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Honoring Wallace

January 6th, 2024 Leave a comment Go to comments

Alfred Russel Wallace was a great naturalist who independently discovered natural selection; it is also recognized for his foundational work in evolutionary biogeography. While often overshadowed by Darwin’s popularity, Wallace’s scientific contributions remain significant and influential. James T. Costa’s recent book, ‘Radical by Nature’ (Princeton University Press, 2023), gives full credit and details on Wallace’s outstanding contribution to science.

Wallace laid out the first ideas of the evolution of species in 1855 with his Sarawak Law paper [1] when he was living (traveling) in the Malayan archipelago; the article likely inspired scientists of that time, including Darwin. Later, in 1858, Wallace produced another paper describing the mechanism of natural selection. But before sending it to the publisher, he sent the draft to Darwin for comments. Darwin was working on his book (On the origin of species) and realized that they both had independently arrived at the same conclusion (i.e., evolution by natural selection), so he was worried that Wallace was going to publish it first. Finally, with the help of Lyell & Hooker, they agreed to co-authored the famous paper that first described the mechanism of natural selection (Darwin & Wallace 1858 [2]). This paper, in fact, was not written together but included texts written independently from both to show that they arrived at the same idea (article edited by Lyell & Hooker). Wallace generously accepted Darwin’s priority. In fact, Wallace had started to write a book on the origin of species but put it down after knowing that Darwin was working on a similar book; instead, he dedicated his time to further exploring the Malayan archipelago (from 1854 to 1962). Darwin published his book On the origin of species in 1859, which described in great detail, and popularised the concept of natural selection.

Throughout his life, Wallace was not only a strong supporter of natural selection and Darwin’s ideas but also made significant contributions to other aspects of evolutionary thinking. For example, modern views on evolutionary biogeography, sexual selection, evolutionary mimicry, aposematism, and some aspects of the speciation process (such as allopatry, reinforcement and the Wallace effect) align more closely with Wallace’s ideas than with Darwin’s. Wallace also made numerous contributions to other fields, including anthropology, geology, physical geography, climatology, taxonomy, and systematics. He is often considered the first humanitarian scientist due to his strong support for social justice. He wrote papers on a variety of topics, including land reform, monetary reform, women’s rights, environmental conservation, and critiques of capitalism, militarism, and imperialism. One controversial aspect of his life was his belief in spiritualism, which made him believe that the human mind was not the product of natural selection!!. However, this should not be used to minimize the numerous contributions to evolutionary theory. And honoring Wallace does not need to detract from the recognition of Darwin’s major contributions.

So, Costa’s book is enjoyable and very welcome! 


[1] Wallace A.R. 1855. On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 16, 184–196. [Sarawak Law paper]

[2] Darwin C.R. & Wallace A.R. 1858. On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection. Proc. Linnean Soc: Zoo. 3: 45–62. [one of the most important papers in biology!]

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