Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Wallace and Darwin

I love antique books, and a few months ago I decided to collect a few notable science books from the nineteenth century. Over the next several weeks, I plan to write about them on this blog, teaching myself many new things in the process.

Are you familiar with Alfred Russel Wallace?

The website devoted to his life and work has a good biographical summary. Wallace was born in Monmouthshire, in what is now Wales, in 1823. His father may have been descended from the Scottish hero William Wallace. As a child, the family moved to his mother's native Hertford.  He received some schooling there, and later worked with his older brother in land surveying. Engaged in that work, he learned to identify plants and began to collect specimen plants. In the early 1840s, when he lived in Leicester, he continued to learn on his own about natural history and met Henry Walter Bates, a naturalist who introduced Wallace to varieties of beetles and insects.

During the 1840s, Wallace read an anonymously published book by Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, in which the author argued for "transmutation" of species---what later scientists would call evolution. Wallace got the chance to travel to the Amazon region during the 1840s, during which he hoped to explore the idea of species transmutation. He also was able to survey the Amazon and create a map that was a long-time standard. Unfortunately, on the return trip to Britain the ship caught fire and destroyed his notes and specimens and set him and his companions to sea on lifeboats, where they were discovered after over a week.

After that, I would never have gone to sea again! But Wallace regrouped and embarked on another long adventure, to the enormous region of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and East Timor, known as the Malay Archipelago. Wallace and his assistant spent eight years there, collecting many thousands of samples---plants, insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals. As the Wallace website author indicates, Wallace discovered thousands of species previously unknown to science. The book that he later wrote, The Malay Archipelago, is a classic of nineteenth century travel and scientific writing, containing a wealth of information.

During this long journey, Wallace developed more of his ideas on evolutionary change and wrote a paper on the subject. He said that the idea of natural selection came to him as a flash of inspiration while he was very sick. His paper came to the attention of noted geologist Charles Lyell, who in turn shared it with his (Lyell's) friend Charles Darwin in 1856.
Wallace in 1862. (This photo
and the other are from

Darwin, meanwhile, had made his own epic scientific journey in 1831-1836 and was sketching out his own hypotheses about natural selection, but he'd lately been more occupied with studying marine invertebrates. Darwin was startled by the news of Wallace's work and began to write down his own ideas for publication. Soon, Lyell arranged to have Wallace's article published (without Wallace's permission and thus without his ability to make corrections) alongside Darwin's writings about natural selection, at the Linnean Society of London meeting during the summer of 1858. Both Darwin and Wallace were suffering at the time, Wallace with illness, and Darwin from the death of one of his children. Darwin did not write a large book that he had planned but, instead, published his basic ideas in his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species and presented more data in his subsequent books.

Needless to say, Origin of Species made an impression, becoming one of the most important scientific books ever written. Wallace does not seem to have been chagrined by all this, evidenced by the fact that Wallace dedicated The Malay Archipelago to Darwin. Darwin had already been at work on natural selection and by no means stole Wallace's ideas, but Wallace's paper did prod Darwin to set out his own researches for publication.

A few of Wallace's books
that I found online.
Darwin was of the aristocracy while Wallace's background was working-class, which gave Darwin certain advantages.  The magnanimous Wallace was not eclipsed, however; during his lifetime (he died in 1913), he was famous as a great authority and received honored in fields of biology, geography, and others. He wrote over a thousand articles and nearly two dozen books, including called Darwinism, which are essays on natural selection. In Island Life, he explored topics in biology and geography. In other books, Wallace continued his work in the natural sciences but also looked into subjects that empirical scientists disdained, like miracles and spiritualism.

Another legacy of Wallace, is that he was very forward thinking in his social ideas. He supported women's suffrage, analyzed the root causes of poverty, criticized militarism, addressed the environmental destruction caused by colonialism and capitalism, and other issues.

Evolutionary theory fell out of some favor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, when it regained traction and gained wide scientific acceptance, Wallace's name became less familiar than Darwin's.

But if you regret Wallace's loss of prominence, remember that Darwin "takes the heat" in circles that (wrongly) reject or disparage evolutionary theory--and Wallace won't be caricatured as Darwin has been, as in this cartoon from the time. Nor will we speak with dark humor of "Wallace awards" when someone does something foolish and fatal. Wallace's position in the history of science is less well known but secure.

Much of all this this information comes from The Alfred Russel Wallace Website; please read the several wonderful articles and browse the information there! Among other topics, the site's author delves into key differences between Darwin's and Wallace's theories of natural selection.

Here are some quotations from Wallace's books: http://www.iol.ie/~spice/quotes.htm  And here is a review of one of several recent books about Wallace: http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/498796?journalCode=isis

Folding map of the Malay islands, photo bombed by cat

No comments:

Post a Comment