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Darwin’s Rival To Get His Due?

• January 29, 2013 • 9:33 AM

Meet the other guy who discovered evolution

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Wallace, Victorian badass

Via Ars Technica:

It’s been three months since Charles Darwin received just shy of 4,000 write-in votes in a Georgia Congressional race. Which is not bad for a candidate who is 1) British, so not eligible, and 2) dead. The famous naturalist’s opponent, incumbent Paul Broun, had spurred the write-in effort after referring to Darwin’s writings on evolution as “lies straight from the pit of hell.” (What appears to be a video of Broun speaking on evolution is here, from an unlikely source.)

A suggestion for 2014: Run Alfred Russel Wallace instead. Like Darwin, he’s a foreigner, and dead as a doornail. But he has almost no public notoriety, no controversial associations, and discovered evolution, too.

Wait, what?

UK Wired‘s Nate Lanxon:

Wallace received a lot of credit in his lifetime for being the co-discoverer [of natural selection]. He was awarded every honor that it’s possible for a biologist to receive in Britain, including the most prestigious honour of the Royal Society, the Copley Medal.

Wallace was working in western Borneo, among other places, while Darwin was puffing around in the Beagle. Darwin clearly had the more aggressive publisher. Smithsonian among others has looked into this:

[Wallace's] 1855 paper, “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species,” is essentially a statement of the first half of the theory of evolution. The observation was that you found closely related, or closely allied species (as he would have called them) in the same geographic area. You find kangaroo species in Australia; you don’t find them elsewhere. That implies a genealogical process of some kind—that kangaroo species were giving rise to new kangaroo species.

Wallace expects his paper to create a big splash, but it doesn’t. Demoralized, he writes to Darwin. Darwin was encouraging in a slightly cagey kind of way, but he does go out of the way to do to reassure Wallace that he, too, is interested in the big picture, what you might call theory as opposed to details of taxonomy. And it was of course because of this that Wallace knew Darwin had a serious interest in these questions. It is interesting to read the correspondence because you see that Darwin is being gentlemanly but also slightly territorial.

Geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin’s mentor and friend, was much more struck by Wallace’s paper than Darwin was. He warned Darwin that he had been sitting on his ideas for getting on to 20 years now and here’s this Mr. Nobody coming up on the outside pretty fast. Darwin didn’t take it that seriously, but Lyell urged Darwin to get on with it or he would find himself scooped.

And thus, most people have heard of the Galapagos Islands, site of Darwin’s key observations. Far fewer people think of  Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, or Venezuela’s Rio Negro, where Wallace did most of his important work.

Pacific fisheries types, and skin divers, know a bit about him, because they still use the concept of Wallace’s Line. That’s the peculiar line—a key to Wallace’s observations—that separates species in the westernmost edge of the Pacific ocean (westernmost as viewed from California; eastern from Indonesia) with some staying on the Southeast Asian side, and others on the Melanesian/Australian side.

What sits right on the spot where the fish from Australia meet the ones from Vietnam? Yep: Borneo. Wallace noticed the line and included the behavior along that key meeting of environments in his research on natural selection. We still pay attention to the line.

So why don’t we know about this guy? Ars solves it:

Problematically, natural selection was a distinctly controversial topic when it was proposed, and so after his death in 1913, Wallace’s name devolved into relative obscurity.

“It was only when modern genetics and population ecology emerged in the late-1930s that people realized that natural selection was the key to evolution…People got interested in the history of the subject and in where the idea came from and they looked back and saw Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species‘ and didn’t look any further.”

London’s Natural History Museum intends to right the matter by declaring 2013 “the Year of Wallace.” People who go to natural history museums a lot will probably pay attention to that, but no one else will. So what else? Ah: They’ve put all his letters online. So now search engines will be able to find Alfred Russel Wallace. Which is the rehabilitation route of choice these days.

It helps that his letters are extraordinary, hilarious bits of writing. His description of trying to rescue his drawings after his boat catches on fire (it’s a scan of the original yellowed paper, read it here) is a good place to start. Set aside a few hours if you like this sort of thing. There’s a lot.

Marc Herman
Marc Herman is a writer in Barcelona. He is the author of The Shores of Tripoli.

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