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.