A guest post for Wallace Day

This guest post is required reading for everyone here, as today is a special day, creating what they call a “teachable moment” about the history of biology.

For today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, which means there are people still alive who were his contemporaries. He is, of course, best known as the man who came up with the idea of natural selection at about the same time Darwin did. But Wallace was also a great biologist and naturalist in his own right, and the father of biogeography.

In honor of Wallace’s life and accomplishments, I asked my friend Andrew Berry, a teacher at Harvard and a Wallace expert (see his book in the references below), to give us a brief overview of Wallace. He kindly obliged, and added a link at the end to a wonderful animation of Wallace’s life that recently appeared in the New York Times. Andrew also provided a list of the major works by and about Wallace that would interest our readers.



by Andrew Berry

Alfred Russel Wallace died 100 years ago today, just shy of his 91st birthday.  Wallace, as all regular readers of WEIT will know, is best known for discovering the theory evolution by natural selection during his biological explorations of Southeast Asia and then co-publishing the idea, under unusual circumstances, with Charles Darwin in 1858.  He is also, these days, famous for being not famous: the other thing everyone knows about Wallace is that he has been overlooked by posterity.  Wallace fans in particular object to the way that their man has been relegated to footnotes in textbooks while Darwin becomes ever more prominent in the public sphere as both thinker and icon.

The reasons for Wallace’s relative obscurity are many and complex but it’s worth noting two things.  It started early: his eclipse by Darwin is not solely a function of hindsight’s preference for one over the other.  During the years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, when Darwin was at the height of his powers and Wallace was scientifically at his most productive, it was Darwin, and Darwin alone, who was co-identified in the public eye with the theory of evolution.  A survey of contemporary cartoons and caricatures lampooning the idea reveals a plethora of Darwin-themed (or Darwin-apeing) images, and none—zero—that feature Wallace.

Second, Wallace himself was partially responsible for this.  His wonderful account of his 8 years in Southeast Asia, The Malay Archipelago, which recounts what he did and what he saw in some considerable detail (a contemporary review in The Atlantic Monthly  put it a little unkindly, “Mr. Wallace apparently exhausts a very copious diary in the production of his book, and seems almost to have made it a point of conscience not to leave anything out”), does not mention, even in passing, the events surrounding his evolutionary discoveries.  In The Malay Archipelago Wallace refers repeatedly to the idea of natural selection, but always calls it “Mr. Darwin’s theory”.  There is something pathologically modest about Wallace.

Wallace was an extraordinary man, and his was an extraordinary story.  I have previously told the tale here of what I consider to be the most poignant episode in all of the history of science: Wallace’s loss of his Amazon specimens, living and dead, in a fire in the middle of the Atlantic.  After such a crushing experience, to be able to pick himself up, as he did, and head off within a couple of years on his eight year journey through Southeast Asia is evidence of almost superhuman resilience.  That he was able to make any significant collections at all under extremely trying circumstances—he was frequently sick, suffered wildly frustrating logistical nightmares, and had to contend with endless pests and distractions as he tried to prepare his specimens—is impressive enough, but it is the scale and scope of his collecting that is truly mind-blowing.

Take birds.  This is arguably the best described taxonomic group on the planet. Finding a new species of bird, even in Wallace’s day, was a challenge (unlike, say, finding a new species of weevil).  In a retrospective paper published in 1865 (Wallace, A. R. (1865) Descriptions of New Birds From the Malay Archipelago. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1865: 474-481) on his bird collections, he notes that he had collected 212 new species.  Given that there are approximately 10,000 species of birds, this means that, in eight years, Wallace discovered 2% of all known bird species!

But, of course, Wallace’s years in Southeast Asia are best known not for the collections but for the grand ideas they inspired.  His discovery of evolution by natural selection was a two step process: his first evolutionary paper, his “Sarawak Law” (1855), recognized the genealogical nature of evolutionary change (what Darwin would call “Descent with Modification”), and the second, his “Ternate Paper” (1858), supplied a mechanism (“natural selection” being Darwin’s term that Wallace objected to) to entrain that generation to generation change to adaptive ends.  But it was not just evolution: Wallace, always interested in the geographic distribution of plants and animals, identified what was subsequently dubbed “Wallace’s Line”, the boundary between Asian and Australasian biogeographic realms.  The journey was a scientific tour de force. In 1863, shortly after Wallace’s return to England, T H Huxley, never one to be extravagant with praise, summarized it:

“Once in a generation, a Wallace may be found physically, mentally, and morally qualified to wander unscathed through the tropical wilds of American and Asia; to form magnificent collections as he wanders; and withal to think out sagaciously the conclusions suggested by his collections.”  —Huxley, T. H. (1863) Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature. London: Williams & Norgate.

Sharon Shattuck and Flora Lichtman, Brooklyn-based filmmakers, have created a brief animated tribute to Wallace that is available through the New York Times [disclaimer: I was involved with the project]. Do take 7 minutes on the centenary of his death to appreciate this lovingly-crafted appreciation of a brilliant, quirky, and humble man.


Further reading:

By Wallace 

See two excellent and comprehensive websites for Wallace material (here and here).

The Malay Archipelago; The Land of the Orang-utan and the Bird of Paradise; A Narrative of Travel With Studies of Man and Nature. 2 volumes. Macmillan & Co., London, 9 March 1869. A wonderful account of Wallace’s journeys.  A true travel writing classic.

My Life; A Record of Events and Opinions. 2 volumes. Chapman & Hall, Ltd., London, Oct. 1905. A sprawling and engaging autobiography.

About Wallace

Berry, Andrew, ed., 2002. Infinite Tropics: An Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology. London & New York: Verso. 430 pp. Provides a (hopefully) representative sample of Wallace’s copious writings on a huge range of subjects.

Costa, Jim, 2013.  On the Organic Law of Change: A facsimile edition and annotated transcription of Alfred Russel Wallace’s Species Notebook of 1855-1859.  Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press.  573pp. Just out.  A scholarly dissection of the notebook that Wallace kept in the field in mid-1850’s — when he was thinking about evolutionary ideas.

Quammen, David, 1996. The Song of the Dodo; Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions. New York: Scribner. 702 pp. An introduction to biogeography and conservation, but there is a lot of Wallace in there too.

Raby, Peter, 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace, A Life. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press; London: Chatto & Windus. 340 pp. The most readable of the recent biographies.

Slotten, Ross A., 2004. The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace. New York: Columbia University Press. 602 pp. The most comprehensive of the recent biographies.


Wallace young and old. The first picture was taken in Singapore at the end of his time in Southeast Asia, the second when he was a venerable doyen of biology.



Wallace’s Standardwing (Semioptera wallacii), a bird of paradise he discovered:

Wallace's Standardwing

A “flying” frog he also discovered; illustration from The Malay Archipelago derived from Wallace’s sketches:



  1. Posted November 7, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on michelledevilliersartandstories and commented:
    I hope to see the seven-foot tall bronze statue of Alfred Russel Wallace (by Anthony Smith) during my travels!

  2. Posted November 7, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    For today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, which means there are people still alive who were his contemporaries.

    Well, only just. And not that many of them!

    Great post, though. Thanks for bringing it to us.

    • Simon King
      Posted November 7, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Quite – I’d be shocked if there was anyone alive who actually knew Wallace. What an absurd thing to say.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 7, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

        What a rude thing to say. I’m sure the point was to make us think about how not-so-very-long-ago was Wallace’s era. In fact, my grandparents’ lives overlapped Wallace’s by about 25 years.

      • Posted November 8, 2013 at 4:34 am | Permalink

        Yes, Diane is correct, and Simon, you are out of line. My statement is absolutely correct; people alive were his contemporaries. I didn’t say they actually KNEW him. That would be out of line.

        I expect an apology for the insulting words.

  3. eTourist
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    I came across an illustration of just how wide ranging Wallace was. From librivox.org comes “Is Mars Habitable?” In it he tears Percival Lowell a new one. A complete deconstruction of Lowell’s ideas about Mars on scientific grounds and in scientific language. Hilarious.

  4. Posted November 7, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Sadly, Alfred Russel Wallace, published as his last book, the World of Life, and was the first book of the ID movement. Wallace gave up in the end, and hoped that design in nature was there for a reason. Darwin never gave up. He did not give up humans on evolution; his Descent of Man gave nothing to Wallace’s hope that humans were purposely created by a process that cared about us. Jerry must read this book: then you will change your mind about him.

    • Posted November 7, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      Seems to me that Wallace can be remembered for his contributions in spite of the unfortunate aspects. (Think about Einstein: we remember him for relativity and the work on the photoelectric effect, brownian motion, etc. and we can overlook that he looked futily for a unified field theory.)

      Compare this to the contemporary creationists (including IDers), who for the most part have contributed effectively nothing to knowledge or what not.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted November 7, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        (Think about Einstein: we remember him for relativity and the work on the photoelectric effect, brownian motion, etc. and we can overlook that he looked futily for a unified field theory.)

        Judging from the answers I hear on pub quizzes and the like, probably only a percent or two of the population would associate Einstein with Brownian motion, or the PE effect. As for his work on a unified field theory … while his work hasn’t panned out, it’s still not impossible that the Ultimate Theory (etc, etc, not in the “42” sense) will turn out to be a Unified Field theory in a form that Einstein would say rude words about not having spotted 70 years ago. It’s not very likely, but not impossible.

    • krzysztof1
      Posted November 7, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

      We are all human and subject to the well-known set of human failings. Many people whom we revere for their contributions to science as well as to other noble human accomplishments were morally suspect, superstitious, or prejudiced. Newton has been mentioned. Another that I can think of was Nobel laureate William Shockley, who shared his prize with William Bardeen and Walter Brattain for the invention of the transistor. Shockley had some nutty views on race and intelligence, among other things.

      And A. Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, believed in fairies and such.

      As I understand it, Wallace drew the line at including humans as a product of the evolutionary process. Am I wrong about that?

  5. Jiten
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Thank you Andrew Berry for this treat! Could class differences have played a role in Wallace being overlooked? Darwin was from a higher social class.

    • Posted November 7, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      Good question. I am not sure if we can rule that out entirely, but there were definitely other reasons for their difference in prominence. Darwin was already very famous as a great thinker and prolific writer of popular books on natural history before publication of the Origin. So he had momentum already. Then there was what they first published on evolution, which is where both would make their initial connection to the public on this subject. Darwin wrote up his theory as a large & popularly read book, and he was very thorough about his argument. Wallaces’ main contribution at that early time was a much shorter paper published in the journal from the Linnean Society (published alongside notes from Darwin). This was not nearly as widely read, a situation that stands to this day. So perhaps from this beginning the stage was set for Darwin to always be the best known of the two.
      Wallace never hinted that this bothered him, and both men took pains to be very gracious toward each other.

  6. NewEnglandBob
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink


  7. krzysztof1
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    The animated video was excellent! Thanks very much to you and Mr. Berry for ‘requiring’ us to view it. I am glad Wallace is starting to get the attention he deserves.

  8. Posted November 7, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I second that. This post is wonderful, and the video is a joy to watch.

  9. W.Benson
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    It is surprising to me how few notable evolutionary scientists were born before about 1920. Now there are many dozens or perhaps hundreds of important books on evolution and thousands of articles published annually having consensual evolutionary concepts as assumptions. More than 50 biological journals have the word “Evolution” in the Darwin-Wallace sense in its title.
    Looking back, below is a list of 15 scientists and science writers born prior to the 20th century who I believe made especially important contributions to evolutionary science.

    Commemoration of birth or death (2014 to 2025)
    (John Burdon Sanderson) “J. B. S.” Haldane, d. Dec. 1, 1964
    (Friedrich Leopold) August Weismann, d. Nov. 5, 1914
    Ernst (Heinrich Philipp August) Haeckel, d. Aug. 9, 1919
    Hermann Joseph Muller d. Apr. 5, 1967
    (Johann Friedrich Theodor) “Fritz” Müller, b. 31 Mar., 1822
    Alfred Russel Wallace, b. Jan. 8, 1823
    Henry Walter Bates, b. Feb 8, 1825
    Thomas Henry Huxley, b. May 4, 1825

    The other pre-20th century (date of birth) evolutionists on the list
    Charles Robert Darwin
    Theodosius Dobzhansky
    Ronald Aylmer Fisher
    Jean-Baptiste (Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de) Lamarck
    Charles Lyell
    Ernst (Walter) Mayr (b. 1904, not included)
    Edward Bagnall Poulton
    George Gaylord Simpson (b. 1902, not included)
    Sewall Wright

    Can you identify all of the names? Who have I left out? Who should be left out?

    • M. R.
      Posted November 7, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      Absolutely delightful, the whole post – including, of course!, the animated video.
      If when I was a schoolgirl I’d had historical input of this kind, I wouldn’t have failed every history exam I ever sat for (to the misery of my beloved father).
      Congratulations! – and, btw, for this blogsite.

    • Stewart Hinsley
      Posted November 8, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      I think that you could add the younger Hooker and Asa Gray to the list.

      • W.Benson
        Posted November 8, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        Good suggestions. They certainly gave Darwin friendly backup. John Lubbock also merits a place?

  10. tcephoto
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Bill Bailey did a wonderful documentary on the life of Wallace, ran on BBC but you can watch via YouTube here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXBHwJr3oNQ (part 1, part 2 linked from that page)

  11. Diana
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Poor Wallace is like the the Lepidus of science but it’s nice to see he is getting more attention now with his 100th deathversary.

  12. Posted November 7, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jerry and Andrew for this post. The video is excellent and such perfect timing as I’m about to discuss evolution with my high school class. I think I’ll show this video.

    I feel it is important to show my students that no one person got us where we are today in biology. So many teachers talk only of Lamarck and Darwin as if the first got it wrong, the second got it right (if they even say that) and it all stopped there.

    When I created my presentation about evolution, I included the history of evolutionary thought. I embedded C. Darwin among many other scientists including many of the ones W. Benson mentions above.

    By the way, I am so happy that Jim Costa will be coming to Raleigh, NC to speak about Wallace at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Here’s a link to the event: http://naturalsciences.org/programs-events/science-connections-lecture-force-admiration-alfred-russel-wallace-evolutionary

  13. Posted November 7, 2013 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Wallace was a great man tinged with superstition. Too Bad.

  14. johnjfitzgerald
    Posted November 9, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Professor Coyne,

    Here is the reference to the New York Times article on Wallace. The one posted would not open for me.



    John J. Fitzgerald

  15. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    Having read Malay Archipelago a couple of times, I recently got hold of his later book Island Life and was surprised how distinctly more modern the writing seemed: the travel book was in the tradition of Darwin and Humboldt, but biogeography was an established science by the time Wallace finished with it.

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