JARS v63n3 - Wallace and the Origin of Species

Wallace and the Origin of Species
M.J. Harvey
Victoria, British Columbia

Every year we celebrate anniversaries of famous people and their accomplishments, and rightly so. It so happens that 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book, the Origin of Species .

Of course for every famous person there are many obscure losers, some of whom invented an object or concept that was ignored or laughed at during their lifetimes but which is now part of our everyday lives. I could mention Joseph Swan who invented the light bulb, but didn't market it; Alfred Wegener whose concept of Continental Drift was denied by his colleagues; Gregor Mendel, whose patient crossing of different strains of peas gave us genetics, but didn't get noticed until he was dead; and Galileo Galilei whose 1609 construction of a telescope and subsequent observations of the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter led him to conclusions that he was later forced to admit were false, and for these mistakes he was put under house arrest for the rest of his life, but he did found modern astronomy.

One particularly ignored person in this category, and one I have a particularly soft spot for, is Alfred Russel Wallace, whose claim to fame passed its 150th anniversary on 1 July 2008 and, as I expected, was completely unremarked on. So here is the story of A. R. Wallace.

Wallace was born in 1822 in the little town of Usk, now in Wales, although at the time it was part of the border region in England. When he was five, the family moved, partly for financial reasons, to the English town of Hertford. He left school at about age fifteen to apprentice as a surveyor with his elder brother William, and together they spent about five years surveying common lands. This work was putting into effect the intentions of the notorious Enclosure Acts that were passed by the English Parliament over a period of over a century. This experience had the effect of making him a socialist, since he hated seeing families turned off the land they had grazed their animals on for centuries.

While he was a surveyor moving around the country, he attended various Mechanics Institutes which were set up in regional centres complete with libraries and meeting rooms where scientific and technical talks and classes were held. The intention of these institutes was to make education available in industrial regions. At that time, universities were only available to the upper classes, and during these years he developed a lively interest in science, particularly natural history, He would have read influential books such as Lyell's (1835) Principles of Geology and Darwin's (1839) Voyage of the Beagle .

Moving to Leicester in 1844, he took up a junior teaching post at Leicester Collegiate School, where he met Henry Walter Bates, a largely self-taught but very competent entomologist. Wallace was astonished at learning of the species diversity of insects, particularly beetles, and with Bates' encouragement, started making his own collection of specimens. Becoming great friends, Wallace and Bates conceived of a collecting trip to the Amazon, partly for scientific purposes but also to collect insect specimens for sale to museums and amateur collectors, and in 1848 they departed on a very successful adventure. As a result of this Bates, discovered and interpreted the phenomenon of insect mimicry, now called Batesian mimicry.

Encouraged by the Amazon trip, Wallace planned a tour to the Far East, particularly the Malaysian archipelago, to collect specimens. He remained an enthusiastic entomologist for the rest of his life, but there was a definite commercial purpose to this venture. His aim was to collect skins of birds and mammals, especially rare ones, to stock both museums and display cabinets, which the expanding middle class of industrialising Britain was embellishing their drawing rooms with. Stuffed by skilled taxidermists, artfully mounted bird and, to a lesser extent, mammal collections displayed in diorama cases were very popular in Victorian Britain.

Wallace had a bungalow (which still exists) in Ternate, in the Maluku Islands (Moluccas) of eastern Indonesia, where he fell ill with malaria. Malaria was, and still is, a hazard to anyone living in certain tropical regions. It is characterized by bouts of sweating and extreme fever, leaving the victim completely lacking in energy. As a result of the malaria, it was not possible to collect specimens in February 1858, but his brain still functioned. He lay there thinking of the amazing differences between the plants and animals of his native Britain and those around him, and puzzled as to why this was so!

Maybe, his fevered brain thought, since everything is eating everything else, there is some selective process going on. Since only a few members of any given species live to produce offspring, then the offspring should have their parents' survival skills passed on. To cut the story short, Wallace thought up the entire hypothesis of natural selection.

When he recovered, there was of course no one locally to discuss his ideas with, so he wrote them down and decided to send the paper to England to see what people there thought of his ideas and to get them published. Nowadays, the convention is that the first person to publish an idea is credited with authorship of that concept. This did not happen in this case because of events over the next few months.

The person he sent his nascent paper to was a relatively obscure scientist living in the countryside because of ill health, but who, like Wallace, had traveled extensively and surely must have had some of the same experiences. That scientist was Charles Darwin - a big mistake on Wallace's part!

The letter panicked Darwin. He had already independently formulated an identical hypothesis and had discussed it with friends, but had been hesitant to publish it because he realised it might be controversial and because it would upset his devoted and deeply religious wife.

We know the progress of Darwin's thoughts since he wrote them down in a series of dated notebooks (which still exist), and his first jottings on evolution are dated July 1837, over twenty years before Wallace's letter arrived.

"What should I do?" Darwin asked his friends. Writing a joint paper was the solution and so on July 1, 1858, the first public announcement of the Wallace-Darwin hypothesis was read in the meeting room of the Linnean Society of London in Burlington House, Piccadilly, London. Neither author was present and only 35 members were in attendance. The event passed with little notice although when the paper was published in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society two months later, it achieved a much wider audience. Incidentally the same room is used for this Society's meetings to this day.

Darwin then immediately set about abbreviating his extensive notes from the previous twenty years, published his Origin of Species (1859), and it is the 150th anniversary of this book that is being celebrated this year. It has proved to be one of the most influential scientific books ever published and forms the basis on which modern biology rests.

So what happened to Wallace, and was he unfairly forgotten? Truth to tell, he never claimed the limelight, and even later wrote a book titled Darwinism (Wallace 1889). He had a long and lively career as an author and public speaker, espousing many and varied causes including pacifism, opposing vaccination for smallpox, favouring votes for women, and adopting Spiritualism.

In 1908 on the fiftieth anniversary of the reading of their joint paper, when Wallace was 85, he was presented with the Darwin-Wallace Gold Medallion of the Linnean Society. He explained in his address that although "the idea of what is now called 'natural selection' occurred to us independently", he was at the time "a young man in a hurry", and while Darwin was the painstaking and patient student, he had had a "sudden flash of insight, then copied it on thin letter paper and sent it off to Darwin - all within one week".

But, has this any relevance to gardening? Yes, as we now classify organisms based as best we can on their evolutionary relationships. For instance, Cox and Cox (1997) published the Encyclopedia of Rhododendron Species based as much as possible on plant relationships. The book produced some grumbling in the American Rhododendron Society because it deviated from the old and familiar, but its ideas now seem to be generally accepted.

Fruitful scientific theories such as evolution allow questions to be posed that beg investigation. For instance, how are the Taiwanese rhododendrons related to those on the mainland? We now have techniques such as DNA analyses that should allow this question and many others to be answered.

Many modifications to the theory have occurred over the past 150 years, among them the idea that evolution takes place incredibly slowly. We have seen the development of pesticide resistance in insects in a matter of a few years, and of course bacteria and viruses can change in a matter of days.

I should add that Wallace is not entirely neglected, as the "Wallace Line" marks the biogeographical limit between Australia and the Asiatic mainland and runs through the strings of islands in the region. Wallace was a pioneer in island zoogeography and the line is fittingly named for him. We now know that the Wallace Line is the result of what Alfred Wegener called continental drift, and plate tectonics now explain it.

So when we celebrate the anniversary of the publication of Darwin's little book, give a thought to Alfred Russel Wallace, the non-famous scientist and his simultaneous idea that has changed the scientific world. More information on the lives of both Wallace and Darwin are contained in a commemorative booklet (Gardiner et al. 2008) from the Linnean Society of London.

Darwin, C. 1839. Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle . Vol. III. Darwin. Colburn, London. 616 pp.
Darwin, C. 1859. Origin of Species . Pub. John Murray, London: 491 pp.
Cox, P.A. and K.N.E. Cox. 1997. Encyclopedia of Rhododendron Species . Glendoick Pub., Glencarse, Scotland: 416 pp.
Gardiner, B., R. Milner & M. Morris (eds). 2008. Survival of the Fittest: Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution. Special Issue of The Linnean Society of London , England. 124 pp.
Lyell, C. 1835. Principles of Geology , Pub. John Murray, London: 406 pp.
Wallace. A.R. 1889. Darwinism: An Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection with Some of Its Applications . Macmillan & Co. London, New York: 494 pp.

M.J. Harvey
Dr. Joe Harvey is a member of the Victoria ARS Chapter.