October 17, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Our understanding of evolution via natural selection was not pioneered by just one person. A tribute to the remarkable Alfred Russel Wallace.

alfred russel imageThe theory of evolution by natural selection is undoubtedly one of science’s most famous theories; there are not many people alive today who have not heard of it or of its’ supposed founding father, the great Charles Darwin. However, he was not alone in his development of this famous theory; in fact the first ever publication on the theory of evolution by natural selection: On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection (1858), was co-authored by Darwin and another great natural historian: Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace was in his time a celebrated and highly decorated British naturalist, anthropologist, biologist, explorer and geographer, best known for his independent development of the theory of evolution by natural selection and his many significant contributions to the field of evolutionary biogeography. Unlike his wealthy colleagues, Wallace was born in 1823 to a poor family in the small Welsh village of Llanbadoc and so was sent out to work from a young age rather than receiving a formal education. This work gave the young Wallace the opportunity to spend large amounts of time outdoors, which not only fuelled his fascination with the natural world but also gave him the opportunity to integrate his understanding from personal study into the natural world. For example, Wallace was inspired by Thomas Malthus‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ and Alexander von Humboldt’s ‘Personal Narrative’, which described new tropical environments where he would later conduct much of his work.

Following in the footsteps of many other Victorian naturalists, Wallace began his studies abroad, first leaving Britain in 1848 aboard the Mischief bound for the Amazon Basin in the hopes of gathering evidence for the ‘transformation of species by natural selection’ amongst the very varied insect species found there. The trip turned out to be a fruitful one, with Wallace spending the next four years collecting numerous samples and notes on the biodiversity of the region. He began the journey back to Britain in 1852 with the intention of returning home to catalogue his samples and developing his theories further. Unfortunately, this is when Wallace’s good fortune ran out as his ship caught fire after a few weeks at sea, taking with it the majority of Wallace’s painstakingly gathered collections. Not one to be deterred, Wallace spent the next two years publishing what little he could from his surviving notes and making connections with fellow naturalists including Darwin, with whom he would converse and collaborate regularly.

In 1854, Wallace headed east to the Malay Archipelago (now Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia), where over the next eight years he would come to define his theories of biogeography and evolution by natural selection, culminating with his aforementioned 1858 co-publication with Darwin and popular 1869 book The Malay Archipelago. Upon his return to Britain in 1862, Wallace became heavily involved in social activism, countering the popular ideas of the time such as eugenics and land control by the wealthy elite. He also lent his support to women’s suffrage, demilitarisation and modern economic theory. He continued his scientific work in parallel, editing papers for numerous colleagues in addition to publishing his own work. He also travelled internationally giving lectures on his studies and building upon his now incredibly comprehensive biological collections.

Wallace died on 7th November 1913 and was buried in Dorset. He is honoured in Westminster Abbey and in scientific institutions such as the Natural History Museum. Amongst the many honours he was given, most notably he was made of fellow of the Royal Society in 1893 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1908. Many celebrations were made in his honour throughout 2013 to mark the 100th anniversary of his death and to commemorate the scientific contributions he made throughout his life.