In reading about evolution in terms of the survival of the fittest, the first name that comes to mind is Charles Darwin. Who has second place? Without question that honour goes to Alfred Russel Wallace. He, you may recall, was the naturalist who all but pipped Darwin at the post. To my mind, he is a much more sympathetic figure. Not only did he provide correctives to Darwin’s ideas, but he also was a religious man who, unfashionably, held that the spiritual side of human beings was not subject to evolution.
Unlike Darwin, Wallace was born into humble circumstances, and his career as a naturalist was a demanding one. He published many valuable works in his time, and his Malayan Archipelago was so distinguished that it has remained in print to this day. In particular, I value his conclusion that the 19th-century contempt for primitive races was prejudiced. His discussions with them showed him that, although lacking in modern knowledge, they were the equal, in every important way, to contemporary Europeans. He has the reputation of being the founder of biogeography – the discipline which relates species to locality.
The naturalists of the 19th century argued fiercely over the concept of evolution. It seemed clear to some, but not to others, that the species had evolved and transmuted over a long period of time. But the mechanism through which this occurred was not known. While a number of methodologies were proposed, it was the popular book by Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which attracted Wallace. He found it plausible but lacking a sufficiently rigorous factual basis. The research had not been done, so Wallace set out to go around the world in order to find evidence. He hoped that an analysis of the facts would lead him to understand the necessary mechanisms.
Then, recovering from fever in 1858, he suddenly understood. He had been considering how it was that populations in the wild did not increase indefinitely, and he realised that these were controlled by the fact that those who survived were the ones most fitted to their prevailing conditions. To us, this conclusion seems both necessary and obvious. It was not so to his contemporaries.
Except for one contemporary, of course: Charles Darwin. His inspiration had come to him on his voyage on the Beagle, in the 1830s, some 20 years before. While Darwin mentioned his views and the work he was doing to scientific friends, he did not publish. Aware that his subject was extremely controversial, and that many scientists with clerical backgrounds would be in opposition, he needed to amass convincing evidence. Darwin was aware of Wallace’s earlier work, and approved of it – without apparently being aware of it as any threat to his own work in progress.
But in 1858 he received Wallace’s paper, sent from Indonesia, which outlined clearly the whole theory of evolution. His reaction is recorded in a letter to Sir Charles Lyell: “Your words have come true with a vengeance – that I should be forestalled… I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my MS. sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters.” He gracefully acknowledged Wallace’s skill. But, distraught at the recent death of his young son, he passed the matter over to his trusted friends.
The result was a paper read to the Linnaean Society on July 1 1858. It consisted, in order of reading, of Darwin’s earlier summary of his central idea, a letter of Darwin’s which incidentally confirmed his originality, and the Wallace paper. There was little reaction at the time. In November 1859 On the Origin of Species was finally published.
Darwin continued to be uneasy about Wallace. “I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit,” he said. Wallace, a humble man, thought of Darwin as his scientific hero. And it is probably true that, if the great Darwin had not been associated with the event, Wallace’s paper published on its own might well have sunk without trace. And that would have been a pity, because it is a short but brilliant account of the mechanism of evolution. The further mechanism of genetic inheritance was not to be discovered until Fr Mendel’s work was recognised, almost by chance, in the early 20th century.
Wallace differed from Darwin on an important principle. Darwin started at the level of human beings and domestic animals. Wallace, who held that the development of domestic animals was artificially controlled by human choice, started with biological species in their natural state. Thus, Darwin maintained that the motivation for evolution lay in competition within the same species, while Wallace held that the major factor was the environment. The issue is not black and white but Wallace was closer to the mark. His meticulous research also proved strong evidence for the development of plate tectonics, or the movement over time of large areas of the earth. And he continued to believe that the human race was the ultimate reason for the universe.
Today, Wallace is no more than a footnote: the man who didn’t quite make it. Darwin himself fell out of fashion as other theories of development of the species held sway up to the 1930s. This is known as the “eclipse of Darwin”. When modern studies of inheritance confirmed his central ideas, and he came back into fashion again, all the focus was on his work, and Wallace was forgotten.
Wallace’s paper is included at http://www.indiana.edu/~koertge/H205c/index.php