Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Darwin’s Rival To Get His Due?

• January 29, 2013 • 9:33 AM

Meet the other guy who discovered evolution

images-2

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

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.