miles away and plans to write his own book, Wallace immediately ceded priority of the idea to Darwin, 14 years his senior, referring to it afterwards as “Mr. Darwin’s.” When he read “On the Origin of Species,” instead of being jealous, he was, Costa says, “almost rhapsodic that Darwin hit the nail on the head.”
“That’s Wallace the intellectual,” Costa said. “He cared about ideas and not who was getting ideas out there.”
For Wallace, whose life was driven by curiosity, credit seemed to matter less than the pursuit of ideas. And if he didn’t become hugely famous for natural selection in the way Darwin was, Wallace was celebrated in his lifetime for many wide-ranging scientific pursuits. He discovered thousands of specimens new to science. He published more than 20 books and countless articles, and identified an invisible line in the Indonesian archipelago that launched a field of study dedicated to the geographical distribution of plants and animals.
Wallace eventually did publish his own book on evolutionary ideas. To the chagrin of his modern fans, but quite in keeping with his personality, he titled it “Darwinism.”
T oday, historians and scientists are trying to do what Wallace himself couldn’t, or wouldn’t: push his name to the forefront. “Here was an immensely talented and creative guy who among other things made incredible contributions to our understanding of evolution,” says Costa, who also annotated Wallace’s newly published notebook.
The time appears to be right. When Andrew Berry, Harvard lecturer and editor of “Infinite Tropics,” an anthology of Wallace’s writing, spearheaded a celebration of Wallace this fall at the university, hundreds visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History for panels that included E.O Wilson and literary critic James Wood.
Berry lectured about Wallace’s work and also roamed the museum in full beard and expedition clothes, impersonating him. Students offered a “show and tell” of specimens from the museum’s collections, including Semioptera wallacii, the bird of paradise that Wallace himself discovered.
Berry believes Wallace is destined “to always remain Dr. Watson to Darwin’s Holmes,” but argues that it’s important to loosen our tight focus on Darwin when considering the epochal shift in thinking about the natural world that happened in the 19th century. “Everyone is searching for a good explanation,” said Berry, “and then suddenly, bang, bang. It’s like waiting for a bus in London: You’re waiting, waiting, waiting, then two come along at once.”
If there is a leader in the effort to restore Wallace to the scientific hall of greats, it might be George Beccaloni, a curator at the Natural History Museum, who launched the Wallace Fund in 1999 after finding Wallace’s grave in disrepair, nearly lost beneath an overgrown conifer in the small town of Broadstone, where he had asked to be buried. (Darwin, meanwhile, lies in Westminster Abbey.)
“It was just like the memory of the man, in a sorry state,” Beccaloni said. “It was symptomatic of the whole situation.”
He led a campaign to restore the site and eventually helped the museum acquire thousands of Wallace’s letters from his family, as well as launching a website (www.wallacefund.info) that maps the location for every known Wallace-related item, from an oil portrait at the Linnean Society in London to insects from his personal collection at the Natural History Museum.
At the dedication of the statue, funded by the Wallace Fund, Wallace’s grandson singled Beccaloni out as having pulled Wallace “out of the shadows of the last century where he almost disappeared.” Beccaloni gave a small, serious nod, as he did for the many words of praise he heard that day. But when the crowds disappeared, he posed for a photo alone beside the bronze statue. He placed his arm on Wallace’s shoulder and a grin spread across his face, impossible to contain.
Still, Beccaloni and his fellow Wallace boosters have plenty of work left to do. The new statue, triumphant as it is, will stand beside a garden outside an immense wing of the museum. That wing is called the Darwin Centre.
Liz Leyden is a writer living in London.