Forgotten beetle hunters and the foundation of evolutionary theory; Alfred Wallace remembered in puppetry

“So he has this vision: he’s going to walk into a London scientific salon with a Toucan on his arm. He’s not going to be a nobody; he’s going to be a somebody.”

~Andrew Berry, Harvard University. Editor, Infinite Tropics, an Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology.

In January of 1858, Alfred Russell Wallace, 35 years old, lay abed on Ternate, a volcanic island in the Moluku Islands of Indonesia, in a malarial fever, thinking about the fierce competition, the bloody, life-or-death struggle betwixt the teeming species, wondrous and strange, that he had seen on his travels. This struggle for life, he thought, in a burst of intuition, explained the advent and progression life on the planet. The varieties best suited to compete survived to perpetuate themselves.

Wallace had been thinking about varieties throughout his long journey in the South Pacific, and corresponding about it with the naturalist Charles Darwin, well known for his own account of a five year survey expedition, The Voyage of the Beagle.

Wallace and Darwin and their cohort believed, counter to common intuition, that wild species were not permanent, stable categories. On their collecting expeditions, they had observed variation of form among wild species analogous to the varietals of domesticated plants and animals. They saw in this variety evidence of change over time: the origination of new species. In domesticated breeds, human choice was the agent of change. For creatures in a state of nature, they thought, there must be some natural law.

Meditating on the doctrine of Malthus, Wallace, Darwin, and several contemporaries had argued that even the least fecund of organisms would, unrestrained, quickly multiply beyond the numbers observed in nature. There must, therefore, be checks on their survival, whether by starvation, strife, disease, or inclement conditions. Wallace intuited a connection, whereby those checks might serve as a natural agent of selection.

As soon as he recovered enough to write, Wallace sketched out his theory and sent it off to England, in February, 1858. His letter traveled four months to reach Darwin, but within a day it was on its way to Darwin’s friends Charles Lyell, the most influential geologist of his time, and J.D. Hooker, botanist and adventurer.

The letter jarred Darwin out of his dithering. For two decades he had been sitting on a manuscript concerning “the Variation of Organic Beings in a state of Nature” and “the Natural Means of Selection.” In a few, brief pages, Wallace had outlined the whole of Darwin’s theory.

Lyell, Hooker, and Darwin decided that the only thing to do was present Wallace’s paper, along with excerpts from Darwin’s manuscript, to the Linnean Society (of which they were all fellows, but Wallace was not) immediately, without waiting for word from Ternate. Hooker and Lyell read the papers on July 1st, 1858, granting the authors equal credit, but making sure to attest in their introduction to Darwin’s preexisting views on selection.

“These gentlemen having, independently and unknown to one another, conceived the same very ingenious theory to account for the appearance and perpetuation of varieties and of specific forms on our planet, may both fairly claim the merit of being original thinkers in this important line of inquiry ; but neither of them having published his views, though Mr. Darwin has for many years past been repeatedly urged by us to do so, and both authors having now unreservedly placed their papers in our hands, we think it would best promote the interest of science that a selection from them should be laid before the Linnean Society.”

Charles Lyell and J.D. Hooker, 30 June 1858. Cover letter to “On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.” Charles Darwin Esq., F.R.S., F.L.S., & F.G.S., Alfred Wallace Esq. Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. Zoology, 3(9) August 1858.

Both original thinkers they may have been, but when Darwin published his On the Origin of Species the following year, the earlier communication fell in its shadow. Origins cemented Darwin’s place in history, and Wallace gallantly granted him the glory. Though Wallace was quite famous in his time as a naturalist, collector, writer of political commentary, and author of The Malay Archipelago, he is now, largely, forgotten. Biologists know Wallace, but Darwin’s is the household brand.

Was Wallace robbed?

The history of science is filled with famous, pivotal individuals, who were in fact surrounded by brilliant, inquisitive colleagues working on the same goals, ideas, collections, and experiments. The puppets tell the tale.


Author: Liza Lester

ESA's Communications Officer came on board in the fall of 2011 after a Mass Media Science and Engineering fellowship with AAAS and a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington.

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment