On this morning’s Ockam’s Razor, a reminder of Alfred Wallace, whose papers outlining an evolutionary theory in the 1850s prompted Darwin’s friends, most notably the great geologist Charles Lyell, to prompt Darwin to get publishing on evolution [though the term evolution was only coined later, by Herbert Spencer, according to the presenter].
Of course I knew of Wallace, and recognized that he probably hasn’t been given his due as an evolutionary theorist, that he was an intriguing figure with a very different social background to Darwin, a prodigious worker and thinker who in later life, I heard, became a bit mentally erratic, sadly becoming preoccupied with the dead-end subject of ‘spirituality’.
I’ve met at least one person who imagines that Wallace was done out of recognition by Darwin, but his view was more due to a fondness for conspiracy theories than to a deep knowledge of the history of evolutionary theory. As I’m currently reading a lot on evolution, and on Darwin, via Stephen Gould’s essay collection Eight Little Piggies, this reminder of Wallace is timely. His achievements can hardly be underestimated, especially considering his impoverished and unpromising background. After his long period in the field, Wallace returned to England, full of praise and admiration for his fellow theorist, Darwin. He went on to publish an enormous number of papers on a wide variety of scientific subjects, and had no less than 191 of them published in Nature, still one of the most prestigious science magazines in the world. Clearly he was a recognized and respected scientist in his time, and there was even a plan to have him buried at Westminster Abbey, but his family preferred something simpler. Presumably the reason he’s not so associated in the public mind with the natural selection version of evolution is that Darwin’s Origin of Species is seen as the succinct account of the theory, and its publication as the starting point of the great controversy and debate that continues to this day. My interest, though decidedly amateur, lies in the similarities and differences between Wallace’s account of the theory and that of Darwin – given that Darwin didn’t get everything right, of course.
I’m constantly amazed at how fantastic a resource the internet is. Here, for all to access, is an original copy of Wallace’s book Contributions to the theory of natural selection, published in 1870. Note it belongs to the library of the celebrated Woods Hole biological institute, founded by the great biologist and evolutionary opponent of Darwin, Charles Otis Whitman. Whitman favoured the theory known as orthogenesis, or ‘straight line generation’’, which basically was the idea that particular organisms had limited developmental pathways, and that there could be no jumping from one pathway to another. It was, according to Gould, one of three evolutionary theories in competition with natural selection, a competition that didn’t end until the thirties. The others were Lamarckism, or the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and mutationism, which involved quantum leaps of change via mutation.