Celebrating the legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace

bird of paradise

Wallace returned from South East Asia, bringing back a collection of some 1000 species new to science and a pair of living birds of paradise

2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of the Victorian scientist from whom Operation Wallacea draws both its name and its inspiration. It is ironic that Alfred Russel Wallace’s finest moment – his 1858 discovery of natural selection – has in many ways compromised his place in history, pairing him permanently with Darwin, but as a junior partner. Wallace has been condemned always to play Watson to Darwin’s Holmes. This is unjust, as Wallace was in his own right one of the superstars of Victorian science. He was also the discoverer of what would become known as Wallace’s Line, the biological discontinuity between Australasia and Asia; he was the father of a whole new science, biogeography; and he was arguably the leading tropical biologist of his day.

Wallace was born into genteel poverty in Usk, Wales, in 1823. He received little formal education but developed a serious interest in natural history when he met Henry Walter Bates (of Batesian mimicry fame) and was converted to beetle collecting. Eager to experience biological diversity in its tropical citadel, Wallace and Bates travelled to Brazil in 1848 to collect specimens. They would sell duplicate specimens to fund their trip.

In 1852, Wallace headed back to England. He had assembled a remarkable collection, including some 10,000 bird skins, and some 30 living specimens, and he was looking forward to a triumphant impact on London scientific circles. But Wallace’s ship caught fire in the middle of the Atlantic. As the ship’s lifeboats circled the burning wreck, Wallace watched as four years of his life literally went up in flames, and, worst of all, as his living specimens fled to the bowsprit, only ultimately to be engulfed by the flames. Wallace and the crew then spent 10 days adrift in open boats before being rescued.

Theory of evolution

Back in England, Wallace realised that he had to do it all over again. This time he headed to SE Asia. The eight years (1854-62) of Wallace’s travels in what are today Malaysia, Indonesia, and New Guinea rank among the greatest scientific journeys, and the book that resulted, The Malay Archipelago, is a classic. It was also during these years that Wallace came of age as a biologist: hitherto, he had published natural history and taxonomic notes, but, in 1855, he suddenly emerged in print as a fully fledged evolutionary theorist. The paper, known as the Sarawak Law, unveiled what is essentially half the theory of evolution: Wallace argued that species gave rise to new species through a genealogical process. All that he needed now was a mechanism to produce adaptation.

Bird of paradise

Semioptera wallacii

Next came biogeography. Island-hopping between Bali and Lombok, Wallace noticed that Lombok’s birds were of Australasian stock whereas Bali’s were Asian. Wallace had identified the boundary between two of the major biogeographic regions, a boundary later dubbed ‘Wallace’s Line’. Then, in February 1858, while collecting on the island of Halmahera in the Moluccas, Wallace was stricken with a high fever, probably malaria. In the midst of the flickering delirium, he glimpsed that missing evolutionary mechanism, natural selection. He wrote out a brief summary of his ideas, and sent it to the one senior scientist he knew to be interested in the topic, Charles Darwin.

Darwin, who had been quietly developing his evolutionary ideas over the previous 20 years, was mortified. Science, even for Victorian gentlemen, is about being first, and Darwin saw his precedence usurped by Wallace. In the end, Darwin’s colleagues contrived an arrangement that would preserve Darwin’s claim to precedence and yet not do Wallace an injustice. They presented a joint Darwin-Wallace paper at the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858, and Darwin knuckled down to produce On the Origin of Species, which appeared in November 1859. Wallace, thousands of miles away, was not consulted.

Wallace returned from South East Asia in 1862. This time his collections, including some 1000 species new to science and a pair of living birds of paradise, made it to London without incident. He plunged into his new life with vigour, publishing a series of remarkable papers. In one, for example, on a group of butterflies in SE Asia, he gave a definition of species that is strikingly similar to today’s ‘Biological Species Concept’, which is typically seen as a 20th century idea: “Species are merely those strongly marked races or local forms which when in contact do not intermix, and when inhabiting distinct areas, are generally believed to have had a separate origin, and to be incapable of producing a fertile hybrid offspring”.

Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace

Wallace once described himself as “more Darwinian than Darwin” because of his rigid insistence on the primacy of natural selection in evolution, but he nevertheless disagreed with Darwin on human evolution: partly because he had become a spiritualist, Wallace believed that natural selection alone could not account for our species.

Visionary environmentalist

Wallace used his scientific prominence as a springboard for engagement in the social issues of the day. Always sympathetic to the underdog, he was an early socialist. Perhaps most significantly, he was also a visionary environmentalist. Long before the dawn of the conservation movement, Wallace wrote that we should take steps to prevent extinction. In words that are just as true today as they were when he wrote them in 1863, he implored his readers to ensure that species do not disappear “irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown”. Let us celebrate Wallace’s remarkable legacy by heeding his words.

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  1. 2013, International Year of the Wallace(?) » AoB Blog - February 2013

    […] great man himself or inspired by his work. For a short biography of ARW, I suggest Andrew Berry’s article in Biodiversity Science, which is the journal for Operation Wallacea, ‘a network of academics […]

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