Alfred Russel Wallace: The Forgotten Evolutionist

Alfred Russel Wallace: The Forgotten Evolutionist

Charles Darwin standing alone on the shores of the Galapagos, surrounded by marine iguanas and hulking tortoises, hastily sketching finch beaks in his notebooks. This is the popular estimation of how evolution by natural selection was brought to public consciousness, and while not incorrect, it's far from sufficient. Evolutionary theory, then called transmutation, had already been hypothesized by a number of well known scientists who had stopped short of uncovering a mechanism. Darwin’s contribution was the proposition that transmutation was a byproduct of inevitable statistical laws. Some individuals are more successful in their environments. A natural consequence of that success is an increase in their offspring relative to others. The population changes over time.

An elderly Charles Darwin in color. Colorization by  Mads Madsen

An elderly Charles Darwin in color. Colorization by Mads Madsen

Darwin tends to get sole credit for the insight, but this is unfair to another naturalist who was active at the same time. Alfred Russel Wallace was an explorer-scientist whose travels rivaled Darwin’s and who co-founded the field of biogeography along with Alexander von Humboldt, despite modest beginnings. Wallace’s father, a struggling landlord, was increasingly unable to afford his son’s schooling until the younger Wallace had to leave his formal education behind at the age of 14. Instead, Wallace apprenticed as a land surveyor and spent years attempting to keep a financially fraught firm in the black. In 1848, Wallace decided to leave Britain and his failing business behind and study the wildlife of South America, as so many naturalists had done before him.

A photograph of Alfred Russel Wallace in 1848.

A photograph of Alfred Russel Wallace in 1848.

Wallace spent nearly five years in the Amazon rainforest, nearly as long as Darwin’s fateful expedition aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. He travelled along the Rio Negro, charting the wildlife, plants, and indigenous languages and customs of the region before returning to Great Britain, nearly perishing in a shipwreck caused by a cargo fire along the way. His collection was lost in the chaos, and Wallace spent over a year living off the resultant insurance payout. Nonetheless, his work captured the attention of prominent scientists, including Charles Darwin himself.

A photo of a 39-year-old Alfred Russel Wallace in Singapore in 1862.

A photo of a 39-year-old Alfred Russel Wallace in Singapore in 1862.

After spending 18 months in London, Wallace resumed his travels by sailing to the Southeastern regions of Asia, continuing the work he began in Brazil. It was here, while amassing an enormous collection of new specimens, that Wallace recognized the possibility of a pattern of differential inheritance and survival which could explain the biodiversity he had so painstakingly detailed. He wrote his thoughts down while travelling the Malay Archipelago in 1858 and mailed them to Darwin, who formalized his own theorizing and published both letters jointly several months later.

Darwin, who fully fleshed out his ideas in the 1859 publication of Origin, was bolstered by something other than a brilliant scientific mind. He was also a member of the English upper-middle class, a continuation of a line of investors, lawyers, scientists, and physicians who had established numerous profitable practices and built up considerable wealth and influence. Darwin had no need to focus on monetary concerns, and so instead spent his youth travelling and building specimen collections. It was these experiences, coupled with the free time afforded him by his family’s wealth, that allowed Darwin to slowly gather evidence for the theory of evolution by natural selection; a theory which, despite its theological implications, was accepted by a significant proportion of the Victorian scientific community thanks to the comprehensiveness of Darwin’s work.

A colored photograph Alfred Russel Wallace taken in c. 1895. Colorization by  Neitshade

A colored photograph Alfred Russel Wallace taken in c. 1895. Colorization by Neitshade

Following the publication of their theory of natural selection, Darwin enjoyed his reputation’s growth and solidification. Wallace, on the other hand, was never as successful an author as Darwin, and squandered the small fortune he had amassed from his collections and publications on bad investments. His advocacy of sociopolitical reform and his belief in less scientifically accepted ideas, such as mind-body dualism, further ostracized him from the elites of his day. Though lauded at the time of his death in 1913, he never achieved the level of fame that Darwin had, and his reputation steadily declined with the coming decades

Alfred Russel Wallace made contributions to biological research that warrant equal footing with Darwin, and yet Darwin is the name children are taught in introductory biology courses throughout the world. It is a powerful reminder that, even in areas of inquiry where objectivity is held as the gold standard, those already in possession of wealth and power tend to be the ones we remember.

A 1912 photograph of Alfred Russel Wallace at the age of 89. He died a year later.

A 1912 photograph of Alfred Russel Wallace at the age of 89. He died a year later.

About the author: Brian Fountain

Brian Fountain is a biologist and writer based out of Portland, Oregon. He has contributed to a number of publications and is currently finishing his first novel, The Greenest Greene. Fountain believes that history is the anchor to which we can tether our knowledge of society, and that in these times of political belligerence and uncertainty we all need to carefully study where we came from in order to better understand where we can go.

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