He Helped Discover Evolution, And Then Became Extinct

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Ask most folks who came up with the theory of evolution, and they'll tell you it was Charles Darwin.


In fact, Alfred Russel Wallace, another British naturalist, was a co-discoverer of the theory — though Darwin has gotten most of the credit. Wallace died 100 years ago this year.

Wallace developed some of his most important ideas about natural selection during an eight-year expedition to what was then the Dutch East Indies — modern-day Indonesia — to observe wildlife and collect specimens. Few places on earth can rival this vast archipelago's tremendous diversity of plant and animal life.

Wallace collected more than 100,000 insect, bird and animal specimens, which he gave to British museums.

By 1855, Wallace had come to the conclusion that living things evolve. But he didn't figure out how until one night three years later. He was on the island of Halmahera, ill with a fever, when it came to him: Animals evolve by adapting to their environment.

Written By: Anthony Kuhn
continue to source article at npr.org

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  1. I never cease to wonder at the “discovery” of evolution & how it is learned by a lot of people as some kind of revelation…

    When I was a kid, it was OBVIOUS to me that the dog lying on the pavement outside my house was related to me: he didn’t have 5 legs, 3 heads or 7 eyes, he had the same as I had. And other less similar animals were just more distantly related. I thought that was evident to everyone.

    I was also aware from beginning to play the guitar, as the skin on my fingertips became thicker, that we “evolve” within our own lifetimes to environmental conditions. Though at the time, I would have been at pains to explain the words “environment” and “evolution”.

    Of course, the works of Darwin & Wallace & others were crucial in collating the specific scientific evidence, but I remain bewildered at the absence of consciousness of evolution deniers. What must have occupied their curious minds throughout their childhood?

    • In reply to #1 by Newrone:

      I never cease to wonder at the “discovery” of evolution & how it is learned by a lot of people as some kind of revelation…

      When I was a kid, it was OBVIOUS to me that the dog lying on the pavement outside my house was related to me: he didn’t have 5 legs, 3 heads or 7 eyes, he had the same as I h…

      ” I was also aware from beginning to play the guitar, as the skin on my fingertips became thicker, that we “evolve” within our own lifetimes to environmental conditions. “

      The word you would use in place of ” evolve ” is acclimate. This, acclimation, is the technical term for the process you described.

      • In reply to #11 by Neodarwinian:

        In reply to #1 by Newrone:

        “The word you would use in place of ” evolve ” is acclimate.”

        Indeed (hence the inverted commas). Of course, if playing the guitar was an advantage in the survival of my species, then no doubt “thick-skinned” genes would eventually come to the fore. The mechanism is different but analogous.

  2. Another genius we can be proud of. Describing him as unknown is no longer really accurate as he is now famous as ‘that bloke who discovered evolution but no one’s heard of’. Impressive beard too. Perhaps prof Dawkins should grow one.

  3. When I was a kid I kept all manner of animals, snakes, frogs, rabbits, turtles, fish, dogs, salamanders, lizards, ants, rotifers, worms… To me it was obvious all these creatures could suffer, and that they were aware of their environment. I felt very protective of them. To someone like me the notions that humans are just another animal comes very naturally.

    Someone in Darwin’s day would instead have been indoctrinated with religious notions that man is extremely special. All these other creatures were not even conscious (did not have a soul). It would feel unclean to wallow with the beasts even if all you did was admit animal ancestry. It is hard for us to realise how strong religious belief was and how it was so hard to pierce through it to acknowledge the obvious. Poor old Darwin has terrible stomach trouble over the guilt and fear from breaking that taboo. He was trained as a clergyman.

    • In reply to #6 by Nodhimmi:

      Should have been published as “The Darwin-Wallace Theory of….”

      The two papers were read together at the Royal Society, but the book was Darwin’s.

      The solution occurred to him while he was recovering from a bout of malaria on the island of Gilolo in February 1858. He wrote up his thoughts, which were close to the theory developed but not yet published by Darwin, and sent his manuscript to Darwin from the neighbouring island of Ternate. This led to the reading of Wallace’s Ternate paper together with extracts from Darwin’s essay of 1844 and a letter from Darwin to Asa Gray at a special meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858, followed by the publication of Darwin’s Origin of species in 1859.

      Both Darwin and Wallace thought that their independently derived theories of natural selection were identical. When he received Wallace’s Ternate paper in 1858, Darwin wrote to Sir Charles Lyell FRS: ‘I never saw a more striking coincidence. If Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract!’
      http://rsnr.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/59/2/125.long

      Wallace, like Darwin, was out doing the field work that good scientists use as a basis of their understanding, so two great minds independently arrived the same theory from two entirely different geographical areas!

  4. Every UK biology undergraduate knows about him. Though biology grads are a minority. I also commend the Bill Bailey program though he omitted to mention Wallace’s time in South America.

    Also the article makes a very, very common mistake by saying D&W discovered evolution. Wrong they discovered its mechanism Natural Selection a much harder intellectual leap.

    I don’t beleive they ever saw each other as rivals, and Darwin probably had the right strategy about gathering his evidence and making his theory impregnable before publishing.

  5. Wallace may have donated some of his specimens to museums (this let him name a lot of species )but his journeys were ultimately commercial as he sold them to private collectors. Thus he was able to support himself for years.

  6. Something often overlooked in this story is that people can have brilliant ideas when immersed in a problem and half asleep. It’s important to write them down. They might seem ridiculous in the light of day, but sometimes they aren’t.

    I met a professional comedian who said that keeping a notebook on him at all times, even beside his bed at night, was the key to generating original material.

    And the ideas don’t necessarily need to be progressive new innovations. Sometimes it’s enough to notice flaws in existing assumptions and the prevailing wisdom.

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