Monday, 04 November 2013 16:33

The Other Darwin—Alfred Russel Wallace Gets His Turn in the Limelight 100 Years On

Written by 
Rate this item
(1 Vote)

wallaceAlfred Russel Wallace was famous enough
to make the pages of "Popular Science Monthly"
in 1877. Today he's on Facebook.
Sydney Brenner is, of course, the Nobel Prize winner who brought us Caenorhabditis elegans, the lab model organism. That should make Brenner "a man who needs no introduction" except in cell biology where historical amnesia is as common as Pipetman. As Brenner himself noted last year in Science,"I once remarked that all graduate students in biology divide history into two epochs: the past two years and everything else before that, where Archimedes, Newton, Darwin, Mendel—even Watson and Crick—inhabit a time-compressed universe as uneasy contemporaries."

If Darwin, the old white man with the long white beard, who "invented" evolution is afloat in biology's history, then Alfred Russel Wallace is probably underwater. Wallace, though, was one of the most original biologists of all time, granted that in his time, biologists were called naturalists and looked to the field, not the lab, for data. Wallace piled up his data on epic collecting expeditions through the Amazon basin and the Malay Archipelago. His collections (in Malaysia, he collected 80,000 beetles alone) and his new theories on biogeography exploded contemporary thinking about biodiversity. But if Wallace is remembered at all today, it is as the co-discoverer of evolution as descent from a common ancestor with variation over time and speciation through natural selection. A generation younger than Darwin and 12,000 miles away in the Malay jungle, Wallace came up with natural selection independently in 1858. But Wallace had the more succinct definition: "The best fitted live."

Wallace lived until 90, dying on November 7, 1913, which makes this Thursday the centennial anniversary of his death. To mark the anniversary and to give scope to new thinking about Wallace's unorthodox scientific ideas and colorful life, the journal, Theory in Biosciences, has posted a free access link to a special Wallace issue.

The Wallace "problem" is that he was right about evolution too quickly—he almost scooped Darwin—which made Darwin's admirers nervous. Then in later life, he became fascinated by spiritualism and radical social reform, which made the British establishment, both scientific and temporal, contemptuous. In the special Wallace issue, Charles H. Smith writes, "More recently, the attitude sometimes has been that there were 'two Wallaces': the first a brilliant field investigator and theorist, the other a gullible pawn."

Lost in the scuffle about whether Wallace was a crank or a proto-neo-Creationist (his views on religion would make modern Creationists blanch), the "real" Wallace is undergoing a renaissance, at least among those whose science history goes back three years or more. Other ways to join the "Wallace 100" celebration are through the Wallace Fund, the London Natural History MuseumWallace Online at the National University of Singapore, and Smith's "The Alfred Russel Wallace page." And then there's Alfred Russel Wallace's Facebook page. Cell biologists should friend him. He befriended us.

UPDATED November 5, 2013. 6:00 pm EST--The New York Times "OpDocs" has produced a magical "The Animated Life of A.R. Wallace," with paper puppets and expert commentary. Here.

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.