Alfred Russel Wallace: The Man that History Forgot

Most people today–biologists or otherwise–probably have a working knowledge of Charles Darwin’s book ‘On The Origin Of Species’ and how it came to be. However, through time the story has warped and changed and now history has all but forgotten the role of Alfred Russel Wallace.

The most common version of the story of Darwin’s life goes something like this: as a young man he traveled to the Galapagos on a ship called the Beagle and saw tortoises and finches. He returned to England and waited many years before actually publishing ‘On The Origin Of Species’. If you do give Wallace any credit, you likely reduce his contribution to a letter that spurred Darwin to publish his book. In fact, that’s how I thought it happened. My freshman year of college, my roommate was completely enamored with Wallace and that made me wonder if I knew his whole story.

Alfred Russel Wallace

After Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, he had thousands of specimens to describe and to help him develop his idea. He didn’t want to publish his book until he was absolutely sure. He corresponded briefly with Wallace, a British naturalist, who sent him a copy of his article on natural selection. Darwin and Wallace published a paper together in 1858 and in 1859 Darwin published his book ‘On The Origin Of Species’. In fact, Darwin even mentioned Wallace in his book!

In the 19th century, both Darwin and Wallace were equally acknowledged for their theory of evolution. The Linnean Society of London even awards the Darwin-Wallace Medal “to persons who have made major advances in evolutionary biology”. However, as time went by natural selection became an unpopular idea, replaced by hypotheses such as Lamarckism, and both Darwin and Wallace fell out of the public memory. In the 1930’s and 1940’s there was a resurgence of appreciation for Darwin and Wallace’s idea, but Wallace’s contributions seem to have gone virtually unnoticed. Today, there are Darwin dolls and his birthday (February 12) is celebrated as Darwin Day, but the same cannot be said for Wallace.

I am not attempting to belittle Darwin’s contributions to biology. On the contrary, I greatly appreciate his discovery. On the other hand, it is necessary to recognize contributors that history seems to have forgotten. Thank you, Alfred Russel Wallace, for you contributions to the theory of evolution.

To learn more about Alfred Russel Wallace, check out the links below!

The Alfred Russel Wallace Website

The History of Evolutionary Thought

The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth


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