Forgotten father of evolution honoured at last
Alfred Russel Wallace independently came up with the theory of natural selection – but Darwin gets all the credit. A statue of Wallace has now been set up in London. What took so long?
Alfred Russel Wallace was recovering from malaria when he first came up with the idea of natural selection. It was the 1850s, and Wallace was on a remote island in the Pacific, on a years-long expedition to study the wildlife of Indonesia. The wonderful creatures he had seen (he was especially delighted by the beetles) had convinced him that species did evolve to match their surroundings. The question was how.
Lying sick in bed, in the tropical heat, he suddenly understood what was driving the process. Most individuals in each animal generation, he realised, did not survive. Those that did were the ones best suited to their environment, and it was those survivors who passed on their traits to their children. Over time, this process of selection would make the whole physical make-up of a species slowly change.
Wallace had discovered natural selection – a principle which would revolutionise biology and send shock waves around the scientific world. Excited, he wrote home to an acquaintance of his who he thought might be interested in his work. The man’s name was Charles Darwin.
Today, almost everyone has heard of Darwin, and no one has heard of Wallace. It was Darwin who became famous for the theory of natural selection. Wallace was forgotten.
But Darwin had not stolen Wallace’s idea. Their papers show clearly that the two men both separately hit on the same idea at the same time. Because Darwin was older and more established, it was he who won the fame.
Wallace is not the only scientist to have failed to get the credit he deserved. In the 17th century, there was a huge controversy when Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both simultaneously invented calculus.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla was robbed of his glory by Thomas Edison, who used underhand tactics to discredit Tesla’s work on the science of electricity.
Most recently, geneticist Rosalind Franklin was ignored in favour of her male colleagues, despite having made the first crucial step towards uncovering the structure of DNA.
These scientific squabbles can cause terrible bitterness. They are frequent too. With lots of people working on the same problems, it is no surprise that breakthroughs sometimes happen in different places at the same time. Wallace’s story shows how easy it is to be airbrushed out of the history of science.
But reading the correspondence between Wallace and Darwin, something surprising emerges: the two men were not hostile to each other at all. Wallace was happy to give up his glory. What mattered was that he had helped push out the frontiers of knowledge, whether people recognised him or not.
- If you do something good, does it matter if no one recognised what you did?
- ‘If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,’ said Isaac Newton. What did he mean, and was he right?
- In groups, draw up a ranked list of the top five scientific discoveries of all time. Compare notes with other groups – how much did you all agree?
- Write a short science-fiction story about a new scientific discovery that changes the world forever.
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Q & A
- How do I get to be the next Charles Darwin?
- It gets harder every year. These days, science has advanced past the point where a single person working alone can make many real breakthroughs. Most scientific discoveries now are made by big teams rather than lone geniuses.
- That still sounds quite exciting.
- It is! And there are still lots of discoveries to be made, from decoding genes to understanding the origins of the universe.
- Which branch of science has the most promise right now?
- Different scientists will disagree, but computer science is exciting at the moment as computers get ever faster. Neuroscience is full of potential too, and astronomers have started discovering distant planets at an astonishing rate. The next big thing is waiting to be found.
- Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that affects the blood and can be fatal. Today, visitors to malarial regions can protect themselves with drugs, but 19th century explorers had no such medicine and the disease claimed many lives. It is still a huge killer in the developing world, causing more than a million deaths each year.
- Darwin and Wallace knew that parents passed on their physical traits to their children, but they did not know how. The idea of genes and genetics was not proposed until twenty years later.
- Shock waves
- The biggest consequence of the theory of evolution and natural selection was that humans themselves clearly had to have evolved from another species. The idea that humans were biologically descended from apes was bitterly controversial then and remains so in some quarters today.
- Male colleagues
- A nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA was awarded to the Cambridge scientists James Watson and Francis Crick, but without Rosalind Franklin’s work, they might never have made the discovery at all.