by Greg Mayer
The first publication of natural selection as a general mechanism of evolutionary change was a joint paper by Darwin and Wallace read to the Linnean Society in 1858. It was not a coauthored paper, but rather the simultaneous publication under a single heading of separate works by the two authors. So why does everyone know Darwin’s name, but hardly anyone knows Wallace’s?
In a piece published last week, “Why does Charles Darwin eclipse Alfred Russel Wallace?“, the BBC’s Kevin Leonard tries to answer that question.
My first reaction to the question is usually to say “But everyone does know about Wallace!” But I do find that even many biologists—especially if they are not evolutionary biologists—know little or nothing about Wallace. And in the culture at large, Darwin is well-known while Wallace is virtually invisible. (Since, at least in the United States, “Darwin” is a curse word to large swaths of the population, this may not be a bad thing for Wallace!) So there does need to be an analysis of the question of Darwin and Wallace’s relative contributions and recognition, and why Darwin is better known.
And the short answer is that their joint paper aroused little or no interest– it slipped into the waters of English natural history with scarcely a ripple. Thomas Bell, author of the herpetological volume of the Zoology of the Beagle and president of the Linnean Society in 1858, wrote at the end of the year that the Society had published no papers of special import during the year. It was the publication of the Origin of Species by Darwin the following year that made a splash heard round the world.
And there were several reasons for this: it was a work of monumental compilation and argumentation, eagerly anticipated by the leading lights of natural history both in Britain and abroad, and by a well respected and well known naturalist. It was the Origin, in fact, that forever associated Wallace with natural selection, through Darwin’s acknowledgment of Wallace’s co-discovery on page 1. Wallace himself always accepted that Darwin was primus inter pares.
The BBC piece follows the main currents of historical thinking in this regard, but makes two points worth emphasizing. First, it notes that Wallace was very well known in his lifetime, and that by virtue of his outliving Darwin he was for 30 years the sole surviving discoverer of natural selection, which enhanced his status and recognition from 1882 to 1913.
Second, it notes what Julian Huxley called the “eclipse of Darwinism”, a period in the decades around 1900 when natural selection (but not evolution) fell into disfavor (a period about which the historian Peter Bowler has written extensively), and that when natural selection was revalidated during the Modern Synthesis, Darwin was given more credit than Wallace. What is not noted in the BBC piece, but which I think may be significant, is that during the “eclipse” period, it was natural selection (i.e., Darwin and Wallace) that came under fire, but not evolution; and it was Darwin, much more so than Wallace, who convinced the world of evolution per se. So, during the “eclipse” period, Darwin was recognized for demonstrating evolution, but faulted for his mechanism of adaptive change (even T.H. Huxley sometimes inclined in this direction). In contrast, Wallace, whose chief contribution was natural selection, would simply be faulted. (Wallace’s many other contributions, especially in biogeography, were of course noted and lauded.)
The only thing that seemed off about the BBC piece was the title. Darwin did not “eclipse” Wallace, i.e., Wallace was not a shining star that some later passing dark object (Darwin) obscured. Rather, both were luminescent, and Darwin’s star had indubitably begun burning before Wallace’s. The question, then, is why was Darwin, on the public stage, more luminious than Wallace? But I suppose that the headline writer (who is almost always not the reporter) was trying to allude to the “eclipse of Darwinism” discussion, and it’s a small fault in an otherwise fine piece.
Bowler, P.J. 1992. The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades around 1900. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Bowler, P.J. 2005. Revisiting the eclipse of Darwinism. Journal of the History of Biology 38:19-32. (abstract only)