ost people have heard of Charles Darwin as his name is mentioned in most if not all science books, but why does no book talk about Alfred Russel Wallace? That is because Wallace has been forgotten in time for being the real founder of the theory of evolution.
The success of Alfred Russel Wallace was at the same time his most painful defeat. The name of this man will only be remembered in the world of science for the scandal it has created for credibility behind the theory of evolution, but the story is a bit more complicated.
The height of this scandal was reached in July 1858 by a lie. Wallace and Darwin have entrusted their research to our hands, and we believe it is in the interest of science to publish some of them. Both Darwin and Wallace were well acquainted and decided to publish their own papers on the theory of evolution at the same time, but Darwin published his paper first. Other than initially stated, Alfred Russel Wallace’s intention to publish was hidden. It was a scam that would haunt the scientist for a long time to come.
Wallace had dropped out of school at the age of 14. As the eighth child in a poor family, he had to fight for his livelihood. He didn’t get to enroll in a university. But he self-taught, accumulating important scientific knowledge alone. Like contemporary explorers like him, Wallace dreamt of leaving the world and exploring the unknown part of this planet. He traveled in various tropical areas of the world, despite not having much of a financial power or popularity within the scientific world.
Moreover, the first journey of the free-thinker ended with a tragedy. At the age of 25, Wallace was exploring the Amazon jungle, gathering various plants and animals, including parrots, monkeys, and insects. The ship that he took to return to the West had faced a heavy storm and had sunk. He tried to save some of the animals, but most of them had drowned in their own cages.
However, the scientific spirit did not break him, watching the sky and the meteors crossing him as he floated on a rescue boat in the middle of the Atlantic. In 1854 Wallace began his second voyage, which took him to Indonesia, from where he acquired for analysis no less than 125,000 cockroaches, birds, and other mammals. All for one purpose: to discover the origin of the species.
A special role was played here by geologist Charles Lyell, who later deprive Wallace of the well-deserved glory. In his book, Principles of Geology, Lyell criticized Lamarck’s theses, which postulated changes within species and proposed the idea that inheritance of acquired characters may lead to variation in species. There was enough reason for Wallace to care more about the topic.
So in 1855 he took the stand and declared himself against Lamarckism, although Lyell did not agree with it because of his overconfidence in the Bible. Wallace recognized the connection between the geological transformations of the earth, their geographical spread, and the variation of species. But the essay that addressed the issue was a bit chaotic and not so convincing.
Things were clarified with the personal experience of 1858 when Wallace contracted a severe fever in Indonesia and wondered why some survive and others die. The answer that came to his mind illuminated the idea of evolution: “the one who adapts best survives”. And the more he thought, the more convinced he was that he discovered the law that governs all species.
He sent his manuscript with Lyell’s theory, using Darwin as an intermediary. As Lyell was one of the most prominent personalities in the field, he wanted someone to follow in his footsteps and beat the existing literature, through relevant arguments. But Darwin did not immediately submit the manuscript, for in his turn he had written a thick book that developed about the same ideas, which he kept in the drawer. At least this is what Darwin mentioned…
What was to be done? Darwin advises his close friends, Lyell and Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. Only two weeks later teach the essays at the Linnean Society. Darwin published his book and the theory quickly circulated around the world of science. But Wallace, who was still on foreign lands, received no news of Darwin publishing his theory.
What remains somewhat unclear is whether Darwin had somehow used his competitor’s (Wallace) ideas. Zoologist Matthias Glaubrecht from the Berlin Museum of Natural Sciences believes the principle of divergence Darwin invokes in the Origin of Species would have been taken from Wallace’s essays. However, Ulrich Kutschera, an evolutionary biologist at Kassel University, says this is unlikely.
Wallace was too tense because of the situation. His main book, The Malaysian Archipelago, written in 1869, was dedicated to Darwin, his idol. Moreover, after the death of the researcher in 1882, he had always claimed that he was the parent of the principle of natural selection because he developed a more comprehensive theory than Darwin. Some argue that Wallace had an intuition, but Darwin had gathered much more material for analysis 20 years earlier. Without Darwin’s hard work, Wallace’s correct suspicions would never have prevailed in the world of science.
Or maybe he just didn’t want to confront the great scholars of the time. Maybe the outsider had forgiven his idol. At the end of the day, Wallace did not have a fancy degree to prove his scientific abilities. But that would not excuse the inappropriate behavior of both parties. If the situation were a contemporary one, there would definitely be a big scandal.
By his death, Wallace had gained global fame and won important distinctions. An obituary wrote that with his death the great generation of scientists had finished. He had finally secured a place among the big names. Only the evolutionary theory will enter a shadow cone, and with it and the researcher. Since then, Wallace’s work had been forgotten, especially his research towards the theory of evolution.
The truth always comes to light
20 years later, the scientific community recognizes the merits of Darwin’s theory. Evolution becomes the watchword, and with it comes the light and glorious memory of Darwin, who gradually became the most famous nature researcher in history. The other name stays in the same shade cone.
At Darwin’s advice, Wallace stayed away from the scientific community for a long time. He was more concerned with the practical aspects, of exploration, of highlighting the spread of species, thus establishing zoogeography. Publishing the materials of the two, manipulated as it was, led to his forgetfulness.
In some ways, Wallace had surpassed Darwin. He always ruled against Lamarckism, against the inheritance of acquired characters, while Darwin was a Lamarckist. In the last two decades, the interest for the forgotten researcher had increased, which is now recognized in the specialized circles as an evolutionary, free-thinking, systematic, co-founding biologist of the principle of natural selection and of the neo-Darwinian theory, parent of zoogeography and astrobiology, but also a promoter of ecology.
Wallace is an example great example to all contemporary scientists. The passion for knowledge, self-teaching, perseverance, and fascination for discovery are decisive features to make a significant contribution to the world of science. The fact that we have come to an in-depth knowledge of the functioning of nature is also due to this special man, who stayed in anonymity for too long.