To study and encourage popular interest in all branches of Science.

Newsletter August 2008

Dear Member,

I am pleased to send you the Programme Card for the next session.

This begins with Professor McOwan's lecture on Perceptions and Visual Illusions on Thursday 11th September. You will already be aware that this session covers important anniversaries, the 200th of Darwin's birth and the 150th of the publication of the Theory of Evolution. May I set it going by the following essay?

One Hundred and Fifty Years Ago.

Peter R Wallis.

150 years ago, at a meeting of The Linnean Society on 1st July 1858, the geologist Charles Lyell and naturalist Joseph Hooker communicated "On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection." The papers presented were separately written by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace; it was the first publication of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Neither author was present as Darwin had lost his youngest child to scarlet fever two days earlier and Wallace was seriously ill in New Guinea.

The story behind this has been described recently by Andrew Berry and Janet Browne in Nature [1]. Darwin had been working on the theory for the previous 20 years but had not previously published. Wallace, little known, was a poor itinerant naturalist, funding his travels since 1848 by selling exotic specimens to museums and collectors: somewhat of a contrast with Darwin's voyage on the Beagle as the captain's paying guest. After 4 years collection on the Amazon, Wallace headed home. Unfortunately he lost most of his collections and almost his life when the ship caught fire in mid-Atlantic and so lost his chance of showing his scientific credentials. In 1854 he set off for Southeast Asia to do it all over again.

In 1855 he was confident enough of his ideas on evolution to publish in a respected periodical [2]. It was clear to him that life consisted of a diversifying genealogical process; but the article failed to result in the scientific recognition he had hoped.

Early in 1856 Lyell told Darwin about the article and warned him that he might be scooped. Edward Blyth, an English naturalist in Calcutta also wrote to Darwin, "Wallace has, I think, put the matter well; and according to his theory the various domestic races of animals have been fairly developed into species". In May 1856, not especially worried about Wallace, Darwin began to write the long-planned tome he expected to call "Natural Selection". He opened a correspondence with Wallace, noting that Lyell and Blyth had drawn his attention to the article and sympathising over the apparent lack of scientific reaction. Better still, Darwin wrote that he agreed with Wallace's conclusions. Wallace was thrilled to receive this accolade from a major star in the scientific firmament.

Wallace's theory was still only half a theory. In February 1858 he glimpsed that other half, the mechanism. Recalling the writings of the economist Malthus, he recognised that better-adapted groups would gradually replace less well-adapted ones. He wrote a paper entitled "On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type." But then, rather than submitting it to a journal, he sent it directly to Darwin, the only person who had shown any interest in his work.

In June 1858 Darwin read the handwritten essay, writing on the 18th June to Lyell, "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." Darwin had been forestalled and honour required him to let Wallace take the credit. But Lyell and Hooker persuaded him not to lose his claim as originator of the theory. Despite some misgivings, Darwin agreed and sent them selections from his unpublished writings to prove priority. These were published, together with Wallace's essay at the Linnean Society meeting on 1st July 1858 and in the Society's Journal in August 1858.

Thomas Bell, the President of the Linnean Society guaranteed himself an unfortunate footnote in the history books by writing of the year1858, "The year that has passed has not indeed been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionise, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear" It took Darwin's On the Origin of Species, 1859, to effect the revolution.

One year later, with it in his hands, Wallace was enthralled, "Mr Darwin has given the world a new science; his name should stand above that of every philosopher of ancient and modern times".

Berry and Browne discuss why the name of one so prescient and so generous faded from popular view, though it still inspires those who find the modern infatuation with Darwin stultifying. They suggest that the structure of science plays a part, in that precedence is everything; posterity ignores the second-placed. And Wallace always accepted his position. He wrote [3] "I feel truly thankful that Darwin had been studying the subject so many years before me, and that I was not left to attempt and to fail, in the great work he has so admirably performed".

Whereas Darwin continued to publish more evidence in support of the theory, Wallace wrote on a myriad of other topics, from the true identity of Shakespeare to the advisability of labour strikes. He was an outspoken socialist and was attracted to radical issues, later becoming a spiritualist and opposed to vaccination. Unlike Darwin he was not buried in Westminster Abbey, though a plaque was unveiled there in 1915.

Nevertheless, I believe that in this year of celebration we should also honour Alfred Russel Wallace as an independent founder of the Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection.


[1] Berry A & Browne J: "The other beetle-hunter", Nature, 26 June 2008 Back

[2] Wallace A R: "On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species", The Annals and magazine of Natural History, 1855. Back

[3] In a letter in 1869. Back


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