Evolution's forgotten man

London aims to make Alfred Wallace, Charles Darwin's overshadowed partner, a household name

Reginald Haines / CP

“It is curious how we hit on the same ideas,” wrote Charles Darwin to Alfred Russel Wallace in 1867, nine years after the two scientists co-published their seminal paper, “On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties,” the first detailed explanation of evolution by natural selection. Curious, too, how 146 years later, Wallace’s contribution has been woefully diminished and Charles Darwin has assumed the role of evolutionary science’s lone pioneer.

“All these people spend their entire careers beavering away at Darwin,” laments George Beccaloni, director of the Wallace Correspondence Project at Britain’s Natural History Museum, co-executor of Wallace’s literary estate and founder of the Wallace Memorial Fund. “But hardly anyone knows much about Wallace.”

Devotees hope to turn the tide. On Nov. 7, the 100-year anniversary of Wallace’s death, a bronze statue of the naturalist will be unveiled in London. This will kick off the Natural History Museum’s Wallace100: a global series of exhibitions, conferences, plays, nature retreats and lectures by the likes of Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough.

Alfred Russel Wallace was born in Wales in 1823. He left school at 14, and spent several years working as a land surveyor and developing a great passion for natural history. In his early 20s, Wallace set sail: first to Brazil and then to Southeast Asia, where he collected specimens and pondered their provenance.

In February 1858, Wallace lay ill on a remote island in Indonesia. Suddenly, the story goes, genius struck; Wallace was hit with the idea of natural selection. Still feeble, he penned an explanatory letter to the scientist Charles Darwin who, unbeknownst to Wallace, had independently developed the same theory.

This is where things get messy. By some popular accounts, Darwin held on to Wallace’s letter for several weeks—instead of passing it on to another scientist, as Wallace requested. Either way, shortly thereafter, Darwin combined his work and Wallace’s into a single paper. Fifteen months later, Darwin published his landmark tome, On the Origin of Species.

In his lifetime, Wallace was renowned. But posthumously, he was eclipsed. Why? Some say Wallace was too deferential to Darwin, others that his later-in-life flirtation with spiritualism damaged his scientific credibility?

Beccaloni got interested in Wallace when he was a Ph.D. student, studying South American mimetic butterflies. In 1998, he visited Wallace’s gravesite in Dorset—only to find it in “a rather sorry state.” Beccaloni founded the Wallace Memorial Fund and set out to restore the grave. Today, his fund commissions memorial plaques and monuments. Beccaloni writes historical articles and maintains an online list of “things named after Wallace” (a 159-km crater on Mars, a transitional zoogeographical zone). He also runs the Wallace100 blog, in which he pontificates on subjects like, “Just how famous was, and still is, Wallace?”

Beccaloni hopes the centenary hoopla will help reinstate Wallace’s significance as a groundbreaking naturalist. After all, he points out, it was Wallace who always rejected alternative evolutionary mechanisms—as opposed to Darwin, who sometimes wavered. In that way, Beccaloni muses, Wallace was “more Darwinian that Darwin himself.”

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