‘The Animated Life of A.R. Wallace’

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Although Alfred Russel Wallace made one of the most important scientific discoveries in history, he’s been all but forgotten. A contemporary of Charles Darwin, Wallace was the other guy to discover natural selection – the evolutionary process whereby better adapted organisms are more likely to survive and pass on their traits than less adapted ones.

Although two people discovered this theory, evolution by natural selection is virtually synonymous with Darwin. This is partly due to the lasting fame of Darwin’s opus, “On the Origin of Species,” but some argue it is also due to Wallace’s extraordinary modesty – he lauded Darwin’s work and humbly downplayed his own contributions. In 1889 he even wrote a book in support of evolution titled “Darwinism.”

Wallace contributed to many fields of science. He is considered the father of biogeography, and his name is still stamped on every globe in the form of the “Wallace Line” that divides the species of Asia from those of Australia. He was among the first to write about ecology, and authored some of the first Victorian thoughts on ecological conservation. He also championed women’s suffrage, was a believer in phrenology and spiritualism, and protested smallpox vaccination after suspecting that doctors had a vested interest in promoting it. In short, throughout his life Wallace was a radical freethinker.

Written By: Flora Lichtman and Sharon Shattuck
continue to source article at nytimes.com

10 COMMENTS

  1. He also wrote Darwin to the effect that the human brain/mind could not be the product of natural selection but must be the result of magic man’s actions. Darwin’s reply should be well know to all here. This in 1869, well before the spiritualism period. He had no small hand in eclipsing himself.

    Still, with the publication of Darwinism he made a late life comeback, scientifically speaking, and the past is the past, so he should be remembered well today. Celebrated as the co-discovery of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

  2. It is an interesting story, but Darwin and Wallace had met and had corresponded for some years before Wallace came up with his idea, so things might not be as clear-cut as this film suggests. Darwin, to be fair, said that he didn’t think Wallace could have developed his idea from things Darwin had written to him.

    This gives a flavour of the very ethical approach of both naturalists to the amazing coincidence:

    http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/uni-letters-controversy-darwin-wallace

  3. The movie Creation about the personal life of Darwin gives Russell his due. I understand the two decided to share the limelight by presenting simultaneously. I thought that remarkably gentlemanly. Darwin was absolutely terrified of the reaction Christians would have. That is why he delayed publishing so long. He wanted to ensure his arguments were air tight. I would think he would be glad to have another to share the “blame”. Darwin’s book sold out instantly. I think Darwin may have got even more backlash than he bargained on. If you look at the cartoons of the period, straw man arguments against his theories abounded, much as they do today among creationists.

    • It must have been very hard for him.His wife, Emma was a devout christian and loving her dearly, he must have been in quite a quandary.In reply to #3 by Roedy:

      The movie Creation about the personal life of Darwin gives Russell his due. I understand the two decided to share the limelight by presenting simultaneously. I thought that remarkably gentlemanly. Darwin was absolutely terrified of the reaction Christians would have. That is why he delayed publis…

  4. Wallace’s paper was only 20 pages long. He would have barely had enough room to expound his hypothesis. He would not have had room for much evidence to support it. The idea of evolution had been in the air for a long time before either of them. One creationist attempted to discredit evolution on the grounds it was not entirely original with Darwin and Russell. What Darwin did was meticulously present the evidence. So I think it fitting he gets the lion’s share of the credit. This was an idea that needed some heavy duty selling.

  5. It brings to mind similar coincident discoveries like that of the calculus by both Leibniz and Newton. The increasing rigour and breadth of science making it more likely that this would happen. Remember, Darwin had been refining and researching his insight for upwards of twenty years when Wallace’s letter presented him with a sudden unexpected terminus. Witness the sheer speed with which ‘The origin of species…’ was written. It would undoubtedly have been longer had not Wallace come along, young, (relatively) unknown and keen to publish. His imprimatur forced Darwin’s hand.

    “He also championed women’s suffrage, was a believer in phrenology and spiritualism, and protested smallpox vaccination after suspecting that doctors had a vested interest in promoting it. In short, throughout his life Wallace was a radical freethinker.”

    Not all of these topics fit that description. Which is not to say that Wallace was not brilliant. It’s sad that, like poor old Conan Doyle, his adherence in later life to such wildly popular superstitions of the time as spiritualism and phrenology should be allowed to shadow his earlier achievements. The shooting star is remembered for its flicker of fire, not its fallen ember.

  6. The reason darwin wasn’t at the Royal Institute presentation with Wallace as arranged was that he was attending the funeral of his son.

    It was loss of his children which helped to rid Darwin of his faith, because he couldn’t believe that any deity could be so crule, and if it were to be then it should not and could not be worshiped.

    Did Wallace have or lose any children? If not that may be why he continued to believe in woo.

    Nice little film.

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