Alfred Wallace’s Idea of Evolution
How Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallaces came up with their own hypothesis for human evolution
The success of Alfred Russel Wallace was at the same time his most painful defeat. He and Darwin elaborate evolutionary theory, only to be forgotten almost completely for 100 years. On November 7, 2013, the age of his death was fulfilled, an opportunity for Wallace to claim his place in the specialty books. The name of this man will be reminded of what could become a great scandal of the scientific world.
Alfred Russel Wallace is one of the most noted biologists in history. He has discovered numerous species and is the co-founder of evolutionary theory, along with Darwin. But few people know this.
The height of this scandal will be 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. In the form of several essays, the two publish and put first the contribution of their friend Charles Darwin. 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 must secure his livelihood. He does not get to enroll in a university. But the boy becomes self-taught, accumulating an important scientific knowledge alone. Like contemporary explorers with him, Wallace dreams of leaving the world. So he will travel despite the money and the scientific spirit twice in the tropical area, an extremely dangerous adventure at that time.
Moreover, the first journey of the free-thinker ends with a tragedy. At the age of 25, Wallace explores the Amazon jungle, gathering various plants and animals, including parrots, monkeys and more. But when the return ship sinks and the researcher manages to save only a few of his nights.
However, the scientific spirit does not break him, watching the sky and the meteors crossing him as he floats on a rescue boat in the middle of the Atlantic. In 1854 Wallace begins his second voyage, which takes him to Indonesia, from where he acquires for analysis no less than 125,000 cockroaches, birds or mammals. All for one purpose: to discover the origin of the species.
A special role will be played here by geologist Charles Lyell, who will later deprive him 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 a little convincing.
Things will be clarified with the personal experience of 1858 when he contracted a severe fever in Indonesia and wonders why some survive and others lose. And the answer is illuminated: 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 sends 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 the most to win him, 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.
What was to be done? Darwin advises with his close friends, Lyell and Hooker, and only two weeks later teach the essays at the Linnean Society. They are published with an introductory word by Darwin and the theory is circulating rapidly throughout the scientific world. But Wallace, who was still on foreign lands, receives no news of these things.
What remains somewhat unclear is whether Darwin has somehow used his competitor’s ideas. zoologist Matthias Glaubrecht from the Berlin Museum of Natural Sciences believes that for example 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, is dedicated to Darwin, his idol. Moreover, after the death of the researcher in 1882, he has always claimed that he was the parent of the principle of natural selection because he developed a more comprehensive theory than his own. 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. And this was recognized by Wallace himself.
Or maybe he just didn’t want to confront the great scholars of the time. Maybe the outsider has forgiven his idol. 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.
The truth always comes to light
20 years later, the scientific community recognizes the merits of the theory. Evolution becomes the watchword, and with it comes the light and glorious memory of Darwin, who will gradually become 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. And 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 has 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 to anyone. An example is that passion for knowledge, self-teaching, perseverance, 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.