by Greg Mayer
Before writing my notice of John van Wyhe’s new book on Wallace, Dispelling the Darkness, I hadn’t come across this piece by him on Wallace in last week’s Guardian. The piece addresses and dispels the claim, advanced a number of times over the years—especially in popular media—that Darwin stole his ideas from Wallace, and that there was an unsavory conspiracy to rob Wallace of proper credit. This is a view that has gotten some recent attention, and John deals with it head on. The short answers: he didn’t steal, and there wasn’t a conspiracy.
Do read the whole piece. Some excerpts:
Wallace deserves more attention but much of what you will have heard about him in the last few months is factually incorrect – and amounts to a misguided campaign to reinstate the reputation of a genius who (according to his fans) has been wronged by history and robbed of his rightful fame….
Darwin’s life and works have been meticulously studied by many scholars for over a century. But while some very able scholars have studied Wallace, he by contrast has remained mostly the preserve of amateurs and enthusiasts.
There has not been enough progress with our understanding of Wallace because some of the important research projects that have unveiled a treasure trove of new findings about Darwin had never been done for Wallace: his complete works had not been assembled on one scholarly website, his Malay archipelago expedition correspondence had not been collected and edited and his notebooks and journals had not been edited and their contents made intelligible.
All of these have recently been done, the latter two not yet published. These new sources have shown us that every substantive claim in the popular narrative about Wallace turns out to be incorrect.
And the money quote:
Darwin’s fame and reputation, and Wallace’s comparative obscurity, stem from the impact of Darwin’s Origin of Species. As Wallace himself wrote: “this vast, this totally unprecedented change in public opinion has been the result of the work of one man, and was brought about in the short space of twenty years!”
For my take on the second of these questions, which very much agrees with John’s, see my post on “Why is Darwin more famous than Wallace“. In attempting to promote Wallace, these modern admirers, perhaps unwittingly, portray Wallace as a hapless chump who was unaware of his own contributions. He was neither of these things.
(I also want to take this opportunity to bring above the fold Michael Barton’s review of Dispelling the Darkness on his fine website The Dispersal of Darwin; see also an earlier piece there on the conspiracy theory.)