Everyone knows the name of Darwin, Charles Darwin, that chap who went on a trip to the Galapagos Islands and discovered evolution. But, hardly anyone has heard of Wallace, not Wallace of “Wallace and Gromit” fame, but Alfred Russel Wallace. Too bad, because he also discovered evolution, and he did it in a much more hands on way. He really was an adventurer and explorer, in the mould of Indiana Jones. He tramped for years through tropical forests, collecting rare species, and then arrived at the same conclusions as Darwin. But, Darwin went on only one trip and he was taken there by boat, “The Beagle,” and when he got back he wrote a description of his five year voyage, entitled “Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle,” but in that description published in 1839 he never mentioned evolution once. Then he sat at home in his village in England and thought and wrote, but was so cautious that he sat on his momentous discovery for altogether 23 years. Then Wallace came along and wrote to him from the jungle in 1858 and quickly Darwin saw that he might be scooped, so he published his theory in 1859 to acclaim and fame and Wallace was all but forgotten. What a story, but who really should be given the credit for being the first to discover evolution or more correctly discovering the mechanism of evolution? Therein lies a tale.
I have been reading a wonderful book, “The song of the Dodo: Island biogeography in an age of extinction” by David Quammen (Touchstone Press). It delves into these questions by describing in stimulating detail the work of Wallace and Darwin and their few wary interactions. In this exchange, Darwin was the established gentleman investigator and Wallace was the lower class upstart. Wallace published his first article on the subject of evolution of species entitled “On the law that has regulated the introduction of new species,” sent from the jungles of Sarawak and published in the The Annals and Magazine of Natural History in London in 1855. This obscure paper could be considered the first actual publication describing biological evolution, however, Wallace did not mention “natural selection” a key phrase in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Knowing of Darwin’s book on his voyage and his reputation for scientific delving, Wallace wrote to Darwin and others asking for their comments on his paper. Darwin delayed replying for 10 months. Although Wallace kept Darwin’s replies, Darwin, a careful collector of letters, seems to have lost all of Wallace’s letters to him.
Then Wallace made the supreme mistake, of trusting Darwin with his next and more direct paper describing the mechanism of evolution of species. In 1858 instead of sending his article for publication directly to a journal he sent Darwin his paper entitled “On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type” for his comments. Darwin not knowing what to do (or how to delay this?) sent it on to Charles Lyell, a well-known naturalist, who suggested to Darwin’s relief that their two papers should be presented together at a meeting of the Linnaean Society in London later that year. Darwin had resisted suggestions by Lyell and others to finally publish something short, a summary paper on this theories. Now he feverishly put together a short paper, entitled “Extract from an unpublished work on species …derived from a Chapter entitled ‘on the variation of organic beings in a state of nature; on the natural means of selection’.” The compromise was that both papers were presented together at the meeting on July 1, 1858. But, then Darwin quickly finished his whole magnum opus and published “The Origins of Species” the following year, and blew Wallace out of the water. Darwin became the house-hold name, but never forget Wallace, he had the “right stuff”!