Alas, poor Wallace

This guest post by John van Wyhe is the result of my asking him to expand on a point raised on Facebook…

This year is the centenary of the death of Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. This has sparked an unprecedented amount of media attention. (Compare with the 2009 Darwin bicentenary) The Wallace “experts” most often interviewed, however, are usually not historians of science, but scientists or enthusiasts. This would be unacceptable for physics, economics or even sports. So why is it so routinely the case for history of science? It is a small field, but there are many departments and scholars in our universities who conduct sophisticated research on science past. If we want to tell the public about Victorian science, surely historians of science should be in the conversation?

In the hands of admiring amateurs, Wallace has evolved into a heroic but forgotten genius – wrongfully obscured by a privileged elite. Conspiracy theorist Roy Davies and comedian Bill Bailey identify with a working-class Wallace who defiantly strove against the obstacles thrown in his path by a snobby Victorian elite. But Wallace – a gentleman’s son who attended a public school – was not working class nor did he suffer from discrimination.

The title of Bailey’s recent BBC2 series – Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero – says it all. And it is a very inaccurate picture of Wallace, Darwin and the science of their time.

For Bailey it seems unfair that Wallace is “forgotten” since evolution by natural selection was “known as a joint theory for decades.” But the theory was associated with Darwin from 1859 when the Origin of Species was published. It was this book, and not the brief 1858 joint papers by Darwin and Wallace, that convinced the international scientific community that evolution was a fact. Wallace suffered no “ethically reprehensible cover-up” and he was not “robbed” of any ideas or credit. Elsewhere Bailey claimed: “Darwin’s paper was read first and he is the one we now remember…Wallace should have got priority, but it was Darwin, the man with the connections, who got the glory.” These accusations are based on hearsay and are not based on the standards of the time.

On the other hand Wallace’s admirers festoon him with unsubstantiated superlatives: “The most prolific collector of the 19th century”, “the greatest naturalist of his era”, “the father of biogeography” and so forth. This mighty but forgotten hero figure is then set against a caricature of mid-19th century science. Bailey claims that “Victorian scientists believed that all creatures were created by God.” No, many if not most believed that natural laws were responsible, just as they did for astronomy and geology. Richard Dawkins tells BBC viewers that before Darwin’s Origin of species was published, scientists believed that all species were created in 6 days and that the world was only 6000 years old. No. Geologists and naturalists had long since abandoned these traditional stories.

Bailey’s series even includes some fabrications such as “an ingenious bamboo cup” supposedly devised by Wallace. More serious is a nicely illustrated sequence in which Wallace’s flying frog is described as inspiring his theory of evolution. But the entire story is invented. Wallace only mentioned the frog in his Malay Archipelago in 1869. Other errors include:

– Wallace published the first description of Orangutan behaviour in the wild.

– Wallace was not afraid to publish his belief in evolution, whereas Darwin was too afraid.

– Wallace’s Sarawak Paper proclaimed a clear theory of evolution.

– Wallace discovered that Australian animal types reached Lombok.

Dawkins and geneticist Steve Jones say that Wallace coined the term ‘Darwinism’. But this was first applied to Darwin’s work by reviewers from 1859 onwards. (See here.) Wallace used it from the 1870s and most prominently as the title of his book Darwinism in 1889.

Jones recently added his own list of errors on the 22 July episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage:

– Wallace proposed that the continents move around.

– Darwin proposed land bridges to explain related species on different lands. (In fact Darwin bitterly opposed land bridge theories!)

– “Someone” has shown that Wallace’s letter and Ternate essay outlining natural selection “got to Darwin as much as two months earlier, before he claimed to receive it. And if you look at his notebook … he outlines the theory which Wallace had sent him as if it’s his own.”

In fact it has recently been demonstrated how Darwin received the letter exactly when he said he did (see here). There are no passages in any of Darwin’s manuscripts which are copied from or based on Wallace’s Ternate essay.

It’s fine to admire scientists from the past, and laudable to try to generate greater interest in their writings, but it is not good enough to repeat myths and legends. At its worst, the result is not a popular history of science but fairy tales.
 John van Wyhe’s book Dispelling the darkness: voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the discovery of evolution by Wallace and Darwin  is published this month.

53 thoughts on “Alas, poor Wallace

  1. Reblogged this on The Renaissance Mathematicus and commented:
    I have never reblogged somebody else’s post from another blog but this superb post on the current public misrepresentation of Alfred Russel Wallace by his fan club, posted by John van Wyhe on Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt’s teleskopos blog, is so in tune with the ethos of the Renaissance Mathematicus that I have decided to reblog it here. Read and enjoy!

  2. Yes, isn’t it great that Wallace has been receiving so much media attention!? It’s the result of a big public engagement and outreach programme, which the London Natural History Museum and other organisations have been heavily involved in. The main aim is to engage with the public and try to interest them in science and history, and I think the signs are that this has been pretty successful. You obviously feel that historians of science are not getting enough of the limelight – but this is actually largely due to the fact that very few historians of science study (or have ever studied Wallace) seriously. Most who work on the history of evolutionary theory having focussed their energies on his illustrious colleague, Charles Darwin, thereby missing a large and important part of the story. Perhaps it’s time for more historians to take an interest in Wallace – as well as the many other people who made major contributions to the development of modern evolutionary biology?

    Your implication that only trained historians of science are qualified to undertake historical research and interpret the life and work of historical figure such as Wallace is as absurd as the assertion that science should only be done by qualified scientists! I have heard you state this opinion before, and I think it is misguided and uncharitable. In my field of science (biology) at least, we actively encourage dedicated amateurs to participate, and some of them end up becoming world experts in their area of study – Wallace being a good example! Obviously, some areas of science are easier than others for non-professionals to contribute to e.g. alpha taxonomy would be an easier area for a non-professional to usefully contribute to, than say quantum mechanics, and I guess that there is probably a similar situation in the history of science. Yes, it is annoying when non-specialists like Steve Jones make lots of glaring errors – but that is what you surely expect of the media if you have had any dealings with them! Similarly I would not trust the judgement of a non-specialist in a technical area such an in-depth analysis of the development of evolutionary theory – but that has certainly not stopped some historians of science with no biological training from working in this area (and sometimes making serious errors!). Surely the ideal scenario, with a subject as complex as Wallace’s life work and the development of ideas in a whole host of disparate fields, is for historians of science to collaborate with specialists in the fields in question (scientists, sociologists, economists etc.) – which is exactly the approach that Charles Smith and I took with our book “Natural Selection and Beyond: the Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace” (OUP, 2008, 2nd edition 2010).

    PS. Huxley coined the term “Darwinism” (as applied to Charles Darwins theories) in 1860 not 1859 – see

    George Beccaloni (entomologist, evolutionary biologist and amateur historian of science)

    • I am not sure whether this comment is aimed largely at me, as owner of the blog,or John, as the author of the post – certainly he can speak better than me to the question of work by historians of science on Wallace. It doesn’t strike me that he has been scandalously negelected, though, and he usually takes a prominent place in accounts of 19th-century evolution and natural history. There is also significant amounts of work on all the ‘not-Darwins’ – given that historians of science have for a long time be interested in getting away from heroes and geniuses this is hardly surprising.

      I agree that we should be open to a whole range of collaborators and publics when researching and communicating the history of science (I also work in a museum and with people who are scientists or have scientific backgrounds as well as historians). The problem is when historians of science are taken out of the conversation. Biology may make use of a wide range of non-professionals, but the areas they *do* contribute in and the way in which the data is collected and interpreted is controlled by the professional biologists. Historical interpretation is undoubtedly and always less strictly controlled than that, but it is hardly surprising that professional historians of science would like to have their research taken seriously when the BBC or whatever other institution choose to focus on history of science.

  3. I’d like to add a reply to your comment: given that Wallace is the co-discoverer of natural selection I find it amazing that such an astonishingly disproportionate amount of research has been done on Darwin’s life and work compared to his. The development of Wallace’s evolutionary thinking is only just beginning to be properly explored – by the likes of Prof. Jim Costa (who wrote “The Annotated Origin”). It would be very interesting to count up and compare the number of research papers and books on Darwin and Wallace – and I bet there are 100 times the number on Darwin! Wallace is generally a footnote in works about Darwin. Janet Browne’s biography of Darwin being perhaps the best of the bunch, as far as biographies go..

    • We’re certainly in agreement that Janet Browne’s work is excellent, and I also agree that Darwin has been rather overdone (especially in 2009!). However, people are not just studied because of their contribution to particular theories but also because of their influence and other things done in their lives. Darwin is more significant for thinking about the organisation of or the public perception of science in 19th-century Britain than Wallace was, even if they share credit for natural selection.

      • Yes, I agree that Darwin was more important in that regard – but I am personally interested in the history and development of evolutionary theory (not the public perception of evolution), and in this Wallace was (in my opinion) as important as Darwin and thus deserves as much study as has been devoted to examining Darwin’s ideas.

      • Ms Higgitt, are you aware of the significant contributions Wallace made to numerous fields, and how famous he was in his lifetime? Have you read anything about him? Are you assuming his contributions were not worthy of attention because they didn’t get it?

        Evolution was nothing new… Others had already articulated the theory. Naval officer Patrick Matthew in 1831 laid it out clearly in a journal that Darwin most likely read. It seems as though Erasmus Darwin was there also, as well as several others. Elucidation of the theory is what Darwin did – he didn’t “discover it.” (Hungry for fame, he subtly quashed others who aspired to do the same.) This “one man’s theory” feeds into evolution’s detractors, weakens the impact of the theory, and misrepresents the scientific process. Westerners like the lone figurehead/discoverer, we do it all the time, it’s a cultural artifact that stands in the way of a responsible reading of history. Wyhe seems to be stuck in this trap. In an accurate history, both men would share the theory.

      • You both ask if I am “how famous [Wallace] was in his lifetime” and if I am “assuming his contributions were not worthy of attention because they didn’t get it” – which is it? Was he famous or ignored, you can’t have it both ways!

        History is not about assigning credit, it is about trying to understand what happened and how societies worked in the past. This is why historians REALLY dislike lone hero myths, especially historians of science, because science is always a collaborative and social business. It is the media, some reading publics and popular writers who like heroes (and as John points out, Wallace often gets treated like this these days, a reaction to perceived injustice that leads to criticism of Darwin – similar things have happened with Tesla vs Edison and John Harrison vs Nevil Maskelyne and Robert Hooke vs Newton), not those who research the past.

        Pointing this out doesn’t necessary mean that you therefore think Darwin, Edison, Maskelyne or Newton are heroes!

      • I think that much of this contrast between the historians interest between Darwin and Wallace is

        a) because Darwin was a “keeper”…of letters, notes, notebooks, journals, manuscripts, etc. The amount of information is voluminous. While Wallace is not a cipher, his preserved “raw” material is limited, lost, or just now being recovered.

        b) Darwin was the “target” of the opposition, principally because he was the first to bring the concept of Natural Selection to a broader, nonscientific, audience. While a few naturalists would have been aware of the Darwin-Wallace presentation, it failed to make much of an impact beyond them. And even those antagonistic to the idea didn’t present a countering view until the “Origin”. Wallace was still in the Malay Archipelago while the first shots in the debate were triggered, and though he would have likely have participated, he wasn’t there.

        c) While Wallace did produce several papers relating to biogeography and evolution he didn’t really discuss examples of Natural Selection until “The Malay Archipelago” was published. Even then his examples are sparse, and often accredits Bates or Darwin as being the stimulus for his understanding the phenomenon he is discussing.

      • Salimbag- The “idea” of evolution reaches back to classical times (and many cultures had notions of organisms transforming from one another long before the Greeks and Romans). Darwin actually incorporated a good historical essay in one of the later editions of “The Origin of Species” covering many of these earlier notions, and of natural selection as well. The latter concept was actually more widely used as an argument against evolutionary change. Darwin never asserted ultimate originality for either concept – his view was that he had realized the link between the two and gathered voluminous evidence to show its reach and viability.

        In that essay he notices two predecessors that actually put together evolution and natural selection that he only became aware of after he and Wallace had published.

        In the early 1800’s William Wells had suggested natural selection explained the different pigmentations of humans in an appendix to a large treatise who’s title would have given Darwin no hint of its content. In the 1830’s Patrick Matthews suggested a similar idea, also in an appendix to a book on Naval Arboriculture. Darwin was quite compulsive about recording books he had read and there is no evidence he ever read either work. Matthews, who brought his work to Darwin’s attention admitted that he never followed up his brief idea – he also acknowledged that his idea came to him suddenly and that he viewed it almost as an logical axiom, not requiring evidence. Matthews pointed out that no one seemed to notice his idea, and that he also did not do anything to promote the idea or use it further.

      • Jerry: Wells did not apply natural selection (if that’s indeed what he came up with) to explain speciation and hence biological diversity; Matthew does seem to have done this, although whether it was the same theory of natural selection as that of Darwin and Wallace is open to debate. In any case, as I say in the “FAQs about Wallace” on the Wallace Memorial Fund website, his “…idea was not very well explained and none of his contemporaries picked up on it. He himself did not make any further mention of it in his writing, until 1860, when he wrote to the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette to point out his priority of the idea (a fact which Darwin fully accepted). Thus the modern concept (= meme) of natural selection traces its origin to the 1858 papers by Darwin and Wallace, and not to Matthew’s 1831 book.”

      • George- Isn’t that exactly what I said? Neither man had an impact on their contemporaries? And that Wells dealt with human pigmentation (not other organisms)?
        Both had published but publication alone (while one can be strict about it as a measure of priority) is not historical impact.

        BTW where does Wallace discuss speciation (cladogenesis) in his 1858 paper? It’s clear he refers to divergence of descendants from their antitype, but does he discuss how Natural Selection could produce two distinct contemporary species? Maybe I’m missing something subtle in my reading?

      • Jerry: Wallace refers to divergence in the 1858 paper, but doesn’t explain how natural selection could lead to divergence. His paper is focused on explaining natural selection – not the ramifications of it – so he concentrates on explaining how it leads to evolution within a lineage (anagenesis). However, in his 1855 paper he does touch on how speciation might occur in allopatry – using birds and the Galapagos as an example. In the 1858 paper Darwin mentions his Principle of Divergence – the mechanism he always focussed on to explain cladogenesis. His ‘Principle’ mechanism is one of sympatric speciation and this mode of speciation is now thought to be extremely rare in nature – most speciation is beleived to be allopatric or parapatric. Wallace did not accept sympatric speciation as far as I am aware – he believed that speciation occurred in allopatry or parapatry.

      • As I pointed out George, Wallace’s reference to divergence in the 1858 paper is that of a descendant from it’s ancestor (anagenesis) not divergence of contemporary species from an ancestor.

        Wallace certainly argues in his important 1855 paper that geographical barriers are important to the development of species. But he also seems to argue that the differences are sometimes acquired in sympatry (with extinction of the antitype), but in other cases by accumulation of traits in allopatry. That idea had been made as early as 1825 (pp132-133) by von Buch who studied different species of plants on the Canaries, who wrote: “The individuals of a genus spread out over the continents, move to far-distant places, form varieties (on account of differences of the localities, of the food, and the soil), which owing to their segregation cannot interbreed with other varieties and thus be returned to the original main type. Finally these varieties become constant and turn into separate species. Later they may reach again the range of other varieties which have changed in a like manner, and the two will now no longer cross and thus they behave as two very different species.” Both Darwin and Wallace made reference to von Buch’s ideas in their notebooks.

        Darwin, in the “Origin” sometimes seems to argue that isolation is important to the initial stages of speciation but that Natural Selection is more important to the development of features that prevent later admixture. At other times he argues that most speciation occurs in sympatry where the larger population size allows a greater potential for variation. Sulloway argues that Darwin was not arguing strictly for sympatric speciation but that ecological or other barriers were involved in a more peripatric model.

        Wallace in “The problem of utility” (1896) stated “The means of preventing this intercrossing are for animals either infertility, external distinctions leading to the preferential mating of similar forms, or physical isolation. The latter I believe, with Darwin, to be of comparatively little importance and to have very rarely been the chief agent in modification.. In the great majority of cases a new species must arise amidst the population of an existing species.” In “Darwinism” he detailed precisely how he believed Natural Selection could produce reproductive isolation through selection against hybrids and the development and accentuation of local identifying marks. This is referred to as the “Wallace Principle”.

        Both Wallace and Darwin argued against Moritz Wagner’s view that allopatry alone was sufficient to explain most cases of speciation.

      • From Charles Smith’s website: “It was Wallace (1855) who was the first to recognize the correlation between geographic distribution and evolutionary relationship. Wallace (1855) in fact described how a process akin to what is now called vicariance might have produced modern faunal differences in the Galapagos Islands if these now distinct islands were once joined. In effect, Wallace (1855) was arguing that one way the geological world impinges on the biological world is through the mechanism we now refer to as allopatric speciation. If speciation is allopatric, species can disperse over geographic barriers (that have geological or climatic causes) and become isolated, or geological or climatic changes can cause populations of species to become isolated from one another by creating barriers within formerly continuous ranges; the latter is termed vicariance. In either case, the isolated populations diverge and eventually speciate . . .” –Bruce S. Lieberman, 11 April 2005. Palaeogeography, Palaeocimatology, Palaeoecology 219: 25.

      • I don’t have time at present to read and try to understand that paper you cited. However, in the mean time here is a quote from Lawrence Heaney’s introduction to Wallace’s 1880 book “Island Life” which was recently reprinted by the Uni. of Chicago Press: “He [Wallace] then went on to state that when a geological or climatic event cuts a distribution into two parts. divergence is inevitable, resulting in the formation of two allopatric species (pp. 59-60 [of “Island Life”]).”

  4. As someone interested in Wallace for years, I understand the position of John. As a historian of science may be disappointing to those who work hard in the smallest details of any character or theory or event, do not have space in the media to communicate to a wider audience their work. On the other hand, in the case of Wallace (as in many other cases in the history of science) are needed a lot of support to be recognized beyond academic circles, and that is where the work of people like George becomes very valuable. Let me briefly share with you a recent experience that exemplifies the urgent need for greater dissemination not only of Wallace, but of the history of science in general: with a small group of Mexican academics, we organized an essay competition on the life and work Wallace. The result was extremely enlightening: we do not receive a single essay. A sure sign that we need to join forces and seek to give Wallace a better place in the audience.

  5. This is John van Wyhe word crafting and nitpicking to play into Wallace’s detractors. He is, it seems, reacting to a couple of potentially objectional books by Davis and Bailey to throw suspicion on Wallace, certainly an unfair tact. He could just as easily have chosen to write an exhaustive list of Wallace’s accomplishments, which would certainly dwarf the quibbles he chooses to highlight here, ploy to unjustly knock Wallace down.

    There is too much BS in Wyhe’s post to address point by point, but let’s take an obvious one. Re: his dismissal of the class difference between Wallace and Darwin, referring to Wallace as “…a gentleman’s son who attended a public school…” is technically accurate, but the gentleman father went broke and Wallace dropped out of school because his family could not afford to educate him; he worked as a apprentice surveyor. He struggled for money his entire life, squeezing in his research and writings on the side, while Darwin idled away in luxury on his inherited estate. In fact, the meat budget alone at Down House was greater than the government pension Wallace finally received in his old age, with Darwin’s help. Those who play up Wallace’s humble beginnings and lifetime of struggle are being far more accurate than van Wyhe, who seems to be grabbing at straws here. Wallace did arduous expeditions alone on a shoestring, unlike Darwin, who lived a life of luxury and was aboard the Beagle because of family connections, and travelled in relative comfort with powerful connections on the route.

    Wallace not discriminated against? Does van Wyhe know anything about Victorian social orders? Wallace had no family wealth like Lyell or any of his scientific contemporaries. Is he unaware of what that meant in the Victorian class structure?

    Wallace was nearly as famous as Darwin in his lifetime due to his best selling scientific travel books, his unabashed public support of Darwin, and his prominent stands on social issues. He was a much more public person than Darwin. And contrary to Wyhe’s assertion, the theory WAS referred to as the Darwin/Wallace theory well into the 20th century. I am a great admirer of Darwin, but I suggest anyone read a good biography of Wallace. (Peter Raby’s is especially good. take note John van Wyhe.) In terms of vast-ranging intellect, passion, and innovative thinking, he exceeds the taciturn Darwin; and is made even more the sympathetic character by the humble struggles he endured during his life.

    There is only one reason the theory is not attributed to Wallace, and that is that Wallace sent the Ternate paper to Darwin rather to a publisher, as he had his previous papers. If he had sent it to a publisher instead, we would not be having this discussion. Whether or not Darwin and Lyell acted scrupulously is a matter for debate, but Darwin’s hagiographers will not be distracted.

    Van Wyhe has made it clear that he does not approve of non-professionals doing science history. Well, Wallace was a non-professional doing science. It seems Wyhe’s prejudice about credentials is just carrying over… kind of like… the Victorian elite?

    • It seems an odd way to go about detracting Wallace to devote considerable research, publishing exhaustive amounts of primary texts and a book about him…

    • An interesting point. WHY did Wallace send Darwin his essay, unlike just about every other item that he intended for publication. I think that one can draw the conclusion that it was not INTENDED for publication, but was part of an ongoing discussion that Darwin and Wallace conducted regarding the potential forces of evolution. Wallace requested that Darwin evaluate the argument for holes, and then send it on to the most respected “Scientific Creationist” of the day, Charles Lyell. He was unsure that he might be missing a key element. Or perhaps he, as he claimed in his letters to Darwin, was not going to publish this idea until he had returned to England to build the case with actual case studies.

      Darwin probably first initiated the correspondence in 1855 by requesting that Wallace send him examples of domestic varieties of fowl similar to the wild fowl of the Archipelago. Darwins notes states that he sent this note to “R. Wallace, Brazil via S. Stevens” but it’s clear that Stevens, Wallace’s business agent, would have sent this via Singapore. Wallace would have been pleased especially so since he used Darwin’s Galapago’s finches as an exemplar of transmutation from a bird from the continent in his “Sarawak Paper”. Based upon Darwin’s footnotes to his 1845 edition of “Journals of Researches” Wallace must have recognized that Darwin was sympathetic to, if not certainly a supporter, of transmutation. Darwin read this paper, when is not clear, and refers to it and Lyell, who had also thought it was important.

      I would point out that we know from preserved communications that Wallace had already raised to Darwin the issues relating to using domestic variation as a mechanism for natural evolutionary change. Lyell in the “Principles of Geology” had pointed out the issue of “Reversion to Type” and others had suggested that domesticated animals are in some way more prolific in their variability when under man-made conditions. Wallace, at least when he wrote this letter to Darwin, was pointing out the problems with an analogy to artificial selection. Darwin agrees with Wallace that there issues, but states that he is looking at this in another way, far too complicated to aver to in a single letter.

      Wallace then suggested an old view that perhaps hybridization between two distinct species may create a new one. Darwin pointed out the work of several botanists and others that argued that while this might occur, there was equal evidence for sterility in crosses. Darwin asks Wallace about reports of melanic variants of leopards in Java.

      So contrary to some historians, if one reads deeply the Wallace-Darwin letters in chronological sequence we can see a dialogue on evolution. Darwin doesn’t “give” Wallace the concept of Natural Selection, but guides away from some alternatives and encourages him to consider other possibilities. But the time of his Aru biogeography paper Wallace seems to have shifted his position to an evolutionary model using extinction of intermediates to explain how two species might arise from a single one. This raises the issue as to why the intermediates might be eliminated and differential survival. But Wallace does not yet discuss that in his writing.

      It was about this time that Wallace examined the massive collections of Dr. Mohnike in Amboyna. Mohnike paid native and Dutch colonialists for collecting specimens and Wallace notes that the Dutch entomologists received tens of thousands of specimens for every hundred that Wallace had collected. Of these jars and jars of specimens from the same species, Mohnike would select his best- the largest and most aesthetically pleasing. Wallace, just a month prior to his Gilolo epiphany is concerned that Mohnike is presenting a very biased view of actual insect diversity in the Archipelago.

      • I think that it was a progressive development and not an epiphany at all.

        Sorry for such a long comment. I don’t think any one factor or event led to Wallace having a “Eureka Moment”. In fact, I suspect that it was Darwin’s own “project” that led Wallace to write his 1858 Essay. Even reading the first paragraph of that paper indicates that Wallace is responding to Darwin and Lyell.

        Wallace himself had considered artificial selection as an analogy (his Evolution Notebook discussion of Huc’s story of Emperor Kli’ang and the Imperial Rice). But he seems to have abandoned it because of the issues with “Regression To Type” as he noted in his letter to Darwin.

        His “conversations” with Darwin kept him evaluating mechanisms, sometimes returning to ones that he had dropped earlier. Darwin, as I have suggested provided Wallace with perhaps the only other naturalist that we know of that he could easily correspond with on this topic [its always possible that he discussed the topics with Rajah Brooke, Dr. Brauer, Mohinke & Dolenschall, Rosenberg, etc.]. Darwin’s “Researches”, his writings in Gardener’s Chronicle, and early Linnean Society articles provided Wallace important information supporting transmutation (and Darwin was often quite explicit that his findings supported such an interpretation).

        We know that Wallace was already collecting for Darwin by August 1856 ~ Wallace, AR > agent Samuel Stevens, that his latest shipment of specimens included items for CD: “The domestic duck var. is for Mr. Darwin & he would perhaps also like the jungle cock, which is often domesticated here & is doubtless one of the originals of the domestic breed of poultry.” (Cambridge University Library (Add. MS. 7339/234))
        Wallace (Malay Archipelago pp 185) notes that the “domestic duck” of Lombok was the “penguin duck”. Darwin made extensive notes on this breed in his “Reading Notebooks” (Vorzimmer 1977) based on his readings of Zollinger’s “On The Island of Lombok” in the JIAEA (1851) 2: 323-344.] On the same date Wallace sent Stevens his article S39. “Note on the Theory of Permanent and Geographical Varieties. Zoologist 16: 5887-5888 (Jan. 1858: nos. 185-186). In this article Wallace pointed out the arbitrary nature of species boundaries, and that often varieties are found that extend the diversity of one species or causes re-evaluation of whether species are distinct or not. [Darwin made almost the exact same argument to Asa Gray in his letter sent perhaps a months before 30 June 1855~ thus making it impossible that Darwin was influenced in his views in any way by this paper by Wallace.]

        This paper acknowledges that Wallace was considering the effects of variation, and breaking away from the typological approach of wild species advocated by Lyell and others. But he introduces extinction as the mechanism creating gaps between species in his Aru paper, and disappointingly doesn’t state if species without such extinction could continue to acquire variability.

        Mohnike and Dolenschall’s collections perhaps led Wallace to reconsider, even more variation, and “selection” and shift from his “extinction” model. Wallace collected large numbers of species but largely limited his collections of paratypes to those that the market could bear. He made no collections of a large sample from which the full range of population variation might be inferred.

        There was actually a return to a topic he had suggested in his “Sarawak Paper”. It’s the only note that Wallace records from Gilolo in his “Evolution” Notebook. Recall that in the “SP” he pointed out that one of Lyell’s criticism of the transmutation hypothesis was that organisms would be replaced by adjacent species already adapted to the differing climate. The competition from one species would prevent change in the other, according to Lyell. But Wallace pointed out that if the change occurred slowly enough the one species would adapt (note that he doesn’t yet have a mechanism for this adaptive change) to the slight shifts in conditions while the other species would not have time to occupy the space. Thus by 1855 Wallace saw that adaptation was a process, not an event. And that process produced anagenetic change. But he had no mechanism. In fact, any student of Wallace should read his remarks in “On the Natural History of the Orang-Utan” (1856) before thinking that Wallace was close to the hyper-selectionist he was later to be identified as (except for man). Here he argues an almost mystical force that determines the characteristics of organisms, rather than the organisms “needs”. This metaphysical approach to the characteristics of organisms is similar to that propounded by William Whewall (cited in a footnote to the article) and John Ray. And Wallace would also argue from the late 1860’s vigorously that the key features of humans were still inexplicable by Natural Selection and required some yet unknown transcendent force.

        So his Gilolo remarks are interesting in this regard because he almost appears to be arguing Lyell’s point. Here he notes that he’s come up with a hypothesis to explain the establishment of grassland (rather than forest) in areas where there the sea has receded rapidly from the elevated land.

        “Plains in the tropics. Why are some covered with lofty forests, – others with grasses only? This for a long time puzzled me, but I think I have found the explanation. It depends on the more or less rapid rise of the plain from the ocean. Where a forest covered plain gradually increases by deposit, as in a delta, &c. the seeds of trees vegetate in the mud & each spot is occupied as it is formed, but if a rapid elevation should convert a shallow sea into a muddy plain, the (109) seeds of grasses carried by the wind or by birds will vegetate immediately & cover it, forbidding the advance of forest. Thus may be explained the open plains of Celebes compared with the forest plains of Borneo, – & the small flat grassy valleys in Gilolo. Ground once taken possession of by grasses cannot be reconquered by forest even if surrounded by it. A clearing for a few days only, will if left, become forest, from roots & seed left in the earth, but if once covered with grass all woody growth is kept down. Even the “Vanos” of the Orinooko as compared with the forest valley of the Amazon may perhaps be accounted for in this manner. Climate or soil will not account for it – these vary in both districts & in parts of both are similar. Gilolo Jan. 20th 1858. “

        This is de Candolle’s (1820) “nature at war” and Lyell’s “struggle for existence”. But these are extremes (almost Lyell’s argument for stasis reprised here), but what if the shift is gradual, as Wallace suggested in his 1855 paper. The grasses and the forest would compete and the species that had variations that were better adapted to the new conditions would replace the less well adapted.

        The weak point in my argument is that Wallace did not use a botanical example in his arguments in the 1858 essay. But knowing that his parrying with Darwin led him to the same idea, and that Darwin perhaps “gave too much away” may explain his feeling that he was the “favoured party” in the arrangement to present materials from letters from both men. I’m almost certain that if Wallace had been told the situation about Darwin being 2/3rd finished with his book with “fair copy” sent to his editor Hooker, that Wallace would have retracted his paper. We might actually know less today of Wallace’s independent discovery of Natural Selection than we do of William Wells or Patrick Matthews.

  6. The abridged stories occurring in introductions of scientific research papers or reviews, and the casual nods to earlier heroes meant to acknowledge priority seem to inevitable lead to legends. I see the undoing of these legends as one of the primary tasks of the history of science. I read John van Wyhe’s post as an exercise in refuting legends about Wallace. Refuting legends about Wallace should not be mistaken as belittling Wallace.

    By the way, I found the website of Charles H. Smith very resourceful, when I once tried myself to undothe legend of Wallace coining the term Darwinism.

  7. In reply to Rebekah’s last comment: The overall impression that I was left with after reading John’s book was that he was seeking (consciously or subconsciously) to denigrate Wallace and his achievements. There seems to be a definite negative bias against Wallace running through the book, whereas the opposite bias appears to be present in John’s writings about Darwin… Examples of John’s ‘Wallace negativity’ include: the facile comparisons he makes between Wallace and Ida Pfeiffer (who was, incidentally, *not* attempting to answer any ‘big questions’ such as seeking to understand the ‘origin of species’, nor writing a huge number of insightful scientific articles whilst out in the field, and whose collections were of considerably less scientific importance than those that Wallace (and his servants) formed); his subjective negative judgements about Wallace’s ethics e.g. “Wallace could easily have bought his [i.e. Baderoon, his lazy and constantly gambling servant] freedom but apparently did not.” [Baderoon had become the ‘temporary slave’ of a women whose money he gambled away]; the fact that he is at pains to point out that Wallace didn’t personally collect all the specimens he shipped back, but that his servants collected many of them [so what, this was (and still is) the accepted method of forming such collections in the field and Wallace masterminded and paid for the operation. It is no different to the case of Darwin’s servant Syms Covington, who collected many of ‘Darwin’s’ specimens) etc etc

    • I have to admit that I haven’t read John’s book, though I have heard him speak many times about Darwin and other things. My impression is that he is interested in exploding myths that form around topics in the history of science, not that he is interested in diminishing one reputation to big up another.

      The point about Wallace using collaborators to assist with collection is very much the kind of thing that historians of science like to stress (the collaborative process, the essential role of unremembered individuals, the actual facts we can uncover from archival research) not a slur against Wallace. You’ll see from my post here ( that the first episode of Lisa Jardine’s new radio series highlighted artisans and practitioners in a similar way: Newton absolutely relied on them, but it doesn’t mean anyone’s saying Newton was rubbish.

      John is also author of a book on Phrenology and the Origins of Scientific Naturalism ( which, among other things, (to quote the blurb) “challenges the orthodoxy that Charles Darwin’s 1859 work The Origin of Species was the most influential work of Victorian science”.

  8. Being a working biologist with an interest in the history of science, I have to say I really enjoyed Bill Bailey’s program. It was watched by a number of my non-scientist friends who had no idea who he was before this program and on the whole if they now remember Wallace as a jungle hero I think that is no bad thing. What annoyed me the most about the program however was the end where Bailey eluded to the fact that Wallace was a forgotten man and that he had been brushed under the carpet by modern biologists.

    From my understanding (as a scientist) of what happened to Wallace, I agree with this opinion, however, Bailey never said WHY Wallace was overlooked in the early 20th C. Wallace was clearly not bitter about Darwin’s rise, and as you say it was the book and not the paper at Linnean that really brought evolution by natural selection into the public eye. The fact that Wallace wrote a book called Darwinism is evidence that he was happy with his contribution to the field. The reason why Wallace was forgotten was due to his belief in other fairly wacky ideas such as spiritualism, and the fact that he was still propounding some of these into the early 20thC. To the next generation of biologists he would appear as a rather nutty old man pushing some fundamentally non-evidence based ideas and that would have been massively damaging for his reputation. I wonder how he was perceived by Haldane/Fisher/Wright, and other neo-Darwinists? I can see a parallel here to Linus Pauling, who was incredibly famous at this peak of his work in the 1950s, but by the time of his death in the 1990s was something of an outsider obsessed with vitamin C. They both outlived many of their contemporaries and then ventured into other areas of science that were outside their proven areas of expertise. I can’t think of many biologists who have successfully done this.

    It is clearly very annoying that there were so many other errors in the program, but I don’t think it’s the fault of the scientists involved that they helped to propagate some these errors, rather the failure of the researchers of the program to think to properly engage with historians of science. Within my field of microbiology I started to try and push for better integration of these two areas about a decade ago when I got Michael Worboys to write an article for Microbiology Today, the members magazine of the Society for General Microbiology (SGM), but nothing really came from this. If historians of science who write about microbiology are members of the SGM, and they can be associate members without having any scientific microbiological qualification, then when a broadcaster rings the SGM asking for an expert on this or that, the Society have historians of science that they can recommend as well as working microbiologists. Anyway, looking forward to reading your book.

    Gavin Thomas,
    York Biology,

    • Gavin: Your suggestion that Wallace’s reputation suffered after his death because of his championing of spiritualism etc. is certainly possible, but the (admittedly not exhaustive!) research I have done into this question suggests it is more a case that when interest in natural selection was revived in the 1930’s many people assumed that the idea originated from Darwin’s book “Origin of Species” – they had simply forgotten about Wallace. If you are interested in more details of my idea see an essay I wrote here: This is in contrast to the situation during his lifetime when it was very widely known amongst both scientists and the public that he was the co-originator of natural selection. Note that during Wallace’s lifetime I don’t think that his reputation suffered to any great extent because of his belief in spiritualism and he remained on very good terms with critics such as Huxley who actually once remarked to Darwin that Wallace’s belief in spiritualism was no worse than the prevailing superstitions of the country!

      I would also like to comment on the Bill Bailey programme since I was the historical consultant for it:
      Unless you have worked with a TV company in producing a ‘popular’ programme like this you will perhaps not realise the constraints involved and the difficulty of ensuring that the final film it is 100% true to the facts! I actually pointed out the errors John mentioned, including the ‘bamboo cup’ and flying frog story. To take these as examples: in the case of the former, they had already filmed the scene it appeared in and thought it was such a minor error that they didn’t want to cut it out; in the case of the flying frog, they had come up with an elaborate fictitious story about how the frog had inspired Wallace to discover natural selection and when I pointed out that this was not true they weakened it considerably, but refused to cut it out entirely. To their credit – they removed several entire sequences filmed in Borneo which were very seriously incorrect, even though they had gone to great trouble and expense to film them after I reviewed the rough edit of the Borneo programme and told them that they were factually completely wrong. The process of producing the programme was very complex and went something like this: at the beginning they talked to me and sketched out a very rough story (which was accurate at this point!); they then employed a researcher and wrote a detailed script which was sent to me for comment; I corrected it and sent it back; it was revised and errors crept in again; I corrected it sent it back; it was revised by them etc. (this happened numerous times!); they then went to Borneo etc. and filmed the first programme, revising the script in the field and introducing errors (again!); they then produced a rough edit; I commented on it; they cut out some inaccurate footage (but not all); they then produced a number of other rough versions of the programme; I got to see the penultimate one and was able to only get them to make a few minor corrections; the final version of the programme was then produced. I think that overall the errors are pretty minor for a programme of this type. I have certainly seen a lot worse!

      • Concernign the epithet jungle hero, have you seen the Intelligent Design proponents from the DisocTute trying to seize Wallace for their cause and calling him, among other things, the Indiana Jones of the Victorian age. See here and there click video, for example. not Bailey’s fault, I know, but maybe a reason to drop that Jungle Hero talk.

      • Thanks for adding this insight about how the TV consultancy/research process works. My (much more minor) involvement in this kind of thing has certainly been along these rather frustrating lines. I think this is why having an expert as presenter is so important – they just wouldn’t let the erroneous script pass their lips. Brian Cox, for example, has said that he tries to insist on some more complex stuff, and I can’t imagine he’d let through anything too inaccurate in particle physics (astronomy and, especially, natural history or [yes, it’s coming!] history of science is a rather different case).

  9. “it is hardly surprising that professional historians of science would like to have their research taken seriously when the BBC or whatever other institution choose to focus on history of science.”

    Indeed, but it goes about dealing with standard historical issues in a very distinct way, the introduction here did strongly suggest that it’s a specific problem for H.O.S. and seemed to be strongly hinting its not faced by other subjects.

    The B.B.C for example commissioned a series on Scottish history (featuring a range of academic experts in the subject) after Simon Schama’s History of Britain which was felt to have been somewhat unsuccessful in presenting a fully balanced history of the Island as a whole focusing in particular on one identity. Here it took on board academic concern and directly addressed the issue.

    It is a very common problem.

    As is historical revision and the tension and challenges such undertakings face given the way the past is used socially. The debate on historical truth is not recent and has a range of opinions and arguments often reflecting differing departmental backgrounds and interests. This article reflected one perspective on historical truth.

    I think its important for experts to argue hard for their own perspective but when writing for people with no historical background some cursory sketching of the wider debate is of serious importance if people are intended to understand historical arguments fully and reach conclusions for themselves with expert guidance.

    Fascinating to learn something of cultural uses of Wallace I am unfamiliar with but its presented in a very distinct H.O.S/ science culture manner. I think you should be raising you’re concerns collectively and directly with the B.B.C. using a slightly different argument.

    The B.B.C does have a responsibility to reflect a full and balanced argument in its scheduling and does at times take the issue seriously.

  10. The fact is that you don’t have to be a professional historian of science to be an expert on an historical figure such as Wallace, just as you can be an acknowledged expert in a field of science without being a professional scientist…

  11. I did not read the introduction in quite the same way “included in the conversation.” Although I found it rather difficult to make sense of it. I also don’t find it difficult to understand why people choose to digress from expert accounts (academic or independent) as the past is and always has been used in a multitude of ways and historians deal with the issues this causes with historical revision in different ways.

    I don’t see fairy stories as shameful its what people do and what makes us what we are. I don’t think you see knowledge ever fully detached from our emotions, It is perhaps important that it is. Fairy tales are rather vital things although having not trained in history of science or science I understand the term differently as a form of secular entertainment which expresses the ideological values of a group and a way people make sense out of their environment in an entertaining and fun way.

    In science culture they appear to be viewed in such a melodramatic way as some form of horror in each and every case (unless the fairy tale is an in-group production) without any credible analysis. They have a role although its certainly not a historical or a scientific one, its to entertain and that’s a serious business that demands considerable expertise.

    • Interesting points, as always. As a humanities scholar it is the creation, relative success and sharing of stories in the past that interests me. I am in many ways equally interested in the power of some modern stories, but I also find I want to challenge them where my research suggests they are not supported by the evidence and where there are people defending them as true. I both want to observe and change the situation, which are perhaps conflicting impulses…

      • Having the diplomatic skills of Attila the Hun I once gave an undergrad presentation in Ethnology entitled “One Day Will We All Be Serving Cultural French Fries For the Heritage Burger Industry.”

        The act of studying from a humanities or social science perspective is a destructive process (or should be I think). The perspective you have to take is very different from a cultural user. That always creates tensions often rather spectacular ones, which indicates just how important these things are to communities. You are not dealing with nonsense no matter how it may seem on the surface.

        I don’t find my deference for history a conflicting impulse it is just a very difficult subject to handle (or I certainly find it so) as in a contemporary setting you are dealing with what living breathing creatures believe themselves to be.

        The dead are more easy to deal with in this regard I find.

  12. I think enough has been said here by others about Darwin v Wallace and the merits of both that I don’t need to add to this. Having read several passages of Whye’s book, it’s plain to see that without a doubt he’s pro Darwin and does the best he can to denigrate Wallace ‘gracefully’. I for one didn’t bother reading any more than I had to of his book as it’s several days of my life I wont get back and neither will I be richer for reading it.

  13. p.s “I both want to observe and change the situation, which are perhaps conflicting impulses…”

    That really is not a conflict impulse. I think the emotional hit is understanding that error is not always other people and we are all ‘a part of the problem’. In the case of H.O.S it is all to often focused on correction and attack.

    A nice recent example of detailed observation of all parties and the attempt to resolve a conflict situation.

    “Victims of Our Own Narratives? Portrayal of the “Other” in Israeli and Palestinian School Books.”

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