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
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