Sunday, June 22, 2008

Darwin and Wallace: On the Origins of the Origins of Species

Alfred Russel Wallace isn't a household name, but he is generally credited with independently deriving the theory of natural selection. Today's Observer contains an excellent article on Wallace's and Darwin's discoveries.

Wallace apparently came up with his theory while confined to bed with malaria during an expedition to the Malay Archipelago. His first instinct was to publish. Although Darwin had been thinking on the problem for considerably longer, it was only the upstart Wallace's push that spurred Darwin to write his masterpiece.

And Wallace was impetuous. While Darwin fully understood the implications of his theory, holding back publication because he knew he would upset believers, including his wife, Wallace plunged in, happy to upset society. He didn't give a damn, said Jonathan Rosen, in an essay on Wallace in the New Yorker last year. 'This utter independence from public opinion is one of several reasons that he has all but vanished from popular consciousness.'

While Wallace did hit upon the right idea, it was Darwin's work with its voluminous evidences that captured the public interest. 'Natural selection was a brilliant idea but it was the weight of evidence, provided by Darwin, that made it credible. That is why we remember Darwin as its principal author.' On his round-the-world voyage on the Beagle, between 1831 and 1836, he had filled countless notebooks with observations, particularly those of the closely related animals he saw on the different islands of the Galapagos. And then, in his vast garden at Downe, Darwin had crossbred orchids, grown passionflowers and on one occasion played a bassoon to earthworms to test their response to vibrations. He collected masses of data about plant and animal breeding to support his arguments in The Origin of Species. Wallace could provide nothing like this.

Photo: Alfred Russel Wallace from Wikipedia


  1. Speaking of Darwin, check out my post here.

    Brownie points if you can answer the question at the end (I don't know the answer).

  2. Didn't Wallace get into spiritualism, mesmerism, and phrenology?

  3. I think part of the reason we call it darwinism and not wallacism is because of Wallace's anti-scientific tendencies.