Alfred Russel Wallace 8th January 1823 to 7th November 1913
Today marks the centenary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the most influential academics of the 19th Century, a man who may be largely forgotten by the general public today, but his contribution to our understanding of the natural world was immense. It was Wallace who jointly published ideas on natural selection and the origin of species with Charles Darwin. At that fateful meeting of the Linnean Society on July 1st 1858, neither Darwin or Wallace were actually present. Their ideas were summarised and proposed by close friends of Darwin, Charles Lyell (later to be known as “Darwin’s bulldog” due to his fervent support of Darwinism) and Joseph Hooker. Wallace was in south-east Asia at the time and was unaware of the presentation, or indeed what happened after publication of the Society’s papers in August.
To read Everything Dinosaur’s article marking the 150th anniversary of the July 1st 1858 Linnean Society Meeting”: An Important Date in the History of Earth Sciences.
It was whilst on yet another expedition, (he spent much of his middle years overseas), this time exploring the geography and natural history of Indonesia, that Wallace came to the same conclusions about speciation and how organisms change over time as Darwin. From his detailed studies and meticulous observations Wallace was aware of variations in populations of organisms. He also knew that many more progeny are produced, far more than are needed to sustain populations, but most do not survive long enough to reproduce themselves.
From these insightful starting points, Wallace concluded that if an environment changes or some other pressures are imposed on any given population, then those individuals who happen to possess characteristics that make them better suited to coping with the changes, are likely to survive and reproduce, thus passing on their characteristics to their offspring. Such characteristics would therefore become increasingly common in any given population and this was the mechanism that brought about new species, this was the driving force behind what we now know as evolution.
Unbeknown to Wallace, Darwin had independently come to same conclusions and whilst Darwin and Darwinism is very well known, Alfred Russel Wallace remains relatively obscure.
Time to help change this, today on the 100th anniversary of the great man’s death, a statue is to be unveiled by Sir David Attenborough at the Natural History Museum which honours Wallace and his scientific contribution. The Wallace100 was set up to promote the legacy of one of Victorian society’s most influential and important scientists and we at Everything Dinosaur, are paying tribute to the man in our own small way.
The Wallace 100 Logo
Picture credit: George Beccaloni (Natural History Museum – London)
One of the reasons cited for Darwin wanting to publish on the “Origin of Species” was correspondence that he received from Wallace outlining the same thoughts and ideas that Darwin had. Darwin’s travels on the “Beagle” as a naturalist and companion to Fitzroy, the ship’s captain, had led to him theorising along the same lines as Wallace, but Darwin had not published yet. It seems sad that Wallace has been largely forgotten. His contribution to science was not simply restricted to devising a mechanism for evolutionary change. During his lifetime he discovered and described thousands of new species, championed scientific theory, published dozens and dozens of books, mapped large parts of the globe that had not been explored, worked tirelessly to spread and explain new scientific ideas and described the geographical distribution of animals and plants on a continental scale.
The Natural History Museum in London houses a large part of Wallace’s specimens, collected and carefully catalogued on his many travels. He collected over 100,000 insect specimens whilst in south-east Asia, many of these specimens were entirely new to science. The butterfly on the Wallace100 logo celebrates his fascination with these creatures. The logo represents Wallace’s Golden Birdwing Butterfly (Ornithoptera croesus), it is just one of 130 species and sub-species of south-east Asian butterflies which Wallace named. Ironically, Wallace caught the first male specimen of this gorgeous gold-coloured butterfly in 1859 whilst on the Indonesian Island of Becan, the same year that Darwin published his book “On the Origin of Species”.
Wallace’s memorial portrait which was presented to the Natural History Museum by the Wallace Memorial Committee and unveiled by Sir Charles S Sherrington, President of the Royal Society in 1923. Soon Alfred Russel Wallace is to have a statue on display to the public at the Darwin Centre.
On the 100th anniversary of Wallace’s death, Sir David Attenborough will be unveiling a bronze statue to commemorate Wallace and his achievements, as Sir David himself remarks, Wallace was:
“the most admirable character in the history of science.”
On the centenary of his passing, there will be many others, far better qualified than us to mark this event, however, Everything Dinosaur wanted to take this opportunity to take a moment to remember Alfred Russel Wallace – explorer, geographer, map maker, architect, intellectual, naturalist, visionary, scientist, a man deserving of greater recognition in the wider community.
Here’s to you sir!