Scientific fame—Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin: the Wikipedia page hit data

JAC:  Last week my friend Andrew Berry, a lecturer at Harvard and expert on Darwin and, especially, Alfred Russel Wallace, was telling me about some interesting data he’d gleaned from Wikipedia about the two Fathers of Evolution. I suggested he write it up as a post for this site, and he kindly obliged:

Scientific Fame

Alfred Russel Wallace & Charles Darwin: the Wikipedia Page Hit Data

by Andrew Berry

Completely independently of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection.  While Darwin was slowly grinding through the production of a major book on the subject – his summary of twenty years of thought and analysis – Wallace was in the field in Indonesia pondering similar issues.  The result of this academic convergent evolution was a famous and oft recounted episode in the history of science.

In 1858, Wallace sent an outline of his ideas to Darwin, who was duly shocked to find himself about to be scooped.  Darwin’s precedence was rescued, however, by the intervention by two friends, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, who arranged for a paper to be presented shortly afterwards at London’s Linnean Society, featuring Wallace’s manuscript and some hastily cobbled together material from Darwin.  The product was an unusual paper: it’s not strictly speaking a joint publication, but, rather, two independent statements in the same paper of the same idea.  Wallace, by now in New Guinea, knew nothing of these machinations, but was happy, retrospectively, to give them his blessing.  The idea, after all, had been published, and, also, his stock had just gone up in scientific circles now that he was associated with someone as esteemed and senior as Darwin.


The listing in table of contents of the Linnean Society’s journal of the Darwin-Wallace publication. Darwin appears as first author. Historical precedence (he came up with the theory first)? Alphabetical order? Or ranking by seniority (both in terms of age and scientific standing)?

Given this history, it’s perhaps surprising that Darwin is so much more famous today than Wallace.  Google “Evolution,” and it’s Darwin’s lugubrious bearded face that stares out at you from the search results, not Wallace’s rather less gloomy (but eventually equally bearded) visage.  In terms of posterity, Darwin has well and truly trumped eclipsed (what a pity it is to have to avoid perfectly good words because of their unspeakable newfound associations) Wallace.

Having said that, it’s not as though Wallace has altogether disappeared.  People know him as the “other guy.”  He lives on in footnotes of biology textbooks, and is often discussed in exactly the terms of this very issue: how come these days all the credit for evolution is laid at Darwin’s door with little or no mention of Wallace?  Indeed, Wallace is sometimes described as “Famous for not being famous.”

There are plenty of interesting (and contested) reasons for Wallace’s eclipse, and it’s not my intention to discuss them here.  What I want to do is introduce a very 21st century metric of fame in an attempt to quantify that eclipse.  Realizing, over years of writing and lecturing about Wallace, that I typically glibly asserted that, “Darwin is famous; Wallace isn’t,” I decided to try to back up that claim with some numbers.  And Wikipedia – so often the first stop online if you’re gathering information about topics that aren’t directly addressed by TMZ – is surely the place to look for those numbers.

For some time, an independent website aggregated Wikipedia page hit data, and presented results graphically.  (It no longer seems to be functional.  The latest data I could find on Darwin’s Wikipedia page was from January of this year.)  Here, for an arbitrary three month period in Fall ’14, are the data for Darwin:


Page hits by day for a 90 period in Fall ’14 for the Wikipedia page for Charles Darwin

Two things are immediately striking.  First, there is a consistent background pattern, but there are occasional departures from that: in this instance, Darwin apparently went viral on 3 Sept 2014.  Second, people are interested in Darwin only on weekdays.  There is a clear decline in Darwin page hits over weekends, suggesting that a lot of the traffic is driven by homework assignments (the same pattern does not obtain for less homework-y topics, like, for example, David Bowie).

Now let’s look at Wallace’s Wikipedia page hits over the same period:


Page hits by day for a 90 period in Fall ’14 for the Wikipedia page for Alfred Russel Wallace

It’s nice to see that Wallace is getting plenty of traffic – like Darwin, on a weekly cycle apparently driven by homework – but note the scales of the two graphs.  The y-axis for Darwin’s runs to 18,000; for Wallace’s, it runs to 1800.  There is more or less an order of magnitude difference in the rate of Wikipedia page visitation between Darwin and Wallace.  It is interesting to note too that, like Darwin, Wallace also has the potential to “go viral” (i.e., to have days on which his Wikipedia page’s hits vastly outnumber those on a typical day).  Like Darwin, curiously, the big viral day for Wallace was 3 September 2014.

What on earth happened on 3 September 2014?  Why would both pages show a spike? You can imagine that new scholarship on, say, Darwin could engender a Darwin-specific spike, without affecting the rate of flow to Wallace’s Wikipedia page.  But this event affected them both.

It took a bit of digging around, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve tracked down the cause of this joint spike.  On 31 August, a spoof news source published this story (it seems that the page is no longer up; this is a screen cap from earlier):


An impressively realistic fake news site reveals that Darwin and Wallace were gay lovers

Perhaps the website did too good a job of dressing up the story as real news: over that period, I received probably a dozen emails from friends, students, and colleagues drawing my attention to this (apparently) extraordinary development in the Darwin-Wallace story.  “OMG, Wallace was gay,” was the subject line of one of those emails.  Everyone writing to me was completely taken in (suggesting that perhaps we have some kind of innate yearning for more sexually interesting visions of history than the ones we’re accustomed to).  I’m guessing that it was this publication that caused the joint Darwin/Wallace Wikipedia traffic spike.  It occurred a few days after the story was first published: a period of latency during which the world of social media was gearing up to its fully exponential dissemination of the tale.

Even when bogus stories of long concealed gayness are driving interest in Darwin and Wallace, that same close-to-tenfold difference holds.  Darwin really is ten times more famous than Wallace.

Page hits for Darwin’s and Wallace’s Wikipedia pages over a 90 day period in Fall ’14, and on 3 September 2014:



Andrew Berry


  1. Avis James
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Thanks Andrew Berry. Interesting pop-culture analyses. (Now I want to go look the worm tracks near Highgate!)

  2. GBJames
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 10:46 am | Permalink


  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    That is a great story and a telling piece of human behavior. One, that there is usually only room for one guy in the history, particularly if there is distance between the founders. Not like, for instance Orville and Wilber. The other being that sex gets a lot more interest than science even when it is bogus.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 25, 2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      I assume you’re referencing Orvilleandwilbur Wright, the inventor of the airplane, there?


      • Randall Schenck
        Posted September 25, 2016 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

        Yes, they have always gotten equal billing for their work and hardly anyone can separate one from the other. Actually Wilbur was older and thanks for letting me get the spelling correct. Actually their family was somewhat religious as dad was a church person but they did not over cook it and were actually progressive. They achieved recognition in Europe first and spent a lot of time in France. America was very slow to catch on. They were a case of what lots of hard work and study could achieve.

        • harrync
          Posted September 25, 2016 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

          The Wrights were so ticked off by the Smithsonian and their promotion of Langley and Curtiss that the Flyer actually ended up in the Science Museum in London. My father always considered one of the highlights of his trip to London in 1938 [via Dublin] was being allowed to touch the Wright Flyer. After the war the US got it back – partly because the Smithsonian recanted, but probably also to pay off some of those lend-lease bills the Brits had run up.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted September 25, 2016 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      I’ve often thought that there seems to be only room for one female solo vocalist, one male solo vocalist, one girl band, one boy band, one male and one female actor at the top of their profession. One male author, by genre, and one female author by genre. And often one ‘top scientist’ for a well known discipline.

      Now clearly in any ranking there is likely to be a single ‘top’ person/group, and perhaps this reinforces their popularity. So much so that the slightly lower ranking are disproportionately less popular or well known. Perhaps this could be known as the ‘Poor Wallace’ effect?

    • Jeff Lewis
      Posted September 26, 2016 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      The Wright Brothers may be a bit of a special case since we remember both of them, but they still illustrate just how much we remember the firsts and ignore their contemporaries. This is an educated group of commenters, so you’ll probably recognize all these names in the same way you recognize Wallace’s, but how much recognition do Chanute, Langley, Bleriot, Curtis, Lillienthal, Santos-Dumont and others receive? Yes, the Wright Brothers were the first in controlled manned flight, and they were a bit ahead of their competition. But after their first flight in 1903, they went back to Ohio and spent years improving their technology before giving any public demonstrations. By the time they finally did in 1908, other people were already flying. In fact, there were even companies selling production airplanes by then. The Wright Brothers did demonstrate the superiority of their design in their first public demonstrations, especially their use of roll control, but it’s not like it would have taken that long for the rest of the world to catch up. And in fact, it didn’t take long for the rest of the aviation community to surpass them. The Wright Company went defunct in 1916, getting bought out by one of their competitors, Glen Curtis.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 27, 2016 at 5:36 am | Permalink

        There are some inventions of which one can say, it was in the air (no pun intended), if X hadn’t done it, then someone else would have done it very soon after. This goes for the aeroplane and for the steam locomotive.

        That said, the Wrights were in the forefront of early aviation and certainly deserve a major part of the credit, even if not exclusive. If their first flight was a marginal sort of affair, barely under control, by 1905 they had flown 24 miles.


  4. PT
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    It no longer seems to be functional. The latest data I could find on Darwin’s Wikipedia page was from January of this year.

    You can access up-to-date page view data for any Wikipedia article by selecting ‘View history’ and then ‘Page view statistics’.

    • Andrew Berry
      Posted September 25, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Thanks! I didn’t know about this; now I can keep monitoring the Darwin-Wallace divide on into the future…

  5. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    In the 2009 movie “Creation”, both Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker- important allies of Darwin- appear, but Wallace is nowhere to be seen.

  6. Flemur
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the website did too good a job of dressing up the story as real news:

    This one might look real, too, at first glance:
    Darwin, sexist asshat

  7. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Omg, I am laughing pretty hard right now. The oscillations of page views likely being due to homework cycles alone was pretty interesting, but now you uncover a sex scandal!

    But what about the strange and also simultaneous DROP in page views several days before the sex scandal broke? It might be the superbowl but I thought that was a few days after the scandal.
    Inquiring minds want to know.

  8. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    What’s that spike in late October? Did a bunch of people dress up as Wallace for Halloween?

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 25, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      It was probably because of extremist churches warning about tempting the devil at Halloween, and including the evils of evolution in the sermon.🙂

      Cool story Prof Berry! Very interesting and enjoyable.

  9. Jiten
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for a fascinating article!

  10. keith cook +/-
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    The comedian Bill Bailey (Black Books) did a 2 part documentary on Wallace, with the series culminating in Wallace getting equal place along side(not quite)Darwin has a statue, Wallace has a portrait (albeit very big) in the Natural History Museum in London.
    It was on the lighter side (after all it is Bill Bailey) but the science was on show, Bailey went on location and gave a pretty descriptive account.

    Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero.

    It was enjoyable and as a consequent I have a better appreciation of Alfred Russel Wallace and his contribution to NS.
    Admittedly prior to this I just paid lip service to the guy but he certainly put in the hard yards.

  11. John Snyders
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    The Pantheon project may be of interest in determining fame.

    • Andrew Berry
      Posted September 25, 2016 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t know about this. Thank you. Interesting (and useful)

  12. Craw
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Most normal non-academic people care more about the facts than the arcane rules of publication precedence. Darwin had the idea decades earlier, and everyone who has heard of Wallace knows this.

  13. nicky
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Nice article, pity Andrew Berry does not want to go into the details of why Darwin is so much more famous than Wallace.
    Offhand, I can think of 3-4 reasons, but there maybe more.

    • Posted September 25, 2016 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      This has been discussed here at WEIT a number of times, especially during the Wallace centennial. See here, here, and here, for example.

      • nicky
        Posted September 26, 2016 at 4:51 am | Permalink

        Thank you for those, Gregory.
        Note, none of the 3-4 reasons that came to my mind had anything to do with ‘cheating’.
        I thought indeed of the massive evidence in the Origin (clearly showing that Darwin had already been elaborating for a long time) the following year, the fact that Wallace was not very keen on sexual selection, without which natural selection is so much weaker, his exemption of the human brain and his later involvement with spiritism.

  14. Doug
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Wallace will always have claim to fame with the Wallace Line, a pretty remarkable discovery in its own right. The truth is if it HADN’T been for Darwin’s fame I doubt much would have been gleamed from his original paper at the time. Wallace’s paper brought a mild-mannered man to have to face a storm that he didn’t want to face in his lifetime. Think about Mendel’s discovery in the same time period,completely unrecognized for, what 30 years, because he was a total unknown, just like Wallace. It’s easier to like Wallace than Darwin as he was part of a true rags to riches story (in terms of his science) Darwin, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, may not be as likable a chap, but Natural Selection’s rightful champion in the fullest fashion is IMHO Darwin and that takes nothing away from Wallace’s independent discovery. Thank you, Wallace, making the master confront the harsh reality of his discovery.

    • frednotfaith2
      Posted September 25, 2016 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      There’s also the not insignificant fact that not only did Darwin finally put what he regarded as an all too brief version of Origin of Species into print the very next year but he also published many other significant works on evolution in the years afterward and made explicit that his theory applied to humans as well as every other species that had ever existed. From what I’ve read, Wallace did not accept that evolution applied to Homo sapiens and he also had a tendency towards blind acceptance of supernatural nonsense. Overall, Darwin’s studies and writings proved far more significant in the advancement of science than did those of Wallace. Heck, Huxley wound up playing a far more significant role in the advancement of the understanding of and acceptance by the scientific community of evolution. Wallace certainly had a perfect opportunity to play a much bigger role but he fell short, IMO.

  15. Posted September 25, 2016 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Nicely done! There are issues with Wikipedia usage as a metric, but this is certainly useful and worth knowing, and does capture something approximate to my own intuitive impression of relative attention. It would be interesting to do this for other evolutionary biologists.

  16. Ken Pidcock
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    HHMI had a short film produced, The Origin of Species: The Making of a Theory, pitched to high school biology students, that gives Wallace full due. There are accompanying films covering the work of Rosemary and Peter Grant on Galápagos finches, and Jonathan Losos on Caribbean anoles.

  17. W.Benson
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Wallace didn’t consider himself qualified to receive equal billing with Darwin. In 1908, when awarded the first Darwin-Wallace Medal, Wallace made the following statement about Darwin’s and his relative contributions to the theory. It basically boils down to Darwin, in 1858, having worked 20 years on all aspects of the theory and Wallace, by his own calculations, just about one week.
    Wallace’s account in the 1908 Linnean Society publication goes: “But, what is often forgotten by the press and the public, is that the idea [of evolution through natural selection] occurred to Darwin in October 1838, nearly twenty years earlier than to myself (in February 1858); and that during the whole of that twenty years he had been laboriously collecting evidence from the vast mass of literature of Biology, of Horticulture, and of Agriculture; as well as himself carrying out ingenious experiments and original observations, the extent of which is indicated by the range of subjects discussed in his ‘Origin of Species,’ and especially in that wonderful store-house of knowledge his ‘Animals and Plants under Domestication,’ almost the whole materials for which works had been collected, and to a large extent systematised, during that twenty years. // So far back as 1844, at a time when I had hardly thought of any serious study of nature, Darwin had written an outline of his view’s, which he communicated to his friends Sir Charles Lyell and Dr. (now Sir Joseph) Hooker. The former strongly urged him to publish an abstract of his theory as soon as possible, — lest some other person might precede him but he always refused till he had got together the whole of the materials for his intended great work. Then, at last, Lyell’s prediction was fulfilled, and, without any apparent warning, my letter, with the enclosed Essay, came upon him, like a thunderbolt from a cloudless sky! This forced him to what he considered a premature publicity, and his two friends undertook to have our two papers read before this Society. How different from this long study and preparation this philosophic caution this determination not to make known his fruitful conception till he could back it up by overwhelming proofs was my own conduct. The idea came to me, as it had come to Darwin, in a sudden flash of insight: it was thought out in a few hours was written down with such a sketch of its various applications and developments as occurred to me at the moment, then copied on thin letter-paper and sent off to Darwin all within one week. I was then (as often since) the “young man in a hurry”: he, the painstaking and patient student, seeking ever the full demonstration of the truth that he had discovered, rather than to achieve immediate personal fame. // Such being the actual facts of the case, I should have had no cause for complaint if the respective shares of Darwin and myself in regard to the elucidation of nature’s method of organic development had been thenceforth estimated as being, roughly, proportional to the time we had each bestowed upon it when it was thus first given to the world that is to say, as 20 years is to one week. For, he had already made it his own. If the persuasion of his friends had prevailed with him, and he had published his theory, after 10 years’ 15 years’ or even 18 years’ elaboration of it I should have had no part in it whatever, and he would have been at once recognised, and should be ever recognised, as the sole and undisputed discoverer and patient investigator of the great law of “Natural Selection” in all its far-reaching consequences. // It was really a singular piece of good luck that gave to me any share whatever in the discovery.”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 26, 2016 at 12:40 am | Permalink

      That is remarkably modest and does enormous credit to Wallace, I think.


  18. Diane G.
    Posted September 25, 2016 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Fun article, thanks Andrew!

    (There must be something wrong with me–I had to Google TMZ…)

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted September 26, 2016 at 3:57 am | Permalink

      Me too!

  19. Posted September 26, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m no expert, but maybe some citation trees or something could help us find what happened.

    Also, our views of the relative contributions may also change – look at how long it took to get the origins of calculus worked out.

  20. tony in san diego
    Posted September 26, 2016 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    I think also interesting is the article on bee deaths and the parasitic fungus.

  21. haymanj
    Posted September 27, 2016 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    One of the 40+ different diagnoses proposed for Darwin’s illness is that it was psychogenic, due to a repressed homosexual attraction to the then captain of HMS Beagle, Robert Fitzroy. This would seem unlikely, given Darwin’s long marriage, his devotion to his wife Emma and his 10 children. (A more likely cause of his misery, and his seasickness is that of a pathological mtDNA mutation, inherited from his Wedgwood maternal forebears.)

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