Out of Darwin’s Shadow

Alfred Russel Wallace arrived at the theory of natural selection independently of Charles Darwin and nearly outscooped Darwin’s The Origin of Species

Wallace saw signs of evolution by natural selection in Malaysian butterflies. (The Natural History Museum, London)

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So how does Wallace stumble upon the idea of natural selection?

Ah, the moment of mechanism! The famous story of Wallace happens in February 1858 while he was on the island Halmahera (then Gilolo) in the Moluccas. He was suffering from malaria. While in a feverish state, he was thinking about Malthus, who was also a big player in Darwin’s thinking, and specifically about humans. Wallace was very interested in how there’s a replacement of people through Southeast Asia from an Asiatic type to a Melanesian type, so he was thinking essentially about racial conflict. And Malthus was all about the viability of human populations in the face of geometric growth with limited resources at their disposal.

In this malarial fit, he put two and two together, and natural selection was born. And as soon as he could he penned the manuscript. And the great freakish thing about it was that he sent it to Darwin. Every other paper he had sent directly to an editor or journal. And if he had done that, Darwin would have woken up, three months later, scooped, so this is the luckiest thing that ever happened to Charles Darwin. And I’m sure the reason Wallace did this stemmed from the disappointment of the reception of his previous big idea, so he figured he have it placed. He’d send it to Darwin with a view to him relaying it to Lyell. Essentially he’s pulling all his connections to big time science. He sends if off in February 1858.

Wallace has become this historical footnote. Do you think this is the role he deserves?

He definitely deserves more prominence than he receives. I think it’s kind of interesting that the world has become so Darwin-centric. And I do think there are several reasons for that. We can legitimately regard Darwin as first. Unfortunately, in science, being second doesn’t get you anywhere. Two, Wallace and Darwin responded to the publication of the Origin in two very different ways. Darwin saw it as the foundation of all his future work. He lived for another 23 years and published a good number of books in that time, all of them building upon the Origin. The Origin was the foundation, and he was buttressing it, bringing facts in, extending the theory to include sexual selection.

What did Wallace do?

When Wallace came back from Indonesia, he was famous and actually rich from his collecting trip. He didn’t have any disasters like the one with the Amazon trip. His nearest disaster was with a pair of living birds of paradise, which were his real ticket to success in London. He had this problem when he got to the Mediterranean—he was on a P & O steamer, which was too well maintained—because he had been feeding the birds of paradise live insects from the kitchens, cockroaches, I think, and there was this awful moment, steaming across the Mediterranean, when he had nothing to feed his birds. So what he manages happily to do when the ship stops in Malta is find a thoroughly cockroach-infested bakery, where he can stock up on insects.

So he’s back in London. He’s now achieved what he wanted to achieve. He’s part of the scientific elite. He’s up there. He’s Darwin’s right-hand man so to speak, and he’s wealthy. And then very rapidly he wasn’t. He was a very catastrophic investor. He trusted people he shouldn’t have.

So we have this contrast of Darwin slowly and steadily building on his argument and Wallace…

Goes bananas. He’s still doing great science, but he publishes—his bibliography runs to some 800 articles now—on everything. He becomes heavily politicized. He becomes a socialist. He was the president of Land Nationalization Society, which believed that private land ownership was the great root of all modern evil and that the state should own all land and rent it at equitable rates across the board. He became a spiritualist. Wallace remained convinced to his dying day that spirits, including those of dead humans, influence one’s fate to some extent and that you can communicate with them.


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