Happy Birthday…

Alfred Russel Wallace.

Lots of links to his writing here.

Some nice mythbusting here.

(One myth not busted there is that Wallace didn’t have much to do with the theory of evolution after his famous paper, that so surprised Darwin when he received it in 1858.  Wallace continued to make original contributions, some very important, and in his generously titled book Darwinism and elsewhere he was an articulate and forceful defender of the new theory.  See the Wikipedia article for a quick introduction to this part of Wallace’s career.)

Specifically, check out the letter mentioned above, written from an island within the Indonesian archiplago, that formed his share of the Wallace/Darwin papers read at the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858.

This is the document with which Wallace established his independent invention of the basics of the theory of evolution by natural selection for which the greater credit (rightly, IMHO– and that of lots of other more competent writers) goes to Darwin.

For a much more authoritative brief account that properly values Wallace while recognizing the difference between his contributions to the formation of the modern evolutionary theory and those of Darwin, ee this essay (html; pdf available) by Wallace scholar Alan Berry and pre-eminent Darwin biographer Janet Browne.   They write:

In 1869, he [Wallace] compared Darwin to a great military general who kept every campaign detail and likened himself to a guerilla, useful in a skirmish.  “I feel truly grateful that Darwin had been studying the subject so many years before me and that I was not left to attempt and to fail in the great work he has so admirably performed.”

Much more to come, I hope, from many sources.  In this the Darwin year, it is a necessity,  I would say, to recall the deep thinker and truly great naturalist who both worked out a genuinely new idea about nature.

Not to mention we have to offer him  thanks for finally provoking Darwin into putting his own work into a form that would not only make the case for evolution, but that an ordinary reader could stand to read. As a Darwin loving colleague, John Durant, put it, with Wallace’s help we may just have dodged a bullet, as Darwin makes clear that he saw The Origin of Species… as merely an abstract of the much larger argument he had hoped to bring forth, before being goaded into publication by Wallace’s letter and the subsequent interest in the Linnean papers.  For anyone who wonders what it might have been like to read such a work , I invite them to wade through as much as they can stand of the middle sections of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Good luck.*

*This isn’t to say the The Descent isn’t an important book. It is, of course, especially in its explicit inclusion of our species within the evolutionary framework.  It is to say that the endless accumulation of detail on sexual selection, though impressive and ultimately convincing (in the “I surrender” mode of winning argument srategies), is damned tedious to read.

Update: via John Wilkins excellent post on the upcoming deification/demonization of Darwin to be expected in the coming year, here’s Wallace’s considered view on the importance of his letter to Darwin; it conforms entirely to the argument above:

“The One Great Result”
In conclusion I would only wish to add, that my connection with Darwin and his great work has helped to secure for my own writings on the same questions a full recognition by the press and the public; while my share in the origination and establishment of the theory of Natural Selection has usually been exaggerated. The one great result which I claim for my paper of 1858 is, that it compelled Darwin to write and publish his Origin of Species without further delay. The reception of that work, and its effect upon the whole scientific world, prove that it appeared at the right moment; and it is probable that its influence would have been less widespread had it been delayed several years, and had then appeared, as he intended, in several bulky volumes embodying the whole mass of facts he had collected in its support. Such a work would have appealed to the initiated few only, whereas the smaller volume actually written was read and understood by the educated classes throughout the civilised world.

Image: Thomas Cole, “The Garden of Eden” 1828.  Maybe it’s just me, but I think Cole had a tropical island in mind as the model of his paradise.

Explore posts in the same categories: Darwin, evolution, Priority

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