In my last post, I talked about how plant domestication emerged in multiple places at once. In this post, I’ll talk about a much more recent scientific advancement that also occurred to more than one person – evolution by natural selection!
Charles Darwin usually gets the lion’s share of the credit, but someone else came up with the same idea independently – Alfred Russel Wallace.
Wallace was a working-class scientist and collector of biological specimens, living in a time when most European scientists came from the upper reaches of society. In 1858, while on a collecting expedition in the Malay Archipelago, Wallace thought of the idea of evolution by natural selection. He outlined the basics of it in an essay, “On the tendency of varieties to depart infinitely from the original type,” and sent a copy of it to Darwin – Wallace knew that Darwin worked on evolution, but he didn’t know that Darwin had already conceived of the idea of natural selection about 20 years earlier.
Darwin recognized that Wallace’s essay might endanger his scientific priority on the idea he had been working on for the last two decades (but had yet to publish). However, he was unwilling to rush to publication now; he didn’t want to cheat Wallace out of getting credit. Conflicted, Darwin consulted his scientific friend Sir Charles Lyell, who – along with fellow scientist J. D. Hooker – decided to take matters into their own hands. They presented the idea of natural selection to the Linnean Society of London, using papers by both Darwin and Wallace, ensuring that both officially received equal credit for the idea.
Wallace went on to have a distinguished career, and during his lifetime, he was considered one of the greatest scientists of the era. So why do we now remember Darwin as the father of evolutionary biology, while most people have probably never heard of Wallace? For one thing, Wallace’s essay only outlined the bare bones of evolution by natural selection, whereas Darwin had been gathering evidence and working out the details for 20 years. The following year, when Darwin finally published all of this in his most famous book, On the Origin of Species, he was establishing the foundation for evolutionary theory, the unifying principle of all biology. (As a side note, I highly recommend taking a look at the book – Darwin was incredibly insightful, despite knowing nothing of genetics, DNA, or any of the other scientific discoveries of the last 150 years.)
Wallace also continued investigations into evolution, though he disagreed with Darwin on a number of points. For one thing, Wallace believed that human intelligence could not possibly have arisen through natural selection; he was also an avid explorer of spiritualism, which was popular in Victorian England. He was a prolific writer on topics ranging from science to spiritualism to social issues, and became a well-known public figure during his lifetime.
People are still debating over whether Wallace or Darwin truly deserves more credit for the idea of natural selection. However, I think I can state pretty firmly that Alfred Russel Wallace was an exceptional scientist who deserves more attention than he gets from the modern world.
Shermer, Michael. “In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace: A biographical Study on the Psychology of History.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. This book, by noted skeptic Michael Shermer, is an interesting look at Wallace’s life as a scientist, public figure, and individual, as well as an exploration into the study of biography.