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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Wallace hears from London that the co-publication has occurred and he’s thrilled. Remember he’s already 15 years into his attempt to elevate himself from being this obscure nobody. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge; he’s finally made it. And he writes this lovely letter to his mother in October that year [1858] in which he exalts in the fact that when he comes back he’ll have the acquaintance of learned men of science. Clearly, the notion doesn’t occur to him that in some sense Mr. Darwin has ripped him off. Not in all of his personal writings is there a single grumble.

The next phase of things is publication of The Origin of Species, which barely makes mention of Wallace. And again, Wallace is just blown away. He writes to his friends that there is no way that he could have done that. “Mr. Darwin has given the world new science…. The force of admiration can no further go.” And through the rest of his life he always deferred to Darwin. His major book on evolutionary biology, he titled Darwinism. Darwin was the senior guy. Wallace felt that he got to where he got on Darwin’s coattails.

Wallace seems to be having a slight resurgence with a host of recent books out on him…

I think there are two things going on. One is saturation: the Darwin seams have been worked and worked. The other thing relates to the history of science, in which it’s sort of uncool to think in terms of individual heroic labor and striving. Ideas are an emergent property of the socio-political environment in which the individuals find themselves, which is manifestly true in this case. This is the most important idea in history, bar none—sought after since the Greeks. Suddenly, you have two people stumbling upon it independently, so in other words it’s not independent. There is something particular about this time and place: Britain at the height of Empire; opportunity for global travel and sudden encounter with the diversity of forms—the forms are pouring into the museums; colonial and industrial Britain, which is essentially a social Darwinian concept; Malthus is looming large. There are all sorts of good reasons.

So we’ve had Darwin, Darwin, Darwin. Then you start thinking that given the fact that we have two people coming up with natural selection at the same time and we don’t think it’s just down to genius individuals anymore, where else should we be looking? And Wallace is obviously the next place.


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